Dead Sea Scrolls: In a world of hype, the real deal

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2010 - 9:48 AM

In a culture that has grown numb to exaggeration, experts reach for ways to drive home the exhibit's significance.

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Rabbi Lynn Liberman of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Science Museum.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Intriguing. Inspirational. Awesome. Michael Wise wishes these words weren't overdone on movie ads and celebrity magazine covers, because he has a much better use for them now -- the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that opens Friday at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

"We are a culture that revolves around hype," said the professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient languages at Northwestern College in Roseville. "Every time I stand in the line at the grocery store I see huge headlines about Brad and Angelina. We use these words so much that they no longer mean anything."

But it's no hype when he talks of this "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"This time, those words really apply," Wise said. The exhibit is of unparalleled religious, historical and cultural importance; "this is something that you very likely never will see again."

The 2,000-year-old scrolls that are on exhibit will be rotated to spare them damage from lights in the display cases.

"Even for someone like me who has been to exhibits in other cities and has been to Jerusalem to study the scrolls, I'll never see these particular scrolls again," Wise said.

A window back in time

The scrolls, the earliest written version of the Jewish Bible, which is also the Christian Old Testament, were discovered between the mid-1940s and mid-'50s in 11 caves along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

It's impossible to overstate their importance, said Alex Jassen, a professor of early Judaism at the University of Minnesota. For scholars, the scrolls' significance goes well beyond their status as sacred texts.

"Even if you're not interested in the religious aspect of them, they are crucial documents," he said.

"They were created at a time when there was no distinction between religious and secular literature. They talk about how the people understood the world and society, and they became a fundamental part of our culture as our society formed.

"There is something in there for everyone: science, history, culture, religion."

Rabbi Barry Cytron, religious studies professor at Macalester College, describes the scrolls as "a pressure cooker of religious ideas."

While public attention focuses on the scrolls that contain the books of the Bible, that accounts for only about 40 percent of them. The rest serve as the 2,000-year-old equivalent of op-ed pieces in which the authors argued over religion, discussions that eventually shaped modern-day faith.

"We like to think of everything as being cut-and-dried, but it turns out that it's not like that at all," he said. "These texts have muddied the waters, and I mean that in an intriguing way.

"When I went to rabbinical school, we were taught that Christianity grew out of Judaism in the first century.

"Now we realize that it was a much more complicated procedure than that, that it took from the first to the fourth century and that some aspects of Christianity actually emerged before rabbinic [mainstream] Judaism."

The power of the scrolls extends beyond their Judeo-Christian roots, said Hamdy El-Sawaf, an educator and co-founder of the Islamic University of Minnesota.

"These scrolls don't belong to any one religion," he said. "They bring us much closer to each other and lead the way to mutual understanding. In these times of conflict, they give us hope that we can go in the direction of reconciliation, peace and tolerance."

Pulling out all the stops

The Science Museum is going to unprecedented lengths to help visitors grasp the significance of the scrolls.

It has hired a team of presenters to stand inside the exhibit entrance and explain the importance of what people are about to see.

"These are some of the most widely read works in the history of Western civilization, influencing our culture, our language, our way of seeing the world," the presenters' script says.

The museum brought in experts to lecture to the staff. It even assigned homework: Every employee who will have anything to do with the scrolls was given a book, "The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls," and told to read it.

"In these writings lie the seeds of 2,000 years of Western civilization," says the book, which was the work of three British scholars.

Jassen doesn't think the museum is overdoing it.

"I realize that they just put on the Titanic exhibit, but this is bigger than that," he said. "For the people of the Twin Cities to have direct access to these documents ... well, I'm jazzed."

Wise gets goose bumps just thinking about being that close to the scrolls.

"These were written at the time of Jesus and Hillel, a rabbi who is considered one of the most important figures in Jewish history," he said. "Think about that while you are looking at the scrolls: The people who wrote that actually might have met Hillel and Jesus."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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  • The Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known texts of the Bible, are considered to be among the world's greatest archaeological discoveries.

    When: Friday through Oct. 24.

    Where: Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul.

    Hours: Opens at 9:30 a.m. daily. Closes at 7 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

    Tickets: $28; $22 for seniors (60 plus) and children (4 to 12). Discounts ($22/$18) for groups of 15 or more; reservations required for groups.

    Info: www.smm.org or call 651-221-9444 or 1-800-221-9444.

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