Errors and falsehoods in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at NY's Discovery Center
In an earlier article, I focused on misrepresentations of an anti-Jewish tenor in the Discovery Center's exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls -- misrepresentations now being viewed by thousands of tourists to New York's famous Times Square, where the Center is located.
In this second article of a mini-series I plan to devote to this exhibit, I list a variety of other errors contained in the exhibit.
Throughout the exhibit, a huge amount of emphasis is placed on a small group of Scrolls researchers sometimes refer to as “sectarian.” To their credit, the organizers seem reluctant to directly support the old idea that the Scrolls were written by Essene monks in the desert near the caves where they were discovered, since that idea may well have been debunked in recent years. But they still make all sorts of gestures in that direction, and this is where they start to make false, misleading, and erroneous statements.
A theme thus keeps on popping up that, as the exhibit’s curator Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn puts it in her introduction to the exhibit catalogue, the Scrolls “illustrate the rituals and practices of a unique community.” The term “the community” appears over and over, even though writings sometimes tied to such a single “community” are only a tiny proportion of the Scrolls, which actually seem to have been written by many different Jewish groups.
As part of this “community” theme, we are informed that “like other Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of War may have been composed by a community calling itself the Yahad….” The exhibit repeatedly defines “Yahad” as “Hebrew for ‘unity’ or ‘community,’ a self-reference to the group referred to in the scrolls.”
All of these statements are misleading. The Book of War is an interesting manuscript, but it in fact doesn’t have any reference to a “Yahad” group, and there doesn’t seem any reason to conclude it “may have been composed” by such a group.
In any case, the Dead Sea Scrolls refer not to “the group” but to many different groups; only a small number of scrolls mention a “Yahad” or brotherhood group; and it isn’t even clear whether there was only one “Yahad” group or a few of them. Moreover, the scrolls were copied by over 500 scribes (a fact not mentioned in the exhibit).
These are a few of the reasons that have led various researchers to conclude that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the remains of various libraries in the Jerusalem area and hidden in the desert during the great First Revolt against the Romans. That theory, however, is not mentioned in the exhibit, even though the organizers ask at one point whether "Temple priests" may have written some of the texts.
Whatever has motivated the Center’s omission of one of the two basic theories about where the Scrolls came from, some of the archaeological “information” furnished in the New York exhibit is simply false.
For example, we are informed that of sixteen water cisterns discovered at Qumran “ten appear to be ritual baths.” But in fact, Professor Magen and his associate Yuval Peleg, leaders of the official excavation team of the Israel Antiquities Authority that spent ten years digging at Qumran, indicate in their published report, freely available on the IAA website, that only two or three of the cisterns were ritual baths. Magen and Peleg conclude that no sect ever lived at Qumran and that the scrolls came from the Jerusalem area; why isn't their archaeological research mentioned in the exhibit?
Another error is when we are informed that Qumran was “destroyed” and “obliterated” in 68 CE. That was once thought to be the case, but in fact, as those who keep up with the specialized literature know, the site seems to have been seized and reoccupied by a Roman garrison after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE., possibly even a year or two later.
All the false statements, inaccuracies, and omissions of inconvenient alternate theories and information seem aimed at supporting the idea that some sect, whether Essenes or another unnamed sect, were living at Qumran and wrote the Scrolls there. One wall-text thus explains that four "inkwells" were found in the ruins of Qumran, and suggests that this is “possible evidence that scribes there wrote with ink.” But there are other much more probable explanations for the existence of a few of these little objects at the site including the presence here of a Roman garrison, and these explanations go unmentioned.
The objects commonly called "inkwells," by the way, are about the size of a miniature tea-cup. In what seems like an effort to fool people into thinking the ones found at Qumran have some kind of special importance (and maybe that the Jerusalem theory is unimportant) the curator writes that “Few people could write in ancient times, and inkwells are rarely found in archeological sites… Most people were barely literate.”
This seems to be another unpleasant suggestion to the uninformed public about ancient Jewish culture, since inkwells have in fact been found in many excavations in Palestine and Jordan, including near Jerusalem. And this is not surprising because ancient Jewish law basically required parents to teach their children to read ("teach your children these laws," etc.) — a fact Dr. Kohn again simply doesn’t mention. Who was the Bible (and who were the Scrolls) written for, if not people who could read?
Even worse, the famous, unique Copper Scroll (with writing inscribed in the copper) is not mentioned, and this omission is a scandal, since research on this document has shown it contains a list of scrolls and treasures, probably from the Jerusalem Temple and hidden all over the desert, again supporting the idea that the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden away from the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem.
A section of the exhibit is devoted to Masada, and here visitors are not informed that scrolls were found at Masada that are similar and sometimes identical to the ones found at Qumran—and everyone knows the defenders of Masada came (with their scrolls and other belongings) from Jerusalem.
The exhibit also includes a brief description of phylacteries (or tefilin, leather boxes containing prayers that Jewish men traditionally strap to their arms and heads when praying) found together with the Scrolls in the caves near Qumran, but visitors aren’t told that one of the reasons more and more scholars no longer accept the old Essene theory is that the many boxes discovered contain all sorts of different textual contents, making the idea that a single sect owned them something going against basic common sense.
At another point in the exhibit, we’re treated to a quote of the Roman author Pliny’s famous description of the “solitary tribe of the Essenes…with only palm trees for company,” together with the comment that “Two thousand years ago, Qumran was likely surrounded by palm groves, and dates were probably the main crop.”
The implicit pleading here is tantamount to misinformation, because there were, of course, also palm trees at En Gedi and throughout the region of the Dead Sea. Why aren’t visitors informed, for example, that Pliny describes his “solitary tribe” as consisting of celibate men, but that graves of women and children were found in the cemetery at Qumran? Instead, we learn that the site’s inhabitants “ate simple meals,” something the exhibitors clearly consider to be very important.
By the same token, we learn that “for many,” the discovery of a thousand dishes at Qumran is “evidence of communal dining,” but that “some reject the communal dining theory.” The problem here is that “many,” including Israel’s main specialist on ancient pottery, Rachel Bar Nathan, have now rejected the old communal dining theory, while “some” of American archaeological scholars of the old school (e.g. Jodi Magness, James Strange) refuse to abandon it.
Here and elsewhere the exhibit’s organizers fail to tell us who the “many” are, and who the “some.” Give us some names, please, so we can see who still supports the creaky old theory.
(Are some of some of these die-hards motivated by Evangelical concerns? An interesting question which I might address at some other time.)
The contrast here with another recent Scrolls exhibit in New York, at the Jewish Museum (September 21, 2008 – January 04, 2009) couldn’t be greater. In that exhibit, the museum respected the common sense of viewers by presenting the two basic theories, Jerusalem and the Essenes, for what they are—and by simply allowing us to look at the objects, consider the theories, and make up our own minds.
There, then, is a partial list of errors contained in this exhibit. In the next article of my planned mini-series, I will discuss some of the academic politics behind this exhibit.
Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls , Discovery Center , Times Square , New York , NY , Bible , Judaism , Christianity , Exhibitions , Yitzhak Magen
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