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University partners in Boston's new Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit

By Rachel Hughes
On May 20, 2013

Last Thursday evening, the Boston Museum of Science held an exclusive preview of its newest exhibit, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times, where visitors had the chance to see the New England premiere of the scrolls and accompanying artifacts through a guided exhibit tour. The exhibit, which is the product of a partnership between the museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority, opened to the public on Sunday, and will remain open through October 20. Brandeis has a special connection to the exhibit, as the University is the educational partner of Life in Ancient Times.

Upon arrival, visitors gathered in the museum's beautiful Pierce Atrium for a dinner reception, accompanied by a continuous stream of jazz music. The largely adult crowd happily chatted as the sun began to set through the atrium's floor-to-ceiling window, and they shortly gathered around a podium at the back of the room for a welcome address. Exhibit curator Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University who has curated countless Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits around the country, elegantly gave the visitors an idea of what they were to see.

The scrolls are the oldest known copy of writings that are today found in the Hebrew Bible. The scrolls, she said, are almost a thousand years older than the next biblical source found, and are largely not just concerned with biblical content, but instead hold writings that are liturgical, psalmic, legal and commentaries, and that together, they "provide a spiritual map of ancient Israel."

Visitors were led into the exhibit by a guide in staggered, scheduled groups, so that everyone had enough time to see all of the artifacts and read the carefully placed placards that prefaced each section of the exhibit. Walking up the staircase to the upper level of the atrium, where the exhibit is staged, I was very excited and hardly had an idea what to expect to see.

I was able to join the first group of visitors, and we were ushered down a hallway and into a large room, walls and ceiling painted black, the floor around the perimeter of the room covered with sand. At the entrance to the room, projected onto the black walls in bright, white-lighted script was Genesis 12:1, in English, Greek and Hebrew, reading: "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.'" Six large projection screens were hung on the walls, surrounding us with calming footage of the Dead Sea shore at sunrise, as the guide launched into a pristine monologue about the story of the modern rediscovery of the scrolls.

In 1947, the year before Israel declared its independence, a Bedouin goat herder tossed a rock into a cave along the shore, and when he heard the rock break a pottery jar from within the cave, he investigated- what he found was a priceless cache, countless pottery jars holding the miraculously-preserved scrolls. The scrolls were hidden near the site of the ancient community of Qumran, whose ruins have since been excavated extensively.

As we moved into the next room of the exhibit, we were presented with various artifacts found in the ruins of Qumran. The exhibit teaches visitors about this ancient people who were responsible for the scrolls by way of examining their belongings, constructing a careful historical picture of the time in which the scrolls were written.

After winding around a dividing wall and seeing countless artifacts of ancient life, the exhibit opened up into a much larger space, centered around a massive, gingerly lit glass table. Fragments of the scrolls were preserved in the light and temperature-controlled glass, and visitors flocked eagerly to see what they could. The scrolls themselves were preserved in shreds, torn or worn pieces, recorded in beautifully written ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataean.

I was shocked at how fractal the fragments of the scrolls that we have now actually are-seeing the sacred writings in real life, for me, carried a much greater weight than I have felt from seeing pictures of them in textbooks. The Life in Ancient Times exhibit is a point of academic and cultural pride for Brandeis, and I am sure that I echo the sentiments of many of our faculty and students when I say that I am very happy that our institution had the chance to partner in such an endeavor.

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