The Israel Museum is the national museum of Israel and one of the world’s leading art and archeology museums, a pace where one could easily spend days exploring its wings and exhibits. It has the most extensive holdings of biblical archeology in the world, including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which are housed in a separate structure known as the Shrine of the Book.
The exhibit does a masterful job of explaining the significance of the manuscripts, the story of their creation, and the saga of how they were discovered. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest Biblical manuscripts in the world, found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in search of a lost goat in the caves bordering the Dead Sea. Thousands of scroll fragments were uncovered in eleven caves, from which scholars have identified about 800 different manuscripts. All date from the period between 250 B.C. and 100 A.D., the time after the Hebrew Bible was formed but before the formation of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism.
At the center of the underground shrine is a facsimile of arguably the most important manuscript found: a complete version of the book of Isaiah, the oldest complete manuscript of a Hebrew scripture yet discovered and dating to before 100 B.C.(the original is too fragile and valuable to have on display).
The exhibits also trace the story of an intriguing set of manuscripts that belonged to an ascetic community that many scholars identify as the Essenes, who were likely the ones who first stored the manuscripts in the caves. Named by researchers as the “Community Rule,” it details the conduct and beliefs held by the Essenes between about 150 B.C. and 70 A.D. Scholars regard the Dead Sea Scrolls as providing an invaluable window into an exceedingly complex and important time in Jewish history.
The upper galleries of the shrine feature the story of the sectarians living at Qumran and describe the manuscripts hidden for many centuries. Its lower galleries are devoted to the tenth-century Aleppo Codex, the oldest known complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.
On your visit, take note of the Shrine’s unusual design, which is meant to express the spiritual meaning of the manuscripts. Designed by American Jewish architects Armand P. Bartos and Frederic J. Kiesler, it was dedicated in 1965. Its white dome is meant to symbolize the lids of the jars in which the first scrolls were found. The contrast between its white dome and the black wall alongside it refers to the tension in the scrolls between the spiritual world of the “Sons of Light” (as the Essenes called themselves) and the “Sons of Darkness” (the sect’s enemies). The corridor leading into the shrine is meant to evoke the atmosphere of a cave, recalling the site where the ancient manuscripts were discovered.
Just outside of the Shrine of the Book, don’t miss the model of first-century Jerusalem, which was built by Professor Avi-Yonah according to descriptions of the city written by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius.