The Dead Sea Scrolls Come to America

July 15 issue feature: Large Exhibit Tours in Philadelphia

(photo: Courtesy of the exhibit)

PHILADELPHIA — A small selection of the Dead Sea Scrolls is touring America, supported by the largest set of Holy Land artifacts ever to travel outside of Israel. Following a successful run in New York, the touring exhibit, called "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times," will be at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia until October. Its next stop has not yet been determined.

At the heart of the exhibit: 20 pieces from texts discovered in caves overlooking the Dead Sea.
In 1946 (or possibly 1947), a Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave and heard something smash. He was disappointed to find crumbling scrolls, along with some of the pottery in which they had been stored, rather than treasure, but the scrolls themselves would prove to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.

By 1956, 11 more caves were discovered and explored, resulting in the recovery of more than 100,000 fragments from 900-plus different documents.
Catholics were involved in the process from early on, with Dominican Father Roland de Vaux leading the project and heading up the excavation of the nearby settlement of Qumran. It was Father de Vaux who made the link between the scrolls, Qumran and a community of ascetic Jews called the Essenes.

Described by Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder, the Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished perhaps as early as 200 years before the birth of Christ and seemed to have faded away following the Jewish Revolt. At some point, most likely during the uprising against Rome, the scrolls were secreted away in the caves for protection, and when the community was lost, they were forgotten until their discovery 1,900 years later. (Although this is the dominant theory, some scholars take sharp exception to this interpretation of the evidence of the scrolls and the remains at Qumran.)

The finds shed important light on a period of Jewish history and life in which Christianity also began to grow. The scrolls included pieces of every Old Testament text except for Esther, and thus are particularly important for understanding the textual history of the Bible.

As Father Patrick Brady, chair of the Department of Sacred Scripture at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, observes, "The Bible was a handwritten text, and, over centuries, copying errors creep into the text. The oldest Old Testament manuscripts that we possessed before the discovery dated to the eighth century A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer us manuscripts, some of which date back to 200 B.C. The DSS documents include things written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Among them were parts of three Deuterocanonical documents: Sirach written in Hebrew, Tobit written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and part of Baruch in Greek. These discoveries show the fluidity of the canon at that time."

The find also included texts by the community, scriptural commentaries and other writings which illuminate the life of the people who made and treasured the scrolls. They form a vital part of understanding the life of first-century Judaism, the textual history of the scriptural canon, and the fertile religious soil in which the Church took root and grew.

As Father Brady says, "They allow us to see how some Jews lived, thought and worshipped in the first century and broaden our understanding of the Messianic and eschatological expectations of Judaism when Jesus began to preach and teach about the Kingdom of God."

Due to their fragile nature, scrolls rarely leave Israel, where they are kept under strict environmental controls. The current exhibit is mounted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and includes copies of the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Psalms, Isaiah, Tobit and Jeremiah. There are also phylacteries (small Scripture passages worn in leather containers on the head or arm), a piece of the pseudoepigraphal book of Enoch, apocryphal psalms, a commentary on Genesis, and pieces of the community’s own rules.

Because of the extreme fragility of the scrolls, special precautions are required. As Steve Snyder, vice president of exhibits and program development at the Franklin Institute, observes: "With any exhibit with objects of the value and historic importance of this level, a great deal of care must be taken to responsibly display these objects. There are complicated procedures for transportation, installation and display to care for the objects, so that future generations will have access to the history they represent."

Of the 20 large pieces, only 10 are displayed at once, in order to keep their exposure time to a minimum.

"The scrolls are displayed in cases designed to provide very strict climate conditions," says Snyder. "The cases are sealed, and the temperature and humidity within each case is controlled with a specially designed machine that feeds air to the case at a set of very specific levels. Staff monitor these conditions around the clock. As light exposure is also a concern, the levels are kept extremely low, and the number of hours that any of the scrolls can be displayed is limited and carefully monitored."

The scrolls did not make the journey to America alone. Although they are the marquee draw, equally interesting is the large collection of artifacts from the Holy Land. The exhibit begins with a seven-minute live introduction, complete with six giant screens showing footage from Holy Land digs and examples of jars from the major periods of Israel’s history, including a jar of the kind that held the scrolls.

The exhibit tells the story of the Israelites through the objects they left behind, illuminating home life, court life and religious beliefs in the First and Second Temple periods. Among the highlights are an exquisite ivory pomegranate and dove smaller than a pinkie fingernail. An extensive and fascinating collection of household goddesses show the persistent backsliding of the Jewish people into idolatry, which is a consistent theme throughout the Scriptures. Money, including coins used to pay the Temple tax, forms a direct link to the New Testament, evoking the encounter of Christ with the moneychangers.

Various personal items, a large collection of pottery, some fine mosaics, a couple of private horned altars for burning incense, a ritual bath from the High Place at Dan, architectural elements, items from Qumran and Masada, and other objects create an extensive portrait of almost 1,000 years of material culture. A large stone block which fell from the wall of the Second Temple completes the tour.

"The exhibit is remarkable not only in the display of the scrolls themselves," says Snyder, "but for the range of artifacts, spanning over 3,000 years of history. It offers a glimpse into lives ranging from the person on the street to kings in their palaces at the time of the stories of Solomon, Herod and Jesus."

Thomas L. McDonald
blogs about religion at

Planning Your Visit
Tickets are $31 for adults, $25 for youth, and come with access to the rest of the Franklin Institute. Visit for more information.


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