Saturday, April 01, 2006

DaVinci Decoded

This story is on NPR's website today:

For nearly 2,000 years the Dead Sea Scrolls sat undisturbed in tall, earthen jars hidden in a honeycomb of caves in the Judean desert. For the last 50 years, these ancient texts have been preserved in Jerusalem's Israel Museum. Now one of the most important scrolls has left the Middle East and is making its first appearance in the United States, at a museum in Cleveland.

The exhibit, which opens April 1 at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, includes many ancient treasures, including bronze and silver coins dating back two millennia. Curator David Mevorah brought the coins and other artifacts from the Israel Museum. The coins are being arranged on a pedestal to illustrate the annual fee that worshippers were charged when they visited the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem during biblical times. Mevorah says that is what prompted an angry Jesus of Nazareth to kick the moneychangers out of the courtyard. "[It's] a way to make that story more on a factual basis," he says.

The Cradle of Christianity exhibit is designed to give visitors the sense of walking through chapters of the New Testament, with physical objects attached to biblical stories: a cornerstone bearing the name of Pontius Pilate; a rusted nail that was used in a crucifixion. In all, 15 tons of artifacts are on display. Taking up just an ounce of that total is the Temple Scroll -- three scraps of slightly yellowed parchment, illuminated by a dim spotlight that slowly pulses on and off at 40-second intervals.

Through the glass of the refrigerated display case, the Hebrew calligraphy etched on the fragments is clearly legible. Mevorah says reading it makes his hair stand on end.

"The fact that you take a document, written in Hebrew, from 2,000 years ago, and you can just read it fluently -- practically every school boy can read it -- is amazing," he says.

The scrolls survived hundreds of years in the cold, dark caves that run along the Dead Sea before their discovery beginning in the late 1940s. Israel Museum director James Snyder says that today, each of the restored scroll sections is stored in a "completely stable environmental seal, inside a glass sandwich, so nothing touches it."

The authorship of the Temple Scroll is unknown, but it reads as a critique of religious practices of the time. It had never traveled outside Israel; the fact that it's now in the United States speaks to Snyder's desire to put his collection on tour. The stop in Cleveland speaks to a personal friendship between Snyder and museum founder Milton Maltz. Officials at the Maltz Museum say they've already taken reservations from people around the country who are coming to view the U.S. debut of these ancient links to history.

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