There's no doubt that being in the presence of the Dead Sea Scrolls wields a special power for the devout. But faith is not a prerequisite for marveling at "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures," on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum through June 6.
However, a good pair of reading glasses -- if you require them -- wouldn't hurt.
The exhibit, which features fragments of original scrolls, artifacts, photographs, facsimiles of an intact scroll, models and more, is loaded with informational panels that tell you all you need to know about the history of the scrolls and their discovery, the historical context, the battle for control of the scrolls, attempts to decode them and much more.
If you take the time to wend your way through the exhibit you'll emerge having not only seen some amazing bits of history, but with a knowledge of the history of the Holy Land from the third century BCE to the first century CE.
The scrolls discovered by Bedouins in the 1940s offered the first and only contemporary versions of biblical texts. The 100,000 fragments found included 200 biblical manuscripts that are more than a millennium older than any previously known copies.
Immediately, controversy swirled around them: were they authentic, who wrote them, who owned them. Most of the scrolls were written on leather parchment but others were on papyrus and at least one is copper. Some are written in Hebrew and an older version of Hebrew and others are in Aramaic and Greek.
Scholars believe that the scrolls were the work of the Essene sect which lived in Qumran, near the caves in which the scrolls were found.
The entrance to the exhibit is adorned with palms and stunning aerial photographs of the Holy Land. Passing through a faux stone arch we find ourselves in a large exhibit space with a model of Jerusalem, artifacts from the Holy Land like oil lamps, amphorae, coins and other objects that serve as a testament to the glory of the Holy City.
There is a section on burial customs and another that explains the importance of the Masada rock cliff, which was the last stronghold against the Romans in the first century BCE. Eerie music plays as visitors imbibe the historical context that readies them for the next section.
Passing into the next space we learn about the Bedouins who discovered the scrolls in pottery jars in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947. We learn about the dealers that became involved in the story of the scrolls and about the archaeologists who arrived soon after to excavate the ruins of Qumran.
There is a replica of an archaeologist's tent, more photos and objects.
In the next room, a much smaller space, we meet the first "wow" object of "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible." It is an exact facsimile of the Book of Isaiah -- the only complete biblical book discovered -- on a 23-foot-long scroll.
Even though it's a copy, looking at this stunning scroll immediately illustrates how important the scrolls are.
In this space we learn that two scholars spent a decade in a room -- called the scrollery -- cleaning and sorting fragments and trying to fit them together to reconstruct scrolls. There are two other facsimiles in the room and a copy of a copper scroll.
Passing through a cave-like opening, we enter an even darker space in which soothing music cycles. Here, we meet the real Dead Sea Scrolls fragments. The effect is stunning.
All around, we see pieces of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy. There are sections called "Words of Moses," "Book of Mysteries," "Commentary (Pesher) on Isaiah." And there is a section of real copper scroll, as well as other genuine artifacts.
Looking at the scrolls and reading the translations of the fragments brings into focus the amount of scholarship and the dedication of the scholars who worked countless hours on the scrolls.
The descendants of the scrolls -- centuries of Bibles -- are on view in the next room and through another stone arch is one of the exhibition's most lovely sections.
Here are pages from the St. John's Bible. Begun in 1998 -- with completion expected next year -- the St. John's Bible is the first hand-written, illuminated Bible to be commissioned in 500 years. The artwork is a stunning blend of modern and traditional.
The exhibit closes with a bit about Milwaukee's connections to the scrolls -- John C. Trever, who, as a young scholar, was key to identifying the scrolls, and Milwaukee native Golda Meir.
Beautifully staged and well-organized, "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible" is an engaging look at ancient treasures directly linked to our daily existence today.
To fully digest it takes time, so allot yourself a few hours to really take it all in.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.