Fragments of the past

Dead Sea Scrolls offer insight into religion, ancient history

? The fragments are small, measuring only a few inches wide at their largest portions.

The text is difficult to see, in the dimly lit display cases meant to preserve the nearly 2,000-year-old documents. Even if you can make it out, it’s in Hebrew.

Still, hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to file through Union Station in the next three months, getting a glimpse of the oldest-known versions of Hebrew Scriptures, which serve as both the foundation for Judaism and Christian faiths.

For some, seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls has become a religious pilgrimage of its own.

“You close the gap of 2,000 years, and you get back to roots (of religion) without any difficulties,” says Hava Katz, chief curator for national treasures with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The exhibit at Union Station, which opened Thursday and runs through May 13, features portions of six Dead Sea Scrolls, along with other artifacts found along with them.

“Dead Sea Scrolls” refers to about 100,000 fragments of scrolls found between 1946 and the late 1950s in caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

In addition to texts from the Hebrew Scriptures – known to Christians as the Old Testament – the scrolls include commentaries on the scriptures, rules for community living and other information. Most are written in Hebrew, though a few are in Aramaic and Greek, and they date back from around 250 BC to around 70 AD.

Most scholars think the scrolls were written by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived near where the scrolls were found. Why they were hidden in the caves remains a mystery.

Ancient research

Paul Mirecki, a Kansas University religious studies professor who specializes in ancient texts, says the scrolls teach us the most about culture in ancient Israel. He says they show that Jewish culture was diverse, since the Essenes broke off to live by themselves.

And though the scrolls make no mention of Jesus or Christianity, he says the scrolls provide another group with which to compare and contrast early Christians.

“You can see similarities, but they had different interests from what the Jesus group had,” says Mirecki, who teaches a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls. “The Essenes were concerned with settling in one area. They wanted to get out of Jerusalem because they thought God would destroy it.”

Though some of the handwritten scrolls provide varying accounts of Hebrew Scriptures, Mirecki says the differences are “not so different that it would cause problems today.” Some of the scrolls have abbreviated versions of current-day biblical books, which raises the question of whether the scrolls were paraphrased or if additional material was added in later years.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were studied exclusively by a small group of scholars until 1991, when photographic versions were finally provided to others.

“Publications are through the roof,” Mirecki says. “There is a lot of research being done on the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

As significant as the discovery was, Mirecki says he wouldn’t be surprised if additional texts of equal or greater historical significance were found in the future.

“I’d say there’s more in ancient archaeological sites and ancient city garbage dumps than we have now,” he says. “But there’s not enough money to look for them.”

Link to past

Katz, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, says her organization is constantly working to make additional discoveries. The group would hope to find any additional Scriptures before they’re found by private archaeologists and sold for profit.

Exhibitions featuring the scrolls have been on tour throughout the world since the 1990s. Each is tailored toward the particular exhibit site, Katz says. For instance, those in science museums tend to focus a little more on the methods used to determine the age of the scrolls.

No matter where the scrolls have gone, though, they’ve been a huge draw, Katz says. Union Station says 35,000 tickets had been sold to the show before it even opened, with a goal of 250,000 visitors through the entire show.

“You can see things much more clearly because you have historical sources,” she says. “You can relate to the Scriptures. You have a more complete picture of the past.”

Union Station, which has been fighting financial difficulties in recent years, is counting on the exhibit’s success. Andi Udris, president and CEO of Union Station, says the exhibit is a great combination of religion, science and history.

“Really, it was a just the perfect kind of exhibit,” he says. “It’s an international kind of exhibit, and we’re exhibiting it in an international-class level.”

Kansas University contributes items to scroll exhibit

Materials from Kansas University will help visitors to Union Station connect the ancient past with the Bible and Torah of today.

KU’s Spencer Research Library loaned three collection items – two books and a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible – to the “The Journey Continues” section of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Union Station. That portion of the show, at the end, seeks to explain some of how the Bible and Hebrew Scriptures evolved in the years after the era of the scrolls.

“This is certainly part of the (university’s) service,” says Rick Clement, special collections librarian. “We want to do outreach to our community. We have resources, and in this case we can make them available to enrich potentially hundreds of thousands of lives.”

The three pieces from KU, which are given credit in placards at the exhibit, are:

¢ A manuscript of the Aurora by Peter Riga that dates to around 1205. The Aurora was a version of the Bible that included verses.

“It’s the Bible transformed in a way, or popularized, if you want to say that,” Clement says.

¢ A Book of Hours that dates to between 1450 and 1475. The book is a collection of prayers and devotional texts.

“It’s arguably the most beautiful medieval manuscript we have,” Clement says.

¢ A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, which was printed around 1455.

Clement says a student in KU’s museum studies department was working to help set up the exhibit at Union Station and suggested the show include pieces from the Spencer Library.

He says he’s sure the Dead Sea Scrolls will prove to be a popular draw, and he’s glad KU could be a part of that.

“Everybody’s seen those Indiana Jones movies,” Clement says. “There’s always that aspect of a fundamental, ancient text that can shed light on ancient people.”