For more than 40 years, Jewish and Christian scholars have eagerly awaited translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the 2,000-year old papyrus and leather documents that illuminate an ancient Jewish community.
But now, a growing debate about the nature of anti-Semitic remarks by the scrolls' editor as well as the change of leadership in the editing project may once again postpone publication.
"This whole incident works against what we all say we want -- to see the scrolls published," said Eugene Ulrich, a professor at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., and one of the three new editors heading the publication project.
"In the last month I have done zero between talking to reporters and working on things behind the scenes."
The current controversy erupted last month with the publication of an interview with John Strugnell, then the editor of the scrolls. Dr. Strugnell, who is on leave from Harvard Divinity School, told an Israeli reporter for the newspaper Haaretz that Judaism was a "a horrible religion" and "a Christian heresy."
An Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism, the British-born Dr. Strugnell also said, "The correct answer of Jews to Christianity is to become Christian."
Dr. Strugnell was removed from his post. The official reason was ill health and the project's slow pace, but others on the editing team said his remarks forced the timing of his departure.
Publication of the scrolls has been an exercise in patience. The first of the manuscripts, a treasury of ancient life including the oldest biblical scrolls in existence, was found in 1947 in a cave in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
An international team of eight scholars was given access to the 800-plus manuscripts, attributed to the Essenes, a Jewish community which flourished along the shores of the Dead Sea between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70.
But wars in the Middle East as well as the change from Jordanian to Israeli sovereignty over the scrolls slowed efforts to edit the texts. Also, the scholars did not always work as quickly as others would have liked.
When Dr. Strugnell, one of the original eight, became the project's chief editor in 1985, he fell heir to a bitter academic row. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington D.C.-based journal Biblical Archaeology Review, had been using his editorial forum to fight for open access to the scrolls.
Mr. Shanks argued that scholars outside the "charmed circle" of eight were missing key opportunities for research.
Dr. Strugnell disagreed with open access, but he invited additional scholars to work on the scrolls and set up a timetable for publication.
The work seemed to be progressing, despite Mr. Shanks' continued calls for greater speed and open access, until this year. In published reports, colleagues said that Dr. Strugnell's health was failing, that he had a drinking problem and that his mental state was deteriorating.
Earlier this fall, the scroll's guardians, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, appointed Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem as Dr. Strugnell's co-editor.
Then, Dr. Strugnell's vitriol-laced litany, in the interviews last month in Haaretz and last week in Biblical Archaeology Review, convinced the scrolls' guardians he had to be let go.
He was replaced by Dr. Tov, Dr. Ulrich and Emile Puech, a French scholar.
Dr. Strugnell, 60, is now in a Boston hospital. A Harvard spokesman said he could not be reached for comment. Friends who have seen him say they are not certain he is aware of the reverberations from his remarks.
Students and colleagues who have known Dr. Strugnell portray him as a complex man whose scholarly career has been marred by procrastination. Several say he demonstrated an upper-class British hauteur to Jews and Judaism, but, to individual Jews, he was warm, generous and supportive. Their descriptions recall a man with a quirky sense of humor who enjoyed baiting friends with his biting humor.
Many regret that a man they knew as a careful scholar is now branded a bigot.
"These sound like the murky mutterings of a temporarily wandering mind," wrote Joseph Baumgarten, a professor at Baltimore Hebrew University who has worked on the scrolls, in a letter to some of his colleagues.
"The irony of this tragic situation is that Strugnell has been in the forefront of those who realized the need to involve scholars with expertise in Hebrew language and Jewish literature in the publication and interpretation of the scrolls."
Sarah Tanzer, a former Strugnell student who now teaches at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, said Dr. Strugnell's "actions make lies of his words."
"I think he is a tremendous person who is deeply troubled," she said. "He has said derogatory things to me before, and I called him on it. He would laugh and back down."