Review of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at the Discovery Center

 Where: Discovery Center – New York

 When: January 8, 2012

 Overall Impression of the Exhibit:

Brief Introduction to the Exhibit:

Today I traveled to New York to see the much-acclaimed Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Discovery Center (just off Times Square).  This is one of those exhibits I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I first found out about it when I went to the Discovery Center months ago to see the Pompeii exhibit.  Since they do not allow pictures to be taken of the exhibit, I brought along my Moleskine notepad and jotted down interesting or curious thoughts as I went along.

I arrived in NYC around 10:30 AM and had some time to kill, so I spent a good portion of it just walking around Times Square and taking in the city.  I was pleased to see that the exhibit was well-advertised; one would be blind or oblivious to walk around the area and not see signs for it.  Also, if you get to NYC often (or even if you go once in a while) be sure to stop in and eat at Carmines.  Superb food and service all around.

Banner leading into the exhibit.

Anyway, at around 12:50 PM I made my way to 44th St. and with some luck I managed to get into the exhibit without any problems, which was nice.  Earlier reviewers have complained about the long lines to get into the exhibit, the wait times between showings, and the speed at which one is rushed through the exhibit.  My experience, however, was anything but this; I was able to enter the exhibit quickly and with a small group and, while they did push us through the beginning of the exhibit so the group behind us could have room, I never felt as though I was being shoved along quickly.  In fact I went at my own pace.  One might chalk this up to the day and time I was there; most of the negative reviews seem to be around the holiday season when Times Square is no-doubt packed.

The group of us were corralled into a spacious room with huge projector screens.  The opening of the exhibit is a short burst of fun that plays with your senses.  You’re bombarded (in a good way) by both visual and audio experiences which filled me with excitement.  But even as I was anticipating an excellent exhibit, the hostess who spoke through this opening introduction made some curious, if not questionable, statements about the ancient past.

The First Part of the Exhibit and the Claims of a ‘Biblical Israel’:

When it comes to ancient history, ‘fact’ is a term used fast and loose.  Scholars tend to be very cautious when making claims or asserting anything.  There are reasons for this.  Ever make an absolute claim to someone (e.g., ‘The world is only 6,000 years old!’) only to find out later you were wrong?   Well in order to avoid icky embarrassment (among other more important reasons, like remaining open to the possibility of being wrong when all the facts aren’t in yet), scholars will try to avoid making absolute claims about things, whether it be about the interpretation of a particular passage or verse or a translation, etc….  Thus if the scholar is shown to be wrong (usually through the process of peer review or through further research), the scholar maintains credibility and their hypotheses can be easily changed or adjusted to fit the new data (‘beliefs’ are much harder to change; despite all the evidence people still believe the world is 6,000 years old).

First part of the exhibit. Photo from: http://www.discoverytsx.com/exhibitions/dead-sea-scrolls

Unfortunately, this exhibit does not do a very good job at playing the ‘cautious’ game.  Right away the hostess made the claim that the Bible was written 3,000 years ago (c. 1000 BCE).  But while some scholars do in fact believe this to be the case, the question of when certain texts of the Hebrew Bible were written is still hotly debated.  Those who often argue for a 1000 BCE composition of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), for example, are often arguing from a very conservative (if not politically- and/or a religiously-charged) position.  This isn’t always the case, but often it is.  The issues are not as black and white as ‘the Hebrew Bible was composed around 1000 BCE’; there are matters of nuance that cannot simply be pushed aside to favor a conservative dating.

Initially I just assumed that the hostess was generalizing for the lay audience (and it was likely she was a layperson herself) and I wasn’t about to stand up and challenge her (I’m trying to enjoy the exhibit like everyone else).  When she completed her introduction and the fancy projections were through, the group of us were sent through the doors into the first part of the exhibit.  As I walked along and read the notes next to the artifacts, I couldn’t help but feel a little discouraged.

Once more the wool was draped over the eyes of the layperson when direct claims were made about certain stelae–like the Tel Dan and Merneptah stelae–which favored not only an early conservative dating of the Hebrew Bible but also a united monarchy under David and Solomon.  One plaque read of the Merneptah Stele:

[The Merneptah Stele] refers to “Israel” at this time as a people living somewhere in Canaan. 

This is quite the claim.  While yes, there are scholars out there who might argue the stele talks about a ‘people’, others are not so sure and, once more, this issue is contended.   And then there is the matter of what the stele says about Israel; it doesn’t mention anywhere that they were living in Canaan but that they were desolated there (‘their seed is laid waste’).  And even that translation (and its meaning) is contested.

