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The Dead Sea Scrolls are in self-isolation — but they mean more than ever

In the weeks since the Israel Museum temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, Hagit Maoz, a curator there, has been dreaming of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In one of her dreams, the Great Isaiah Scroll, the oldest full version of the Book of Isaiah, has somehow come loose from its case. The parchment, free, flies away.

Maoz told me about her dream in a phone interview last month from her home in Ramat Raziel, near Jerusalem. At the time, she was adjusting to the new reality of spending her days there, instead of the museum, where she has worked for 21 years. Since 2016, she has been the curator at the Shrine of the Book, the hushed repository for the museum’s eight Dead Sea Scrolls. (The museum holds the most impressive scrolls; others are dispersed around the world.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which include some of the earliest biblical texts, are considered the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century. Maoz is one of the people charged with their safekeeping. Yet when I asked if the coronavirus had spurred fears over their fate — as her dream seemed to suggest — she brushed my question away. She knows exactly where the museum’s scrolls are: behind five locked doors in a humidity and temperature-controlled vault at the Shrine of the Book. She put them there herself.

For most of their 2,000 year history, the scrolls were hidden in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea. Since their discovery in the 1940s and 50s, they have been on a steady path to celebrity. Before the pandemic, up to 3,000 people visited the Shrine of the Book every day. Now, no one knows exactly when the public will see the scrolls in person again. The museum’s entire trove has returned to indefinite hiding. Among the many losses of the coronavirus, it is a small but disorienting one.

This marks the first time since a 2004 renovation that all of the scrolls have moved into the vault. Maoz made the call almost as soon as she learned of the museum’s closure. The shut down portends untold challenges for the museum — a dizzying loss of ticket and restaurant sales, around 200 workers placed on leave, a steep transition to online programming — but she saw it as an opportunity. It was a good time to clean the Shrine of the Book.

Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum

The cleaning of the Shrine of the Book. Image by Courtesy of the Israel Museum

The Shrine of the Book, a shining white meringue-shaped building, was designed to emulate the lids of the clay jars in which the first scrolls were discovered. The interior walls are ribbed, making them complicated to clean. The facility last enjoyed a full scrubbing during the 2004 renovation. Since then, millions of people have walked through the entry hall, meant to evoke both a series of caves and a birth canal, and into the main atrium to marvel at the texts. “People who come from all over the world bring their dust with them,” said Maoz.

In order for the cleaning to take place — it’s a four-day operation conducted by four conservators — Maoz had to first place the scrolls in the vault. Thus, at 10:00 in the morning on March 15, Maoz and the museum’s head of conservation, Sharon Tager, donned blue medical gloves and began the slow process of extricating the scrolls from the exhibit, piece by piece.

Each section floats in what Maoz calls a “cassette,” a kind of protective box made up of multiple layers. The parchment lies between two pieces of Danish linen so fine that they are virtually invisible to the naked eye; to minimize movement, the linens are stitched together around the border of the scroll. Below the scroll, offset by a spacer, are sheets of absorbent material to regulate the moisture level. Then come two layers of plexiglass, one above and one below, also offset by spacers.

The cassettes are exhibited horizontally — a vertical position risks cracks in the parchment over time — behind three layers of glass in shatter-proof showcases imported from Italy. Under the eye of an armed museum guard, Maoz and Tager unlocked the first case and opened it, revealing a piece of the War Scroll, which tells the story of the seven-stage battle between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness.” Working together, they lifted the cassette out of the case and placed it into a specially fitted acid-free cardboard box.

The pair then slowly walked the scroll section into the vault, passing through five open doors to place it onto a shelf in the innermost room, so secure that only Maoz and three other museum employees have permission to enter. When they returned, they closed the case, opened the next one, and started the process over again. The vault is just 10 or so yards from the exhibit, but it took around 90 minutes for them to complete the task.

More than a storage unit, the vault is a kind of convalescent home. Their delicate parchment is sensitive to even the low light of the exhibit, so in typical times, the scrolls on display are rotated out every three months to minimize their exposure so they can “rest.” With all of the scrolls now in the vault, they will have a long-deserved communal sleep. “They will rest in peace,” said Maoz.

To call the coronavirus a new chapter in the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls would be a vast overstatement. It is merely a brief footnote to the modern story, which began in 1947 when Bedouin shepherds discovered the first seven scrolls. It was a discovery that forever changed Jewish and Christian scholarship, moving back the date on the oldest known collection of biblical manuscripts by about 1,000 years. It also deepened and transformed belief. Christians see the scrolls as part of the story of Jesus in the first century; Zionists view them as evidence of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel.

But if it is just a footnote, it is an eerily resonant one, harkening back to another, ancient period. One dominant theory holds that the scrolls — which date to between the third century BCE and the first century CE — comprised the library of a radical Jewish sect which decamped from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea area over religious disputes regarding purity, tithing, and the calendar. The sect vowed to return to Jerusalem to purify the holy city but its plans were foiled by war. In 68 CE, invading Romans wiped out the settlement en route to Jerusalem to quell the Jewish rebellion. According to this theory, members of the sect stashed the scrolls into the cave for safekeeping, never to return. Today, the scrolls have again been stashed, though this time, the invading enemy is not an army, but a virus. The scrolls may have gone back to the cave, so to speak, but they haven’t disappeared. Several scrolls have been digitized by Google, using NASA technology. In 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authorities announced a free digital library where visitors could peruse these images. Touted as “equivalent in quality to the original scrolls,” they obviate the need to go to Jerusalem to get a good look.

But people still go; the Shrine of the Book is one of the city’s major tourist destinations. Strangely, many visitors erroneously believe that the exhibit displays mostly copies; Tripadvisor is full of petulant comments by people disappointed not to see the “real” scrolls. According to Maoz, this fiction is partly spread by misinformed tour guides. In fact, there is only one replica on display, the Great Isaiah Scroll, which fills an eye-catching vertical case in the shape of a giant inkwell. The original Isaiah, too sensitive to stand upright, lies nearby.

The desire to get close to the scrolls, and only the real scrolls, is part of what has propelled a cottage industry of forgeries. In March, National Geographic revealed that all 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington are fakes.

For many, seeing the originals is about more than checking off an item on a bucket list; it is an act of deep reverence. Adolfo Roitman, the head of the Shrine of the Book, told me that the scrolls have the power to transport people through “the tunnel of time,” where they can imagine the scribe in front of their eyes. The manuscripts serve as a “physical remnant” or a “metaphor” of a world that we can no longer touch. “There is no way to be a part of that history except for the fact that people have the chance to look at the originals,” he said.

Viewing the scrolls, in other words, has the potential to root us in our collective story, reminding us — in shades of sand-colored parchment — of the human continuum that stretches far behind us. It is a bitter irony that at the moment when we could use such a reminder — when so much of life feels anomalous and unfamiliar — the scrolls are inaccessible, locked away in the vault. We can still see the scrolls on our screens, just like we can still meet our friends, family, and colleagues over Zoom. But we know that it isn’t the same.

Yet we might find a shred of comfort in the fact that, for the moment, we are in the same position as the scrolls. They are sheltering in place for their own protection; many of us are, too. Maoz told me that she misses the scrolls. But one day, she will bring them back out of the vault. Most of us, at least the lucky ones, will get to exit the vault, too. At that point, perhaps we will all meet in Jerusalem.

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