Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Minnesota Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit

scrolls-300x250 I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. Last week, I viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Counting my trip to the San Diego exhibit in 2007, I have now had the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to see the scrolls three times. The Minnesota exhibit’s advertising urges you to:
Experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century—the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known Biblical writings.
I will comment on the Milwaukee exhibit in a separate post. For a much more thorough review than I intend to do, see John’s post here.

If you are in the Twin Cities any time between now and October 24th, I highly recommend you take a few hours to go see the exhibit at the Science Museum. Of the three exhibits I’ve seen, the scope of the MN exhibit is the most comprehensive in terms of background information related to the Scrolls and the site of Qumran. I’m more familiar than the average person with the various theories and debates related to the DSS, and the main thing that impressed me about the MN exhibit was how it laid out all the options related to the identity of the sect and the possible uses of the site without privileging any particular angle. The exhibit does not play up a simplistic either/or dichotomy of Jerusalem origins vs. Qumran Essene origin that might have been assumed from some of the media coverage. While past exhibits have mentioned the existence of multiple theories, this is the only one I’ve seen that incorporates the information on multiple theories throughout the exhibit and doesn’t “spin” the evidence in favor of any particular perspective. (Concerning the San Diego exhibit, Bob Cargill pointed out that his documentary at the exhibit laid out the options. While that may be so, I saw the exhibit but not the movie and the exhibit itself was very much oriented toward the “Standard Hypothesis” of Qumran Essene origin for the scrolls.)

Now I have a theory for why museums and other popular presentations of controversial issues like this present one theory as stronger and more certain than it really is. People like certainty and proof (just ask Scott). They’re uncomfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and tension between competing interpretations. They also don’t like to think for themselves. So while multiple theories and raw data might be presented, they’re usually told which one is the “right” answer. Not so at the MN exhibit. All the options are laid out and you’re left to decide for yourself who makes a stronger case. (In case you want someone to tell you what to think: The scrolls were not composed at Qumran by a monk-like group of Essenes. Pick any other theory and it makes more sense of the data.)

The flow of the exhibit works well and the free audio tour was a definite plus. (The Milwaukee exhibit charges an extra $6 for an audio tour which I did not purchase.) Most of your time at the exhibit won’t be spent in the Scrolls room. There are only 5 scrolls on display at a time at the Science Museum. But the Scrolls display is really just the climax to a very comprehensive exhibit of artifacts from Second Temple Judaism and the archaeology of the Dead Sea region. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was on how Israel is working now to preserve the scroll fragments, contrasting current methods of preservation with the “what-were-they-thinking” techniques from the 1950s (involving scotch tape, plate glass, and cigarettes – you can see the plate glass and the tape still in use on the DSS fragments displayed in Milwaukee).

As an added bonus, 28 pages of the Saint John’s Bible are on display in an additional exhibit at the end of the DSS exhibit. The Saint John’s Bible is a hand-written illuminated Bible, the first of its kind since the invention of the printing press. Scribal culture is getting a mini-revival of sorts! The artwork and script is amazing and well worth seeing.

If you get the opportunity, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota is well worth the trip. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!


  1. I just saw the exhibit two weeks ago. It was quite enjoyable. I was also glad to see that there was no settling on any single theory for origins (which for myself was a significant plus to the whole exhibit). I also agree that the audio tour significantly enhanced the experience. I had not expected there to be so much on the archaeological side of things, but was pleasantly surprised by it. I also thoroughly enjoyed the portion of the exhibit about the St. John's Bible. I think the exhibit was more enjoyable for me as I was able to help answer questions for a friend of mine who was utterly unfamiliar with the DSS (he had LOTS of questions). What would you say was the highlight for you?

  2. Rick, I would say that the highlight for me was looking at the section of the Psalms scroll on display. In my coursework we read mainly sectarian texts with a less neatly written hand that aren't particularly well preserved, so it was a marvel to see a neatly written, easily legible scroll. I wish now that I'd sprung for the exhibit book to have a picture of it.

  3. No serious scholar that I can think of claims that all the scrolls were "composed" at Qumran (straw man), but, rather, that some of the scrolls were penned at Qumran and only a subset of those composed at Qumran, by Essenes. Ira Rabin et al. showed that 1QH ink has high bromine content, indicating that water from the Dead Sea area was used to make that ink. Rabin, Ira, Oliver Hahn, Timo Wolff, Admir Masic, and Gisela Weinberg. "On the Origin of the Ink of the Thanksgiving Scroll (1QHodayota)." DSD 16/1 (2009) 97-106. That is one of the reasons to think of scribal activity there. Also: many inkwells, and ostraca, and Tov on Qumran scribal practice, and use of Nubian ibex skin, and Yardeni on one Qumran scribe represented in caves 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 11. And, on the name Essenes and Qumran texts:

  4. Stephen, I've modified some of my thinking after reading John Collins latest book. See my most recent post from June 8. The comment that you're referring to was an aside - yes, it was a simplistic reduction. However, as I understand it, earlier scholarship did think of Qumran as the site of composition of most of the scrolls. The consensus has undergone a long and subtle reworking incorporating new data and modified interpretations. I was not aware that "many inkwells" were found at Qumran. I'd read they found two. At any rate, I'm more up to speed than I was on the issues after reading Collins. Thanks for pointing out some of the more recent research that I was unaware of.