Speaking at a 2017 academic conference, a scholar of ancient Judaism condemned fellow professors of Jewish studies who had worked as consultants for the Washington, DC Museum of the Bible as “court Jews” who had “taken their 30 pieces of silver from the Green family”—referring to the owners of Hobby Lobby who have funded the museum. Even setting such rhetoric aside, the museum has made real mistakes: acquiring fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments, illegally imported Iraqi artifacts, and thousands of items it has since deemed “improperly provenanced.”
Yet, Menachem Wecker writes, Jewish scholars are at last coming to appreciate the museum, which has gone to great lengths to call on their expertise, as well as to improve its acquisitions process. And its possession of such treasures as a medieval manuscript of the Five Books of Moses, dubbed the Washington Pentateuch, helps:
Weighing between twenty and 30 pounds and consisting of 247 folios (or about 500 single-sided pages), [the Pentateuch] is a kind of collage, about 90 percent of which one scribe penned around the year 1000. Another scribe, Joseph ben Jacob, wrote 21 folios—in Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Numbers—in 1141, and it’s unclear when these replaced original ones. A different medieval hand wrote seven other folios at an unknown time.
The Pentateuch may initially seem unremarkable to Hebrew readers, to whom it may look like any Hebrew Bible they would buy at a bookstore. Marginal notes flank biblical passages, which form the center of the page and have trop (cantillation marks) and [diacritics that mark] vowels. But those two additions that biblical readers so take for granted today were innovations of 6th- to 10th-century Babylonian and Palestinian Jewish scribes, known as Masoretes.
I put more than a decade of biblical-Hebrew and rabbinic-Aramaic training to use by closely examining the spread, spanning Exodus 14:28 to 15:21, to which the Pentateuch was open in the exhibit. . . . Masoretic notations, here arranged in triangular configurations, respond . . . to an unusual word in Exodus 15:2. Working through faded ink and confusing penmanship, I realized the scribe detailed other biblical iterations of the rare word’s root: Isaiah 33:10, Daniel 4:34, Nehemiah 9:5, Isaiah 33:3, Ezekiel 10:17, and Psalm 118:28.