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SCOTT SIMON, host:

For nearly 2,000 years, the Dead Sea Scrolls sat undistributed in tall earthen jars hidden in a honeycomb of caves in the Judean Desert. These ancient texts have been preserved at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem for the past 50 years. Now one of the most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls is making its very first appearance in the United States at a museum in Cleveland. The exhibit opens today. David C. Barnett of member station WCPN got an advanced look.

DAVID C. BARNETT reporting: David Mevorah is carefully counting his change. You have to look closely when the coins are 2,000 years old.

Mr. DAVID Mr. MEVORAH (Curator, Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage): What we show here is the Half-Shekel, the 128 bronze coins, which is what it is worth, and the 11 bronze coins, which are the eight percent commission.

BARNETT: These pieces of bronze and silver are being arranged on a pedestal to illustrate the annual fee that worshippers were charged when they came to the temple in Jerusalem. Mevorah says that's what prompted an angry Jesus of Nazareth to kick the moneychangers out of the temple courtyard.

Mr. MEVORAH: A way to make that story more on a factual basis.

BARNETT: Showing the facts of history is the guiding principle behind this entire exhibition called the Cradle of Christianity on view at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage on Cleveland's eastside. Curator David Mevorah brought these artifacts from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He and his staff are hustling to get the exhibit ready for this weekend's opening. The design gives you the feeling of walking through chapters of the New Testament, only in this case the stories have physical objects attached to them, a cornerstone bearing the name of Pontius Pilate, a rusted nail that was used in a crucifixion. In all, 15 tons of artifacts. But perhaps the most interesting object weighs little more than an ounce.

Mr. MEVORAH: The Dead Sea Scrolls are undoubtedly one of the most important archeological discoveries ever to be found.

BARNETT: Three scraps of slightly yellowed parchment are illuminated by a dim spotlight that slowly pulses on and off at 40-second intervals. The display case softly buzzes with the sound of a refrigeration device as Mevorah inspects the clear Hebrew calligraphy etched on these fragments. He says they still make his hair stand on end.

Mr. MEVORAH: It's something that whenever you come in contact with, is very exciting. The fact that you take a document written in Hebrew from 2,000 years ago and you can just read it fluently and practically every schoolboy can read it, is amazing.

BARNETT: Israel Museum Director James Snyder says the Scrolls survived hundreds of years in the cold dark caves that run along the Dead Sea. Today's preservation practices are a little more sophisticated.

Mr. JAMES SNYDER (Director, Israel Museum): Each of the restored scroll sections is in a completely stable environmental seal inside a glass sandwich, so nothing touches it.

BARNETT: The authorship of this document is unknown, but it reads as a critique of religious practices of the time. This so-called Temple Scroll has never traveled outside of Israel. The fact that the exhibition's first stop was in Cleveland speaks to a personal friendship between James Snyder and museum founder Milton Maltz. Museum officials 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. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

SIMON: And you can see a scroll snippet and other items from the exhibit at npr.org.

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