Unscrolling the Commandments

If Alabamians got excited about former Chief Justice Roy Moore’s granite monument of the Ten Commandments, imagine how they’ll react when the world’s oldest known copy of the Ten Commandments arrives in Alabama for display.

The parchment from the Dead Sea Scrolls contains a complete handwritten Hebrew text of the commandments dated to within 30 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It will be part of a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that starts Jan. 20 and ends April 24 at the Gulf Coast Exploreum in downtown Mobile. The exhibit will feature 12 scrolls from the Israel Antiquities Authority, seven of them biblical books.

“This is the largest collection of biblical scrolls they’ve ever sent for display,” said Eleanor Kulin, marketing director of the Exploreum. She said the museum requested more biblical scrolls because Southern audiences are so interested in the Bible. Getting the oldest copy of the Ten Commandments is a special coup, she said. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls included many copies of texts of the Ten Commandments, most are in fragments. “That’s the only copy where the Ten Commandments are intact in one piece,” she said.

A version of the exhibit drew 160,000 people to the Houston Museum of Natural Science between Oct. 1 and Jan. 2, with lines of people waiting until 2 a.m. to buy tickets during the last two weeks.

“No matter what you believe, this exhibit has a spiritual connection with people,” said Renee Davis, Houston’s director of community programs and planning.”On any given day, I’d see young Jewish men from a synagogue, older African-American women from churches, groups of homeschoolers. It cut across all kinds of demographics. A great deal of our attendance was driven from the pulpits.”

That’s likely to be true for the Alabama exhibit, which will have more biblical scrolls than were on display in Houston. “The artifacts are the same with the exception of the scrolls,” Davis said. “Theirs are more biblical.”

Portions of Dead Sea Scrolls to be displayed in Alabama will be Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

“We’re finding the response from both the Jewish and Christian communities to be immense,” said Kulin. “These are the oldest known copies of the Bible.”

The Gulf Coast Exploreum, which opened in 1998, got an exclusive arrangement for the U.S. Southeast from the Israel Antiquities Authority, which controls the scrolls. “We got them because we went after them,” Kulin said.

Other artifacts besides scrolls that will be on display include basketry, cloth, sandals and an ink well found with the scrolls.

“That might have been the ink well used to write the scrolls,” Davis said.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit opened at the Public Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., in spring of 2003 and drew more than 237,000 visitors in a little more than three months. Mobile will be the third stop. The museums that have hosted the exhibit have been required by Israeli officials to have very strict security and environmental controls for the scrolls. The scrolls are considered so delicate that they are rotated out of public display and go back into dark storage at their home museum, the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. “They rotate them in there as well,” Davis said. No fragment is displayed more than about three months a year. So the opportunity to see these particular scrolls in person is rare indeed, she said.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947 in desert caves about 15 miles from Jerusalem. There are more than 100,000 scroll fragments from 930 documents, including text from every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. Most scholars believe the scrolls were hidden there by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that used the caves at Qumran.

“The group lived in caves around the area, but came together for religious ritual, meals and writing the scrolls,” Davis said.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls are supremely important for understanding the history of our Bibles, the early history of Judaism, and the pre-history of Christianity,” said James Bowley, associate professor of religious studies at Millsaps College and one of a variety of guest lecturers set to speak on the scrolls during the exhibit.

“It’s a chance to go and look at a scroll that somebody held 2,000 years ago, that was important then and is still important today,” Bowley said. “It offers a picture of a hands-on Bible in the making, and a healthy and diverse Jewish community of the first century. There was no Bible in the days of Jesus; there were collections of scrolls; they had some scrolls in common, some that were different. The standardization comes later, probably in the second century.”

Aside from the fact that the scrolls were copied between 250 B.C. and 50 A.D., viewed as a turning point in time, and some of them were written while Jesus was alive, the documents have been critical in providing historical insight.

“The Dead Sea scrolls have improved our readings of manuscripts,” Bowley said. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has 85 changes based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New International Version has 22 changes. For example, in Psalm 145, verse 13, scholars were long puzzled by the fact that it’s an acrostic poem, meaning every verse begins with a subsequent letter in the Hebrew alphabet. One of the letters was missing, which hinted at a missing verse. That verse is present in the Dead Sea Scroll versions and has been added by many new Bible translations.

“A lot of people don’t know their Bible has a history,” Bowley said. “This will put a little more history in it.”

For directions and ticket information, see the museum’s Web site, www.check scrolls.com.

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