Dead Sea Scrolls – the Exhibit

A few weeks ago we spent the afternoon visiting the Cincinnati Museum Center and immersed ourselves in thoughts of the past sparked by the pots, coins, weapons, jewelry and writings from the beginnings of Western civilization. The Israel Antiquities Authority has made a sample of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other historical objects from the “the Holy Land” available for public viewing. Below I try to bring you an abbreviated history of the time period involved along. I hope you’ll bear with me. One thing I became painfully aware of while touring this exhibit was how little I know of world history generally and Middle East history specifically. Something I hope to remedy.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Union Terminal Museum Center in Cincinnati, OH. January 2013

You might know the story. In 1947 a young Bedouin shepherd finds a cave in a crevice of the limestone cliffs lining the rim of the Dead Sea near the site of Qumran, east of the city of Jerusalem. The shepherd tosses a rock into the cave and hears pottery breaking. He investigates further and finds a collection of large clay jars that contain old scrolls. He has no idea of the historic and religious treasure he has discovered.

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A clay jar found containing scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are  the collection of ancient religious writings, documents and letters, found in eleven caves near the site of Qumran. Some scrolls were found intact, but many were in fragments of parchment and papyrus.

The biblical manuscripts contain “books found in today’s Hebrew bible.” The non-biblical texts written during the Second Temple era are related to the texts in the Hebrew Bible. Some describe religious beliefs and practices of a specific religious community. (Exhibit signage)

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Scales and weights – A barter system was used in biblical times. Towards the end of the Iron Age, scales, weights, and silver pieces appeared indicating a move to using silver in exchange for goods. Stone weights were used to determine the weight of silver ingots before coins were minted.

Jerusalem, sitting high in the Judan hills and roughly at the center of ancient Israel, was inhabited as early as the 4th millenium BCE. “King David chose the city for his capital, probably because the territory did not belong to any of the tribes, but also because its location on a hill meant it would be difficult to attack. […]”  (Exhibit signage)

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Goddesses – Some 2000 goddesses were found in homes in Judah. They likely represent the Canaanite goddess Asherah or her Greek counterpart Astarte.
Evidence indicates that many ancient Israelites believed Asherah was consort to the god of Israel.

“The exact site of David’s Jerusalem remains hotly debated. Under King Solomon a permanent home—the First Temple—was built for the Ark of the Covenant atop Mount Moriah, and the fate of the city as the dwelling place of the Isralite’s god was sealed.” (Exhibit signage)

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The First Temple (960 – 586 BCE) period began during the Iron Age while the kingdoms of Judah and Northern Israel were still divided. The first Isralite Kingdom was united under David and Solomon.

The biblical texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been composed during this time.

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Jars from the end of the 8th century are common finds throughout the kingdom of Judah. Many are royal storage jars and may have been used to collect grain or other goods for royal taxes. They have a stamp on one or more handles designating they  belong to the king. The jars are associated with Judan King Hezekiah’s military administration.

Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written between the 2nd Century BCE and 2nd Century CE, during a time when different Judean groups struggled to obtain and maintain political and religious leadership.

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Iron arrowheads

The Judean Kingdom came to an end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of citizens to Babylon in 586 BCE. The temple was utterly destroyed. “With neither Temple or homeland the exiles began to place their sacred writings at the center of their faith.” (Exhibit signage)

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Small household items provide clues to the family’s activities

The Second Temple was built after 539 BCE when the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Persians maintained control of the area until 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Judea. This began the Hellenistic era. Most of the non-biblical texts of the Deep Sea Scrolls from Qumran date to this period.

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Roman coins

Enter Rome.

Judea lost its independence to the Romans the first century BCE. After an unsuccessful Jewish revolt, Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE and much of the population was killed or enslaved. After the second revolt failed between 132 and 135 CE, the Roman emporer renamed the region Syria Palestina. He renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and forbade Jews to enter.

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Many of the ceramic jars have pointed bottom. It is believed they were held in holes in the ground.

The  Post Second Temple time period included Roman rule from 73 – 324 CE, followed by the Byzantine from 324 – 638 CE. Palestine came under Islamic rule with the conquest of Jerusalem in 638 CE. Judea was incorporated into the Islamic Empire from  the 7th – 11th centuries, known as the Early Islamic era.

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Then the Christians came.

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Broken limestone bread stamp –  Bread intended for consecration and communion within the Christian traditions was stamped. This fragment of a bread stamp contains a Greek inscription circling sixteen squares. The center four squares contain a Christogram (abbreviation for the name of Jesus). The other 12 squares represent the twelve apostles.

Christian Crusaders from Europe were the dominant power in “the Holy Land” from the 12th – 13th centuries.

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A ceremonial bath

At this point in the exhibit, we were ready to enter the room that housed the Dead Sea Scrolls, and photographs were prohibited. The scrolls were displayed in glass cases in a large ring in the middle of the room that visitors could walk around. Although translations and explanations were displayed beside each fragment of the scrolls, I could only imagine how thrilling it would have been to actually be able to read the writings. You can view images of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

The other thing that struck me as I moved slowly around the ring, looking at these writings that were done so many years ago, was the realization that in a time period where communication of the written word was painstakingly done by scribes with ink and parchment and hand-delivered by walking or perhaps riding an animal of one sort or the other, these biblical stories were preserved, transferred, dispersed geographically, and carried on through the ages. It causes one to wonder.

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The  Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times will be on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center through April 14. The first set of ten scrolls, including Genesis; Numbers; Samuel and Psalms among others, were on display until Jan. 28. They were rotated out and a brand new set will be on display until the exhibit’s last day on April 14.

“Because of the fragility of the scrolls, they may only be on display for three months at a time before they must “rest” in complete darkness for one year. The new rotation includes scrolls of Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah Commentary, Book of War, Aramaic Levi, Pseudo-Ezekiel, Apocryphal Lamentations, Papyrus Bar, Community Rule and Leviticus/Numbers.

“Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times is created by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) from the collections of the Israel National Treasures and produced by Discovery Times Square and The Franklin Institute. Local community partners include Presenting Sponsor: The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, and Associate Sponsors: the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Diocese of Southern Ohio, SC Ministry Foundation, Office of the Provost, University of Cincinnati, and Xavier University, among others. Special Exhibit Partner: Hebrew Union College. http://www.cincymuseum.org/press/dead-sea-scrolls-rotation.”  (Cincinnati Museum Center).

Sources of Information:

Signage at the exhibit: The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times, by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Viewed at the Cincinnati Museum Center, January 2013

The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Libary 

The Cincinnati Museum Center