Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition at the California Science Center

Dead Sea Scrolls: The Exhibition at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles is the largest Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit ever shown outside the land of Israel. It is an excellent and impressive collection of artifacts illustrating the history and archaeology of Israel. It is a rare privilege and pleasure to see these ancient texts in person and reflect on their ancient contents, contexts, and communities.

In addition to the Scrolls - which include fragments from the Book of Giants (4Q530), the Psalms (4Q83), Isaiah (4Q56), and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400) - there is also a fine collection of stone vessels, cylindrical clay storage jars, and the tefillin, leather sandals, and linen Scroll-wrapping collected from the Qumran site. I was struck by the beauty, purity, simplicity, and clean lines of these Qumran artifacts and I was also pleasantly surprised to see several of the Talpiot tomb ossuaries, including the famous Mariamne ossuary, as well as a three-ton stone from the Western Wall.

The curators are generally even-handed and well-informed. There is even a kind of Abrahamic and ecumenical rapprochement to the exhibit in so far as Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) are portrayed as branches off the older root and vine of ancient Israel without inscribing any kind of covert supersessionistic or replacement theology. Yet there is also a noticeable reluctance to identify the Qumran community as "Essenic," suggesting rather that the Essene identification - initially adopted with enthusiasm by biblical scholars - is now uncertain. It is telling that a recent review of the Exhibition in USC's Daily Trojan reports that while "Some argue that the scrolls are connected to the town of Qumran," "Some scientists doubt that the Essenes wrote the scrolls."

I understand that the Exhibition is curated for the general public, but I find this ambivalence disappointing. Although there is certainly an ongoing debate about the identity of the Qumran community and the authors and collectors of the Scrolls, the Exhibition makes it seem like rival hypotheses (i.e., that Qumran was a manor house, villa, pottery factory, or fortress) somehow have equal weight. This is misleading and inaccurate, given that there is actually quite a lot of correspondence between the sectarian scrolls and the sectarian settlement at Qumran. I don't think anyone has ever said it better than the late Frank Moore Cross:

  The scholar who would ‘exercise caution’ in identifying the sect of Qumran with the Essenes 
   places himself in an astonishing position: he must suggest seriously that two major parties 
   formed communistic religious communities  in the same district of the desert of the Dead Sea 
   and lived together in effect for two centuries, holding similar bizarre views, 
   performing similar or rather identical lustrations, ritual meals, and ceremonies. 
   He must suppose that one, carefully described by classical authors, disappeared 
   without leaving building remains or even potsherds behind: the other, 
   systematically ignored by classical authors, left extensive ruins, and indeed a great library. 
   I prefer to be reckless and flatly identify the men of Qumran 
   with their perennial houseguests, the Essenes.

While the Essene theory does not compel assent from every specialist, it has hardly been displaced or disproved. For many specialists, the real challenge is not replacing the Essene hypothesis with another theory, but clarifying the relationship(s) between the (sectarian/Essene) inhabitants of the Qumran site, the pre-sectarian Enochic tradition, and the Essenes as described in Josephus, Philo, and Pliny. It is this complex nexus of inter-relationships that the Exhibition fails even to mention, let alone engage.

The Exhibition thus fails to fully represent the Scrolls, the community, the Qumran site, and contemporary scholarship. It gives one the distinct impression that what is most significant about the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they represent our earliest manuscript witnesses of many biblical texts. While this may be true, the Exhibition fails to highlight the fact that a significant portion of these texts are original compositions reflecting the distinctive beliefs, interests, and convictions of a sectarian community. Despite these reservations, this is an Exhibition not to be missed.