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Glimpse of holy scrolls at Sacramento area church

GRANITE BAY -- Want to see a piece of 2,000-year-old history as well as centuries of historic Jewish and Christian writings?

Check out "From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bible in America" at Bayside Church in this Sacramento-area community. Eleven fragments of the famous scrolls -- about the size of a thumbnail -- are on display for the first time in Northern California. The show runs daily through May 15.

On loan from Azusa Pacific University, only three of the exhibit's fragments have been deciphered. They are from Deuteronomy and Daniel and include this verse:

Deuteronomy 8:3 "So he humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord."

The exhibit, seen by about 800 people during its opening weekend last week, is already a hit, organizers said.

"The two big impressions that I've heard most is the high quality of the exhibit itself. It's museum quality," said Mark Miller, the church's spokesman for the exhibit. "We had to retrofit our large high school room to stage it.

"The second thing is the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. They have so much history and so much time and so much distance; yet they're right here in our back yard. It's impressive."

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 when Bedouin shepherd boys were searching for stray sheep in the arid and cave-filled area of Qumran, southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea. One boy threw a rock into a cave and heard pottery breaking; they told adults, who later found the scroll of Isaiah and other manuscripts in the cave.

Archaeologists and scholars eventually found scrolls and fragments in 10 caves from 1947-56. Many fell into the hands of individuals and museums around the world. In 1954, an ad in the Wall Street Journal even offered four scrolls for sale.

But the majority are in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

Although translations of some of the more intact scrolls were published in the 1960s, publications of most texts were delayed until the 1990s. Dating from about 250 B.C.-68 A.D., the scrolls -- written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic -- are important because they are the earliest surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. Some scrolls were written more than 900 years before the next oldest texts.

There is no consensus among scholars as to who transcribed the scrolls. For years, the theory was that a Jewish sect called the Essenes copied the biblical texts and hid them from Roman soldiers in nearby caves. Many scholars still believe that, but others believe non-Essene residents living near Qumran were responsible. Yet another theory is that Zadokite priests (called Sadducees in the Bible) transcribed the scrolls, which include at least segments from every book in the Old Testament except Esther.

Whoever wrote them, scholars say, the scrolls and their hiding places were forgotten when Romans overran the community after the Jewish revolt in Israel in 66-68 A.D.

In 2009, Azusa Pacific purchased their scroll fragments from a private collector. They will be on display at the university this summer. But Ray Johnston, senior pastor at Bayside and an Azusa board member, convinced the university to let the church have first dibs on the exhibit.

The scroll fragments are in one room. Most of the exhibit is a display of ancient religious writings, including a 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablet, several hand-copied Bibles from the Middle Ages, a leaf from the original Gutenberg Bible, several first printings of King James bibles from the 1600s and at least two Jewish scrolls, including a Sefer Torah from the 17th century. There also is a tiny Bible sent to the moon with astronauts.

Visitors enter the exhibit, decorated to resemble a cave, every 15 minutes and proceed at their own pace. The average time to peruse the exhibit, according to the display's Web site, is about 45 minutes.

Mike and Melinda Riley of Modesto visited the exhibit Monday. They especially appreciated the Bibles on display.

"I was most impressed with the sacrifice that people have made to share God's word," Mike Riley said. "Just thinking about the monks who would spend all day copying the Bible, how uncomfortable that would be. That's what struck me the most."

Visitors have run the gamut, from local church members to those who don't believe in God, and folks from Fresno to Grass Valley and beyond.

"We've got synagogues blocking tickets to come," Miller said. "Whether it's people of faith or people interested in archaeology or history, I think it appeals to people for many reasons."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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