The heady days of liberating the Dead Sea Scrolls from the hands of a few are over, but a new debate - one balancing academic freedom and professional ethics - has begun over how they will be published and when.

The claims of a new book translating 50 fragments of the 2,000-year-old scrolls are being criticized by 19 leading scholars as "laughable and manifestly dishonest."Two of the critics are so upset they are boycotting an international conference beginning Monday because one of the book's authors was an organizer.

Defenders of the book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered," view the criticism as an attempt to continue exercising control over the unpublished texts and prevent new interpretations challenging traditional views of the origins of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

"This is the last gasp of a dying establishment," said Robert Ei-sen-man, one of the book's authors.

But the critics, some of whom fought to have the unpublished scrolls released, said the book represents what one called his worst-case scenario that granting general access to the scrolls would lead to poor scholarship and the uncredited use of others' work.

"For our work to progress, the usual standards of academic integrity must be maintained. We cannot allow the appropriation of the work of others and the wholesale misrepresentations with which this book is replete," said the scholars' statement.

Access to the scrolls, which were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and the 1950s, had been tightly guarded by a small group of scholars until fall 1991.

Much of the unpublished text was brought out in book form by the Biblical Archaeological Society. The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., made photographic records available.

The current controversy stems from the publication this fall of "The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for Over 35 Years" by Eisenman and Michael Wise.

Eisenman, chairman of the Religious Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, supports his controversial theory that the documents describe a messianic movement that in its later stages was virtually indistinguishable from the rise of Chrisitanity.

The alleged Christianization of the scroll material "constitutes wholesale theft from the Jewish people," says Lawrence H. Schiffman of the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Last month in San Francisco, Schiffman advised scholars of the Society of Biblical Literature to warn the public of the book's "ludicrous interpretations."

No one on a panel on Qumran studies defended Eisenman's work.

This week's conference sponsored by The New York Academy of Sciences and The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago was designed to promote a dialogue among scholars with differing views, said Norman Golb, a Jewish history professor at the University of Chicago.

But even after the conference hastily scheduled a seminar on the ethics of scroll publication, it has served as a focal point in the controversy because Wise was one of the organizers.

Two Israeli scholars, Shemaryahu Talmon of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Elisha Qimron of Ben-Gurion University, have decided not to come, Golb said.

Last week, the group of 19 scholars issued a statement saying the book misrepresents itself as presenting 50 texts for the first time when half have been previously published. The scholars also said the authors depended on handouts distributed at conferences.