The Book of Books Exhibition, Bible Lands Museum

Exhibition spans 2,000 years of Holy Writ in a Babel of languages and accompanying religious artifacts.

Mike Rogoff
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Mike Rogoff

The Bible Lands Museum's permanent collection is arranged by historical period, the better to identify cross-cultural influences across the ancient Near East, but the changing exhibitions add some pizzazz to the proceedings. The folks that brought you last year’s extraordinary “Pure Gold” display are now hosting a small representative taste of The Green Collection, regarded as the world’s largest private assemblage of rare biblical texts and artifacts.

The current temporary exhibition, titled “The Book of Books” – a reference to the Bible, of course – not only displays some very ancient scriptural manuscripts and related artifacts, but attempts to show how Jewish migrations and Christian missions disseminated the Word of God, and established the Bible as the runaway best seller of all time.

Estimates are that at least part of Holy Writ has been translated into over 2,500 languages. Entire versions of either the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) or the New Testament appear in some 1,700 languages, and the full thing – the Old and New Testament together – can be found in almost 500 tongues. The current exhibition includes early manuscripts and later printed copies in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Syriac, Samaritan, Armenian, Ge’ez, Coptic, German, French, Spanish, Catalan, Gaelic and several others.

The exhibition spans two millennia, beginning with Hellenistic and Roman-period coins and intaglios – figures incised in semi-precious stones – and facsimiles of relatively unfamiliar (and unpublished) Dead Sea Scrolls. The originals are in the hands of the Oklahoma-based Green family, and will eventually become part of a new private museum in Washington DC.

Judaism and Christianity rub shoulders in the centuries that follow – at least in the confines of this gallery.

The biblical “Shema Yisrael” (‘Hear O Israel’, a central prayer of the Jewish liturgy), inscribed on a silver plaque, and sections from the Septuagint, the famous Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, date to the 4th-7th centuries CE. A bronze Byzantine cross and passages of both the New Testament and some non-canonical gospels are more or less contemporaneous.

Old Torah scrolls and “megillot” of the Book of Esther are fine testimonies to the scribes’ craft and the illustrators’ art from the Middle Ages down to modern times, while their Christian counterparts “illuminated” pocket-size psalters and copies of the Gospels with exquisite miniature designs and narrative scenes.

An attendant at the exit, draped in indefinable ‘period dress,’ mans a modern reproduction of the 15th-century Gutenberg press. He is happy to show you how it works, and let your kids take away the printed result – once the black ink has dried on the paper, of course.

The exhibition runs through May 24, continues to the Vatican, where it will be shown under the title of “Verbum Domini,” and will eventually end up in its permanent home in the U.S.

Address: Givat Ram, Jerusalem (across the parking lot from the Israel Museum)

Tel.: 02-561-1066

Open: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30am–5:30pm; Wednesday, 9:30am–9:30pm; Friday and eve of Jewish religious holidays, 10am–2pm; Saturday, 10am–2pm; closed on Jewish religious holidays

Entrance fee (free entrance for kids on Saturday)

Tours in English (included in the fee), Sunday–Friday at 10:30am

George W. Bush visiting the Bible Lands Museum, May 16, 2008. Credit: Ancho Gosh
George W. Bush visiting the Bible Lands Museum, May 16, 2008.Credit: ANCHO GOSH

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