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The Scrolls as a Start, Not an End

November 1st, 2011

The artifacts are drawn from archaeological explorations by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Some have been recently found; some are being shown for the first time; and this is, we are told, one of the largest such exhibitions ever organized. But the main interest of the show, designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, is in the historical arc shaped by the two curators, Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University, and Debora Ben Ami, the Israel authority’s curator of Iron Age artifacts.

The narrative treats the scrolls not as the beginning of a history, but as its culmination. This is almost the reverse of their usual treatment. Since the first scrolls were found by Bedouins in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea, they have inspired extraordinary drama and debate.

Before their discovery, the earliest known texts of the Hebrew Bible were from about 1,000 years after these scrolls were written. In the caves were over 800 scrolls and fragments, including Hebrew biblical texts before they were canonized, all written during a 200-year period of ferment in which the Israelite religion was about to be shattered by exile in A.D. 70, as Christianity was emerging. They showed how consistent transmission of these texts was, how many possibilities there were for interpretation and how fundamental the texts had already become.

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