Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit Alive with the Divine, Ancient Relics

May 21, 2013

There is so much to be thinking about in May that it could be very easy to miss the launching of one of the more important exhibits to hit Boston in years – the Museum of Science’s ‘Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times.’

May brings about renewed attention to one’s gardening.

There are the endless graduation receptions.

If a sports fan, well, the Bruins’ playoff run can easily engulf a good deal of free time.

And, of course, we’ve all been in continued anguish over the Marathon events of last month.

But don’t let those things block out what is truly a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to see the most detailed look at what it was like in the very ancient world – from the philosophical to the spiritual to the mundane.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are rarely exhibited, and so getting a glimpse of them is not something that happens every year – if not every generation. Hence, that is why the museum keeps harping on the fact that the exhibit is so unique, and that it is the only stop in New England.

“It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the precious remnants of the Scrolls and important Israeli artifacts that are the most comprehensive ever assembled,” said Museum of Science President Ioannis Miaoulis at a preview reception last Thursday. “It is important to note some of these precious pieces you’ll see have never been on display in North America.”

The story of the Scrolls are almost equally as interesting as their content and historic value – a story that is played up very nicely in the exhibit.

As it goes, Bedouin goat herders were in a remote area known as Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947 when they stumbled onto the well-preserved documents. Perhaps they were looking for treasure, but the official account has them chasing a lost goat into a long-abandoned cave. Inside, they found clay pots containing 2,000-year-old manuscripts. About a month later, the herders presented the manuscripts to an Armenian antique dealer/shoemaker known as Kando. Kando thought they might be valuable. However, as the story goes, he considered using the leather in the binding for use in making shoes. Luckily he never carried out that plan.

At first, most thought the scrolls were fakes because they were in such great condition, but Kando persevered and eventually got the right person’s attention. What resulted was arguably the single most important archeological find in the 20th Century.

In the end, some 972 scrolls were uncovered in several different caves in the region. No one is quite sure who wrote them, but it is assured that they were written by an exclusive sect of Judaism that had fled from the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

In the Museum’s exhibition – which started on Sunday and runs through October 14th – 20 rare Scroll fragments will be on display 10 at a time for a three-month period. There are religious writings, rules and laws, apocryphal predictions and general commentary.

Among those fragments now on display are rare pieces of the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Psalms, Job and Leviticus – books that are universally important to the faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

While all of those texts give a rare view into the writings and interpretation of ancient scripture by a 1st-Century religious sect, the Leviticus scroll fragment is particularly moving.

Instead of being written in the traditional Aramaic or Hebrew, that scroll is written in what is called Peleo-Hebrew – or an ancient form of Hebrew. That writing is more of an angular, slanted script rather than the more well-known block-style script. Ancient writers used paleo-Hebrew to copy Biblical books that they thought had been literally dictated by God to Moses. The paleo style had been continued on from ancient times and was copied precisely by the Scrolls writers – giving viewers almost a direct path (perhaps once removed) to the voice of God passed down verbatim over thousands of years.

Religious or not, it is awe-inspiring to see a piece of the divine preserved in its original form.

It also sets the tone for the rest of the awe-inspiring exhibit, which contains row after row of ancient artifacts from the 7th and 8th Century B.C.

There are ancient water jars with stamps proclaiming that they belonged to Judean kings, there are everyday loom weights that are nearly 3,000 years old, there are musical instruments and, of course, religious artifacts as well. There is also a replica of a four-room house from such similar ancient times – where there is (of all things) a clay footbath to sooth the weary feet of humans living three millennia before us.

Finally, there is a three-ton stone cube that was a part of the Western Wall of the Second Temple during the time of Kind Herod. The piece on display is believed to have toppled from that Temple during the ravaging of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E.

That piece of the Western Wall served as a tremendous ending to an excellent exhibit that hopefully won’t be overshadowed by recent happenings or the advent of summer.

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