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Dead sea scrolls come alive

Ancient Dead Sea Scrolls find new accessibility in New York's bustling Times Square.

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While opening up study of the scrolls to an online audience is welcomed by scholars, they don't dismiss what's to be gained by seeing them in person. "I think many [people] are just amazed and fascinated to look at a piece of writing that's 2,000 years old, that may be from a text that they're familiar with," Dr. Kohn says. "Some of the scrolls are amazingly clear and in really good condition."

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Just as with ancient art and architecture, seeing the scrolls in person is an encounter with "the ancients themselves," says William Yarchin, a scrolls aficionado and professor of biblical studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif. "You are in the presence of the ancient...." It may sound hokey, he says, but "there is some sort of communion or contact ... that cannot be duplicated" by viewing a photograph or online image.

The New York exhibition includes 20 of the more than 900 scrolls that were found in the Qumran caves, mostly between 1947 and 1956. Because of their sensitivity to light, 10 scrolls will be shown to the public for the first 90 days and 10 others for the second 90 days of the exhibition, which ends April 15, 2012.

Twenty other scrolls will repeat this pattern when the exhibition moves to Philadelphia's Franklin Institute in May 2012.

"They're made of organic materials, and therefore they're very vulnerable," says Pnina Shor, whose job at the IAA is to guard the scrolls for posterity and who oversaw their trip to New York and placement in the exhibit. "They lasted for 2,000 years in the caves. What we're trying to do is to preserve them for at least 2,000 years more."

At each locale, four of the scrolls on display will have never been seen in North America before. About 25 percent of the scrolls are biblical texts; others are commentaries on biblical books or other religious or secular texts. The New York exhibit includes all or part of the biblical books of Psalms, Levi­ticus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Job.

Accompanying the scrolls are nearly 600 related objects found by archaeologists, including coins, weapons, jewelry, and pottery. Some, from very recent excavations, have not been displayed in public before, even in Israel.

A two-ton, touchable artifact

A two-ton stone, believed to have been part of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans two millenniums ago, is by far the largest object. Because the scrolls are inside climate-controlled cases, "We wanted people to be able to touch something," Kohn says.

The scrolls are 10 centuries older than any previously known copies of biblical texts. In some cases they agree very closely with much later copies; in other cases, they show intriguing differences.

What the scrolls could reveal in the future excites scholars.

"Without a context, texts like the [Bible's] Gospels can mean anything we want or nothing at all," says James Charlesworth, the director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project, in an e-mail from Jerusalem. "Now the scrolls provide the intellectual landscape [for understanding] Jesus and other early Jews."

• The Israel Museum's Dead Sea Scrolls are viewable online at: dss.collections.imj.org.il/

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