They are mostly scraps of animal skin or papyrus. Written as scrolls, 90 percent are just fragments now, 2,000 years after ancient scribes set down their words in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.
Yet because these fragile documents contain the earliest known copies of texts sacred to all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – they inspire endless fascination for scholars, as well as amazement and even reverence for many others.
More than 60 years after the first of them were discovered in caves at Qumran, in the West Bank about 13 miles east of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea Scrolls are beginning the second phase of their modern existence.
The first consisted of finding, preserving, translating, and cataloging them. Now scholars increasingly are asking deeper and harder questions about context and meaning.
The scrolls are staying in the public mind in two ways: The first is a series of traveling exhibitions that allows large numbers of people to see these venerable objects, nearly all of which are held by two institutions – the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem, and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The latest and biggest exhibition to date (when including other artifacts), "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times," opened last month at Discovery Times Square in New York City. (See interview with the head of Discovery Times Square at right.)
In September the Israel Museum, with the help of Google, began putting its Dead Sea Scroll collection online, where it can be examined at leisure and in great detail. The separate IAA, with its own large collection of scrolls, is expected to follow suit in December. Both efforts will not only aid the work of scholars but will also open the scrolls to "crowd sourcing," where new insights might come from anyone who studies them online.
"Scroll study is a relatively new field," says Risa Levitt Kohn, co-curator of the New York exhibition and a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University. "There's still a lot of interesting work to come."
'We've just begun' to study them
At this point, "we've just run through all of the material kind of roughshod," says Martin Abegg, professor of religious studies and codirector of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. "Now we're going back and beginning to look at things more carefully and asking about connections within the material. So there's still quite a bit to be learned. We've just begun, really."
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."
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.
"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/