The Shrine of the Book

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In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem there is a special wing. An entirely separate building that is part of the museum but exists on its own for a very special purpose. A single white dome contrasted by a black, basalt wall behind it, the building looks like something out of a dream. This is the Shrine of the Book, and it is a library that contains some of the most important religious texts in the world – including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

While the exterior of the Shrine may seem odd, there is a deeper meaning behind it. The domed design, marked with striations is reminiscent of the clay jars the scrolls were found in. The pure white of the dome starkly framed by the pitch-black wall behind it was specifically done to evoke a passage from a specific scroll that references the "Sons of Light” and "Sons of Darkness,” represented by the contrast. Inside, the Shrine is much larger than you may expect, descending into the earth and revealing a wealth of treasures collected inside.

Racks of glass displays house several priceless texts. In its displays you can see a collection of historical Bibles in different translations and from different corners of the world, as well as the Aleppo Codex — the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Dead Sea Scrolls that steal the show. Displayed in glass on a central column designed to resemble the handle of a scroll, various fragments (including the famous Isaiah Scroll, the most complete and undamaged of the scrolls) can be viewed. Due to the incredible fragility and importance of these texts, the scroll fragments are carefully cycled in and out of display on three to six-month rotation periods.

Hidden for almost 2000 years before being discovered by a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib in a cave, the scrolls are the oldest surviving copy of writings from the Bible. They are perhaps the greatest historical discovery of the modern age. Not only are they an incredible piece of history on their own, as any document that has survived for almost two millennia would be, they are also of unfathomable cultural and spiritual worth. The texts directly link to the days of the first Church and provided accurate and historically verifiable tradition of Biblical texts. Before the Dead Sea discovery, a Masorectic text written in Hebrew from the 10th century was the oldest Biblical text thought to exist. The Dead Sea Scrolls predate that text by a millennium, providing a much stronger tie to the foundations of the church and verifying that the text and spirit of the books we can compare to the Dead Sea Scrolls have remained consistent through the years and various translations.

While obviously the books of the Bible found in the scrolls are the most important texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls also contain several non-religious texts. These sectarian documents cover a wide range of topics, from what can be considered judicial documents to songs and practical manuals. These texts offer incredible insight into the culture and lives of the ancient Jewish people. It is a historical resource that scholars still depend on today to contextualize and understand this history of one of the most important nations on Earth.

While on display, physical access to the documents is strictly controlled. It is a miracle the Dead Sea Scrolls still exist today and the stress of time weighs heavily on the documents, so all steps must be taken to preserve them. Only four specially selected experts are allowed to handle the extremely delicate parchment and do so only under the most scrutinous safety precautions. For anyone else, even touching the glass case housing the various samples of the Scrolls is forbidden. 

The Shrine itself is specially temperature controlled with humidity levels carefully monitored. Even the lighting of the Shrine is designed to place as little wear and tear on the documents as possible. It should go without saying, but if you ever visit the Shrine, remember that flash photography is expressly forbidden.

Even with all these precautions, the Scrolls are still incredibly vulnerable, which is why they have also been painstakingly preserved digitally. The Israel Antiquities Authority along with the Leon Levy Foundation, the Arcadia Fund, and Google poured hundreds of hours into developing new scanning and digitization technology to ensure that the Scrolls could be accurately, and safely, scanned and displayed virtually. The results of the project speak for themselves, with an expansive digital library of the Scrolls available online for all to browse.

Still, there is no substitute for the real thing. If you find yourself in Jerusalem, you owe it to yourself to visit the Shrine of the Book and view these magnificent, ancient connections to the past and the Christian faith, up close and personally.  

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