Then there was the sign that that read ‘Birth of a Nation’ and its contents were mainly about another hotly debated subject: the united monarchy.  I’m not making any specific claims about the stele here or about the existence of a ‘Biblical Israel’, but then again neither should the exhibit.  One has to wonder why a whole section of the exhibit which is dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls spends so much time on what many of my colleagues would call ‘Biblical History’ or ‘Biblical Archaeology’.  If anything, ‘nation’ should be the last word used to describe any ancient socio-cultural entity since ‘nation’ is a modern designation for a specific type of state and using it on the ancient ‘Israelites’ is nothing but an anachronistic political move rather than anything proper for an exhibit about the past.

But this part of the exhibit did have some redeeming features.  For one thing they discuss idols and household figurines showing the more diverse cultural dynamic of the Hill Country of Palestine early on in its history.  I am familiar with these votive statues, known as ‘Asherah trees/poles’, and the henotheistic/polytheistic beliefs of the region early on in its history.  But the voice-actor who explained the Asherah votives refrained from calling them what they were, instead refering to them as if they were simple luck charms rather than the cultic objects of worship that they probably were.  That they were there on display at all was good to see.

Actually, despite all the politically-motivated rhetoric, all the pieces on display were fantastic and it is clear they were well taken care of by the IAA.  I have to say that while some perhaps more religious laypeople might enjoy this part of the exhibit, those more critical of the Biblical narratives will find it mind-numbingly annoying.  I was mortified by the rhetoric, but I still enjoyed having a close look at objects I’ve wanted to see in person for some time.

The Main Event: The Dead Sea Scrolls…

Down the stairs from the first half of the exhibit was the main display, the second half I had been waiting for: the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I was looking forward to seeing not just the scrolls (because manuscripts are something I’d like to work with someday as a professional) but loads (oodles and oodles, I believe, is the technical phrasing) of artifacts from the digs at Qumran and surrounding areas.

Down the stairs I went and in the center of the room was a circular display table with the scrolls illuminated around it.  All in all there were ten scrolls on display featuring:

  1. Paleo-Leviticus
  2. Aramaic Levi
  3. Isaiah Commentary
  4. Book of War
  5. Minor Prophets (in Greek)
  6. Apocryphal Lamentations
  7. Psalms
  8. Community Rule
  9. Deuteronomy ‘Song of Moses’
  10. Pseudo-Ezekial

I have to say I found it fascinating.  Being up close to a scroll like that which is also extremely old is really an awesome experience.  I wasn’t just looking at it on a page of a book but I was actively able to review it, see the old etched lines the scribes used to maintain straight writing across the scroll (they ‘hang’ from the lines), follow along with the Greek first hand.  One particular item I found worthy of note is that on the scroll written in Greek (Minor Prophets) every once in a while you come across the paleo-Hebrew word ‘god’.  This suggests, at least to me, that the scribes were likely multilingual.  But while I really enjoyed the scrolls, there were some other issues I found (or thought were missing completely) throughout the second half of the exhibit that I think should be raised.

The round display area featuring the scrolls. Photo: http://www.discoverytsx.com/

First, I was disappointed in the limited amount of artifacts featured from Qumran.  Aside from a few jars (and obviously the scrolls) nothing of any significance that I can remember was on hand for the exhibit.  And I really spent some time looking.  Instead, pieces from Jerusalem, Masada, and other digs were prominent surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls which was upsetting.  I thought I had bought tickets to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and to find out more about the Qumran area. Instead I felt I had been swindled into paying for and listening to a lecture about ‘ancient Israel’ given by William Dever.   It isn’t even that I wouldn’t want to listen to Dever speak (I would, if only because I’ve read him and hear so much about him from colleagues), but at least tell me that beforehand so I know for what I’m paying.

Frankly I wasn’t there to look at Byzantine crosses and menorahs (though I did find them all very interesting regardless) and I certainly didn’t care for the random section of stone from the Western Wall (its a fun tradition, but how does it even begin to fit in with the theme of the Dead Sea?).  I don’t care if the event was sponsored by Hershel Shanks (I don’t think it was, though some of his books were featured at the gift shop)–and believe me when I say some of it felt as though I had walked into a copy of BAR–I wanted to see what I came there to see.  In the end I saw pieces I could just as easily see at UPenn (and for a whole hellova lot less than I paid for my ticket at the Discovery Center).

