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3,000 years of history comes to Utah with Dead Sea Scrolls

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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) A piece of papyrus containing fragments of text from Isaiah displayed in the Scroll Gallery at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City.

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Nov 21 2013 12:25PM
Updated Nov 22, 2013 09:19AM

Three thousand years of history — and a glimpse at the source material of scripture read by Jews, Christians and Muslims — goes on public view in Salt Lake City on Friday.

The new exhibit at The Leonardo, "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times," is an immersive look at the parchments that contain the earliest recorded version of the Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament — as well as hundreds of artifacts that reveal the way people lived in ancient Israel.

"Not everyone can make it to Israel, to the Holy Land," said David Siegel, consul general of Israel, at a media preview of the exhibit Thursday. "This is an opportunity to see it right here."

The preview included a videotaped message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who mentioned a recent meeting with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — and how Herbert mentioned that the Dead Sea Scrolls would be coming to Utah.

"That made a lot of sense," Netanyahu said, "because the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a dead sea. That’s a salt lake. So they would be going to another salt lake."

The connection, Netanyahu said, is "more than a geographic coincidence, it’s also one where you have a closeness of the heart."

The scriptures contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Netanyahu said, contain "the common values and aspirations that have made the Jewish people what it is, and have made the Western civilization that emanated from there what it is. And I know we have many, many friends in America, and many friends in Utah, who share these values."

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large circular table, with fragments of parchment or papyrus from 10 scrolls. Some of the scrolls contain actual passages from the Bible — verses from Exodus, Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Others feature documents from the same period, roughly from the second century BCE to the first century CE. A few hold scriptures that are not included in the traditional canon that we now call the Bible.

The 10 scrolls were chosen from the more than 900 manuscripts and thousands of fragments that make up what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, said Pnina Shor, curator and head of Dead Sea Scrolls projects for the Israel Antiquities Authority, the agency that oversees the preservation and study of the scrolls.

The scrolls are treated most delicately, in climate-controlled cases to approximate the humidity, temperature and darkness of the caves by the Dead Sea where they were discovered.

Under IAA guidelines, Shor said, scrolls are put on display for three months and then returned to the vaults for five years’ rest. Because of that rule, Shor said, one scroll that Utah organizers wanted to display — one that makes reference to Alma, a name also prominent in the Book of Mormon — was unavailable. (The 10 scrolls at The Leonardo will be swapped out for 10 other scrolls midway through the exhibit’s five-month run.)

The artifacts surrounding the Scroll Room reflect Israeli life then and now, ranging from a 2-ton chunk of Jerusalem’s Western Wall to a stone stamp seal from the seventh century BCE the size of a thumbnail.

That stone seal bears the figure of an archer, and for that reason is quite rare, according to Debora Ben Ami, curator of the IAA’s Iron Age Collection. "Sometimes the highlights are very small," Ben Ami said.

Just to the side of the main Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, The Leonardo has created a small display to tout the role Brigham Young University researchers have had in publishing the scrolls. Most recently, Shor said, BYU has been involved in a massive project via Google to digitize the scrolls.

The Leonardo’s display also includes a jar that dates back to the first century CE and comes from Qumran, the same area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. This jar was purchased in 1965 by N. Eldon Tanner, then a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on a trip to the Holy Land. The jar until recently sat unnoticed in the LDS Church History Museum. It’s now being examined by BYU researchers.

spmeans@sltrib.com

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