“It’s hard to imagine a copyright law suit over a 2000-year-old letter. But this fascinating book is about a letter written just before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the leader of a small Jewish sect that lived in desert caves south of Jericho. The letter, written on animal skins and hidden in clay jugs, is part of the famous Dead Sea scrolls first discovered in caves near Qumran by Bedouin herders looking for a missing goat.
The scrolls were written by a sect of ascetic Jews called Essenes, who eschewed worldly pleasures in search of purity of thought and body. The scrolls that gave rise to the litigation that is the subject of this book contained only 130 lines on numerous fragments and scraps of parchment — with many gaps — that had to be pieced together, filled in, extrapolated, translated and interpreted by scholars at Harvard, Ben Gurion University and other institutions, whose work took more than 10 years. But before they could publish their findings, another scholar and writer managed to get ahold of images of the scrolls and beat them to the punch. The original lead scholar then sued those who published what he claimed was his work product.
The publication of the letter was of great interest not only to the scholarly community but to religious leaders as well, because its contents related to the religious practices of Essene Jews during the early days of Christianity, when the followers of Jesus may have included members of that sect. It was important, therefore, to know precisely what the text said and what it meant to those who wrote it. This required considerable input from the scholars who had access to its words and the ability to speculate knowledgeably about the missing words.
Nothing in the Mideast is free of political and religious conflict, including the Dead Sea scrolls. When Jordan occupied the West Bank between 1948 and 1967, no Jews were allowed access to any scrolls that were under Jordanian control. Only Christians and Moslems, including some rabid Anti-Semites, were given access to them. Their Jewish character and history was downplayed. Only after Israel captured the West Bank in its defensive war against Jordan’s attack in 1967, did Jewish scholars share access to the scrolls.
Among the issues in the legal case was whether the reconstruction of a 2000-year-old letter was protected by copyright. The defendant argued that only the author of the letter, who was dead for 2000 years, could copyright it.
The plaintiff argued that his reconstruction of the letter from incomplete fragments was an original work of scholarship subject to legal protection. The case was argued before an eminent and scholarly District Court Judge named Dalia Dorner, who was later promoted to the Supreme Court. She heard extensive testimony and vigorous arguments. The case attracted a great deal of media as well as scholarly attention, not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish and Christian world. In the end, the verdict was in favor of the original scholars who had reconstructed the text.
The case was over, but the debate persists to this day, both about the meaning of the text and the right of those who possess the scrolls to control their access and publication.”
From the introduction written by Alan Dershowitz