I was also dismayed to find that they consider the Dead Sea Scrolls to be a part of a sectarian effort (that is to say, that the scrolls were penned by a single sect).  While they never straight out claimed the Essenes wrote the scrolls (as Geza Vermes does, and while he is estimable and learned I respectfully disagree with this conclusion),  the constant reference to a ‘sectarian group’ was, I felt, misleading.  There are too many troubling issues to contend with when one claims all the scrolls came from a singular source.  We can’t know that.  Many scholars feel this is the likely case (I don’t), but I don’t know of many who are so quick to claim with any certainty that it is a fact.  Yet, once again, this exhibit does portray this hypothesis as a fact.  It is an unfortunate and uncritical problem repeated throughout the exhibit.

A Final Subject of Note: Talpiot Ossuaries at the Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit?

Talpiot Ossuaries. Yep, these guys. They were there.

Hell yes they were there.  And why?  What reason could they possibly have been there?  I can’t say.  What I can say is I was in shock when I saw them.  I probably grumbled a few select words that were not very professional.  But needless to say the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, including the ‘James ossuary’ currently on trial with a possible (probable) forged inscription, were there.

The inscription issue is a tedious subject to get into on a review post of an exhibit, so I won’t.  But others have written on it and I can at least direct the reader to them:

Mark Goodacre (Duke University) has a great series of posts on this:

Joe Zias (Formerly of the IAA; currently of the Science and Archaeology Group at the Hebrew University):

On the Mariamne inscription:

Thankfully, the exhibit doesn’t claim anything as extravagant or as specious as Simcha Jacobovici.  From the notes next to the ossuaries in the handout:

These six ossuaries, found in a tomb in Jerusalem, have inscriptions
that included the names “Jesus,” “Mary,” “Joseph.” While it might be
tempting to claim this tomb belonged to Jesus and his family, these
names are in fact extremely common in the Second temple period.
The New Testament reports that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb
of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since the early
fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at
the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s old City.

But even this may be more misleading than it needs to; of course this is the Discovery Center and Discovery did produce, with James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici’s docudrama ‘The Jesus Family Tomb’ from years ago, and to which this ‘discovery’ (i.e. the ossuaries)  is attached.

Conclusions and Rating

I’ve been very critical of this exhibit, but don’t take my criticisms for displeasure on my part.  I had a great time.  It was a fun experience and I’d recommend it to anyone, so long as they take my criticisms to heart (in the sense that they remain skeptical of the assertions made by the exhibit and also fact-check everything they read, including this blog!).  There is nothing quite like exploring the ancient world through archaeology and, aside from going out on a dig yourself, going to these sorts of exhibits make for a fun outing.

Because I enjoyed the people and the pieces, I rated it favorably.  I suspect that others may rate it differently depending on the direction their ideologies sway, but overall I tend to think my review has been more positive (if not more critical) than most.  Some things I found discouraging which is why I took away from points.  Still, if you get the chance, go check out the exhibit and, if you think I’ve erred somewhere or if you think I’m being unfair, I’d love to hear from you.

Edit: Jim West provided this video of Dr. Lawrence Schiffman on the exhibit:

5 Responses

  1. Good blog review, Tom!

  2. Good discussion. I also found the exhibit to be rather peculiar. The claims they make are just plain wrong. See also this Oriental Institute article:

    http://oi.uchicago.edu/pdf/decline_of_qumranology.pdf

    and see further discussion here:

    http://open.salon.com/blog/dead_sea_scrolls_nyc/2011/12/17/dead_sea_scrolls_norman_golb_on_discovery_center_exhibit

  3. Interesting, thanks for posting this. I apologize for the delay in responding I just recently lost my grandfather and had been attending services for him all week.

    I had heard about the position of the person who wrote these articles (Golb) and I was always quite interested in it. Do you have more information about Golb and his work? How do you think it stands up to other perspectives on the DSS from other experts in the field?

  4. I’m really sorry to hear about your grandfather…

    On Golb, my understanding is, he is the Hebrew manuscripts specialist who is responsible for debunking the “Qumran-Essene” or “Qumran-sectarian” theory. He takes a rationalist, “what-exactly-can-we-legitimately-conclude-from-the-evidence” approach that annoys many people in the field. Of the articles I’ve read, my favorite is the original one from 1980, “The Problem of Origin and Identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (vol. 124, 1-24). They still haven’t answered it, 30 years later.

    I’m particularly outraged by the actions taken agains Golb’s son, Raphael Golb, who was arrested two years ago for handing it to the museum curators on the Internet with humor, satire, and precise reasoning. In my opinion, this was a publicity stunt aimed at harming the father and hiding the truth.

    Good luck with your studies and future books…

  5. Thank you for your kind words. It is a tough time for my family.

    I will have to look into that article on the origin of the DSS you recommended, thank you. I am not at all familiar with the details of the Raphael Golb case I’m afraid.

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