Unraveling the continuing mystique of the Dead Sea Scrolls | Visual Art | Indy Week
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Unraveling the continuing mystique of the Dead Sea Scrolls 

Torn and frayed

click to enlarge A 2,000-year-old fragment from the Book of Jubilees. - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES

The Dead Sea Scrolls
N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences
Through Dec. 28

It's 1947. Northwest of the Dead Sea, not far from the settlement of Qumran, a Bedouin named Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed throws a stone into a cave. He hears a curious breaking sound and goes inside. Amid shards of pottery, he finds several linen-wrapped scrolls made of animal hides.

These would eventually find their way to a cobbler and antique dealer called Kando, who brokered their sale and perhaps encouraged the Bedouin to try to excavate more scroll fragments from the caves (paying one pound sterling per square centimeter). This haphazard discovery would set into motion a chain of archaeological intrigues worthy of an Indiana Jones movie.

Scholars, archaeologists and religious institutions vied for possession of the scroll fragments, which would be excavated from 11 different caves (by Bedouins and archaeologists alike) between 1947 and 1956, and would become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Metropolitan Bishop Mar Samuel obtained four scrolls for a measly 24 pounds, and Eleazer Sukenik, professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, obtained three for the modest sum of 50 pounds.

After research by Samuel, American scholar John C. Trever and others revealed that the handwritten manuscript fragments, which originated between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., included not just sectarian documents detailing Jewish life of the period, but partial transcriptions of the Hebrew Bible that predated the earliest known copies by a millennium, such bargains were a thing of the past. In 1954, Sukenik's son, Yigael Yadin, purchased Samuel's scrolls for $250,000 via a classified ad Samuel placed in the Wall Street Journal.

click to enlarge A view of Har Haduf, located in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES

Now, rewind: It's 1947. Northwest of the Dead Sea, not far from the settlement of Qumran, a group of Bedouin goatherds (in some accounts, two young boys), searching for a wayward animal (or, in some accounts, treasure), simply come upon the scrolls in a cave—no rock is thrown in this version. This particular variation in the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is slight, but telling. The story of the scrolls is one of conflicting interpretations, subtle divergences and ideological gamesmanship. None of this disagreement had yet come to light in 1949, when North Carolinians had their first opportunity to view the scrolls in an exhibition at Duke Chapel. Now the scrolls have returned to North Carolina, and modern viewers have the opportunity to consider their meaning and provenance for themselves, albeit through the lens of the controversy that surrounds their interpretation, via the exhibition at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences that runs through Dec. 28.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the exhibit, which we'll address shortly, the presentation is quite impressive. Impatient museumgoers may proceed directly to the dim, climate-controlled room that houses the scroll fragments, but spending an hour or so perusing the background exhibits preceding the scrolls is advisable. A preliminary video looping in a stylized cave, shot in the gauzy style of a Discovery Channel documentary, summarizes the discovery of the scrolls and some of the still-unanswered questions about them, the most troublesome being who actually wrote them and the nature of the settlement of Qumran. This summary video is developed with texts, maps, models, artifacts and a useful audio tour throughout the presentation. You'll learn about the major players in the discovery, interpretation and circulation of the scrolls, and about what daily life was like in this region of the Middle East more than 2,000 years ago.

click to enlarge Artifact jugs from Qumran, included in the exhibit - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES

This being a science museum, you'll also learn how the climate of the caves helped to preserve the scrolls (which began to decompose badly once they were removed from the caves and their linen wraps), and about modern techniques of preservation and reconstruction. You'll learn about the religious and political climate in which the scrolls were written, and you'll see an amazing array of ancient artifacts recovered from Qumran: coins, ossuaries, leather sandals, linen tunics, phylacteries (or tefillin, in Hebrew), combs, pottery and oil lamps. All of this provides a remarkably thorough and immersive context in which the viewer can perceive the scroll fragments with the proper depth and gravity.

The controversies surrounding the scrolls are many and nuanced, but the clearest and most central one has to do with the nature of the community at Qumran. The traditional interpretation, put forth by Father Roland de Vaux of the Dominican Order in Jerusalem, has it that Qumran was a religious community of celibate Essenes, who penned the scrolls in a room of the settlement of Qumran known as the scriptorium. Other scholars have criticized de Vaux's popular interpretation for being scientifically tenuous and biased toward a Christian interpretation, maintaining that Qumran was not an ascetic Essene settlement, but a military base, pottery factory or country estate.

Both of these points of view can be gleaned from the exhibit, although critics of it (whose complaints are best summarized in Robert Dworkin's essay "The Ethics of Exhibition: Romancing the Scrolls," originally posted on the Web site Spinoza's Lens and now moved to Dworkin's blog: robertdworkin.wordpress.com) [please see Editor's Note below] contend that the exhibition excludes Jewish perspective on the scrolls in favor of a Christian one and mischaracterizes current research on the scrolls' provenance.

click to enlarge Duke University officials inspect the scrolls circa 1950 - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES

And it does seem true that the exhibition, while paying lip service to the controversy over the nature of Qumran, gives the secular interpretation short shrift. "Archaeologist Father de Vaux," asserts the exhibit's literature, "viewed the Qumran ruins through a Christian perspective, using terms from monasteries to describe its rooms. While scholars disagree with some of his biases, his interpretation of Qumran as a religious community is still a popular theory."

Around this fleeting allusion to other theories, we learn quite a lot about the Essenes. Whether this owes to a bias in the museum's administration or to an inherent weakness in the opposition's argument depends on whom you ask—the competing claims are immersed so deeply in ideological cant and esoteric research that the layperson has little hope of objectively picking a side.

What I do know is this—standing in the scroll room, trying to feel the presence and power of the artifacts, I couldn't. The exhibition was fascinating, but, perhaps owing to context, perhaps to controversy, its effect on me was more academic than visceral or spiritual. What I felt most deeply was the scrolls' disintegration and ultimate inscrutability: little manuscript scraps, made of words that are there and words that are only implied, so perfectly and tangibly mirroring the ideological fragmentation that attends them.

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences is located at 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh. The exhibit requires a separate admission fee, which is $22 for adults. For more information, visit www.naturalsciences.org/scrolls.

Editor's Note (Aug. 13, 2008): In the course of attempting to provide more resources about the ongoing scholarly uncertainty about the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we inadvertently stepped into an obscure controversy that we are ill-equipped to adjudicate. As a result, the writer and editors of this story have decided to strike through the controversial link that accompanied the original version of this story. —David Fellerath

  • The story of the scrolls is one of conflicting interpretations, subtle divergences and ideological gamesmanship.

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