The Dead Sea Scrolls: Coming Soon to a Museum Near You

On Friday, March 12th, the highly-anticipated exhibit The Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World opens at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Five years in the making, the exhibit gives a rare opportunity to see actual scrolls from Qumran which may only be exhibited in one venue in the world at a time.
TC Jewfolk Managing Editor Emily Cornell caught up with Dr. Alex Jassen, U of M associate professor and exhibit advisor, to get a sneak peek at what the exhibit has to offer.
EC: The opportunity to host the DSS is quite selective, correct?
AJ: This is a wonderful catch for the Science Museum and for the Twin Cities. The Dead Sea Scrolls rarely travel outside of Israel for display and when they do it is only to the most esteemed institutions that are able both to ensure their conservation and have a reputation for building a first rate exhibition. The Science Museum excels in both of these areas. We are going to be able to view several manuscripts that have never been on display before and likely will not be on display to the public for quite a while, if ever. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Science Museum and for the many visitors to see these fantastic 2,000 year old documents.
EC: What is your role in working on the exhibit?
AJ: I have been working with the museum for over a year as an academic advisor in the creation of the exhibit. The museum has an outstanding creative team that was responsible for designing the exhibit that accompanies the manuscripts on display. I worked closely with this team on framing the content of the exhibit. The scrolls themselves are an incredible sight by themselves, but they exist within a broader context. The exhibit will provide this broader context for understanding the historical setting in which the scrolls were produced. Many artifacts from the caves and other aspects of ancient Judaism will be on display.
EC: What excited you most about this exhibit?
AJ: To look at 2,000 year old manuscripts is extraordinary. When I look at some of these scrolls, I can’t help but think that the last time any particular scroll was widely available for viewing was 2,000 years ago. Except for a few hands over the last 60 years, the last people to really hold some of these scrolls were scribes working 2,000 years ago and the ancient Jews for whom these scrolls were written. To see a 2,000 year old copy of the book of Isaiah, for example, is captivating to me. In many cases, we are laying our eyes on texts whose very existence was unknown until the discovery of the scrolls. These scrolls take us back in time. They are the great meeting point for the development of the Bible and Judaism, and the origins of Christianity.
EC: Why do you think TC Jewfolk readers must see this exhibit?
AJ: The Dead Sea Scrolls represent a snapshot of the point in time when the world of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was transformed into Judaism. Many of the central beliefs and practices of later forms of Judaism can already be detected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In other cases, the scrolls bear evidence of expressions of Judaism that were once vibrant, but has since ceased to exist. All modern forms of Judaism in one way or another derive from what is known as rabbinic Judaism–the form of Judaism that emerges in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. The Dead Sea Scrolls all pre-date this time period. In this sense, they provide an exceptional window into where rabbinic Judaism comes from. The scrolls are also important for understanding the origins of Christianity. They open up for us the world of ancient Judaism from which Christianity emerges. But, you don’t have to be Jewish, Christian, or even a believer to find something interesting and captivating about the scrolls. They represent a point in time that would prove foundational for so many aspects of Western Civilization. There is really something for everyone in the scrolls.
EC: The exhibit also includes 28 pages from The Saint John’s Bible, the newest hand-written, illustrated (Christian) Bible. Why might a Jewish audience be interested in seeing this part of the exhibit?
AJ: The St. John’s Bible is an incredible sight. We are so used to seeing the written word in print–or increasingly on a computer screen. We often forget that for the majority of the history of writing, the written word was inscribed by hand. Many of the great works of human imagination were first penned on ancient manuscripts or papyrus and copied for hundreds of years by carefully trained scribed who often worked years on a single composition. Judaism has a rich tradition of illuminated Bible manuscripts similar to the St. John’s Bible. The St. John’s Bible, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, transport us back to that world.
Don’t miss The Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World at the Science Museum of Minnesota. And, check back here on March 12th for your chance to win free tickets to see the exhibit.
(Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority)