Dead Sea Scrolls on Purity, Morals on Display for First Time, in Denver

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Fragments of Musar LeMevin, with raz nihyeh: Lectures on morality for learned disciples, as conveyed by God himself to the sages. Picture shows four pieces of Dead Sea Scroll going on display in Denver for the first time.
Fragments of Musar LeMevin, a section on morality for advanced students, Dead Sea Scrolls: The section with the mysterious phrase "raz nihyeh"Credit: Shai Halevi / Leon Levy Dead Se
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A vast exhibition of ancient artifacts from Israel, featuring two Dead Sea Scrolls never displayed in public before, is opening Friday at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.

Entrance to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, featuring the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit for six monthsCredit: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The newly unveiled scrolls lay down the rules for ritual purification and moral conduct that their writers, believed to be the Essenes, jealously followed.

Other gems in the 600-piece collection include 18 other scrolls, which have been displayed before; a 3-ton stone from the Western Wall in Jerusalem; a lot of pagan gods; and the biggest lintel ever found at a First Temple-era estate, says the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Archaeological remains in Israel go back to the dawn of humankind. The aspiration of the "Dead Sea Scrolls" Exhibition is more modest. It covers the period between the Temples, starting with the First Temple era around 3,000 years ago, and ending with the ill-fated Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans and the ending of the Second Temple era, following which the Jews scattered for about 2,000 years. The exhibition also showcases the ensuing periods, says curator Debora Hochman Ben-Ami: the Ottoman and Mamluk empires, the Crusader era, the Fatimid caliphate, and the early Islamic period, with unique artifacts from each.

Artifacts from ancient Israel's Temples era on display in Denver Credit: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

In the name of Baal

The exhibit also features items of daily life, from the ubiquitous pottery vessels to stone kitchenware typical of ancient Jewish homes, to pagan figurines that not-rarely graced Jewish households during the First Temple period.

“We want to show life in Bible times to the American public not through the biblical stories, but through real archaeological finds," stated Dr. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

In real life, it seems strict monotheism did not ensue from some sudden turning point in religion, but developed slowly over generations. The exhibition makes manifest that ancient Israelite predilection for other gods that so vexed some parties –

"When Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor, the anger of the Lord flared up against Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Arrest all the leaders of the people, and hang them up before the Lord in broad daylight, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel.” (Numbers 25:3-5)

Real archaeological finds: Spearheads from ancient IsraelCredit: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Controversy continues to rage over who wrote the different parts of the bible, and when, but evidently the road to adoring the One God was a long and painful one.

However, eventually Jewish households would stop worshipping other gods as insurance policies or for comfort, and take on a truly monotheistic lifestyle, in which they seem to have taken ritual purification very seriously, as we see in the Scrolls.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Bedouins in 1947, in the Qumran Caves by the Dead Sea, shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel, would not end the argument over who wrote what. It would not shed light on the veracity of the biblical accounts. The discovery shows that biblical texts were not fixed, but evolved: for instance, there is more than one version of the Book of Samuel.

Pottery artifacts from daily life in ancient IsraelCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

We do not know who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of which was etched on copper, by the way. Scholars generally think the authors were the Essenes, an extremist Jewish sect that seems to have coalesced when the Hasmonean kings usurped the authority of the High Priest. Hence the Essenes' penchant for referring to an "evil priest" – probably the usurper.

In any case, the delicate parchment (and copper) scrolls were preserved for over 2,000 years thanks to the extraordinarily arid, dark conditions in the desert caves, and are displayed today in carefully monitored conditions.

For the sake of their preservation, the first 10 scrolls displayed in Denver will return to Israel after three months and will be replaced by 10 other scrolls, the IAA explains.

Preserving the Dead Sea ScrollsCredit: Shai Halevi / Leon Levy Dead Se

Also among the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibit in Denver in the two rounds are biblical, extra-biblical and sectarian scrolls found in Qumran.

The entire collection of Dead Sea Scrolls can be seen over internet, at the the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Now in Denver, over the next six months, visitors can see samples of these goatskin parchments in person - including the two never seen by the general public before, touching on purification and morals.

Carefully placing a pottery jar in the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition, DenverCredit: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Infectious impurity

The scroll on rules of ritual purity and impurity, called Tohorot (Purities) A, dates from the late 1st century B.C.E., says the IAA.

Artifacts from ancient Israel on display at the Denver Museum of Science and NatureCredit: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Only the ritually purified were allowed to handle sacred matters. Purification included immersion in the ritual bath (mikveh) and in some cases, even isolation, if the spiritual blemish was caused by illness.

Israel is riddled with ritual baths hewn out of the bedrock: that and the ubiquity of stoneware vessels, which are considered to be immune from contamination, show that Jews from Hasmonean times and throughout the Second Temple period took purity very seriously.

This scroll starkly shows out the "infectiousness" of impurity: the ritually impure were isolated not only from the pure – but from those with a different form of impurity.

Secret of existence

The other scroll going on display for the first time in Denver is called Musar Le'Mevin – to "he who understands" lectures on morality for learned disciples. It is also known as the Sapiental Work Scroll.

Caves at Qumran.Credit: Wikipedia

The messages are presented as information coming directly from God, conveyed through sages to their followers. It too dates to the late 1st century B.C.E. and is rather like an apocalyptic book of Proverbs.

Conservator Tatiana Treiger holding the Tohorot scroll fragmentCredit: יולי שוורץ / רשות

The disciples are instructed on moral conduct, ordered to avoid evil – including through fair business practices, and are guided towards success and spirituality.

"One unusual characteristic of this work is the constant repetition of the Hebrew phrase raz nihyeh, a term whose meaning is still a matter of scholarly debate," observes the IAA, which is one way of saying that nobody knows what it means. Some scholars think it means “the secret of existence." Others lean towards “approaching mystery.”

"Each era of the Islamic period is represented by unique artifacts or coins issued by rulers. Among the artifacts from the Islamic period are Ottoman pipes, Fatimid jewelry, and dolls made of bone from Jerusalem , dating to the early Islamic period," she says.

Also featured in Denver are early Christian artifacts and a rare document from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt against the Romans in 132 C.E., which would end so tragically in 135 C.E. with the destruction of Jerusalem and banishment of the Jews.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University and  Debora Hochman Ben-Ami of the IAA.