Friday, September 19, 2008

Dead Sea Scrolls in New York

Nearly everyone has heard of them, but what is actually recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls is not widely understood. Given the kind of wild religious conspiracy theories floating through popular fiction in recent years, it is extremely welcome to have an exhibit that really explains the historic and theological significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those with a healthy interest in either Jewish or early Christian theology are likely to be fascinated by the Jewish Museum’s upcoming exhibit, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World, carefully curated to resist taking sides in related academic controversies.

In addition to material providing helpful historical context, six fragments of the priceless scrolls are on display. They come from The Book of Jeremiah of the Hebrew Bible, the Words of the Luminaries prayer book, the Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel, The Book of Tobit (considered apocryphal in Judaism but canonical for Catholics and Orthodox Christians), and two writings evidently pertaining to an ancient sect, the apocalyptic War Rule and the governing regulations of Community Rule.

Discovered in the Qumran caves of the Judean desert, the Dead Sea Scrolls are arguably the most important archaeological discovery of the last century. They were first unearthed in 1947 when a Bedouin boy tossed a stone into a cave, shattering one of the scroll vessels, whose contents he sold to a dealer for relative pocket change. Over all, the Qumran scrolls date from 300 BC to 100 AD, but of those be displayed in New York, only the Tobit possibly dates to the early decades of the Common Era (evidently the Museum’s preferred semantics), with the other five originating sometime during the first three centuries BCE. Some consider the scrolls the former holdings of a specific group (the Essenes are most frequently suggested), whereas others consider it a non-sectarian Jewish library or a cache deliberately hidden from marauding Romans. The exhibit draws no conclusions.

Jewish Museum visitors will only have a ninety day viewing window, a limit strictly enforced by the Israeli Antiquities Agency (IAA) to protect the scrolls, three of which, Jeremiah, Luminaries, and Tobit, will be displayed for the first time here in New York. This exhibit and another currently underway in North Carolina are part of a commitment by the IAA to always have scrolls on view somewhere outside Israel at all times. It is clear from the remarks of the IAA representative at the press event and the exhibit’s video loop that the agency, working in concert with the international experts, including the Dominican order of Jerusalem, considers their work preserving the scrolls to be a sacred trust.

The area of Qumran Caves has since been turned over to the PA. Wisely, the IAA conducted an exhaustive final search of the area for additional scrolls before the land was transferred. Evidently some interesting artifacts were unearthed, but no scrolls. One shudders at the thought of such an important archaeological legacy entrusted to Israel’s neighbors (who of course would consider the scrolls heretical).

The centerpiece of the Jewish Museum’s exhibit is of course the scroll fragments—documents dating back 2,000 years. These time-battered scraps dramatically illustrate the fragility of human learning. Thankfully, the IAA is determined to preserve them another 2,000 years. New Yorkers will have a chance to see them for themselves when the Jewish Museum’s exhibition officially opens this Sunday.