Dead Sea Scrolls Come Into Public View

Monday, July 01, 2013
For almost 2,000 years, 11 caves and the remnants of an ancient community lay dormant outside of Jerusalem. Their discovery in 1947 — and the contents contained within — was a significant find, particularly for biblical scholars. Here were written documents created at a time of enormous historical importance.

And yet, it has only been since the 1990s that the Dead Sea Scrolls have become available to scholars who could read Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek — the languages in which the scrolls were written.

Years following their release to scholars, the full English translation of the scrolls was published. Now, Google, in conjunction with various institutions, provides online access to digital copies of the scrolls for anyone in the world to view.

One could say that — despite the passing of decades since their discovery — it is only recently that the public has had access to the scrolls.

Which makes the newest exhibit at the Museum of Science, Boston a unique opportunity.

Working with the Israel Antiquities Authority, a production company and various designers over the course of a year, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University, and Deborah Ben Ami created the “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times” traveling exhibit.

Kohn said they are trying to “transport people back in time to a different period of time and to a different part of the world to explore the world of the Bible and the world that composed these documents.”

And to do this, the exhibit contains ancient Israeli artifacts and various fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

“Most people can’t read Hebrew,” says Kohn, “so we chose (fragments) that had interesting features. Even if you can’t read them, you can find something interesting to see.”

But why are they so significant?

“For Biblical scholars, (the scrolls) have been the most important because they are the oldest manuscripts we have of the Bible in Hebrew, and the oldest by a 1,000 years,” said Dr. Susan Ackerman, professor of religion at Dartmouth, “Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts we had of the Bible in Hebrew were from the 9th or 10th century A.D.”

Dr. Peter Lanfer, professor of religion at Dartmouth and UCLA, explains how these scrolls affect his research. “Without the Dead Sea Scrolls, the resources I would have for understanding Jewish life, religion and the development of early biblical interpretation would be severely limited. In most of my work, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a bridge between biblical literature and the literature of the early church and early rabbinic communities.”

Kohn explains even further, “The scrolls are copied and composed in an interesting period — a period of transition from biblical Israel to early Judaism and Christianity. Before the discovery of the scrolls, this was thought to be a very linear process. Now we understand that it’s much more complicated, a lot less linear. There were many different groups in this period with overlapping ideas.”

Do the scrolls mention Jesus?


But they provide clues into the religious beliefs and practices of the time.

“This library of text that gives us a window into that formative period is huge,” states Ackerman. “It’s the period of the formation of Christianity. This community ends at 70 A.D. Jesus dies in 30, 32. It’s this community that is contemporary with Jesus. So to get a window into the religiosity in that period is to get a window into the religiosity that gave birth to two of the great religions of the world: Judaism and Christianity.”

In other words, a period that eventually led to Judaism and Christianity as we know it today, which, even if you do not subscribe to either of them, have enormous impact on the world.

Scholars disagree whether the community at Khirbet Qumran — the archeological site near the caves — composed the scrolls, and they disagree on exactly who these people were. But few disagree that the scrolls provide information that our current version of the Bible did not previously have.

“All of these manuscripts (of the Hebrew Bible) were passed down by being hand-copied over generations,” says Ackerman, “And as we can imagine when you hand-copy over generations, mistakes can easily creep in.”

To make her point further, she continues, “Scribes do that: You’re copying along, you’re copying along; someone interrupts you and says ‘Would you like a glass of water?’ You say ‘yes’, and then you pick back up your copying here.” She points to a different spot on an example page. “You don’t even notice that you’ve just skipped over a whole paragraph.”

From now until Oct. 20, the public has a chance to view some of the fragments, as well as ancient pottery and other artifacts in Boston.

“If you think about that period of history,” says Ackerman, “most people know the remains that come from ancient Egypt, which are stunning, or people know the remains of ancient Mesopotamia. And both Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures were first very wealthy cultures and cultures that put enormous amount of effort into artistic and architectural production.”

“For me,” she muses, “I always think that is one of the striking things: This (ancient Israeli) culture that is so unsophisticated in terms of its artistic production is so sophisticated in terms of its literary production. And conversely, where Egypt is so sophisticated in its artistic production, but fairly unsophisticated in its literary production.”

For more information on the exhibit, go to

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