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Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - Page updated at 05:19 PM


Information in this article, originally published September 17, 2006, was corrected September 27, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Hisham Farajallah is president of the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. He is president of the Islamic Center of Washington state.

A rare window into biblical times

Seattle Times staff reporter

It is considered one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, with ancient manuscripts that provide insight into some of the world's most dominant faiths.

Starting Saturday, people here will be able to see 10 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of thousands of fragments that include the oldest-known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Four of the scrolls being exhibited here have never been seen in public. "This exhibit may be the most important exhibit the Pacific Science Center has ever created because of the rich, multiple layers of story that combine science, history, culture and spirituality," said Bryce Seidl, the center's president and chief executive.

This is the West Coast premiere of the exhibit, and one of the rare times the actual scrolls can be seen outside of Israel. Running for three months, the exhibit will delve into the scientific techniques used to preserve and piece together the scrolls, give a sense of their historical and societal context and address the manuscripts' religious significance.

The exhibit

Buying tickets: The exhibit runs Sept. 23 to Jan. 7. Tickets are for specific dates and times. Individual tickets are $19.75 for adults (ages 13 to 64); $10 for children (ages 3 to 12); $17 for seniors 65 and older; $8 for members ages 13 and older; $3 for members ages 3 to 12.

To purchase: or 877-DSS-1947. Group bookings: 206-443-2937.

What to expect: Organizers say to set aside 90 minutes to go through the exhibit. An audio tour is included in the ticket price. The exhibit is organized into eight areas:

• Israel's history and archaeology

• Video presentation on the Dead Sea region

• Discovery of the scrolls

• Science of the scrolls

• Historical time of the scrolls

• Model of the Qumran ruins

• Gallery of 10 Dead Sea Scrolls, including four never before seen in public (a war scroll and scrolls from the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus and Ezekiel)

• Sacred texts from various religious traditions

More information

Source: Pacific Science Center

The first scrolls were found in 1947 when a Bedouin herder threw a rock into a cave, trying to drive out his wandering goat. Instead, as the story goes, he hit a ceramic jar with ancient scrolls in it. Over the next decade, about 50,000 scroll fragments — ranging from tiny pieces to one that's 30 feet long — were found in 10 more caves near the Qumran settlement, close to the Dead Sea. The fragments are thought to comprise about 900 manuscripts total.

Roughly a quarter of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from about 250 B.C. to 65 A.D., are biblical, with all the books of the Hebrew Bible represented except for Esther.

The rest of the scrolls include such content as hymns, calendar items and rules for community living. Most of the scrolls are in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and Greek, and most are written on animal skin. The exhibit at the Pacific Science Center includes five biblical texts.

For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Seattle exhibit is an opportunity to view ancient manuscripts that lie at the root of their faiths.

The Dead Sea Scrolls "give us firsthand insights into the [era] that produced Christianity and the Judaism we know today," said Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue. "It provides a grounding for our faith. ... For Jews to have literally texts that are not only ancient in their content but in terms of their existence is extremely meaningful to a people who bind themselves to God through text."

The religious significance

Documents shed light on a crucial period

The Dead Sea Scrolls are "the oldest documents of our holy Scriptures [and are] still relevant to our lives today," said Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

The scrolls pre-date by about a thousand years what was previously the oldest known biblical manuscript and show how accurately the texts were conveyed over the years, said professor Scott Noegel, chairman of the University of Washington's Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department.

They shed light on the crucial period that gave rise to rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

The scrolls show the writers' apocalyptic and Messianic beliefs, giving insight into how diverse Judaism was at the time, said professor Martin Abegg, co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. They also show that the underpinnings of rabbinic Judaism go back several centuries earlier than any records had shown before, he said.

The scrolls also provide insight into the New Testament, said Jack Levison, professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University.

In the Gospel of Luke, for instance, John the Baptist asks Jesus if he's "the one" they are expecting — essentially asking if he's the Messiah. Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah — something he's reluctant to do, Levison said. Instead, he lists things he's accomplished, including raising the dead. A text from the Dead Sea Scrolls associates a similar list of accomplishments — including raising the dead — with the Messiah.

So Jesus' answer to John is perhaps a veiled and "subtle affirmation of his Messianic role. If John had been associated with the community that had written or copied this scroll, he would have grasped Jesus' intent," Levison said.

The debates

Scholars disagree on who wrote scrolls

Over the years, the scrolls have been subject to a number of debates and controversies.

A commonly held view is that the scrolls were collected and/or transcribed by the Essenes, a Jewish sect. But some scholars question whether the Essenes lived in the Qumran settlement, whether people at Qumran were part of any sect and, increasingly, whether the residents, whoever they were, actually wrote the scrolls.

Recently, two Israeli archaeologists asserted the Qumran settlement was a pottery factory and had nothing to do with the Essenes, any Jewish monastery or the scrolls, according to The New York Times. The New York Times story also cited a professor's theory that the scrolls were placed in the caves by refugees who removed them from Jerusalem libraries while fleeing a war with the Romans.

For decades after the scrolls were found, only a few scholars had access to them, giving rise to suggestions that someone was trying to hide something. Since 1991, after scholars found ways of getting to some of the materials, the Israeli government has allowed far more access.

Hisham Farajallah, president of the Islamic Center of Washington, says because so few have seen the actual scrolls, he can't say whether they are authentic. If they are, he and other Muslims would "love to support them. ... People don't realize that one of the articles of faith for Muslims is to believe in the Psalms of David, the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus."

All the scholars working with the Dead Sea Scrolls say they are authentic, and most believe the Qumran residents collected the bulk of the scrolls from surrounding areas and transcribed the others, Abegg said. Many scholars today believe the community was Essene, although there is still much debate on the issue.

The science behind the scrolls

Digital imaging used to connect fragments

The Seattle exhibit will also emphasize the scientific methods used to preserve and analyze the scrolls. To determine the scrolls' age, researchers have studied surrounding artifacts and handwriting and used radiocarbon dating.

Digital imaging is used to try to piece together fragments, as is infrared imaging, which can distinguish text from dark backgrounds. DNA testing can determine if various fragments of animal skin might have come from the same animal. Many of the tiny fragments "look like Chicken McNuggets," said professor Bruce Zuckerman of the University of Southern California and the West Semitic Research Project, which images ancient manuscripts. "Being involved in Dead Sea Scrolls analysis is like being in a jigsaw puzzle club. And, by the way, the puzzle isn't complete."

The scrolls must be handled with gloves because moisture, oil and salt from human contact can damage them. Exposure to light must be limited.

The Pacific Science Center is displaying the scrolls in temperature- and humidity-controlled Plexiglas cases with fiber-optic lighting that remains unlit until a person approaches a case.

Displaying the scrolls in a science center rather than an art museum might seem unusual, said Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.

But "I think many people overemphasize the antipathy between religion and science. I think it's great to bring the two together."

Seidl, the Pacific Science Center president, said the exhibit demonstrates that "cutting-edge sciences are not only taking mankind beyond the fringes of current knowledge but also helping us understand where we came from."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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