March 19, 2007

Review: Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit in Kansas City

The historical, delightful and spacious Union Station in Kansas City makes for a wonderful experience in terms of visiting any exhibit. It made for a good venue for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit as well. Exposure to and interest in the exhibit in Kansas City has been good. When I took our first church group last Sunday, I had three extra tickets from cancellations when we arrived, and those got swiped up within a minute by folks who showed up at the exhibit only to find the day sold out. Included with your ticket is a standard wand used to follow audio commentary through the exhibit. The commentary is helpful and would appeal to a wide audience, I would think. The narrator often yields to scholars and their sound bites, most commonly Peter Flint and Jodie Magnus. Most of the displays offer an alternative, youth-friendly version of the commentary (eg. Normal commentary #51 has a corresponding youth commentary #1.) This simplified version is more narrative in nature, and hosted by "Jennifer" and "Kirk". It makes every attempt to captivate with humor ("We're really into Archaeology. You could say we dig it!")

The exhibit predictably begins with a 7 minute video that focuses on the discovery story, complete with some well done reenactments (though the stone-throwing Bedouin was a little too Caucasian for my taste). The video begins with a slide show of quotes from a random, if not curious, collection of scholars (James Tabor, Stephen Hodge, Randall Price, ...). I had the impression that the film was partially designed to set the tone: this exhibit is one of historical, scientific discovery and not only religious piety. For instance, the films depicts the creation of the Dead Sea a million years ago as part of continental shift and follows the accompanying fault line down to the origins of humanity in the African continent. The fly-by video segments of the Qumran area, the Dead Sea, and the surrounding region are the highlights of the film.

The first room of the walking exhibit focuses on the discovery of the scrolls. The best feature beyond the wall posters is a nice, life-sized model of a cave (think nook and cranny) with pottery visible deep inside. The room moves into a discussion and depiction of preservation work and the science/art of text identification. There is a very well done Paleography Board activity that includes a slider whereby one participates in the dating of the Isaiah scroll by identifying the forms of ב & מ ל ס by time period. One of the most enjoyable artifacts in the entire exhibit are the first ones encountered--two wonderful, perfectly reformed scroll jars. Curiously, the second piece shown is a replica of the Bronze scroll on the wall. The audio commentary is sufficiently enticing regarding the potential of buried treasure. The "history" lessons end with a wall Timeline spanning from 12th c. BCE to 3rd c. CE. It includes Jewish, Christian, and Chinese significant dates, for which the criterion for inclusion were mysterious enough such that the only two notations for the 3rd c. are Rabbi Judah the Prince editing the Mishnah in 200 CE and Chinese alchemists inventing gunpowder. Before leaving the first room, the wall posters, plaques and audio commentary have convinced the visitor that the exhibit has been expertly displayed and thought through. The information is good, critical information, but still is attentive to its primarily lay audience. For instance, both a wall poster and the end of one audio snippet explains that CE and BCE are "theological and scientific terms adding neutrality" to the BC/AD traditional system of dating.

The next room offers two displays of coins. The first is a table of 30 Tyrian shekels from the famed horde found under a doorway at Qumran. The second coin display is a round table of 12 sections showing 2 coins from as many different regions/time periods. The information plaques display the marking as well as inscription translations and a bit of history. Following the coins and a large goblet, possibly a ritual washing jar, is a Daily Life in Qumran section. The printed and audio commentary is sufficiently tentative in what it asserts regarding the identity of the Qumran community. Josephus is quoted on the Essenes, and the display of textiles and everyday materials makes an impact. The inclusion of a replica of a loom to accompany the embroideries and linens on display was a smart idea. After viewing dozens of oil lamps and pots and plates, an ominous entryway awaits as the lights dim.

Three symbolic texts reside in displays in a small room that serves as a passageway into the central Qumran library archive room. As you approach the three texts, the audio commentary begins with triumphant music appropriate for an Indiana Jones sequel. I got goosebumps as I saw that before me was 4Q41, the oldest copy of the ten commandments which I had seen only once before when in Jerusalem a decade ago. But then I realized it was a facsimile. The three texts in this room were simply information stations to introduce the three types of texts primarily discovered at the Qumran Library--Biblical texts, apocryphal/pseudopigraphical texts, and community texts. On to the main Qumran library.

This central room is clearly the climax of the exhibit, and who you are will determine whether or not it disappoints. It is a hexagonal room with very nice wall displays of 11Q5 (Psalms), 4Q161 (Isaiah commentary), 4Q47 (Joshua), 4Q4 (Genesis), 11Q10 (Job), 4Q258 (Community Rule), and 4Q1 (Genesis-Exodus). Beside each display is a very well done wall poster offering background on the piece, a black and white reproduction of the scroll, the Hebrew transcription (or Aramaic in one case), and an English translation. The references and marking are so helpful, I didn't even need to refer to the (heavy!) lexicon I had bothered to tote throughout the exhibit.
This was the room I had told my church group that was "worth the price of admission". Some gathered around as I read to them from one of the oldest copies of Psalm 135.21 "הַלְלוּ־יָהּ‎" "Praise the Lord!"

I reiterated the point that looking at that tiny piece of Joshua, you're looking at the oldest copy of that book ever discovered. And that is a significant experience. However, a lay viewer, with no preparation will potentially be underwhelmed at the small size and number of the pieces in the primary Qumran library collection. The dim light, which comes on and off inside each display case, makes it very difficult for some visitors to see any writing on the dark papyrus at all in some cases. They will have imagined larger scrolls, and bigger print, and some I've heard from about the exhibit have expressed many of those frustrations.

The final room of the exhibit, not a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, is a lesson on how "the story continues". It includes an assortment of pieces, mostly printed bibles that highlight the progression of the biblical text. I'm not sure the story of manuscript writing was sufficiently told into the 1400's so that the folks would understand why we were suddenly focusing on the mid-fifteenth century. Included in this room are a leaflet from a Guttenberg bible from University of Kansas and version of Luther, Tindale, and King James from the Rawlings Foundation of Kentucky. I thought a nice touch was that the first edition KJV was open to 2 Maccabees.
I was anticipating the presence of an Erasmus text or leaflet and was disappointed in its absence. I did think it was a good touch to draw a connection between these ancient texts and the texts familiar to many of the visitors today. I do not think one can ever overemphasize the significance of the printing press for enabling a theological notion of verbal inspiration that couldn't have existed for the first three-fourths of the church's history. The exhibit empties out into the gift shop. At least three different English translations of the Qumran texts were available for purchase (Martinez; Wise/Abegg/Cook; and Vermes) as well as various secondary literature and museum fare (think "scroll replicas"). Alongside the shop are 4 stations with jigsaw puzzles and activities where folks can gain an appreciation for the magnitude of the task of reconstructing scrolls from thousands of fragments. One activity center offers the opportunity to sort out and identify fragments of the Declaration of Independence. A good choice, I thought.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City is very well done. I would not describe the exhibit as large. You do need an hour and a half minimal to get through, but the actual number of pieces, texts especially, is not impressive. That said, they have done very well with what they have. In my opinion, it should be worth quite a drive and twice the price just to get a look at even one of these four ancient biblical texts. The exhibit is informative, and even entertaining. Much forethought had been given to a varied audience (sitting benches, differing audio commentary in English and Spanish, etc.). The promotion in the KC Metro area has been significant, and I anticipate a resounding conclusion of success when the exhibit moves out of town in May.
If you're interested in more information on the exhibit, go to


We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, who is scheduled to talk in the Kansas City Scrolls exhibit lecture series on April 24, has published a fascinating opinion piece on the Scrolls in the Jewish Forward.

The link is

Joe Weaks said...

Dear anonymous "We Demand..." person,
Not sure whether to take you seriously, with such an absurd identity, but I did read the Golb article you mentioned.
It is obvious that the author has not been to the exhibit. I submit to you that this aspect of the exhibit--namely, what to assert regarding the identity of those who created/used the scrolls--was treated very well. As I indicated in my review, they were very appropriately acknowledging not just of the majority view but others as well. When one is championing a minority opinion (one which I am sympathetic too, by the way), it does not bode well to attack a summary review that does indeed give voice to the differing views.

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

We recommend that you read Golb's detailed discussion of the Seattle exhibit on the University of Chicago website, before making up your mind on the Kansas City exhibit.
(The link is:
Hopefully what you say about the Kansas City exhibit is true, but your reference to the Qumran/Essen "majority" and the "minority" of other views in the plural, seems to indicate that you have been misled. The fact is that the majority of the scholars who have reexamined Qumran over the past decade, including the official Israel Antiquities Authority team led by Magen and Peleg, have all concluded that Qumran was a secular site and that the scrolls came from Jerusalem. This is why the Cambridge History of Judaism has only two articles on the topic, one representing each of the two salient theories (Qumran/Essene and Jerusalem libraries). The many scholars who based their careers on the old theory long before all this new research was done, naturally continue to stick to their guns, but the use of the term "majority" is misleading. It's just like with any poll: the numbers can be read in different ways depending on which way you're looking at it. (For example, a majority support Clinton v. Barak, but a greater majority supports Barak v. Giuliani than Clinton v. Giuliani and Barak's fundraising is better: how to interpret these numbers?) Assuming that the exhibit mentions Golb, does it also mention Magen, Peleg, Cansdale, Zangenberg, Bar Nathan, Elior, or any of the other proponents of the Jerusalem theory who have become the major trend in current scrolls scholarship? We have not seen the exhibit, so we would be grateful if you would answer this specific question, necessitated by the fact that the museum's on-line material fails to treat Qumran research of the past decade, or the Jerusalem theory, in an appopriate manner.
Furthermore, one must take account of the facts that no scholarly poll has been conducted on this matter, that many of the scholars cited as proponents of the old theory are deceased and, as we said, that the Cambridge History of Judaism has only two articles on the topic, one for each of the two salient theories. Did the editors of that standard reference work do a poll before deciding to print those two articles?

