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Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Treasures from antiquity at Milwaukee Public Museum

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According to the story, a Bedouin shepherd boy tossed a stone into a desert cave near the Dead Sea during the winter of 1946-47. Hearing the sound of shattered pottery, he scrambled inside to investigate. What the boy discovered was the first of 11 caves along the cliffs near the ruins of Qumran, forgotten storehouses for the oldest surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible. Other writings found in the caves cast new light on the diverse beliefs of the ancient Near East that would coalesce into the three major monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mostly written on parchment or papyrus, in Hebrew and Aramaic with a smattering of Greek, the hundreds of documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls became the most famous archaeological discovery since the opening of King Tut’s tomb.

The Milwaukee Public Museum’s exhibition “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures” is more than a display of 2,000-year-old texts. The exhibit also sets the context for the scrolls—especially life in Jerusalem and Judea during the period when they were written—and their place in the evolution of the Bible and religious belief. According to many scholars, a Jewish sect that predated and briefly coexisted with the nascent faith that became Christianity wrote the scrolls. Like the early Christians, they split from the era’s ruling Jewish priesthood to pursue what Oxford University’s Geza Vermes, among the foremost scholars of the scrolls, called “the liberation of captives, the curing of the blind, the straightening of the bent, the healing of the wounded…and the proclamation of the good news to the poor.”

Exhibitions of the Dead Sea Scrolls have become popular in recent years as many of the artifacts emerged from the locked cupboards of their institutional caretakers. In 2004, the Milwaukee Public Museum planned to book a traveling exhibit—until the museum’s mid-decade financial and administrative crisis interrupted. Under the leadership of its new president, Dan Finley, and its veteran chair of anthropology and history, Carter Lupton, the museum returned to the idea by assembling its own exhibit drawn from institutions and private collections from Amman, Jordan, to Milwaukee.

 

Unique Challenges

The fragility of the scrolls presents unique challenges for curators. “You have to rotate them. You can’t keep them out longer than three months,” Lupton explains. “Light can do irrevocable damage. You have to limit the level of lighting and the time of exposure. If a fragment is on exhibit for three months, it will then have to rest for a few years.”

The Milwaukee exhibition involved lots of metaphorical spadework, unearthing pieces that have seldom and sometimes never been shown in museums. “Even if you’ve been to Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book,” says Lupton, referring to the world’s greatest repository of the scrolls, “we have pieces you’ve never seen before.”

The exhibit opens with artifacts discovered in the Holy Land from the period when the scrolls were produced, roughly 200 B.C.E. through 70 C.E. Along with coins bearing the likeness of Alexander the Great and Pontius Pilate are household items, such as oil lamps and pottery, along with stone coffins and a model of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Another component of the exhibit shows the development of the Bible into the Christian period.

 

Discovering the Scrolls

“Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures” also follows the trail of the scrolls’ discovery. After the shepherd boy found the first cave, several artifacts made their way to a Palestinian in Bethlehem, an antique dealer and member of the Syrian Orthodox Church. He brought the scrolls to a Syrian archbishop who showed them to a Milwaukeean, John C. Trever, a Yale-educated scholar with American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. Along with a professor at Hebrew University, Trever recognized the antiquity of the writing. His photographs of the Isaiah Scroll became the basis for the famous 24-foot-long replica housed at the Shrine of the Book. The British Museum loaned its copy of that replica to the Milwaukee Public Museum for “Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures.”

 

Recognizing Controversies

The Milwaukee exhibition recognizes many of the scholarly controversies over the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the authorship of the scrolls. Geza Vermes has long maintained that Qumran was a center for the Essenes, a breakaway Jewish sect, but other academics have advanced their own hypotheses and ancient history gives up its secrets with great reluctance. Lupton maintains an agnostic perspective. “There are many explanations,” he says. “There is no direct evidence of who wrote the scrolls. It’s all circumstantial.”

That ambiguous evidence has encouraged all sorts of kooky, Da Vinci Code notions, including a Vatican conspiracy to suppress the true meaning of the scrolls. “It’s got a lot of appeal to a wide audience, whether you are religious or not,” Lupton says. “Interpreting history always gives rise to disputes, but particularly when you bring religion into the picture, interpretation becomes food for all sorts of controversies.”

“Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures” opens Jan. 22 at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

2010-01-20