WASHINGTON -- Some of the best-preserved and least-viewed fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been objects of religious veneration and of venomous scholarly debate, will go on display at the Library of Congress in April, the first major American exhibition of the scrolls in a generation.
The exhibition, proposed by a representative of the Israeli Antiquity Authority in December 1991, near the height of the furor over access to the documents, will include at least 11 major scroll fragments.
Among the fragments are the earliest known texts of parts of the Old Testament books of Psalms, Leviticus and Hosea, as well as the biblical King Saul's prayer for his dead son Jonathan.
A university librarian released photographs of the closely held scrolls to all interested scholars in the fall of 1991 -- prompting both anger among some traditionalists and delight among other scholars who could now interpret the documents for themselves.
Controversies now exist about when the fragments were written. Traditionalists maintain that the date should be placed in the second century B.C. date, while some new scholars date them as late as the first or second century A.D. There are also disputes about who wrote them, what kind of community the writers lived in and what they were trying to say.
"The Scroll enigma includes the basic uncertainty about what that community was," said Irene Burnham, director of the interpretive programs office at the Library of Congress, in reference to the ruins of Quram, near the cave overlooking the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found by a shepherd in 1947. In the ensuing eight years, hundreds more fragments were found in nearby caves and ruins.
Since then, most scholars with access to the scrolls have contended that they represented the writings of a peaceful, monastic sect called the Essenes whose philosophy helped provided a basis for Christianity. More recent, revisionist interpretations hold that the community nearby was a fortress, and that no peaceful sect could have lived there.
Ms. Burnham said: "The community could be: a) a Roman fortress b) a winter villa, c) home of the Essene sect, d) home of the Sadducees or e) none of the above. We're hoping to take all the stuff that has caused controversy and is the reason people are as avidly interested and put it out there and talk about it."
The exhibit, which will be at the Library of Congress until mid-July, will open at the New York Public Library in October.