Dead Sea Scrolls make stop in Philadelphia

    The Dead Sea Scrolls are now in Philadelphia. The ancient texts, written in Hebrew on parchment and stored in clay jars for two millennia, reveal much about the origins of Judaism.

    In the traveling show opening Saturday at the Franklin Institute, “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” the scrolls are the last things visitors see. It begins with large, high-definition projections of lapping waves at the Dead Sea.

    “In the dry caves at the lowest point on Earth, that scroll survived for 2,000 years, until a shepherd who couldn’t read it stumbled on an open jar,” an actor in the room recites dramatically. “His find led to nothing less that the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible.”

    This is not the first time the scrolls have visited the U.S. from Israel, but it might be the most theatrical tour. In a series of black rooms, each dimly lit, are pottery, coins, and carved stone from an array of civilizations and religions centered on what is now Jerusalem.

    In the last room, arranged on the edge of an enormous, round table, are selections of fragments from more than 900 scrolls found near the ancient city of Qumran on the Dead Sea shore.   Some of the scrolls are texts of well-known parts of the Hebrew Bible; others tell previously unknown stories about Biblical figures or seem to be documents written for use by an ascetic community of Jews.

    The deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Uzi Dahari, says the scrolls show the pagan origins of Judaism.

    “The biblical story is beautiful, telling a beautiful and nice story, but the archaeological evidence in the holy land show that the picture was much more complicated than the biblical story,” said Dahari. “We can show with archaeological excavations that monotheism was an evolution — step by step. Step by step. And it changed through time, from about 1000 B.C. until the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is about 0 B.C. Judaism emerged step by step.”

    The scrolls are also important to scholars of early Christianity, because some of them date to the period when followers of Jesus began to differentiate themselves into sects distinct from the Jews.

    The main job of the Israel Antiquities Authority is not to interpret the scrolls, but to preserve them. Dahari says significant damage was done by conservators in the 1950s, who held the scrolls together with Scotch tape.

    Dead Sea Scrolls – Life and Faith in Ancient Times runs from May 12 through Oct. 14 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 

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