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The Dead Sea Scrolls: an exhibit.

 The Lord bless thee and keep thee.
 The Lord makes his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee.
 The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.

 Numbers 6:24-26


The Priestly Blessing above appears on an amulet on display as part of the Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the National Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, across the river from Ottawa. This ancient artifact, and others, bring to life the deep spiritual connections between Judaism and Christianity, for this amulet bears one of the oldest known fragments of Biblical verses (7th century B.C.) and this prayer is still recited today during Jewish festivals and High Holy Days, and on Christian New Year's Day services.

The exhibit--which runs from December 5, 2003, to April 12, 2004--displays over 100 artifacts spanning over one thousand years of history from 1200 B.C. to the fall of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and portions of three of the Dead Sea scrolls which were first discovered in the caves of Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947. Bedouin goat-herders, searching for a lost goat, or, as some relate, treasure seekers, discovered the first scrolls.

The combination of the Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the everyday humanness of life in ancient times, and for people of faith to also see first-hand archaeological evidence for many of the stories and characters in the Bible.

Our guided tour at a media preview of the exhibit was conducted by Dr. Adolfo Roitman, Curator of the Shrine of the Book in Israel. Dr. Roitman said that many of the highlights from the Israel museum are now on display in this Canadian exhibit. The three Dead Sea scrolls are from the very first that were discovered. Two of these scrolls have never been outside of Israel and the third has not left Israel for 50 years.

The exhibit is presented chronologically, starting with the time settings from the Old Testament over 3000 years ago. Here we find a non-Biblical reference to the House of David on the Tel Dan Stele (an inscribed stone slab). There is also a stone epitaph that refers to King Uzziah, one of the kings of David's line (2 Kings 15). A small, inscribed ivory pomegranate (a symbol of fertility) is the only known artifact from the first Temple in Jerusalem, built by Solomon.

Then we are introduced to a number of artefacts that illustrate the ritual life in the First Temple period. An ancient stone altar used for sacrifice brings to vivid reality the many references to sacrificial offerings in the lives of the characters in the Bible.

The display of figurines representing the gods Baal and Astarte from the same biblical period serves to highlight the tensions between pagan worshippers and the emerging monotheism of the chosen people.

Next are with numerous artefacts that close the centuries of time that distance us from the people who lived in the Holy Land thousands of years ago. These are articles of daily life and include kitchen items like jars, decanters, bowls, and a foot wash; cosmetic items like bowls for dispensing skin creams and oils; jewellery such as earrings, bracelets, necklaces, a vanity mirror, and a signet ring; and toys like animal pull toys (a bear, an otter, a goat), and a board game.

These simple common items reinforce the fact that the people who lived in biblical times were just that, people, people with joys and woes, just like us, and not some mythic race of beings that populate the stories in the Bible. Many of the items on display (wash bowls, oil juglets) are witness to the strict Mosaic laws regarding cleanliness.

Throughout the exhibit is a timeline that traces the history of the chosen people. It starts from pre-Davidic times until the split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah after the death of David. It continues with the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon; then follows the fortunes of the two kingdoms as they fall to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, and the destruction of the First Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia in 587 B.C.

After the Jewish people were allowed to return to the Holy Land after fifty years of exile in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple, a Second Temple was built. It is the latter years of the life of the Second Temple that the exhibit focuses on next, with the centrepiece being the three portions of the Dead Sea scrolls.

At this time, the Pharisees (Jews who strictly observed the rites and ceremonies of the written law, and their own interpretation of the law), Sadducees (Jews who rejected doctrines not in the law), and Essenes (members of monastic brotherhoods of Jews in Palestine from the 2nd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D.) become distinct in their disparate beliefs of Mosaic Law. The Essenes tended to spawn off into separate cults with their own beliefs and laws, one of which was the Qumranites, whose community provided us which the Dead Sea scrolls.

Two of the scrolls are sectarian in nature, dealing with the behaviour and beliefs of the Qumranite community itself. These are both long scrolls with the script extremely well preserved.

On display are columns 1 to 11 of the Community Rule Scroll and columns 11 to 15 of the War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness (War Scroll). The Community Rule scroll outlines the expected behaviour of the community, including punishment for breaking the rules. The War Scroll is much like the New Testament Book of Revelation except that, after the apocalypse, the Qumranites will return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, whereas, in the Christian revelation, Jesus will return to reign over all of mankind in glory.

As Dr. Roitman commented, the very existence of these sectarian scrolls today is somewhat ironic as they were intended only to be read by the sectarian community itself; yet here we are today, thousands of years later, viewing their writings in their original form and in their translations.

The third scroll in the exhibit is scriptural, chapters 41-43 of the Book of Isaiah. This scroll has been puzzled together from many small fragments. The scrolls are extremely sensitive to their environment and thus are sealed in climate-controlled displays. Photographs are not permitted. The lights in this area are dim and cycled through a 60-second rotation of being on for 40 seconds, then off for 20 seconds.

The historical timeline continues with the birth of Jesus, His crucifixion, and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. by the Roman general Titus. It is at this point that the final segment of the exhibit picks up, with several artefacts displayed that illustrate the concurrent development of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

With the Second Temple gone, the Jews focused on the menorah as a symbol for temple, hope, and resurrection, and began the construction of synagogues for worship. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early Christians focused on the cross as a symbol for hope, resurrection, and eternal life.

One key display shows a nail driven through the anklebone of someone who had been crucified by the Romans. This serves as a testament to the story of Jesus' crucifixion with nails, where naysayers would insist that all crucifixions were carried out by tying their victims to their crosses.

Again the exhibit illustrates the deep spiritual roots that Judaism and Christianity share, and also perhaps the tension that must have been present during these times as both monotheistic religions developed. Artefacts on display from the 4th to 6th centuries A.D. such as oil lamps and amulets are of near identical design, material, and workmanship, with the key difference being the presence of a cross or a menorah as a symbol of hope. Two chancel screens, one carved from stone from a synagogue, the other carved from marble from a church some 300 kms distant, are incredibly similar in their simple ornamentation of vines and framing, with the key difference again being a menorah or a cross in the centre of the screen.

Since many of the artefacts on display show the patrimony of Israel in the religious development to Judaism and Christianity in the Holy Land, the exhibit ends with the display of some articles that show the patrimony of Judaism and Christianity in Canada. A Latin Vulgate Bible from 1479 is on display, as is a Sepher Torah (the first five books of Moses, or the Pentateuch) that belonged to the first Jewish community in Canada, Both are on loan from the Library and Archives of Canada.

The exhibition is an exhilarating experience and provides a unique opportunity to view, from biblical times, ancient artefacts that are seldom, if ever, seen outside of Israel.

A series of free lectures entitled Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls will be held on Thursday evenings from February 5 to March 25, 2004, at the Museum of Civilization.

Nick Burn is a computer statistician. He, his wife Karen and their three children live in Ottawa, ON.
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Title Annotation:Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Author:Burn, Nick
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:1551
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