PRINT May 2008


the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Great Isaiah Scroll (detail), ca. 120 BCE, ink on leather parchment.

IN 1947, BEDOUIN discovered the first of eleven caves near the Dead Sea’s western shore that contained Jewish documents written between the second century BCE and the first century CE. In total, some thirty thousand fragments from some nine hundred different scrolls were recovered. In the sixty-one years since, the Dead Sea Scrolls have revolutionized our knowledge of ancient Judaism and enriched our understanding of the diverse cultural context out of which both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity emerged. The scrolls preserve many writings with which we were already familiar, but often in forms that vary significantly from their previously known versions. Particularly important in this regard are the more than two hundred scrolls containing sections of the Tanakh (known to Christians as the Old Testament). These biblical scrolls predate most other copies of the Tanakh by more than a thousand years, and comparisons between them and medieval versions of the Bible help scholars to better understand in what ways and how often scribes changed the books they were copying. Because the scrolls often preserve the biblical text in a form closer to its original writing, they have directly affected the content of most contemporary Bible translations.

To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the state of Israel, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem presents “Swords into Plowshares: The Isaiah Scroll and Its Message of Peace” (May 18–August 15), an exhibition centered around the Great Isaiah Scroll, the largest of the Dead Sea biblical manuscripts. Written in the second century BCE and measuring approximately twenty-four feet in length, the Great Isaiah Scroll is the most famous of these earliest copies of the Bible. Because it is one of the best preserved of the Dead Sea Scrolls, its often-reproduced image has become a synecdoche for the group. However, no large portion of the scroll itself has been publicly displayed since 1967.

Organized by Michal Dayagi-Mendels and Adolfo Roitman, the exhibition will feature two sections from the Great Isaiah Scroll, each measuring about eight feet in length and together preserving approximately fifty of the sixty-six chapters attributed to the eighth-century-bce prophet Isaiah. The Bible’s longest prophetic text, the book of Isaiah has for almost three thousand years profoundly influenced Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Particularly beloved is the prophecy found in Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Taking its cue from this famous verse, the presentation will also feature a selection of agricultural tools from Isaiah’s time, as well as ancient emblems of peace. The latter include a scimitar intentionally bent in antiquity and a newly excavated Hellenistic seal depicting a dove with an olive branch.

Michael Penn is an assistant professor of religion at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA.