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Jewish Journal

Rare chance to see ancient biblical artifacts, documents

by Michele Chabin

March 5, 2014 | 1:29 pm

Illuminated Scroll of Esther manuscript; ink and pigment on parchment; Ferrara, Italy, circa 1615; on loan from Bill Gross. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

Illuminated Scroll of Esther manuscript; ink and pigment on parchment; Ferrara, Italy, circa 1615; on loan from Bill Gross. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

An exhibition of more than 200 of the world’s rarest biblical manuscripts is drawing big crowds to the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. 

The “Book of Books” exhibition will be housed at the museum through October. The museum, which contains a huge collection of artifacts produced in lands mentioned in the Bible, is across the street and just a couple hundred feet from the permanent Dead Sea Scrolls collection at the Israel Museum. Seen together, the two exhibitions provide a once-in-a-lifetime look at the holiest texts of Judaism and Christianity. 

Located on the lower level of the Bible Lands Museum, “Book of Books” explores the development of the Bible and the spread of Judaism and Christianity from the time of the Second Temple some 2,000 years ago through the Middle Ages and the invention of movable type and printing. 

Bible Lands Museum, which is calling the exhibition that opened in October 2013 “historic” and “unprecedented,” features fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible — the Tanakh), the earliest New Testament scriptures, beautiful illuminated manuscripts, rare texts from the Cairo Genizah (a treasury of ancient Jewish texts discovered in an Egyptian synagogue) and original pages from a Gutenberg Bible. 

The artifacts that accompany the texts — ancient coins bearing religious symbols, incantation bowls — are reminders that text was just one way people expressed their religious beliefs and practices.  

The exhibition is being shown in a dimly lit but artfully designed hall to preserve the fragile, light-sensitive texts. Many have brilliantly colored illustrations and are in remarkably good condition. 

For lovers of rare religious books and manuscripts, entering the hall is the closest thing to paradise. Having the chance to see any one of these items would be a treat. Viewing them together is a rare opportunity. 

Most of the items on exhibit belong to a vast, 40,000-piece collection amassed by Steve Green, the devoutly Christian president of Hobby Lobby, the American crafts store chain founded by his father. He began collecting the biblical treasures just a few years ago and is in the process of building a 400,000-square-foot museum and institute in Washington, D.C., to permanently house the collection.  

Speaking at the opening, which was attended by the Green family, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau commented about the relationship between the Bible and the Jewish people. 

“The reason why we are here in this land is a result of the Book of Books, the Bible. The Bible is the identification document of the Jewish people. It is impossible not to feel emotion when viewing this exhibition, and when you read these texts you become connected to them.”

The exhibition traces the evolution of the Bible from its roots in the Judean Desert to Greece, Egypt, the rest of the Middle East and eventually Europe, and it reveals how the texts were adopted, edited and transformed not only by Christians but also Jews. In so doing, it calls attention to the Jewish roots of Christianity, the migration of Jews from the Land of Israel, and how a single “book” could have such a profound influence on the world and its religions — in an age before electricity, printing presses and the Internet.  

Given today’s globalization, it’s easy to forget that translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Arabic, Latin, German, English and numerous other languages found in the exhibition was a massive undertaking. Canonized some time around the Second Temple period (70 C.E.), all biblical texts were painstakingly handwritten until Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable type printing press in the 1400s.  

The exhibition, which runs more or less chronologically, begins with an ancient inscription of the Shema prayer and ends with an actual demonstration of how books were printed on the Gutenberg printing press (one of the exhibition’s only facsimiles). 

Gutenberg Bible leaf, I Samuel (Latin); print and pigment on paper; Mainz, Germany, circa 1450. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

With a collection this rich, it is difficult to single out just a few of the best items, but it does include the works of two of Israel’s tiniest minorities: a Samaritan Pentateuch from the 12th to 13th centuries, and a Karaite Book of Prophets from the 11th to 12th centuries. 

Arguably the most unusual document is the Compilacion Historiae Totius Bible, a 14th century Latin chronicle of biblical history from Adam to Jesus that unfolds like a giant accordion. The document contains marvelous genealogical trees, and lists popes, emperors and kings.   

One particularly beautiful Jewish text is one of the earliest illuminated Scrolls of Esther. It was created by the Italian artist and scribe Moshe Pescarolo in 1615. All of the characters in the exquisitely illustrated Megillah are depicted in 17th century clothing. 

Other noteworthy items include “The Confessions of the Jews,” an anti-Semitic essay written in Latin in 1508 by a Jew who converted to Christianity; a public debate between a Christian and a Jew from 1529; and incantation bowls: vessels inscribed with spells that Jews in Iraq buried outside their homes to catch demons.  

Rachel Selby, a Jerusalem English teacher originally from England, called the exhibition inspiring. 

“Looking at the ancient parchments of Torah on the scroll from the 14th century, I was thrilled that my Hebrew school education from London in the 1970s allowed me to pick out the Hebrew phrases, read them and even understand what I read. It sent a shiver down my spine, actually.”

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