Dead Sea Scrolls come to Canada

Published June 29, 2009

The Book of War, one of the scrolls that describes a ceremonial blessing to be recited after the final battle at the end of time.View of one of the Qumran caves, where many of the scrolls were found.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto has unveiled a controversial exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which will run until Jan. 3.

Concealed in desert caves near the Dead Sea for 2,000 years, the scrolls contain some of the oldest-known copies of biblical books as well as hymns, prayers and other writings. In the first three months of the exhibit, the ROM will display fragments of Genesis, Psalms and Daniel. From October to January, the exhibit will display fragments of Deuteronomy, Psalms and Isaiah.

The exhibit, which is a partnership between the ROM and the Israel Antiquities Authority, opened in spite of objections from Palestinian officials who had appealed to the ROM and to the federal government to stop it.

The Palestinian Authority charges that Israel illegally obtained the scrolls from the Jordanian-owned Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem in 1967. Ahmed Taha, Palestinian deputy minister of tourism, told CBC: “We would like that the Canadian people and the Canadian government officials …understand the Palestinian point of view: that such an exhibition, in this way, will have an adverse consequence on … Palestinian cultural rights.”

But the museum decided that the scrolls’ ownership is legal and the exhibit is supported by both the federal and Ontario provincial governments.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947 by Bedouin goat herders who took them to an Armenian shoemaker who dabbled in antiquities. He had a difficult time convincing authorities of the scrolls’ authenticity but eventually succeeded. More than 100,000 fragments of text were found in 11 caves in a cliff near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, and scholars have since pieced together more than 900 documents from those fragments, which were mostly written in Hebrew on leather and papyrus (reed paper). Some texts were also written in Aramaic and Greek. Although the origins of the Scrolls are a mystery, one popular theory is that they were created by the Essenes, a Jewish sect, that hid the manuscripts when the Romans invaded around 68 CE.

At the official opening, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said, “My hope is that all people, people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds will come together to marvel at these scrolls and take this as an opportunity to discuss (their) meaning.”

“When we started this, we knew it was much more than an exhibition of artifacts, archaeology and antiquity, it is about ideas,” said William Thorsell, director and CEO of the ROM, “… and we started off recognizing that the multi-faith aspects of this content was absolutely essential, particularly in Ontario, particularly in Canada, which is defined now by conversation among different communities. What better place to take this exhibition and put it into the context of Islam, Christianity and Judaism….”

And when describing a series of scholarly lectures that will run into December along with the exhibit, he said, “This is all about creating conversation, challenge, learning, response, illumination, probably a little heat from time to time, that’s what sacred documents of this age are bound to do.”

The exhibit also includes many other archeological artifacts of the age such as stones from temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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