A message for the ages

The Israel Museum is displaying the Isaiah Scroll portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the first time in 40 years, exposing it to potential harm for the sake of connecting people with the past and conveying hope for the future

dead sea scrolls 248.88 (photo credit: The Israel Museum)
dead sea scrolls 248.88
(photo credit: The Israel Museum)
'They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." Thus is the prophecy of Isaiah, the eighth-century BCE prophet who preached a message of universal peace, and whose lips, according to biblical sources, were divinely anointed with fire. As the Jewish people mark Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah from God, the Israel Museum is proudly displaying Isaiah's scroll, one of the world's oldest known scrolls, and the most complete Dead Sea scroll ever found. Discovered by a Beduin shepherd in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea, the scroll dates from about 100 BCE, and is thus 1,000 years older than the oldest Hebrew biblical manuscript known prior to its discovery. Besides this initial manuscript, some 20 additional, but fragmented, copies of Isaiah were discovered at Qumran, shedding light on the details surrounding the Land of Israel during the Second Temple Period, among other things. On a long, complicated journey from the hands of the Beduin shepherd, the scroll, along with three others, passed through many hands, traveling the Middle East, from Israel and Lebanon to Syria, and on to New York. On June 1, 1954, an advertisement appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the category "Miscellaneous For Sale," which read: "'The Four Dead Sea Scrolls' Biblical Manuscripts, dating back to at least 200 BC, are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group. Box F 206." Yigael Yadin, son of the great Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik, was in New York at the time, saw the ad and immediately began pursuing the scrolls through secret negotiations (the Jordanian government was claiming rights to all scrolls found at Qumran). After purchasing them for $250,000, the scrolls wound up at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, about 100 kilometers from where they had originally been found. SINCE THEN, however, the scroll has been displayed to the public only once, from 1965-67, as part of the original design concept for the Shrine of the Book. Due to conservation requirements aimed at the scrolls' long-term preservation, scroll sections are rotated on a regular basis in the shrine, limiting the time the parchments come into contact with light and oxygen. The preservation efforts that have gone into the scroll have been intense, with experts conducting the process in a dark room with climate-controlled air. "After you get used to the darkness, the eye adapts itself," Michael Magen says of the work he does as head of the Paper Conservation Lab at the Israel Museum. He explains that his work is "preventive conservation," aimed at facilitating the longevity of the scroll's parchment, which is made from animal skin. "This is different from active conservation, which aims to repair or patch an object," Magen says. "The scroll does have some fractures, but we preferred to leave it in its state, and not change its condition at all." Magen and his team have identified the possible factors that might affect the scroll's parchment, and they have come up with ways to block them. "While on display, the scroll is subject to more light than usual," Magen says. "We put it behind bullet-proof glass and installed a data logger to monitor the temperature and humidity inside, and we are constantly checking on it to keep the parchment stabilized." But the laborious efforts that go into the scroll's preservation, and the possible damage that its display could cause, beg the question: Why? Why go to the trouble of displaying a rare and valuable artifact such as the Isaiah Scroll, when doing so might damage its condition and expose it to harm? "I think when you are in front of the scroll, you can imagine the person behind the scroll," says Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Isaiah Scroll exhibit at the museum. "You can imagine the person who was writing it 2,000 years ago." Roitman explains that through its display, the scroll is fulfilling its prophecy. "The Isaiah Scroll plays such an important role in both Judaism and Christianity, I see the exhibit, and the Shrine, as a place of encounter for people from different denominations and races - a sort of institute for universal peace. It's not just a display," Roitman says. "It's a ground from which we can build understanding." Accordingly, Isaiah's words serve to promote their theme, so many years after they were spoken, hidden away and discovered again in the caves at Qumran. Possibly, through its current display, the message will take hold, and swords will be beaten into plowshares as the teachings of war become the teachings of peace.q