The Leonardo, Utah’s science and technology museum, is currently hosting an exhibit titled “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times” that should be of interest to many residents of the state.
This is not the first exhibit of the scrolls along the Wasatch Front. In fact, the state’s connection with the famous texts that were recovered decades ago near the western shore of the Dead Sea at ancient Qumran is deep, unique and of long standing.
At least four members of the faculty at Brigham Young University, for example, have served on the official editorial team that publishes the scrolls. Moreover, BYU’s Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS, hosted academic conferences on the scrolls at the university’s campuses in both Provo and Jerusalem and pioneered the production of searchable electronic databases of the Qumran documents that are of enormous value to scholars.
For much of 1997, a major exhibit at BYU’s Museum of Art used materials from Qumran and the spectacular plateau fortress of Masada, located about 163 miles (263 kilometers) further to the south, to illustrate “the world of the New Testament.” Subsequently, in 2000, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints co-sponsored a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum (as it is now co-sponsoring this exhibit at the Leonardo), FARMS organized a small supportive traveling exhibit that visited LDS stake centers across the Upper Midwest and eventually went on to Europe and Australia.
An even larger exhibit of the scrolls and related objects, organized by FARMS (which has since been renamed the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship), would have opened as part of the cultural accompaniment to the 2002 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, though, security concerns after the 9/11 terrorist attacks drove insurance rates through the roof and caused several governments and private collectors in Europe and the Middle East to withdraw their artifacts from the exhibit, which was ultimately canceled.
Following the late Hugh Nibley (died in 2005), who began writing about the Dead Sea Scrolls in both academic and Mormon venues shortly after the discoveries at Qumran, Latter-day Saints have been exceptionally interested in the scrolls almost from the beginning. They’ve been understandably fascinated with the story of a community that fled Jerusalem into the wilderness under the leadership of a prophetic figure called “the teacher of righteousness,” lived in isolation awaiting the advent of the Messiah, produced and kept records (some written on metal plates), and, when faced with military destruction, buried those records in a hillside to preserve them for future generations.
Nibley saw the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran as having such strong messianic expectations that, borrowing a phrase from Harvard’s Frank Moore Cross and comparing them to the pre-Christian Nephites of the Book of Mormon, they could be called a “church of anticipation.” And, in fact, the Austrian Roman Catholic scholar Georg Molin once remarked rather sarcastically that the messianic “church of anticipation” at Qumran might accurately have called itself “latter-day saints” — if that title hadn’t already been claimed by “a so-called Christian church.”
The exhibit “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times” continues at the Leonardo (at 209 E. 500 South) through April 27. For details, see the Leonardo’s website at theleonardo.org/exhibits/discover/dead-sea-scrolls-life-and-faith-ancient-times.
For a superb related experience, see the brilliant 3-D film “Jerusalem,” narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, in the ATK IMAX Theatre at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City or in the Mammoth Screen Theatre at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi. Both theaters are running the film through April (coinciding, by chance or design, with the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit). For those who haven’t visited Israel, this 40-minute film will whet their appetites and give them a rich, visually stunning sense of both land and city. Those who have already been to the Holy Land will find themselves there once again, in a remarkable way.
When the first pioneers, already saturated with the Bible during years of devout reading, arrived in what would become Utah and discovered a freshwater lake connected by a river to a dead sea of salt, it was natural for them to call that river the “Jordan.” They saw themselves as settling a new promised land.
We, their successors on that land, have two unusual opportunities during the next few weeks to see, close to home and with our own eyes, something of the history, landscape and culture of the original promised land.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.