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Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit offers chance to explore sacred connections

SALT LAKE CITY — The Dead Sea Scrolls aren’t random words written on fragments of ancient leather.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, the scrolls are valued by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and many of them contain familiar scripture.

“The Lord is revealed in these texts,” said Donald Parry, professor of the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls at Brigham Young University.

Portions of these religious texts are currently on display at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, where members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are among the patrons who have the opportunity to gain tremendous insight from them.

Working in conjunction with BYU professors, the museum has created a lecture program to enhance the experience for members of the LDS Church as well as other visitors. In addition to these programs, some of the scrolls and objects on display hold interesting connections to Christianity and the LDS faith, giving members of the church the opportunity to reflect on the role of faith in the world today as well as the faith of the ancients.

“The connection to the past is so hard to put into words, but when you see this exhibit it’s just undeniable,” said Bryton Sampson, communication specialist for The Leonardo.

BYU connections

The staff at The Leonardo knew the Dead Sea Scrolls would be a hit with the Utah audience.

“When we heard that this was traveling the country, we knew it was going to appeal to the people of Utah and the Wasatch Front,” Sampson said.

He explained that the state’s appetite for the content, along with The Leonardo’s flexible floor plan, were big contributors to the staff’s desire to bring the exhibit to the museum. But he said an “even bigger” appeal was the work Parry and his colleagues at BYU had been doing with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Leonardo created connections with the local community by working with BYU, pulling from the university’s large pool of Dead Sea Scroll scholars to create a lecture series.

“By the end of the exhibit, every major expert will have spoken here,” Lisa Davis, media and public relations director for The Leonardo, said in a previous interview with the Deseret News.

Several BYU scholars have already presented as part of the series, and Parry is set to lecture at The Leonardo on Thursday, March 6, at 7 p.m. Previous lectures are available online.

A section of the exhibit is titled “Unlocking the Past: How Utah Scholars and Scientists Are Helping to Bring Ancient Texts Out of the Darkness and Into the Light.” A timeline within the section highlights some of the work of BYU scholars, as well as a computer area at the Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library. The computer program, produced at BYU with Parry as one of the editors, allows guests to digitally browse the contents of the scrolls. A jar purchased by N. Eldon Tanner is also displayed in this area and is believed to be a Qumran jar that held the scrolls.

Background and LDS connections

Housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the first set of Dead Sea Scrolls is believed to have been owned by a sect of Jews called the Essenes. The scrolls were found in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea in 1947. Discoveries continued over several years to the point that the collection now includes more than 900 manuscripts, about 200 of which contain texts from the Old Testament. According to Parry, at least fragments of every book of the Old Testament, with the exception of the book of Esther, were discovered in the caves.

“The Old Testament scrolls … signify in my personal faith belief the first testament of Jesus Christ,” Parry said. “(They) are books that almost emit light.”

Beyond the connection of revering the Old Testament as holy writ, Parry noted that many scholars and hobbyists through the years have attempted to make stronger connections between the Essene and Latter-day Saint doctrine than actually exist. He did, however, state a few connections that can be made between the Essenes and the Nephites, including the fact that both groups viewed scriptures as vital to their communities, greatly valued the law of Moses and viewed temples as significant symbols.

Some of the specific items currently on display at The Leonardo contain connections that also may be of interest to Mormon guests.

Among the scrolls is one referred to as the New Jerusalem Text. Parry noted that scholars don’t know if the Jerusalem described in the text is the old Jerusalem made new or if there is a connection to another “New Jerusalem.” In any case, Parry said, “It describes a temple city.”

On display in the hallway immediately before the room containing the scrolls are two incense altars. Parry pointed out the horns on each of the four corners of the altars and said four-horned incense altars would have been a part of Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle of Moses.

“These would have been temple incense altars that are reminiscent of the Lord’s true temple, where there was an incense altar made of gold,” Parry said.

An olive oil press is also on display in the scrolls room. Parry said the significance of this item's presence includes the fact that “Gethsemane” is a Hebrew word that means olive oil press. “Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, and that garden must have had an olive oil press, maybe similar to this one,” Parry said. “It’s a very fascinating system to study about and then compare it to Jesus Christ, who was the anointed one ... .”

Perspective on faith

The title of the exhibit, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” is an indicator that much can be learned from the people represented in the exhibit.

“When you see the objects that these people used and learn more about what they were used for, you get a really deep sense of humility,” Sampson said. “These people … were not caught up in having the latest iPhone or getting a good parking space. They lived their day-to-day lives and did what they had to do to survive and to prosper, but such a big part of that was their worship.”

Parry said that, for him, the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t create more faith; he would have faith with or without the scrolls' existence. “We’re talking about something that I already knew, and that’s the Old Testament texts and writers and prophets all testified of Jesus Christ,” he said.

He said others who already have similar faith would likely experience the same sense of affirmation, and visitors can do more than just intellectually learn new things at the exhibit.

“They will also feel things if they’ll just pause,” he said. “If they come with a humble spirit and a thoughtful and prayerful attitude, knowing they’re going to be looking at parts of the world’s oldest Old Testament, that’s how they can prepare.”

The Leonardo offers group pricing to make the exhibit more accessible. Pricing for youth groups is $18.95 for adult chaperones and $6.50 for children and youths. Other groups can access the same pricing when groups include more than 15 adults. Call 801-531-9800 ext. 131 for more information on group pricing.

If you go …

What: Donald Parry lecture, “The Isaiah Scrolls: Their Significance to Modern Religious Communities”

When: Thursday, March 6, 7 p.m.

Where: The Leonardo auditorium, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City


Note: This lecture is free and open to the public.

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