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A Historical Heavyweight


The San Diego Natural History Museum hosts the biggest exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls ever assembled

ONE OF THE GREATEST archaeological finds of the 20th century was launched 60 years ago by a Bedouin shepherd looking for a lost goat.

According to the story, the young man hoped to coerce the reticent animal by throwing stones into the recesses of the rocky cliffs of Qumran, a site near the Dead Sea between the modern-day boundaries of Jordan and Israel. The sound of pottery shattering caused the curious shepherd to climb up and investigate. Inside a dark hole barely large enough to squeeze through, the shepherd found seven ancient manuscripts, some rolled up inside large cylindrical vessels. Their obvious age suggested the possibility of a rare find.

The scrolls were taken to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, who tried to sell them. Some of the documents were purchased by Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem, who is widely credited for bringing the scrolls to the attention of the world.

Over the next decade, thousands of fragments were discovered in Qumran. When pieced together, they formed about 900 documents we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were ancient community laws and hymns. But the most provocative find was 230 Biblical manuscripts from the Old Testament—nearly 1,000 years older than any previously known copies.

On June 29, the San Diego Natural History Museum presents the largest, longest and most comprehensive exhibit of Dead Sea Scrolls ever assembled. Ancient artifacts and 27 scrolls are displayed in a joint production among the museum, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, at a cost of $6 million. The show continues through December, long enough to coincide with the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, which will be held in San Diego in November. It’s the largest gathering of religion scholars in the world, a group that will undoubtedly find the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit irresistible.

The show features the Deuteronomy manuscripts, which include the Ten Commandments, and scrolls from the Book of Psalms with a fragment attesting their authorship to King David. The museum also collaborated with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities to acquire the Copper Scroll, a manuscript never before seen in North America. It’s a record of secret places where silver and gold was hidden, possibly from the Temple of Jerusalem.

The ancient biblical documents, written in a time of upheaval, are linked to many religions.

“Certain passages, especially from Psalms and Isaiah, speak to Christians about the coming of Jesus,” says museum curator Risa Levitt Kohn, who is also the director of the Jewish Studies program at San Diego State University and an associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism in SDSU’s Religious Studies department. “For Jews, it’s the idea that these are the oldest copies of the Bible we have. In modern Jewish worship, the Bible and reading the Torah is central. There are passages in the Psalms that will be in San Diego that are still used today in modern synagogues.”

The scrolls are also important to Islam because they contain the earliest known text of part of their history, as well as the history of Jews and Christians. Mormons will recognize the name “Alma, son of Judah” on an ancient land deed, which has a connection to the Alma in the Book of Mormon.

TO HELP UNDERSTAND the scrolls and put them in context, the exhibit is supplemented with contemporary interpretations. Panoramic photog- raphy provides a sense of place by illustrating the geographical similarities between San Diego, Israel and Jordan.

Artifacts such as textiles and scroll jars, leather sandals, an inkwell and ancient coins offer a window to the past, while a virtual-reality tour whisks viewers to the archaeological site of Qumran’s caves on a giant screen in the museum’s theater.

Another part of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit explores the scientific methods used to preserve and prepare the documents—mostly leather parchment printed with a carbon-based ink. Specialists utilized DNA and chemical analysis, infrared technology and carbon-14 dating (a method of estimating the age of organic material) to decipher text. Because the scrolls are fragile and can only be exposed to light for three months at a time, the first set of scrolls will be exchanged for a new set in October.

Beginning next month, a Distinguished Lecture Series will bring 22 scholars to San Diego. The professors, all of whom have earned doctorates, will discuss the many issues surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls at 6:30 and 8 p.m. on Mondays in the Charmaine & Maurice Kaplan Theater.

The most-debated topics concern the identity of those who authored the documents and their relationship to the caves at Qumran. Some believe the site was home to the Essenes, a Jewish religious sect that did not survive the Roman destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. Others wonder if the discovery was a Roman villa or a pottery factory.

Many of the scholars in the series have devoted a large portion of their lives to studying the scrolls and their implications. One of the more remarkable characteristics pertains to the accuracy with which Jewish scribes preserved Bibical text. The Ten Commandments we read today are essentially the same words documented thousands of years ago.

Professor Peter Flint, co-editor of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible with Eugene Ulrich and Martin G. Agegg Jr., says that for him, the scrolls answer the question “Is the Bible reliable?”

“The scrolls demonstrate that our Bible is 99 percent accurate,” says Flint, a Christian and the director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute in Canada. “I didn’t say 100 percent, because there are sections where there has been a lost verse. I’ve also come to understand Judaism, in all its variety and richness, during the time of Jesus.”

Lawrence Schiffman, an orthodox Jew and Edelman professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, says there was an ironic aspect to his work. While the outside world gossiped and raged over the scrolls, many of the international scholars involved in their research became a model for Jewish-Christian relations.

“When we all started, we didn’t really know the literature or the religion of the others,” he says. “I was compelled to study the New Testament. and Christian colleagues were compelled to study all kinds of Rabbinic and Talmudic stuff. There was an understanding of each other’s ancient traditions, which fostered a deepening relationship.”

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