Baz Ratner, Reuters - Sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2008.
NEW YORK – For the first time ever, some of the most priceless -- and delicate -- writings from biblical times went on public display Friday.
It's part of "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times," an exhibition at the Discovery Times Square in New York City. Comprising roughly 500 artifacts, some dating back more than 3,000 years, it is one of the most comprehensive displays of artifacts from ancient Israel ever assembled.
"We wanted to piece together history," says Risa Leavitt Kohn, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University and one of the show's curators. The objects in the exhibit range from pottery and ancient altars to tomb artifacts (which some have speculated may be from Jesus' tomb) to the show’s centerpiece -- the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For many, viewing selected sections of the scrolls will be an enlightening experience. Ten sections are on display, ranging from text that later appears in both the Jewish and Christian Bibles to poems and rules for community conduct.
Among the scrolls are remarkable, non-biblical documents, such as the Book of War, which details an apocalyptic battle between angels representing good and evil. Also on public display for the first time are pieces of Aramaic Levi, in which a father explains priestly duties to his son, and Apocryphal Lamentations, ancient poetry concerning the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC.
"We wanted to show a sampling of all the different kinds of texts that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection," Kohn explained. The Dead Sea Scrolls are actually a collection of roughly 900 different texts written in Greek, Aramaic and ancient Hebrew that were uncovered in the 1940s and ’50s in series of 11 different caves. Scholars continue to pore over the tens of thousands of parchment fragments today.
Extreme care has been taken to preserve and protect the scrolls, which are some of the most fragile and important documents ever discovered. Along with the other objects in the exhibit, curators from the Israel Antiquities Authority brought them over on five different flights to prevent the loss of all the relics should an accident occur.
At the Discovery Times Square, the scrolls are housed in dimly lit cases to minimize damage from light, and they are kept at 50 percent humidity between 68 and 70 degrees. When visitors approach each section, a motion sensor turns on the display case lights. The first group of fragments will be on display for only 90 days, when another collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls will replace them, so that the first group can "rest" and avoid damage from overexposure.
Almost inconspicuous in the exhibit are six objects that have generated perhaps the most biblical and religious controversy in recent years, the so-called Jesus Tomb ossuaries. Ossuaries are stone boxes that were used to house the bones of the deceased in underground tombs during the time of Christ.
These particular boxes, discovered during construction of an apartment block in Jerusalem, are unusual because they bear inscriptions including the names Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Maria. Some scholars have suggested that this means it could be the final resting place of Jesus and his family.
Curators of the exhibit point out that these names were popular and common 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. Scores of ossuaries have been unearthed in recent years, and it's not uncommon to find the name Jesus, for example, scratched on an ossuary. Indeed, to underscore the point, the exhibit includes a tiny stone box bearing the name Jesus, assumed to have held the remains of a child found in another tomb.
Other highlights of the exhibit include a 3-ton stone from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, upon which some early visitors have already placed prayer notes, and a short video detailing the initial discovery of the first Dead Sea scrolls by Bedouin tribesmen and how the precious texts were secretly purchased from antiquities dealers.
The exhibition in New York City runs until April 15, 2012, and then travels to Philadelphia to go on display at the Franklin Institute.