In first, museum melds two millennia of Jewish and Christian texts

Bible Lands Museum launches display of scores of rare manuscripts — from the Greek Septuagint to Gutenberg

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Martin Luther's translation of the Old Testament (German). Print, woodcut and pigment on paper, leather binding, brass clasps. Wittenberg, Germany, 1525. (photo credit: Hanna Rhymes, Green Collection)
Martin Luther's translation of the Old Testament (German). Print, woodcut and pigment on paper, leather binding, brass clasps. Wittenberg, Germany, 1525. (photo credit: Hanna Rhymes, Green Collection)

Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum on Wednesday inaugurated a new traveling exhibition of rare Biblical texts and artifacts spanning two millennia, from lands as disparate and distant as Germany and Iraq, and written in at least a half a dozen languages.

The exhibit, entitled “The Book of Books,” compiles over 200 texts with the ambitious aim of presenting the history of the Judeo-Christian document over the course of Western history through its textual heritage. Among the documents on display are fragments of the earliest Greek translation of the Bible — the Septuagint — early New Testament scriptures, vibrant illuminated manuscripts, rare fragments from the Cairo Geniza and pages from the Gutenberg Bible, the first set to print.

Curators said instead of sticking to illegible, dusty, leather-bound tomes, they combined curious artifacts and exotic documents — such as prayer amulets engraved on silver rolls, 1,500-year-old Iraqi incantation bowls and elaborately illustrated prayer books — to animate the exhibit.

Among the gems of the exhibition is the Green Collection’s Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a 6th to 8th century CE palimpsest whose Greek and Palestinian Aramaic Gospels were overwritten with Syriac.

The gallery also has a working reproduction of a Gutenberg-era printing press, replete with period-dress printer.

The project was “unlike anything we’ve done before,” said Bible Lands Museum Director Amanda Weiss at the gala kickoff of the exhibition. “It’s a marriage of two cultures, two faiths” which incorporates cutting edge technology to present ancient manuscripts with “a courageous design concept.”

The varied assemblage of scrolls, codices, papyri and parchment comes from several different sources — a vast number of which are on loan from the Green Collection, the world’s largest private collection of biblical texts and artifacts.

Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and benefactor of the collection, said that although the 40,000 biblical antiquities are based far from Jerusalem in Oklahoma, “we hope this exhibit will bring us together and unite us under a book we all love, the scriptures.”

“It is exciting to be right here in Jerusalem where many of these items come from,” he said.

Green, an evangelical Christian, recently revealed he would house what he calls “the world’s oldest Jewish prayer book,” said to date from 840, which he purchased a year ago, in a museum being built to house the collection in Washington D.C.

The 400,000 square foot museum, situated two blocks from the US Capitol building in Washington DC, will also house the exhibit on display in Jerusalem. It is set to open to the public in 2017.

“We’ll be able to tell three different stories,” Green said, “the history of the Bible, the impact of the Bible, and the Bible’s story — what does the Bible say.”

The Green family was accused of anti-Semitism last month after the Hobby Lobby chain of stores said it would not stock Hanukkah-themed products. The store later agreed to put Jewish holiday bric-a-brac on its shelves.

For Green, the Book of Books exhibit is only the tip of the iceberg. He said his foundation’s long term ambition is not only the advancement of biblical education through the museum, but “developing a curriculum that we are looking at going into public schools in the US as well as places all across the world.”

The Green family’s Christian bent could potentially have caused friction in Jerusalem, and Weiss said the four years to conceive, assemble, and curate the project were not without difficulties.

“It’s not an easy thing for a museum in Jerusalem to take on and exhibition that is a knowingly Christian initiative and to do it in a way that is appropriate to our entire audience,” she said, referring to the Green Collection and Scholars Initiative. “And so we embarked on a journey of learning to understand each other, to respect each other, and the important issues that had to be handled in an appropriate way.”

“There’s no other museum dedicated to the history of the Bible, which is why this exhibition in this museum and at this time is so wonderfully important,” Weiss said.

The exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum runs through May 2014, at which point it travels to the Vatican and then Seoul, South Korea.

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