The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World

September 21, 2008 - January 4, 2009

In 1947, a significant discovery of ancient Jewish texts written on parchment was made in a cave in the Judean Desert, east of Jerusalem and near the Dead Sea. In this exhibition, the Jewish Museum presents six of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which reflect the importance of this transformative period, alongside contemporary texts and archaeological artifacts.

In 1947, a significant discovery of ancient Jewish texts written on parchment was made in a cave in the Judean Desert, east of Jerusalem and near the Dead Sea. These first scrolls turned out to contain the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, biblical commentaries, and the writings of a Jewish religious sect. When biblical scholars learned of these texts, they were electrified at the possibility that they could reveal new information about the development of early Judaism and of Christianity.

Over time, some 900 separate scrolls were found in neighboring caves; they are collectively called the Dead Sea Scrolls. They date from the third century BCE through the first century CE. This was a momentous period in the history of the region, incorporating the Maccabean revolt, the reign of King Herod, the ministry of Jesus, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was also a time of transformations and debates. Jewish religious ritual, which consisted of animal sacrifices and offerings made at the Temple, was joined by the innovative practice of study of a holy scripture—the Bible—and of prayer. Jewish groups disagreed over Temple ritual, authoritative scripture, and the strictness with which to observance divine commandments, leading to the emergence of different sects, such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, as well as eventually to new religions such as Christianity. Finally, the books of the Bible were in the process of crystallization into the final biblical canon, resulting eventually in the text that has been a source of faith for three religions and of artistic and literary inspiration for millions.

The texts contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect this transformative period. How we understand their meaning in antiquity depends to some extent on our knowledge of who wrote and used them. Were they the library of a single Jewish splinter group, of the Jerusalem priests, or of many individual Jewish communities? Do they represent the ideology of a particular sect, the Essenes, identified by ancient historians? Did the owners of the scrolls live at the nearby site of Qumran? These questions are still being debated by historians and archaeologists, particularly now that the last of the scrolls have been published and new archaeological studies have been undertaken on material from sites in the Dead Sea region.

The Jewish Museum’s exhibition will include six Dead Sea Scrolls. They represent the important transformation that occurred in Jewish worship from sacrifice to Bible study and prayer, the debates among Jewish groups of the Second Temple Period, and the indirect connections between the scrolls and early Christianity. The scrolls include a part of one of the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible in existence, the Book of Jeremiah, which dates to 225–175 BCE. Other texts that will be shown include an aprocryphal Jewish work, the Book of Tobit, which was not included in the Hebrew canon but was eventually accepted into some versions of the Christian Old Testament; early examples of prayers from Words of the Luminaries; and Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel, which mentions a son of God. Also shown will be excerpts from two sectarian compositions, the Community Rule, which lays out the regulations for joining and being a member of a sect, and the War Scroll, which describes a great war at the end of days. Three of these scrolls have never been exhibited, while three others have never been seen in New York.

The exhibition will also include some artifacts from the site of Qumran and its vicinity. A jar and linen wrapper that protected the scrolls, the earliest phylacteries, dishes and vessels, and objects of daily life such as sandals, hairnets, and combs will illuminate the current scholarly debates over who used and who hid the scrolls.

This exhibition represents the collaboration between The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Jewish Museum. All of the objects are from the National Treasures of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Generous support was also provided by the Schaina and Josephina Lurje Memorial Foundation; the Eugene and Emily Grant Family Foundation in honor of Evelyn G. Clyman; an anonymous donor; the Joseph Alexander Foundation; the Salo W. and Jeanette M. Baron Foundation; Gail A. Binderman; Janine and Peter Lowy; the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation; and the Sternlicht Family Foundation.
This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.