Joe Weaks said...

I'm sorry, but I will have to remove myself from this conversation. When you treat my phrase "majority of scholars" as if it's a new invention, it makes me doubt your credentials as an academic scholar.
And even still, this anonymous posting is not conducive to any discussion; it has no place here.
If you have an axe to grind, please swing at a different tree.

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

You misunderstand our point -- it's not at all a "new invention", and that's precisely the problem. The "majority" argument has for years been the fall-back position of the traditional Qumranologists who try to defend their position not on the basis of reason and science, but on a refusal to engage the opposing school of research, the implication being that they don't NEED to engage it because they're the "majority".
Scientific truth isn't established by taking votes (compare the claim that Pluto isn't a planet, decided by a "vote" at a conference to the fury of others who disagreed and weren't included), but by whether the claim being made fits the evidence.

exegete77 said...

I had the opportunity to see the exhibit on April 16. An excellent presentation - I could have stayed longer, but the others in our group had other commitments...

Well worth seeing/experiencing.

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joe Weaks said...

Dear Mr. "We Demand..."
There's nothing radical or threatening about the material you promote. We have one of the books in my church library. But there's no place for these points you're making to be anonymous. It is for that reason that I'll delete future posts.

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

There is very good reason for us to remain anonymous, we have explained exactly why on our blog. But since you feel obliged to resort to censorship, why don't you yourself post the link to Golb's detailed attack on the exhibit, so your readers can judge for themselves whether it was a good exhibit or a bunch of lies?

Suzanne said...

I don't know who those people are, but they are right that Norman Golb has published a detailed analysis of the Kansas City exhibit, it's linked on Jim West's biblical studies blog at

I doubt if this article is in your library, because it just came out last week, which makes it new too :)

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

Thanks. Incidentally, we never said there was anything "radical" or "threatening" going on. By deleting our posting and using those words, Mr. Weaks implied we are crackpots. All we said is that Golb's article offered a different perspective on whether the exhibit was good or not. Readers can judge for themselves.

Joe Weaks said...

Dear anonymous "We demand...",

You oughtn't find enemies where there are none. You weren't being censored. I removed none of your other posts/links. I experienced you has broadcasting the same material in a argumentative tone and so deleted it, that's all. I understand now that there was an additional article you referenced covering the KC exhibit as opposed to the Seattle one. I did not pick up on that sublety. I've triend to reinstate the comment but don't see a way to do that.
But seriously, you shouldn't pick fights where you aren't getting them. As I mentioned, Norman Golb's "Who Wrote The Dead Sea Scrolls?" is one of two books in my church library on the DSS. I've no political interested in maintaining anything in Qumran studies.
If I implied you are a crackpot, it's because you came across as one (odd name, bizarro blogs). Your blogger ID and the handful of one post shoutcast blogs you have throw up all kinds of red flags that this is an internet troll wreaking havoc. I apologize for not taking you seriously completely, but you have to understand how your identity can create such an impression.
I empathize with the frustration of your academic position. It causes you to resort to this type of posting m.o. You might however be mindful of inviting a better reception.

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

We're sorry if we made that impression. Admittedly, our name sounds ridiculous, but bear in mind that when we created our blog we were trying to call attention to something that no one seemed to be interested in. Now at least a few people seem to have picked up on it here and there.

All we said in our posting was that Golb has an article out entitled "Fact and Fiction in Current Exhibitions of the Dead Sea Scrolls—A Critical Notebook for Viewers," and it's available on the U of Chicago website at

Anyone who thinks the Kansas City exhibit was a good one may wish to reconsider his opinion after reading that article.

Thanks for not deleting!

Joe Weaks said...

These messages seemed unstable to me from the beginning. Now I see why: