Visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls in Philadelphia

As I mentioned earlier, I spent my morning at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia visiting the touring exhibit Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times. I have to write a news story about it for the National Catholic Register, but I thought I’d give you some quick impressions.

First of all: see it. If you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth it, wonder no longer. It’s a superb exhibit with over 600 artifacts: the largest collection ever to travel outside of the Israel. Any Christian, Jew, or Muslim–or anyone with an interest in Biblical history–will find it a deeply meaningful, perhaps even profound, experience. These are actual, tangible pieces of life from Biblical times. Objects used in the courts of the kings of Israel and Judah, and just items found in average households, bring the stories at core of our faith to life.

I’m not going to go into the background of the Dead Sea Scrolls right now. The Wiki entry is as a good a place to start as any for an overview. Short version: a group of ascetic Jews called the Essenes created a small community at Qumran, outside of Jerusalem, to wait out the apocalypse and practice being more holy than regular Jews. They produced a large number of scrolls, including almost all of the Hebrew scriptures, a number of apocryphal texts, and their own community rules and commentaries. These were hidden in caves near Qumran for unknown reasons, and discovered again in 1947, on the eve of the creation of the state of Israel. They are the oldest copies of scripture texts in existence, and provide a priceless insight in the religious milieu of the intertestamental period. The Essenes grew in the exact same soil as Christianity, and although the two movements were not related, each can tell us something about the other.

The heart of the exhibit are ten of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are kept in minimal light in a low circular display. There are, in fact, 20 scrolls traveling with the exhibit, but only 10 are shown at a time because of restrictions on exposure to light. There are some sizable fragments of the DSS, but none of the big marquee items like the Copper Scroll or the 27-foot long Temple Scroll. Obviously, those can’t travel. There are pieces of Psalms, Isaiah, Joshusa, Genesis, Exodus, and more.

One striking aspect of the Psalms scroll is the way the tetragrammaton is written in a different kind of script, called paleo-Hebrew. In other words, the copyist deliberately changed the form of his letters to an archaic style in order to write the name of God. Although some of the scrolls are almost impossible to read due to fading, discoloration, and low light, the Psalms scroll is clear and easy to read.

Of particular interest to Catholics is the piece of the Deuterocanonical Book of Tobit in Hebrew. No one is certain what language Tobit was written in (probably Aramaic) but it’s certainly suggestive of canonical that the Qumran community had five copies of it.

The scrolls, however, are not the real highlight of the exhibit. Don’t get me wrong: being able to stand about a foot from some of the actual scrolls is a thrill, but there are only so many dimly lit pieces of papyrus you can squint at before the attention starts to wander. That’s why it was so important for the Israeli Antiquity Authority (IAA) to assemble a significant collection of artifacts.

And boy, did they. The IAA is selling this exhibit short by focusing all their attention on the scrolls. I understand why they did it. While I was there, one woman breezed past a couple thousand years of Biblical history, missed the display with the scrolls, and complained to the docent, “Where are the Dead Sea Scrolls? I came here expectin’ to see some Dead Sea Scrolls. Where are they?!” The young lady politely directed her to the giant display of scrolls right behind her. This gives us some idea of the mystique surrounding the scrolls, and their role as a marquee draw. But the other treasures on hand are even more interesting.

The exhibit begins with a 7 minute live introduction, complete with six giant screens showing footage from Holy Land digs. A preliminary display, complete with artifacts, moves backwards in time, from the foundation of the state of Israel, through waves of upheaval and invaders, back  to the Iron Age.Household items from the First Temple Period

At that point, the chronology begins to move forward again, unfolding the story of the Israelites with a series of superbly designed exhibits and a healthy selection of artifacts. There’s a stunning ivory pomegranate and dove, smaller than a pinkie fingernail, from about the 9th century. A huge selection of household goddesses illustrate the persistent backsliding of the Jewish people as they returned to worshiping Asherah and Astarte. Various personal and cultic items illustrate the everyday lives and beliefs of Israelites living in the First and Second Temple period. There’s a large selection of pottery (many of them bearing royal insignias), some fine mosaics, a couple of private horned altars for burning incense, a tub, architectural elements, money (including coins for the temple tax), items from Qumran itself, and more.

