How did the Bible spread? Jerusalem exhibit traces a remarkable journey.

‘The Book of Books’ displays 200 of the rarest biblical manuscripts in an illuminating tale of how the world’s most-published book came to be.

Ardon Bar-Hama/Courtesy of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem
This 17th-century illuminated scroll, on loan from Bill Gross, depicts the Biblical story of Esther and is part of the new Book of Books exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem.

Copied by Jewish scribes and Christian monks. Written on everything from tiny silver scrolls to papyrus that turned brittle with time. First published for a mass audience by Gutenberg; now available in 2,800 languages. 

These are fragments of the story of how the Bible evolved from the days of ancient Israel to the days of Barnes and Noble.

Now the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem has launched a landmark exhibit tracing that story, drawn largely from the collection of American philanthropist Steve Green.

“The Book of Books” exhibit is notable not only for its rare manuscripts but also its unusual balance between the Jewish and Christian narratives, and the reverence with which it treats both. Aiming to enrich both communities’ understanding of how the Bible has shaped Judeo-Christian civilization, it focuses on the development of the texts of the Bible rather than the development of divergent doctrines.

“We are trying to give a sense of how, as I jokingly say, ‘our Bible’ and ‘their Bible’ spread in our society and civilization,” says Lawrence Schiffman, vice provost and professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University in New York, who helped shape the exhibit. “We’re able to show everybody, artistically and technically, how those texts spread through our civilization and affected our civilization, and to do that in a way that everybody appreciates and sees the commonalities.”

The exhibit is visually stunning, from a second-century Greek Septuagint on papyrus to a 1450 Gutenberg Bible leaf to an illuminated 17th -century Hebrew scroll depicting the story of Esther. IPad displays zoom in on ancient scrolls and codexes and get forensic views of nearly invisible lettering. As visitors trace the path of those who copied the Bible in myriad languages, the floors change from the sands of the Sinai to the cobblestones of Europe – the last exhibit’s last stop, where visitors can get a freshly printed page off a replica Gutenberg press and see early editions of the King James Version.

Deciphering an erased Aramaic text

Most of The Book of Books exhibit comes from the collection of Mr. Green, president of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, who has been steadily acquiring an impressive array of manuscripts and artifacts.

Among Green’s most treasured pieces is the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which features two Syriac treatises written on top of earlier Aramaic and Greek biblical texts. Green says it’s the largest remaining scripture in Palestinian Aramaic, the language closest to Jesus’s household language.

But some of the codex is not visible to the naked eye because the later writer, fishing around for a bit of parchment in the 9th  century (very expensive in those days), partially erased the earlier text before writing on top of it. Oxford University has helped to bring to light the underlying text, and now Cambridge scholars are working to decipher it.

So what motivates a successful businessman to go on a global chase not only for such fragments, but their meaning as well?  

“[The Bible] didn’t show up on a bookshelf one day – there were blood and sweat and tears to give us what we have today,” says Green by phone from his Oklahoma office, crediting those whose meticulous transcription and translation led to modern Bible versions. “If we have a greater appreciation for them, then hopefully people will be more engaged.”

He is planning to open a Bible museum in Washington, D.C., in 2017, which aims to engage the public through three avenues: the stories, history, and impact of the Bible, including on the founding of America.

Part of a broader mission

While much of the material in the Book of Books exhibit will be incorporated into the Washington museum, its current configuration is uniquely designed for a Jerusalem audience. 

Though modern Israel encompasses most of the key locations of Jesus’ ministry, many Israelis grow up with little exposure to the history, beliefs, or followers of Christianity, who today make up just 2 percent of the population in Jerusalem. 

Museum director Amanda Weiss recalls one Israeli student years ago asking: “If Judaism and Christianity really come from the same source, why is there such animosity and hostility and in many places hatred, fear, bigotry between Christians and Jews?” 

That’s the sort of question that the museum strives to both spark and answer, and The Book of Books exhibit has provided an unique avenue for emphasizing that common roots – understood and appreciated – can produce better modern-day relations. 

“I think there’s no more fitting opportunity to really understand the Bible and the development of the Bible in text – how it was codified and how it developed in Judaism and Christianity than through the Book of Books exhibition,” says Weiss, pausing near the exit of the museum to read a passage of Scripture on the wall: 

Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, … that He may instruct us in his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

“We can’t say it any better than the Bible can,” she says.

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