Religion aside, it is a miracle that the fabulous Dead Sea Scrolls are on exhibit in Milwaukee.
It's also a miracle that you probably haven't heard the priceless antiquities are in the state. Madison needs to pay better attention. To paraphrase the vice president, this is a big freaking deal.
"Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures" is the largest temporary exhibit ever produced by the Milwaukee Public Museum. It went on display March 1 and closes June 6.
The exhibit draws upon recent presentations in San Diego and Houston, but contains a large variety of materials gathered from Jordan, Israel, France and Britain expressly for Milwaukee. Most notable are the treasure-map Copper Scroll, and the only scroll-type manuscript written on rock, the "Jeselsohn Stone," exhibited only once before and the subject of a recent National Geographic special. It was discovered only a decade ago.
There's no denying the texts' impact on Western civilization and the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. And the Dead Sea Scrolls are by far the oldest examples of Old Testament and other texts, all from the time of Jesus and earlier, essentially correcting for scholars centuries of scribes' errors. Since 1947, some 900 manuscripts have been found hidden near the west bank of the Dead Sea.
Also included in the exhibit are examples of ancient New Testament texts, including Matthew, and Paul's Epistle to the Romans, copied onto parchment merely 100 years after it was written by the last apostle. (Better signage is needed; according to a guide, the New Testament papyri were found in Egypt, where they were hidden following "the sack of the Library at Alexandria by the Romans," which is extremely dubious history.)
No matter. The exhibition is frankly stunning as history, as literature and, sociologically, as a demonstration of how varied belief was in and around first-century Jerusalem.
Then there are the spiritual and educational components, and here the exhibit gets on dodgy ground. It begins with a Bible from the Gideons International Society, which was founded in Boscobel, Wis., and ends with Golda Meir, who spent her youth in Milwaukee.
It's likely nice for kids to have state connections, but the Badger brackets are a bit jarring for adults. Speaking of children, almost all of the displays are too tall for them to see.
The first third of the exhibit is given over to Holy Land artifacts discovered in -- well, who knows? Dates are provided, but seldom locations. And the last third of the exhibit is Bibles, lots of Bibles. The exhibition is, after all "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible," but the air gets pretty Christian after awhile. Also, after examining around a dozen scrolls 200 centuries old, even a Gutenberg edition seems anticlimactic, recent and cheap.
The gift shop provides more incongruity, with Dead Sea Scroll souvenirs ranging from lapel pins ($4.95) to scroll scarves ($69.95) and, delightfully, that useful tool created for scrolls' handier successor: Dead Sea Scroll bookmarks ($5.50).
The heart of the exhibition, fortunately, is nearly beyond reproach. It is dark. It is quieter than any church, with no laughter and nearly no whispers. In a horseshoe-shaped room just 34 paces around are remnants of selected scrolls.
Faith? Yes, it takes faith to imagine that historians and linguists could make out any writing whatsoever on some of the coffee-colored scraps the size of a palm or a few fingerprints.
Above all is the human connection: unknown hands wrote in 10-point text and then hid these messages in a desert cave for us to find, 2,000 years later. Why?
You come away frankly feeling accused, for example by the exhibited Mystery Scroll, which reads, "They don't know the future mystery, or understand ancient matters..."