January 2013 Issue
Keeping the Faith
Cincinnati Museum Center showcases Dead Sea Scrolls and related antiquities.
I'm always surprised at the impact of the Dead Seas Scrolls exhibit and how moved people are when they see the ancient scrolls,” says Risa Levitt Kohn. “They have these ‘aha!’ moments when they realize how extraordinary the scrolls are.”
Kohn should know. A professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University, she also is North American curator of “Dead Seas Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” the largest exhibit ever of artifacts from ancient Israel. The traveling exhibition is on display through April 14 at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
“Dead Sea Scrolls” is a project of the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose Iron Age collection curator, Debora Ben Ami, collaborated with Kohn to assemble some 600 objects that range from tiny pieces of scrolls to a 3-ton stone from Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Like King Tut’s tomb, everybody has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, yet people don’t necessarily understand why the scrolls rank among the greatest archaeological discoveries and are profoundly important for history and religion.
Nor do they know the astonishing story of how the scrolls were found: In 1947, on the cliffs along the Dead Sea’s northwest coast, a Bedouin shepherd boy tossed a stone into a cave opening. Hearing the sound of pottery shattering, he and a companion crawled inside and spied some scrolls stored in clay jars. When the Bedouins tried to sell the mysterious documents through an antiquities dealer, the scrolls attracted the attention of scholars who identified them as approximately 2,000-year-old texts. The cave where the scrolls were uncovered is near the ruins of Qumran, a desert settlement Romans destroyed in 68 A.D. Explorations of that area during the late 1940s and ’50s recovered more complete scrolls plus thousands of scroll fragments in 10 more caves.
Clearly, the Bedouin boys had happened upon a treasure far different from the golden trappings entombed with King Tut. The wealth at Qumran was a library. Meticulously reconstructed and translated, the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of more than 900 parchment and papyrus manuscripts dating from around the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. They are written mostly in Hebrew and include the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, as well as sectarian texts such as biblical commentaries, religious legal writings and prayers.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls are direct voices from the past, and we don’t have many direct voices from the past,” observes exhibit adviser Nili Fox, a professor of Bible at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Whose voices were they? Most historians and archaeologists think the scrolls’ authors were the Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived at Qumran and presumably hid the manuscripts from the Romans inside the caves. Others theorize that at least some scrolls were written in nearby Jerusalem and taken to the caves before Romans sacked that city in 70 A.D. Regardless of who produced them, the scrolls possess a mother lode of information about ancient Israel’s culture and ideology. And, according to Kohn, concerns about life and faith then were similar to those of today.
“Those ancient [peoples],” she says, “dealt with universal questions. What’s it all about? Why are we here? What happens when the world ends?”
The words on the scrolls reveal that their creators were monotheists who believed an apocalypse and judgment day were coming. For them, the world was divided between Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness, between the righteous and the evil. Written during the period when Judaism was evolving and Christianity was born, the core documents of the scrolls consist of more than 200 biblical texts.
“Parts of every book of the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Esther are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls,” notes Fox. Since Christians know the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, the scrolls hold special significance not only for two major religions but also for western civilization, which the Bible shaped in countless ways.
For visitors, the exhibition is like a journey to the past and back again, a chronicle of the place where the Judeo-Christian tradition originated and its effect on subsequent generations.
“Objects in the exhibit were chosen carefully for the overall tale we were trying to tell,” says Kohn. “Each one contributes to that story.” The showcased artifacts cover the biblical to Byzantine periods, and along with relics such as leather sandals and limestone measuring cups excavated at Qumran, they encompass items — including a small pottery altar from Hazor and a menorah-inscribed stone recently unearthed near the Temple Mount — retrieved from archaeological sites throughout Israel. Amazing as these items are, they’re just the supporting cast for the show’s stars: Twenty priceless scroll pieces that are displayed only 10 at a time in order to conserve them. These bits of text contain both biblical passages from Genesis, Psalms and Deuteronomy and writings that include a blessing for apocalypse survivors.
There’s a special component to the Cincinnati Museum Center exhibit, the only Midwest stop on the “Dead Sea Scrolls” national tour. It boasts a feature not seen at any other venue.
“In Cincinnati,” says Kohn, “we examine Hebrew Union College’s role in the story of the scrolls.”
Spearheaded by former HUC president and renowned archaeologist Nelson Glueck, the link between Cincinnati and the scrolls began in the 1940s and extended into the 1990s. Glueck led efforts to procure the scrolls from dealers, authenticate them and eventually store a photographic security copy of the documents on the college campus. HUC scholars then developed a computer program that deciphered hundreds of previously unpublished texts and ultimately made the scrolls’ complete content available to researchers.
The “Dead Sea Scrolls” presentation in Cincinnati is a unique event that allows visitors to behold rare and remarkable documents whose concepts continuously influence the world, and to appreciate Ohio’s crucial connection to them.
“It’s important for people to recognize that this exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Fox. “No one should miss it.”
When You Go:
Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times
Cincinnati Museum Center
at Union Terminal
1301 Western Ave., Cincinnati 45203
Mon.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.,
Fri. –Sat. 10 a.m.–8 p.m.,
Sun. 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
$23 adults, children age 3–12 $15, seniors age 60 and over $20.
or call 513/287-7000 for more information.