Major developments in nearly every field related to the Dead Sea Scrolls have followed in the wake of their release. Research on the scrolls is burgeoning. Depositories of scroll photographs are doing their best to accommodate the needs of many scholars. The Israel Antiquities Authority is not only providing access to photographs, but to the fragments themselves. In addition, it has undertaken a major effort to prevent further deterioration of the scrolls and even to reverse the damage done when early researchers placed cellophane tape over the back of joins. With the advice of the world’s foremost experts, the authority will mount a program to preserve early scroll photographs and negatives, which often reveal letters visible that can no longer be seen on deteriorated or lost scrolls.
On the public front, a major exhibit of scroll fragments, beautifully and contextually displayed and explained, is drawing record crowds to the Library of Congress in Washington. It will soon move to the New York Public Library and then to the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. The public is being informed regularly of mayor new readings and interpretations of the scrolls in the pages of BAR and our sister magazine Bible Review.
In only one place is nothing happening—where almost nothing has happened for nearly 30 years, since the major intact scrolls were deposited there in 1965. That place is Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book.
The Shrine of the Book is a magnificent building. The roof is shaped like the lid of one of the jars in which the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The roof gives the impression of sitting on the ground; to enter the building, you walk down right-angled steps into a darkened corridor, as if walking into an underground cave. The stark white bricks of the roof contrast with the pure black rectangular slab that stands upright to mark the descent into the museum.
The building was constructed especially to house the seven intact scrolls found in Cave 1, which were acquired in two lots for the reborn state of Israel. To acquire one lot, Hebrew University professor E. L. Sukenik took an Arab bus to Bethlehem in 1947, at the height of the tensions and violence that threatened as the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin, acquired the other lot several years later, after seeing an ad in the Wall Street Journal that offered “Four Dead Sea Scrolls for Sale.”
Architecturally, the building has held up very well. Functionally, the Shrine of the Book has been less successful.
One might have expected it to be a center of Dead Sea Scroll research and scholarship. Certainly, one might suppose, it would have been a positive force over the years to encourage publication of the scrolls, if not actually to break the publication logjam. Since it is a museum, it would surely have undertaken to educate the public; it would have been at the forefront of the effort to explain to the lay person what the Dead Sea Scrolls are all about.
In fact, it has been none of these. Instead, it took a strong stand in defense of the status quo. When the press came to Shrine of the Book curator Magen Broshi (who has served in that capacity since 1965) for a reaction to anti-Semitic statements made by chief scroll editor John Strugnell in 1990, Broshi responded that this was nothing new, that he had known of Strugnell’s anti-Semitism for years and that it was “entirely irrelevant.” (Despite Broshi’s defense, Strugnell was soon forced out as chief editor.)
Broshi is a charming, intelligent, imaginative, articulate and wide-ranging scholar. Although he never managed to get his doctorate, his contributions to scholarship (mostly involving subjects other than the Dead Sea Scrolls) have been significant. Museologically, however, he has not been a brilliant success.
Essentially, the Shrine of the Book has had only one exhibit since it opened—the display of seven or eight major Dead Sea Scrolls.a It is for this reason that so many Jerusalemites ask, what does Magen Broshi do? The implicit complaint is basically unfair. Broshi’s life has been filled with productive scholarship. But the remark does reflect the static nature of the Shrine of the Book.
That it is still the most popular museum exhibit in Israel is part of the problem. What tourist would want to come to Israel and miss seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls? And they are magnificent! If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
As is now clear, however, the Shrine of the Book woefully fails to tell the story of the scrolls, to place them in context, to educate the public that passes through its doors by the thousands.
What the public is given at the Shrine of the Book is case after case of extraordinary scrolls, each with a short label identifying the particular scroll and the subject of its contents. All that most people can do is oo-and-aah 079that these are indeed the Dead Sea Scrolls the real thing and over 2,000 years old!
Twenty, even 10, years ago this would, perhaps, have been enough. Now it falls dismally below museological standards.
The focus of the museum’s round exhibit hall is a huge circular drum with an impressive finial on top in the traditional shape of a handle on a Torah scroll. This drum was designed to display the great Isaiah scroll, the oldest Hebrew copy of Isaiah—more than 1,000 years older than the next oldest—with all 66 chapters intact.
Alas, the drum display required the Isaiah scroll to be bent backward around the drum, in the opposite direction from which it lay rolled up for thousands of years. As a result, the scroll began to develop cracks and finally had to be removed. A section of this scroll is now displayed in one of the other vitrines in the hall, with the gashlike vertical cracks that developed or widened while it was wound backward around the drum clearly visible.
A too-obvious replica is now wound around the drum. So the featured artifact of the museum is now a replica. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can own a copy.
The beautifully designed vitrines that surround the featured replica effectively house the original scrolls. Unfortunately, they do not leave much room for explanatory material or contextualization.
It will not be easy to redesign this exhibit. It was made for a particular permanent exhibit. Redesign and flexibility were not the major concern of the original designers. But this is simply the challenge that the new museum designers, who should now be brought in, will have to meet.
It may seem unfair to pick out—some may say pick on—the Shrine of the Book. The British Museum’s display of the great fourth- and fifth-century C.E. Greek Bibles (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus) is worse. On the other hand, the current display of Dead Sea Scrolls touring the United States illustrates what can be done to tell the story and only emphasizes the poverty—by current museological standards—of the Shrine of the Book exhibit.
At the very least, the Shrine of the Book badly needs an auditorium where visitors can watch an introductory video about how the scrolls were discovered, what they say and what they tell us about the Bible, Judaism and early Christianity.
Magen Broshi still has a few years before he retires. He is a man of great creativity and imagination. What a wonderful legacy he will leave if he can plan for, if not execute, a redesign of the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Shrine of the Book.
Major developments in nearly every field related to the Dead Sea Scrolls have followed in the wake of their release. Research on the scrolls is burgeoning. Depositories of scroll photographs are doing their best to accommodate the needs of many scholars. The Israel Antiquities Authority is not only providing access to photographs, but to the fragments themselves. In addition, it has undertaken a major effort to prevent further deterioration of the scrolls and even to reverse the damage done when early researchers placed cellophane tape over the back of joins. With the advice of the world’s foremost experts, the […]