Scrolling through the ages

The Bible Lands Museum’s ‘Book of Books’ exhibition aims to bring in the crowds by displaying 2,000 years of the Bible.

Illuminated Esther scroll. Ferrara, Italy, ca. 1615. (photo credit: Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama)
Illuminated Esther scroll. Ferrara, Italy, ca. 1615.
(photo credit: Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama)
It’s been a long time coming, but the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem is finally living up to its name. While the institution has been putting on highly impressive and aesthetic displays of all manner of artifact from biblical times, surprisingly it has taken over 20 years to put on an exhibition of… Bibles.
The “Book of Books” show, currently up and running at the museum, is based on the revered book that appears in the institution’s title and, notes museum director Amanda Weiss, forms part of the organization’s plan of action to bring in the crowds.
“We are trying to bring things to life here,” she says. “We are an ancient history museum, and many people sort of look of us and say, ‘Why should I go there? What’s going to be interesting for me there?’ We do our best to turn the museum into a vibrant, exciting place to be. That’s what we are really here for, and why we created the whole museum to begin with.”
And it may be high time the museum came up with the eponymous goods. “The Book of Books exhibition is a particularly unusual show for us, because people think we show Bibles, but we actually don’t, and for the first time now we do,” exclaims Weiss.
It may be gratifying, for museum staff and visitors alike, that some of the institution’s content finally matches part of the name above the front door.
“The name is the Bible Lands Museum, and one of our greatest handicaps is getting past that name, because most people think we are a museum of Bibles.” Which makes the new exhibition an even happier event for one all. “It is a remarkable show because it shows 2,000 years of the Bible,” Weiss continues. “It goes from the Second Temple period almost up to contemporary times.”
By all accounts, the new exhibition is, indeed, going some way to keeping the turnstiles turning. Book of Books features more than 200 Judeo-Christian texts that range from fragments of an ancient Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, to early Christian Testament scriptures, illuminated manuscripts, and rare fragments from the Cairo Geniza and the Gutenberg Bible. Most of the items on display are on loan from the Green Collection, the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts owned by Steve Green, an evangelical Christian who is the president of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the American hobby store chain.
When I visited for a guided tour of the exhibits, the display area was busy with visitors of all ages and, seemingly, walks of life. Mind you, if you are going to put on a display of handsome manifestations of the biggest best- seller of all time, you are more than likely to end up with a hit show.
The main contributor to The Book of Books exhibition can certainly see why the artifacts are packing ’em in. “From the time of Moses to the present, the Bible continues to be the most read text in history, in spite of various attempts to prohibit or extinguish it,” notes Green.
“However, for both Jewish and Christian believers, the more adversity, the stronger the Bible’s appeal.”
Weiss says that she and her staff were intent on giving the public as generous a perspective as possible on the texts in question. “The Book of Books looks at the geographical spread and historical development of the Old Testament and the New Testament.”
Weiss first came upon the Green Collection when she saw an exhibition called “Passages,” which also comes from the collection, in Atlanta, Georgia. She was suitably impressed. “I went through the show for hours,” she recalls. “I was fascinated by the material they had on display – from papyrus from ancient Egypt to the Cairo Geniza and original fragments of the Septuagint. We are talking about incredible documentation.”
We are indeed, and the current exhibition in Jerusalem offers a riveting experience. “This show tells the story of the Bible as an artifact rather than as a book, from the time it became a written manuscript, from the Second Temple era until the present,” explains Ori Meiri, who helped to compile the exhibition. “You could say the exhibition follows two avenues, the Jewish one and the Christian one.”
The show, naturally enough, leads the visitor through the chronological evolution of the written form of the Bible, and there are gems aplenty throughout. Even the most emotionally controlled members of the public cannot, surely, help but be moved by getting a close up eyeful of fragment of a copy of the Septuagint papyrus from around 600 CE, which was found in Fayum, Egypt. And there are some items on display that are simply an aesthetic delight to behold. Take, for example, an ink and pigment on parchment manuscript of the Book of Esther from Ferrara, Italy, dated to around 1615 with an illustration of a suitably beautiful Queen Esther with ladies in attendance, and alluring floral ornamental motifs at the side. Then there is an Armenian prayer book found at the St. Augsend Monastery in Cilicia, Armenia, dating from somewhere between the 12th and 15th centuries, a page of which is adorned with two fine peacocks strutting above a gold, azure and rust-colored floral arrangement.
Almost all the exhibits are the real McCoy, but there are a few copies in there, too. Two such are facsimiles of parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls which, nonetheless, offer some added value to the scrolls on display across the road from the Bible Lands Museum. “At least two of these are not in the Shrine of the Book,” notes Meiri. “They were found in Jordan.”
And there is more to be had from the scroll fragments than first meets the eye. “This one, for example, comes from a scroll called Testamonia that contains quotes from the Bible, from the books of Isaiah and Habakkuk and Ecclesiastes. It was written by the cult that lived in the Judean Desert [the Essenes], and also has some kind of current affairs message of the time,” Meiri continues. “It is a sort of political-social commentary from that era.”
Clearly the Book of Books exhibition is not “just” about the Bible, but offers a wider view of contemporaneous zeitgeist as well as parallel historical events. The show also contains various archeological finds, such as coins with motifs that allude to biblical events, and a vase in which some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
And just to ensure the visitors don’t leave the exhibition empty-handed – albeit with their eyes and hearts suitably satiated – there is a reconstructed model of the original Gutenberg printing press, where a fine upstanding gent will be only too happy to show you how the machine works, and provide you with your very own manuscript facsimile to take home.
For more information about the “Book of Books” exhibition: (02) 561-1066 and