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New exhibit reveals mysteries, intrigue of Dead Sea Scrolls

Posted June 25, 2008
Updated December 29, 2008

— In March 1947, Bedouin shepherds looking for lost sheep – and uncertain about what they might find – threw stones inside a dark cave near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in what is now Israel.

The rocks hit and broke clay jars nestled inside the cave, revealing several aging parchments. Looking to see if they were of any value, the shepherds traveled to nearby Bethlehem and sold them for 20 English pounds.

Little did they know that they had happened upon some of the earliest manuscripts, some dating to as early as 250 BC, of the Hebrew bible – to Christians, the Old Testament.

Over the next eight years, religious scholars, archaeologists and historians would discover hundreds of pieces of what are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls in 11 caves of the ancient settlement of Qumran.

Among their findings: more than 200 biblical manuscripts representing every book of the Old Testament, other religious works, legal documents, and literary texts – some of which now sit in a dimly lit, climate-controlled room at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh.

"Many of these pieces have never been on public display before, and a lot of the artifacts have not left Israel before," said Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University's religious studies department, director of the Jewish Studies Program and a consultant to the science museum.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, running until Jan. 4 with extended hours, features 12 scrolls – four of which have never been publicly displayed – and more than 100 artifacts from the Qumran ruins, everyday items from pottery to leather to sandals to basketry.

The exhibit, on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority, was created specifically for the museum and will never be recreated elsewhere.

"The general public can actually come and see authentic pieces that are 2,000 years old and recognize the biblical books from which they came and be able to experience this firsthand," Kohn said. "I think, for people living in North Carolina, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Six of the scroll fragments — among them are the Ten Commandments, the books of Genesis and Isaiah, and a Jewish book called Jubilees — will be on display three months and then switched out with six others.

The ancient texts are objects of great intrigue, mystery and debate among scholars, who disagree on the relics' origins, their authors and their interpretations of Jewish history and Christian origins.

Some argue the documents were taken to the caves and stored away for safekeeping; others say they were written by the inhabitants of Qumran.

That’s why the museum is hosting a series of eight lectures by experts across the state, nation and world to focus on the scrolls’ origins, place in history and other questions surrounding them.

The first lecture on July 17 focuses on who wrote the scrolls and why. Others topics, which run through the rest of the year, explore their role in early Christianity and the conservation of the manuscripts.

"We introduce all these theories and let individuals make up their own minds," Levitt Kohn said.

The scrolls are also objects of significance and importance and are widely considered to be among the greatest archaeological discoveries ever made.

“I’m sure that everyone who sees this will be touched, somehow,” said Pnina Shor, who’s been in charge of preserving the scrolls for the Israel Antiquities Authority for more than a decade.

Part of the reason for putting the pieces of parchments and related artifacts on display, she says, is to share with people the Israeli culture and the sense of community in the greater world.

“For me, this exhibition is supposed to bring people together to show the people of Raleigh, in this case, our common origins, to show that these scrolls, written 2000 years ago, show our common heritage,” Shor said.

“We’re here to bring culture. We’re here to bring the common heritage of the western world.”


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  • orange dude Jun 26, 2008

    religious or not, it would be cool to put my peepers on something written 2000 year ago, 10 bucks a head would make it a don't miss

  • patriotsrevenge Jun 26, 2008

    Thank you veyor, I must admit I was expecting a different response. Your response was concise and intelligent. Sorry if I made a bad assumption about your first post.

  • Historian snuck back in Jun 26, 2008

    I am really excited about this exhibit coming to Raleigh, I hope to be able to go. I agree, $22 is a little steep for most families though.

  • m0nky Jun 26, 2008

    L8ter: thats not what he's saying at all. theres nothing wrong with exposing your children to your beliefs, but making them believe it simply because its what you believe is what he finds wrong.

  • L8ter Jun 26, 2008

    jph21- "If you are so confident that it is the RIGHT way, why not let them experience the world and then decide for themselves?"

    So I guess what you are saying is that if you (in this case a parent) find something in life that you truly have come to love and appreciate...don't tell your children about it?? NICE!

  • doodad Jun 26, 2008

    Why not let them experience the world then decide for themselves?

    If they are breathing, I suspect they are experiencing the world along with the idealology they are being taught. The people in this world are pretty ugly at times.

  • A_Patriot Jun 26, 2008

    I am neither a religious nor an anti-religious person. I do harbor some belief that the Business of Faith has managed to keep Man "in the dark" on some things and leverage Man's "addiction" to worshipping a "higher power".

    That said, I can't wait to see this exhibit.

  • orange dude Jun 26, 2008

    66 bucks for a family of 3! There best be some beer and BBQ at this thing.

  • Gold Jun 26, 2008

    We saw the exhibit last night at an invitation-only preview event.

    Regardless of where you stand with religion, folks should go to see this. The image at the top of this story is a bit deceptive though (the picture shown is actually something on loan from Duke). The ACTUAL scrolls that are being exhibited are quite small, tiny and tattered fragments but they are fascinating. The exhibit also did a PROFOUND job of framing the historical context (again, not necessarily relgious) of the scrolls, their discovery, and the community in Israel where they were created and kept before Roman destruction. It would be a shame for people to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity...

  • merrywidow Jun 26, 2008

    I'm not christian, but I'm a history major so I'm definitely going to see the Scrolls!