The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. During that period, nearly 100,000 fragments of text were discovered, and from those, nearly 900 scrolls were pieced together by scholars.

Many experts believe the scrolls were created by an Essene sect, a group of Jews who broke away from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life in the desert. The caves in which the scrolls were discovered were likely the Essenes’ homes. The manuscripts fall into three major categories, mainly biblical texts, other religious writings and sectarian documents.

The Milwaukee Public Museum is no stranger to religious exhibitions. In 2006 “Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes” was brought to Milwaukee for a three-month display, with more than 144,000 people visiting, and the museum netting nearly $400,000 in profit. Finley anticipates “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” will be just as successful.

The museum plans to create a 16,000 square feet area where the public can learn about life during the time the scrolls were written, including having textiles, sandals and a comb, pottery, coins, stone ossuaries, glass and metal on display. Photographs, videos and children’s interactive stations will be included.

According to museum chair of anthropology and history Carter Lupton, the museum has acquired 165 archeological artifacts and about 10 scrolls, on loan from institutions and individuals from Israel, Jordan, Switzerland, France, England and the United States.

“People ask, ‘Why is this Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit here in Milwaukee different from others?’ because there have been others around the country,” Lupton explained. “The quick answer is that the exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls is different from previous ones or future ones because the Dead Sea Scrolls are so precious that only a few are ever loaned out at a time.”


Exhibit artists Nora Boedeker, left to right, Tom Shea, and Nancy Kruschke create fake stones Sept. 30 out of foam and sand for a wall that will be part of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The show will open in January 2010. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

In addition to artifacts and scrolls, the museum will also boast rare pages of hand-copied medieval Bibles, including pages from the Guttenberg Bible, and the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the oldest copy known of the Hebrew Bible.

The Copper Scroll – the only scroll found during that time on metal – will also be on display. Discovered in 1952, writings of ancient Hebrew were found stamped into the copper scroll. For years, experts tried to figure out how to unroll the fragile scroll without damaging it, but eventually cut it into strips and then pieced it together.

“What’s really more unique about its contents is that it does not seemingly have anything to do with the Bible, or with any of the people who wrote the Bible,” Lupton explained. “It lists a treasure. It’s a list of locations – over 60 different locations – with directions on how to reach them. Sometimes it will say go to the south, down the steps, under the pool, such and such. Go right three cubits, and there you will find so many talents of gold or silver.

“It’s been difficult to translate portions, because it’s somewhat deteriorated, the words are stamped in the metal and therefore they don’t come out quite as clean as they would if you had put them on parchment or papyrus.”

Whether the treasure map was written more as a metaphor, or the treasure was found centuries before, perplexes scholars and archeologists, according to Lupton.

What: “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts,
Timeless Treasures”
When: Jan. 22 to June 6, 2010
Where: Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St., Milwaukee
Cost: Weekdays: $22, weekends: $26, for adults; $18 at all times for ages 3-12. Tickets available at the museum box office and (414) 223-4676. Group rates available.

While it took a number of years to find the funding and to gather the amount of scrolls and artifacts, Finley is excited about the exhibit.

“Well, certainly I hope they come away with an appreciation of how important the Dead Sea Scrolls are,” Finley said about those planning to view the exhibit. “As I’ve said, they’re the foundation for three great religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity. That affects three billion people.”

“I want people to hopefully understand that we share this common spiritual beginning, and then hopefully once we achieve that, people can begin to understand that maybe we’re not all that different, that there is much more we have in common than we have different, and that could lead to greater understanding amongst all of us.”