One of the miracles of the Dead Sea Scrolls the earliest surviving texts preserving the Old Testament of the Bible is that they survived at all.
"In ancient Israel, we have very few written documents that have ever been discovered," said Risa Levitt Kohn, co-curator of "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times," a new exhibit opening to the public Friday at The Leonardo in downtown Salt Lake City.
The exhibit features 10 actual scrolls featuring not only Old Testament passages but other religious texts that go back two millennia. (Another 10 scrolls will be swapped in later in the exhibit's run.) The exhibit also features artifacts of the period, "from mundane pottery to the monumental," Kohn said, including a four-ton piece of Jerusalem's Western Wall, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The exhibit, said The Leonardo's executive director, Alexandra Hesse, when the show was announced in April, is "the most significant exhibit The Leonardo has opened to date."
Bryton Sampson, The Leonardo's communications manager, said this week that attendance for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is likely to top the 350,000 who attended the museum's most-popular exhibit of all time, "Body Worlds III."
Texts from ancient Israel are so rare, compared to those of other civilizations, because of the material on which they were written, Kohn said in an interview this week.
Writings found from ancient Mesopotamia were on stone tablets, while ancient Egyptian documents were written on papyrus materials that withstood the elements. In biblical-era Israel, documents were written on parchment.
"Stone survives very well; if there's a fire, it just get harder," said Kohn, professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism and director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University. "But writings on parchment moisture destroys it, fire destroys it, bugs destroy it."
The 900-plus pieces of parchment that are commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kohn said, were found in caves about a mile off the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Those caves were a perfect environment for preservation: dry, dark and largely left alone until their discovery in the late 1940s.
Though the Dead Sea Scrolls "revolutionized our understanding" of the Old Testament, Kohn said, the translated scrolls revealed surprisingly few variations from the Bible as it was handed down through the centuries.
"If you compare your standard version to these biblical scrolls, there are some spelling changes, some handwriting changes. There are small scribal errors," Kohn said. "But the big differences are few and far between."
Much of the research into the Dead Sea Scrolls has been done by scholars at Brigham Young University, said The Leonardo's Sampson. Because of that, the Leonardo is mounting a companion exhibit, "Unlocking the Past," that covers the research done on the scrolls.
For museumgoers, Kohn said, seeing the actual scrolls as well as artifacts from ancient Israel is a moving experience.
"As a historian, I always think it's very, very powerful to come into contact with the real thing," Kohn said. "Being in the presence of things that are 2,000 to 3,000 years old is at once very humbling and very powerful."
Dead Sea Scrolls in Utah
The exhibit "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times," featuring 10 actual scrolls of Old Testament text and related religious writings, along with artifacts of ancient Israel.
Where • The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 22, and running through April 27.
Hours • Sundays through Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Tickets • $23.95 for adults; $14.95 for youth (12-17); $9.95 for children (6-11); free for children 5 and under; $19.95 for seniors (65 and over), students and military with ID; $13.95 for Leonardo members.