Saturday, June 2, 2007 | Decades ago, when a group of Arabian nomads known as the Bedouins entered a cave and found pots and jars of pottery, they broke them to see what treasure they contained. Finding nothing except for some parchment with writing on it in the last jar, they left the cave and carried the parchment with them, eventually turning it over to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem.

At least, that’s the legend surrounding the initial discovery of one of the most important groups of documents and relics in history — the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in 11 caves between 1947 and 1954. Some of the scrolls will be on display this month through December in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.

Risa Levitt Kohn is the exhibit’s curator. Kohn took a two-year sabbatical as director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University to put the show together, her first such stint for a museum. More than 20 of the 100 or so experts who’ve dedicated their careers to studying the scrolls will lecture on their importance to several disciplines when the show opens at the end of June.

The documents fill in not just biblical gaps, but lend scholars historical and cultural insight for the centuries preceding and concurring with the shift to the Common Era. Kohn shared with more about what visitors to the museum — they anticipate 400,000 — can expect.

Now, you’ve got to have a pretty significant background in studying something like the Dead Sea Scrolls in order to curate an exhibit like this, right?

Actually, it was kind of coincidental. I didn’t really study Dead Sea Scrolls much, other than in kind of a tangential way. But before this project came about I was already working on a book with a colleague of mine at San Diego State, on Jewish and Christian origins. And it’s impossible to talk about that period of time — the first century BCE, the first century CE — without doing something on the Dead Sea Scrolls, because that’s so important.

So I had already started to do some preliminary research for the book, and then this project presented itself, and so I was kind of thrown into the whole field. So I can say I know a lot more now than I did three years ago, but I never thought I’d be sitting here talking to you today about this (laughs). … And I’m far from an expert — I mean, there are people out there who have their Ph.D.s in Dead Sea Scrolls, who’ve worked with scrolls. I am definitely not a person like that, although I have a lot of experience in the general area.

It’s an interesting field because, first of all, it’s really multi-disciplinary. So they’re archaeologists, they’re scientists, they’re textual people, and they’re people who work on paleography. There are people who work on just a certain kind a scroll — a Psalms scroll or on the commentary scrolls. So within this one little field, there are even smaller sub-fields.

Now, I’d read a little bit that this exhibit tries to touch a few of those areas, right? A few of those disciplines — the science behind the scrolls, for example.

Well, there’s the story of conservation. In other words, how is it that these documents survived the first 2,000 years, and, now that they’ve been discovered, how do we ensure that they continue to survive? Especially since we’ve removed them from the conditions that allowed them to survive for the first 2,000 years. So, there’s that — that’s kind of a field in itself. And there are all kinds of experts, not just on Dead Sea Scrolls conservation, but on conservation of ancient documents in general, who are always working with cutting-edge technology to try to make sure that they’re doing the best possible job.

And then there’s the science of deciphering and putting back together pieces, and because the scrolls are from leather, from parchment, there’s DNA in the scrolls. So there’s DNA analysis, there’s carbon-14 dating — you know, there are all kinds of interesting scientific methods that you can apply to the study of the scrolls, that you wouldn’t think would be related.

That’s fascinating. Now, for someone who’s maybe entirely unfamiliar with the Dead Sea Scrolls other than, you know, the thought of some things rolled up in a cave somewhere, how would you characterize their importance? They’re not just biblical texts, right?

Well, you know, it’s funny, because first of all, I’ve noticed — and I’ve been talking about the scrolls a lot lately — the first misconception out there when you say, “The Dead Sea Scrolls” and people say, “Oh, I’ve seen those,” as though there are five or six of them. And I think there’s a complete lack of understanding that it’s a library and it’s over 900 texts. And it’s impossible to see them all; nobody has seen them all. So that’s the first thing — that it’s a massive library that dates from about 250 BCE all the way up to about 68 CE. And within that library, there are biblical texts — and the biblical texts are the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible that have been discovered to date — and there is a large group of non-biblical texts.

Probably three-quarters of the scrolls are non-biblical. … And of those non-biblical texts, there are all kinds of different categories. There are prayer texts, there are biblical commentaries … there are a whole group of texts that seem to delineate the beliefs of the particular group living at the time. You know, sort of like their religious library. There are very few, I guess what we would call, secular texts — no diaries, journals, nothing like that. But there’s a whole range of materials, so it’s really hard, I think, for people to understand that it’s impossible to generalize. To say, “Why are they important?” … I mean, you always have to qualify, because you can’t generalize about the whole library.

Is there any evidence within the scrolls themselves that this community was influenced by Jesus Christ?

There are no New Testament names, people mentioned in the scrolls and there are no New Testament texts in the scrolls, and I think that’s another common misunderstanding.

A lot of people confuse the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gnostic gospels (writings about the teachings of Jesus that are not accepted as part of the standard biblical canon). While they were found about the same time in the 1940s, they’re completely different. [The Nag Hammadi texts] were found in Egypt and have a lot to do with Christianity, and [the Dead Sea Scrolls], not so much. So, the answer is no.

The truth is, I wouldn’t classify these as Jewish texts, either. Because I would say Judaism, the way we tend to think about it, even early Judaism, is not yet fully crystallized in this period, in the same way that Christianity isn’t either. So what we see, and why the scrolls are so interesting, is that we see a period just before Judaism and Christianity, where there are a lot of different ideas floating around — some of which make their way into Judaism, some of which make their way into Christianity — but you couldn’t call these scrolls one or the other yet. Now, people would probably dispute that with me, but that’s what I think.

