Dead Sea Scrolls Come Alive

Article excerpt

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

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. …