Article 25

Parchment and Politics

In Uncategorized on 01/18/2013 at 5:19 pm


The 25-foot-diameter Communal Scroll Table contains display chambers for 10 scrolls, along with the English translation and a large high-resolution image. Courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center.

There’s nothing dead about these scrolls

By Gregory Flannery

What does Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic, have to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls? He takes the edge off the understated but inescapable political message of their presentation at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

“Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times” is a coup for Cincinnati, and in some sense a reward for the city’s vital, though long secret, role in preserving the venerable manuscripts. But the exhibit is misnamed. The scrolls themselves form a small part of the body of 600 artifacts on display.

The collection of ritual vessels, jewelry, mosaics and pottery, all excavated in Israel, is impressive in its own right. What makes them unique, however – different from the collection of ancient artifacts at the Cincinnati Art Museum, for example – is their role in setting the scene for the scrolls themselves, which visitors encounter at the end of the self-guided tour.

Shepherded into the exhibit in small groups, visitors find themselves in a darkened cubicle, where surrounding screens show the text of Genesis 12:1:

“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.”

The tone is one of awe, but this exhibit isn’t only about ancient scriptures and enduring faiths. In this exhibit, at least, the 2,000-year-old scrolls have something to say about modern geo-politics.

‘Belonging to Netanyahu’

Few archaeological finds have deserved the solemnity or required the level of care of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered by accident in 1947 in a cave in the Desert of Judea. The 900 scrolls include the oldest existing copies of the Hebrew scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament.

Visitors may not photograph the scrolls, carefully encased in order to protect them from light, their temperature monitored and exactingly controlled. Use of cell phones anywhere in the exhibit is also forbidden.

A Bedouin goat herder found the scrolls after throwing a rock into a cave and hearing pottery break. What he found within was an ancient collection of parchment scrolls containing Hebrew.

“Little did he know it was more valuable than any gold or gem ever found,” intones a tour guide addressing visitors before sending them on their way.

Sponsors of the exhibit include the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. But, as the guide explains, perhaps too helpfully, the Dead sea Scrolls have importance for Muslims, as well: They, too, count the Old Testament among their holy books.

Lest the point of inclusivity be lost, a sign explains that dates are not rendered in the usual Christian shorthand of B.C. (“Before Christ”) or A.D. (“Anno Domini” or “year of the Lord”). Instead B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”) and C.E. (“Common Era”) are used “to acknowledge cultural diversity.”

But common though the scriptures might be to the provenance of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, from their first steps on the tour, visitors know that these scrolls have a role in modern Israel’s claim to a land long fought over. One of the first “artifacts” on display is a letter bearing a 1948 postmark by Israeli postal authorities and a sign explaining that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found just as Israel was about to declare independence.

The collection includes a stamp seal dated to 1200-1000 B.C.E. bearing the inscription, “Belonging to Netanyahu.” The seal is wondrous to behold, as is any relic of civilization during the Iron Age. But isn’t it all the more telling that this one carries an assertion of ownership by a man whose name coincidentally is the same as the current prime minister of the Jewish state?

The Old Testament teaches there is but one God and that he requires certain moral conduct in order to propitiate him. As a sign takes pains to make clear, however, the ancient scriptures also explain why the place where they were written matters even today: “Unlike any other literature of the time, this one gave the Israelites a universal culture, a wide-ranging set of laws, a fierce national identity and a fervent connection to the land.”

Indeed one of the longest scroll fragments in the exhibit – some are mere inches long – is 33 lines from a lease agreement recorded in 132-135 C.E., during the second Jewish revolt against Rome.

Perhaps taking care not to be heavy-handed, the curators included a plaque containing the Kalima Shahada, the core declaration of Islam: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Left unclear is the relevance of the accompanying poem by Rumi, who lived in Persia 1,300 years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written: “I am neither Christian, nor Jew … nor Muslim.

And this just a few feet from a short video showing Masada, the last Jewish stronghold conquered by the Roman army – and the place where today Israeli military recruits take an oath to defend the Jewish state.

Hokum and holiness

The 66 years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have almost certainly been the hardest on their continued existence. Insects, weather and natural decomposition over 2,000 years were nothing compared to the cigarette smoke and Scotch tape to which they were exposed by their first modern handlers.

Then, too, even Bedouin goat herders know a valuable object when they find one. Four of the first seven scrolls to be discovered ended up for sale in an ad in the Wall Street Journal – a fortunate act of disrespect, because it led to their being secretly purchased and returned to Israel by Professor Harry Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

For decades access to the Dead Sea Scrolls was tightly restricted, with few published. Then in 1985 Ben L. Kaufman, a religion reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, learned that more than 1,300 negatives of the scrolls had been secretly housed at Hebrew Union College for the past 13 years.

A section of the exhibit details the college’s important work in translating and studying the scrolls.

The exhibit is not without hokum. Visitors are able to take prayers with them, to be delivered to Jerusalem for insertion in the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the Second Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans.

Before leaving the exhibit, visitors can buy food and other merchandise made in Israel.

But neither the political subtext nor the gift sale can detract from the magnificence of the scrolls themselves. Enshrined in a “Communal Scroll Table” that calls to mind the Holy of Holies, the parchment fragments are the most fragile, the simplest and yet the most powerful remnant of – and testament to – the spiritual foundations of much of humanity.

Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times” continues at the Cincinnati Museum Center through mid-April. For more information, visit

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  2. Seriously, they had to explain what “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” meant? I have not heard anyone use “B.C.” or “A.D.” since the Cambrian Period.

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