Risa Levitt Kohn always gets a kick out of people telling her they've seen the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What these folks mean, the professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University said, is that they've been to Jerusalem and visited the Shrine of the Book adjacent to the Israel Museum.
But even the well-visited Shrine has only seven scrolls, she explained, whereas the collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority numbers 900 manuscripts, which together have been described as the most significant antiquities discovery of the 20th century.
A whole new series of scrolls will fill "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times," when is opens at the Franklin Institute on May 12.
The exhibit will feature the largest collection of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts ever assembled in North America, including never-before-seen scrolls, according to Levitt Kohn, who co-curated the exhibit with the Antiquities Authority's Debora Ben Ami.
In addition, a comprehensive collection of ancient artifacts from Israel — more than 500 — will set the mood of the period during which these manuscripts were most likely composed.
"We will have on display one of the oldest and one of the newest scrolls found," she said, the latter being a version of Genesis and the former of Jeremiah.
The show began its tour at New York's Discovery Times Square museum. Ten of the scrolls on display in Manhattan will be replaced by new ones here, Levitt Kohn said. And midway through the local run, those 10 will be replaced by 10 others. That's because the Antiquities Authority only lets these manuscripts be displayed for 90 days, the scholar said, after which they must be returned to temperature-controlled darkness to avoid aging and damage.
The scrolls, which are one of Israel's most popular tourist attractions, have had a history filled with intrigue and controversy for the last 65 years.
The first manuscripts were discovered in 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd, pursuing a goat, threw a stone into a cave along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea and heard pottery break. Inside was a group of old jars containing documents.
For a time, only a small number of mostly non-Jewish scholars had access to the material, for reasons both academic and political.
Almost from the start, theories began to surface about this mysterious find, especially concerning the scrolls' composition and how they wound up in the many caves that dot the Dead Sea region known as Qumran.
One of the predominant notions voiced for years was that the writings were the work of a breakaway religious group called the Essenes. Known for their asceticism, these individuals were believed by some to be predecessors of the Christians.
Rumors and controversies also focused on why only a few scholars were involved in examining and translating the material, much of it only fragments. Some conjectured that the non-Jewish scholars were afraid of what the writings would reveal — that they might invalidate Christian doctrine, and so the scholars didn't want such explosive information to leak out.
But according to Levitt Kohn, none of these theories has been borne out by the evidence — either concerning the Essenes or a conspiracy to withhold the scrolls from worldwide scrutiny.
What these manuscripts have done instead, the scholar said, "is change our understanding of the origins of Judaism and Christianity," as well provide us with a more complete picture of Second Temple Judaism. "But there are too many pieces of the puzzle still missing," Levitt Kohn added, "to give any definitive answers about how the scrolls were written or why they wound up in Qumran."
According to the scholar, the material — some of it non-biblical in nature, some of it variant versions of books in the Jewish Bible — was most likely written between 250 BCE and 68 C.E., "when Qumran was destroyed."
Because of the proliferation of theories over the years, said Levitt Kohn, the Antiquities Authority has sought, during the last decade particularly, to open up access to the scrolls even further, especially in North America.
And while the Franklin Institute version of the exhibit may be laid out differently — it was on two levels in New York — the same "historical arc" will be followed here, with an effort to map the period when the scrolls were likely written.
The exhibit is "an investigation of how we create the past through what's left behind. The scrolls are a culmination of the whole world when the biblical texts were being composed. We wanted to look at the period when Judaism and Christianity were being created in the modern sense and what effect these scrolls had on the Abrahamic faiths" — meaning Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Levitt Kohn said.
"So the exhibit traces the First and Second Temple periods and then moves on to the destruction of the Temple and Masada. Masada is the last chapter of the destruction story. There were, in fact, scrolls found at Masada, and that's an important part of that puzzle."
The destructive forces that rained down upon Jerusalem gave rise to the Jesus movement, Levitt Kohn said, "and also forced the issue in Judaism of where God is, and how to pray and where to pray. That's why we end the exhibit with an actual stone from the Western Wall, which points you to the facsimile of the Ten Commandments" — the only facsimile in the entire show.
Next to that, the scholar continued, is a live feed from the Kotel, where people are seen davening using many of the same words that appear in the scrolls.
"We wanted to show how these artifacts continue to inspire us, whether it's the wall, or the power of Jerusalem as an idea, or the holy city as a reality," Levitt Kohn said. "We wanted to show the power they still have over our lives."