Dead Sea Scrolls On Display In Times Square

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The ancient texts can be seen up close — right in the middle of New York City. There are some theatrics, but the exhibit is happily understated.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, we take you to an exhibition space in Times Square. It's been home to shows about "CSI," "Harry Potter" and now, the Dead Sea Scrolls. As NPR's Margot Adler reports, there are some theatrics, but the exhibit is tastefully understated, given the neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: "Avenue Q," "Rent" and "Godspell" promotional deals...

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Times Square. People hocking tickets for shows, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, the Naked Cowboy with his guitar. So when you first walk into this exhibit at Discovery Times Square, you think, oh, no, when an actor greets you in mellifluous tones and points to three ancient jars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Each with a unique story from the ancient past and, inside one, our closest written connection to Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

ADLER: On large screens, you see and hear the waves of the Dead Sea and archeology students working on digs, but thankfully, you soon walk freely into the exhibit room, where you can roam past artifacts from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, some never shown before. Statues, pottery, jewelry, Roman Hellenistic and objects from ancient Israel, the first and second temple periods.

Finally, you walk down a staircase to get to the scrolls. There are 10 in a circle. The first scrolls were found in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea. Long a mystery, they are now becoming available digitally, but seeing the ancient texts is a different experience. Risa Levitt Kohn, one of the curators, who also heads the religion department at San Diego State University, says the scrolls will rotate.

RISA LEVITT KOHN: The scrolls are only displayed for 90 days at a time for conservation concerns. You can tell that the light is limited. These cases are humidity-controlled and climate-controlled.

ADLER: On one scroll, words from the Book of Psalms. I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.

KOHN: You'll see that most of the text is written in, you know, sort of the traditional Aramaic script of Hebrew, but that, when the word of God, the tetragrammaton was written, it was written in this Paleo-Hebrew script, the oldest version of Hebrew that we have, right over here.

ADLER: In one display window are the controversial so-called Jesus Tomb Ossuaries. Ossuaries are stone boxes that held bones. Some of them have names on them, such as Miriam, Jesus, son of Joshua, Matthew. But the curator says don't leap to conclusions. These were popular names in the period and one of the boxes with the name, Jesus, is for a child.

Kohn says there are 350 active excavations going on in Israel at any time and one purpose of the exhibit is to help people appreciate the ancient world.

KOHN: There's a story behind each object and there are hands that fashioned the object and there are ideas that shaped the world that shaped the object. And a lot of these ideas, especially vis-a-vis the scrolls, have shaped our world.

ADLER: The exhibit goes until mid-April. Perhaps fittingly, the last thing you see in the exhibit brings you back to the present day bustle, a continuous live feed of people at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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