One large block from the wall of the Second Temple completes the tour. There’s a station with pencils and papers for writing prayers to be left on the stone, as prayers are left at the Western Wall. A sign says these prayers will be sent to Israel.

And then there’s a rather surprising display of ossuaries. It’s perfectly reasonable to include a selection of these boxes, which were used to hold the bones of the dead. But the IAA didn’t just send over any 6 bone boxes they had on hand: they sent over ossuaries from the Talpiot Tomb! These are the ossuaries which noted charlatan Simcha Jacobovici and director James Cameron claimed were the resting places of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and Jesus’s wife, Mary Magdalene. They do indeed bear the inscriptions Yeshua bar Yehosef  (“Jesus son of Joseph”), Maria, and Yose (“Joseph”), but they might as well be carved with John, Ann, and Bill. These were not exactly uncommon names, and countless scholars have demolished Cameron’s and Jacobovici’s claims. Nonetheless, these are important artifacts, and their notoriety adds another layer of interest. (The exhibit, of course, does not claim that these are from the “Jesus Tomb”.)

The displays do a wonderful job of capturing the sweep of Biblical history and life in ancient Israel. Tickets are $31 for adults, $25 for youth, and come with access to the rest of the Franklin Institute. (I’m pretty sure it’s free for members of the Institute.) The exhibit was in New York before this, and will be in Philadelphia until October. After that, I’m not sure where it’s going, but it’s almost certainly going to continue traveling across the country. If you get a chance to see it, do so.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    That does sound awesome. Thank you for posting your initial impressions. If it ever hits Detroit, I’m there!

  • Rob B.

    Is there a list of dates and cities anywhere? I’d love to see this exhibit…

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I’m still looking for one.

  • David K.

    Some of your readers might be interested in the important controversy surrounding this exhibit, which previously showed in New York — where it received many negative reviews, including from a visitor who pointed out that the explanatory material contains anti-Jewish, “Christian Holy Land” nuances apparently aimed at an Evangelical audience. See, for example:


    and follow the links to the blogs and articles by at least four knowledgeable professors for many troubling details.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks for posting these. They provide some insight into the personalities and controversies that dog the DSS, and it’s always good to read contrary opinions.

    I’ve read Norman Golb’s book, and I’ve always gotten the impression that, while he has a clear mastery of the materials, he’s reached all the wrong conclusions. He’s desperate to put forward his theories and tends to attack other scholars, such as Geza Vermes and Lawrence Schiffman, often on a very personal level. He has a tendency to regard disagreements with the theories of Norman Golb as indication of some hard factual error. That’s a nice rhetorical trick, but it doesn’t magically turn his theories into facts.

    The DSS came primarily from Qumran, and were the work of the Essenes. That’s been the dominant narrative from almost the beginning, and I’ve found all the attempts to rewrite that narrative unpersuasive. Golb (and some of the others cited) has an ax to grind, and his use of phrases like “the presumed ‘Essenes’” is a clear indicator that he’s simply being contrarian. The complaints just appear to be Golb and other scholars trying to whip up outrage at a high profile exhibit in order to draw attention to their own work and theories. Having read him in the past, I feel pretty comfortable ignoring anything he says. He’s not merely wrong, which we all are from time to time: he’s obnoxious in his wrongness.

    That point aside, I do agree that the final part of the exhibit was light on actual Qumran artifacts. But I enjoyed the rest enough to not be overly bothered by that. I did not listen to the audio tour since those usually contain a lot of things I already know, so I can’t speak intelligently to those complaints.

    The Christian bias claims are just bizarre. The exhibit, near the end, draws out material from both Islam and Christianity to put the scrolls in context. The scrolls and Christianity are two streams of religious thought from the same period, so of course they are important to each other. The exhibit was created by the IAA! It seems like they just can’t win: either too pro-Israel, or too pro-Christian. Because, you know, when I think “IAA,” I think “Evangelical stooges.” Yah, right.

  • jimmy

    Methinks davidk is a common variety stooge, himself. Give it up with your agenda — I don’t even care what it is — and educate yourself on what, exactly, and “evangelical” is.