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In Dead Sea Scrolls, crowds examine oldest copy of Ten Commandments


MOBILE, Ala. - Portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient manuscripts whose discovery in 1947 is viewed by many as the archaeological find of the 20th century, have gone on display at a small science museum, attracting sizable daily crowds eager to see the oldest biblical fragments ever unearthed.

Each day, hundreds of visitors to the Gulf Coast Exploreum in Mobile linger at one clear plastic case in particular.

Victor Calhoun

Left to right, Kyle and Colin Martin listen to information concerning the Torah Scroll during their visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, Ala.

It is the world's oldest copy of the Ten Commandments, its tiny black text exquisitely inked onto the crinkled surface of a brown animal skin.

Nearby is a 3-foot-wide document whose six columns of precise text contain all or parts of Psalm 135 and three other psalms.

And just a few feet away are other scroll fragments: portions of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Jeremiah.


Largest collection ever

Organizers of the exhibit say it is the largest collection of biblical Dead Sea Scroll fragments ever assembled in the United States.

They were written about the time Jesus Christ lived, and only about 100 miles from the Galilean landscape where he preached.

The display of the scrolls and related items ends April 24.

On display with them are pottery, coins and related artifacts that tell the story of the Essenes, a small community of ascetic Jews who lived apart on the scorched and arid northwest shore of the Dead Sea and who are widely believed to have created the scrolls.

The scrolls came to light in 1947, when a young Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a dark cave above the Dead Sea and heard the distinctive clink of pottery breaking. He recovered the first of the scrolls.

Systematic exploration yielded more than 900 documents in 11 caves. Some had been stored in jars; others lay intact or in fragments on dusty cave floors, preserved by the arid climate.

The find dazzled scholars. The scrolls contained portions of all the books of the Bible except Esther. But mostly they consisted of nonbiblical apocalyptic literature and secular documents.

It is not a long leap to imagine the New Testament wilderness prophet John the Baptist an Essene said James Bowley, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

Although the scrolls were written in about the same period that Jesus Christ lived nearby, scholars believe there is no reference to him. Nor is there any indication that the Essenes in the last days of their community were aware of what must have been a small but growing band of Christ's followers, Bowley said.


Affecting Scripture today

In some ways, too, the knowledge gleaned from the Dead Sea Scrolls has found its way into the Bibles on today's bookshelf.

Scholars have long known, for instance, that Psalm 145 engages in word play, in that each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. But they also knew the psalm was incomplete: One of the letters - and thus one of the verses - was missing, Bowley said.

The copy of Psalm 145 in the Dead Sea Scrolls provided the answer in verse 13, beginning, "Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom ..."

"Look in your Bible, and you'll see that verse is twice as long as the others. Critics think that small section of the poem fell out of the ancient manuscript tradition, and now it's been restored. It comes from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls," he said.


Bruce Nolan writes about religion for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.