And that’s an interesting point, that they kind of give us a picture of what religious thought might have looked like, what belief might have been like among this particular community.

Right — I mean, I think there isn’t really a mainstream at this period. … When the scrolls first came to light, when people first started to study them, they were saying, “Oh, look at this sectarian group, living on the fringes, doing this wild stuff,” and I would say more like, well, we don’t have evidence that it’s so radical. Maybe they’re more mainstream than we think. The interesting thing is, we don’t have any other written evidence from the time period as to what other people were doing. So we have later materials that retroject back, but you have to kind of take those with a grain of salt. So it’s hard to say, when you only have one group of texts that this is radical when you have nothing to compare it to until later.

What are some of those things that would cause people to think, “Wow, what a radical [group],” I mean, was it a particular practice in the community?

Well, if you read some of these non-biblical texts, especially the ones that talk about this community, they’re obsessed with holiness, and maintaining holiness and sort of living a virtuous life. And they have very particular ideas on how that should happen. … It seems like a very regimented way of life that’s controlled by all sorts of different purification rites, the study of texts and a very regimented day. So they had some very particular views. Now, again, we can’t really tell if that’s very different from what other people were doing, because we don’t really know what other people were doing.

In the exhibit, you’ll be showing not just Dead Sea Scrolls materials — will there be other biblical texts and other things to show the bigger picture?

Yes. The latest Dead Sea Scroll we have is from the first 30, 40 years of the Common Era. And the story obviously doesn’t stop there. For the Western world, the biblical text obviously continues to be very important. And so we thought we would explore what happens to the Bible after the first century.

Because it spreads in terms of the languages that it’s translated into; it spreads across the globe … and we can sort of document this spread through looking at Bibles through the ages. So it’s kind of interesting — we have a Psalms scroll from about 25 CE, and then we have a Psalms scroll from 1000 CE and then we have a Psalms scroll from 1500 and from 1900, and they’re all in different languages; they’re all from different places in the world. It kind of brings home this idea of, what was it about this text that made it so universal? And so timeless?

And when you talk about a universal text … it’s not just a Judeo-Christian thing —

It’s mostly Western thought: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints]. All of them have some kind of relationship to what we call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, to lesser and greater degrees. Even Western secular society is influenced by some biblical sensibilities. If you think about the Ten Commandments, those, not all of them, but the majority — not to steal, not to murder, not to covet, adultery, well, not so much, but it’s still socially unacceptable — these are still mores that even in a totally secular society, people understand to be things that you shouldn’t do. Respecting your parents, that’s a universal more. That has biblical roots. So even in secular society, we’re influenced by biblical texts in ways that we don’t even know. The weekend — this notion of having a day of rest, which we’ve turned into two days of rest — that’s a biblical concept. Nobody in the ancient world took a day off to rest, and not to work. The notion of free will and living by the consequences of your actions. So, it’s not just religious.

There’s elements, then, that bring sort of a broad appeal to an exhibit like this in a place like San Diego, where there is substantial diversity in terms of religious thought and spiritual thought.

And I think even non-religious people have a fascination with the ancient past and old documents and what people were thinking about 2,000 years ago. How they lived, and evidence of that. …

And there’s kind of a little bit of an Indiana Jones piquing of interests going on, as well, right?

It’s very rare when you work in the field of ancient history to have a site with all kinds of material remains, with artifacts, with writing to accompany it, to tell you what you’re looking at. …

One interesting thing, too, is that you’ve said that the climate in San Diego is quite similar to that of Qumran.

Yeah, of Israel in general. Israel’s on the coast of the Mediterranean, and San Diego County is considered a Mediterranean climate even though we’re not on the Mediterranean. And if you look at a map, Israel and San Diego sort of share a latitudinal line and have a similar climate, plant life, animals. And if you were going to go from the coast in Israel, the coast in San Diego, and move inland toward the desert, you’d pass by all of the same microclimates. They have a salt sea, we have a salt sea, and it’s kind of interesting.

In fact, before the exhibit, before you even get to see the scrolls, we have a photo exhibit, and part of what we do is show photos of both places. And you have to guess which one’s which, and it’s really hard! (laughs) …

I think the idea was, so much of what we see in the Middle East is so negative and you lose sight of the fact that there’s a lot of beauty there, a lot of culture there, a lot of history there, and we really tried to bring that out.

And so this is something, for all of those reasons — those things kind of combine to make this something for San Diegans?

I think when I first came up with this idea of trying to get this exhibition here, it seemed to me, after living here for 15 years, that San Diego has a tremendous amount to offer, and yet we get passed over for the big museum shows, the big Broadway shows — they all go to L.A. or San Francisco, whereas we’re perfectly capable of hosting something here. And so when this opportunity presented itself, I thought, you know, the universities could be involved, the Convention Center could be involved, and that’s pretty much what’s happening.

You’ve been working on this a couple of years — you took a sabbatical from your SDSU job.

It’s been about three years.

And now it’s coming up in just a month or so. Hard to believe?

I think it’s exciting, and kind of scary, and also kind of sad. I hope I don’t suffer from post-partum.

— Interview conducted by KELLY BENNETT

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