Last Thursday, a friend and I got to go to the Milwaukee Public Museum and see their exhibit, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible”. I really wish I had known about this earlier so that our whole family could have gone, but I found out about it on Monday, May 31, and the exhibit closed yesterday. Milwaukee Public Museum put this exhibit together and it has been running for 6 months. I know we are “out of the loop”, living out in the sticks, but I still can’t believe we didn’t hear anything about it. Well, we’re now getting Facebook announcements from the museum so we won’t miss anything else so important.
I was very interested in seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls for a few reasons. When I was growing up, I had heard my dad talk about how the finding of the Scrolls had confirmed the integrity of the Scriptures. These texts were 1000 (I think) years older than any other original text and yet were almost identical in content. I had also watched the various NatGeo and History Channel documentaries on the subject. In addition, a few years ago, I listened to a lecture series about the Scrolls by Dr. Lawrence Schiffman. It was completely fascinating. I could not pass up the chance to see even fragments of the actual scrolls themselves.
On to the day itself. First of all, I was quite confident about the drive and finding the museum because PWM and I had gone before and hadn’t had any trouble. I checked out Mapquest to confirm that I knew where I was going and we bought a map well before we got to Milwaukee. Nonetheless, we got lost. Badly. After almost an hour of wandering around downtown Milwaukee, we finally made a fateful right turn and were right at the museum, exactly at the parking ramp I remembered from our previous visit. Sigh.
We didn’t have time to check out one of the cool downtown restaurants as we had hoped (and planned time for), so we had a snack in the museum and were right on time for our entrance. This exhibit had timed entrances every 15 minutes. We were allowed to stay as long as we wanted, but we had to be at the entrance before 1:15pm. We went ahead and got the audio set that provided additional commentary to the exhibit.
The first part of the exhibit was to set us in the time and place of the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were maps of the Middle East – I thought the topographical and the meteorological ones were the most interesting. They had a nice section on the history of the area from Alexander the Great to Masada to the Hasmoneans (are those in the right order?) to the Roman occupation. We got to see coins and lots of household items from that time in history.
One of the most interesting things in this part of the exhibit was the ossuaries. These are limestone boxes in which families kept the bones of their deceased family members. Some of the boxes had decorations and most had the names of family members inscribed. One of them is believed to be the ossuary of the family of Simon of Cyrene, the man who was required by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross. Cool!!
We then went into a room that was all about the finding of the scrolls and the excavation of the Qumran site. They had replicas of the jars where the scrolls were found and an original cloth from one of the jars. I thought this was fascinating, but the actual information here was stuff I was familiar with.
The next room had a short video on how the restorers use computers to try to restore what the original scrolls said from the fragments. It’s quite tedious work. They actually use letters from the same scribe’s writing elsewhere in the document. Then, we got to see a replica of the Isaiah scroll, a scroll that’s a commentary on Habakkuk, and a scroll that was a set of rules for the Qumran community. Even though the scrolls were replicas, they were amazing!! These are the scrolls that were mostly intact when they were found. The replicas are on parchment and the pages are sewn, just like the originals. I was just floored.
The next room was the room where they had actual bits of Dead Sea Scroll. The lights were all dimmed. I’m not sure how many pieces they had, but there were probably 12 or 14 cases, each with 2-5 little fragments. Some were scripture while others were commentary on the scripture. It was amazing that the archaeologists have even been able to figure out what these are part of. All I could tell is that they are little bits of parchment. It was just awe-inspiring to be in the same room with a 2000 year old text of scripture. Wow. They also had a page from the copper scroll.
The point of the exhibit was to show how the Dead Sea Scrolls have affected our translations and view of the Bible, so they had some original New Testament papyri in the same room. These were from before 500AD and had been found in Egypt. The difference between papyrus and parchment was really interesting to see.
The next room was full of Christian Bibles (i.e. Old and New Testaments). They had a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a Luther Bible, and an original King James version. Then another case had multiple English translations of the Bible.
The last thing that we saw was the most recent hand-written Bible. This Bible was made in a monastery in Minnesota. The pages are at least 2x3 feet in size. The techniques are the same that were used in Medieval times, before Gutenberg. They used quills and inks that were handmade. The Bible is illustrated with some rather modern-appearing illustrations. Some of the illustrations are colored with gold and silver leaf. It is gorgeous!!
The Dead Sea Scroll exhibit was wonderful! The curators did an excellent job of bringing us from the time the scrolls were created through to modern times. What makes the scrolls special is that they really confirmed that the scripture that the Jews were reading in Jesus’ day is the same scripture that has come down to us. Apparently, the entire book of Isaiah was preserved, and when it was compared to our modern translations, there was no significant difference.
People may doubt about all kinds of things to do with Christianity and faith, but the Dead Sea Scrolls really help to confirm the fact that the integrity of the text is not one of the things to spend much time worrying about. The set of circumstances that allowed those scrolls to be preserved until the right time in history in which they could be properly excavated is nothing short of miraculous. Wow.
I’m so sorry I didn’t get to see this exhibit till the very last week. If you ever get a chance to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially in the context of a well-organized exhibit, I’d encourage you to do so. I learned so much. And, my friend and I had several hours of chatting between here and Milwaukee, not to mention getting to see downtown Milwaukee – over and over and over!!