Why it matters that Obama visited the Dead Sea Scrolls


In this handout image supplied by the Government Press Office of Israel (GPO) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama visit the shrine of the book on March 21, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.



JERUSALEM — What did President Barack Obama see when he went to the Dead Sea Scrolls?

"Really old scraps," said one journalist accompanying the president. True, to an extent, but incomplete. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest known surviving manuscripts of Biblical texts, dating back to the Maccabean era, about 2,100 years ago, when the Judean Kingdom ruled before the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.

"I told the president I wanted him to understand that we had picked the jewel in the crown of our collections," said James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum, where the scrolls are housed in a building called The Shrine of the Book.

The scrolls are remnants of the culture of the ancient Jewish sect known as the Essenes, and contain everything from transcriptions of religious text to mundane rules of daily life.

In the eyes of many Israelis, they are virtually a deed to the land of Israel.

"The narrative of the scrolls is both about the continuity here of Jewish theology and also about the basis for other Western monotheistic faiths. They connect Isaiah to the New Testament," Snyder said.

The largest fragment seen by the president, at 24 feet long, is known as The Great Isaiah Scroll. It contains the first known incidence of the line "they will beat swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." (Isaiah 2:4)

Dr. Adolfo Roitman, the curator of The Shrine of the Book, explains that the Prophet Isaiah, who lived 2,800 years ago, remains "a central prophet for Judeo-Christian civilization," and the scroll, which was found in 1947 near the Dead Sea, a tangible link to his life.

"In all the Gospels, there is a single scene in which Jesus appears reading, (Luke, chapter 4), and he is reading the book of Isaiah, verse 61. No, not the one we have," he laughs, "but when you find yourself in front of this text of Isaiah, the physical testimony of the most ancient words of the prophet — what I always feel when I'm in front of that is a meta-temporal contact between that prophet, of whom there are no physical remains, and of his words."

Those words, he says, "carry a message of universal peace and social justice. It’s a text that chooses morality above the rite of the Temple. It’s a message as relevant today as it was 2,800 years ago."

"From the Jewish point of view, Roitman says, "whenever we use images of salvation, peace, redemption, messianic hope, the concept of universal hope, the text for that will always be Isaiah.

Isaiah is the most cited prophet in the New Testament of the Bible.

Snyder, who was visibly moved by his encounter with Obama, pointed out that in 10 years as deputy director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he had never met an American president.

"Here it’s the second time I've had the honor. It is very meaningful for me that culture was included in an agenda of a diplomatic trip like this.”