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Dead Sea Scrolls brought to San Diego by two La Jollans

San Diego is now playing host to one of the most significant archaeological finds in human history.

For the next six months, the San Diego Natural History Museum will present the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls ever assembled. The 2,000-year-old texts are the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible - some of the manuscripts are more than 1,000 years older than any other previously known copies.

Twenty-seven of the scrolls are now on display at the museum in Balboa Park, 10 of which are being exhibited for the first time ever. The 14,500-square-foot exhibition also brings together materials that have never been exhibited together before, including scrolls from Israel and Jordan that have been separate for 60 years, rarely seen ancient Hebrew codices from the National Library of Russia and medieval manuscripts from the British National Library.

The museum expects more than 400,000 visitors to view the exhibition over the next six months. In addition to the scrolls themselves, the exhibition will feature photography and artifacts from Qumran, an archaeological site on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea in Israel, where many of the scrolls are believed to have been written. Pottery, coins, sandals and inkwells are among the artifacts presented to provide insight into the lives of the people from the ancient community.

The exhibition also attempts to recreate the experience of the Bedouin goat herder who first discovered the scrolls in 1947.

“The story of their discovery in and of itself is screenplay-worthy,” said exhibition curator Risa Levitt Kohn, who is director of San Diego State University’s Judaic Studies program.

The museum has constructed a replica of the cave where the scrolls rested for thousands of years in simple jars, concealed by the wilderness. A replica has also been built of the archaeologist’s tent that served as a center of the effort to recover the scrolls. Over 100,000 fragments of text were discovered that have since been pieced together into 900 separate documents.

“We did not want to do what others had done before,” said Michael Hager, president and CEO of the museum. “We wanted this to be the largest, most comprehensive Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition ever. We dreamed and schemed very large.”

The ambitious venture was made possible with help from presenting sponsors Joan and Irwin Jacobs. A lecture series will be held every Monday throughout the duration of the exhibition, beginning July 9 with a talk by Shalom Paul, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.

Many of the artifacts are on loan from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which agreed to loan them to make them available to the public and to raise money for the task of conserving the scrolls.

“They were written 2,000 years ago - we feel it is our duty to share them with you, while carefully safeguarding them for at least the next 2,000 years to come,” said Pnina Shor of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

The scrolls themselves are mostly written on leather parchment, with some written on papyrus and one famous scroll inscribed in copper. They are mostly written in Hebrew, but there are also texts in Aramaic and Greek.

The scrolls, dating from 250 BC to 68 AD, are considered to be a look into a time when the foundations for Western civilization were being laid. They include scrolls of the biblical books of Leviticus, Isaiah, Job and others; scrolls such as the Damascus Document and the War Scroll that provide insight into the ways of life and the rules of the Qumran communitye; Psalm scrolls containing passages from liturgy still in use today.

The famed Copper Scroll is the anomaly of the group. In addition to being the only scroll inscribed in the metal, it is also the only one that is not biblical or related to life in Quram. Instead, it describes in detail more than 60 locations where more than 100 tons of gold and silver might be found. None of the treasure has been found because many of the sites named do not exist and the language of the scroll has confounded scholars.

When officials from the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation decided to exhibit the scrolls in Southern California, there was some question over whether it should happen in San Diego or Los Angeles. San Diego was chosen at least partly because the city will host the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature - considered the largest gathering of biblical scholars in the world - in November.

The museum is open daily, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Admission will cost $20 to $28.

For more information, visit www.sdscrolls.org.