The pivotal moment at the "Dead Sea Scrolls" exhibition now at the Franklin Institute came for me in front of a glass case in which sits an incense holder about a foot high and a foot square. It's a sand-colored piece of pottery, scored with handmade Xs and what appear to be stamped circles. Scholars place it in a long-ago Jewish home in Israel, where it was discovered.
It is 3,000-odd years old. The first thing I noticed is the burn mark on its surface — the legacy of incense, as if it had been lit last night.
Shivers crept along my spine — a feeling that, instantly, a piece of something inanimate had melded me to a person who lived very differently, eons ago, but in a culture that over time also became mine.
I got this feeling again inside the circular last room of the exhibition. There, in dim, carefully controlled light, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls rest with facsimiles that show the missing parts of the remnants and explain them.
Again, it was not the scrolls that moved me. It was a stone, a creamy roundish piece the size of a toddler's fist. Scholars believe someone may have picked it up outside the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, whose first version (sometimes called Solomon's Temple) was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and whose second fell to the Romans in 70 A.D.
Scholars speculate that whoever scratched an elementary five-candle menorah onto its face had probably just seen the real thing at the Temple, then tossed it to the side of the road. Two thousand years later, someone found it in Jerusalem's ancient drainage ditch, near the site of the Temple Mount. Watch where you toss your doodles.
"Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times" was assembled by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the people ultimately involved when anyone builds a new house or plants a new garden or works on a planned dig and comes up with an artifact. This is said to happen routinely in Israel, as well as in places such as Greece and Italy, and it occurs in Philadelphia's Old City, too.
What makes Dead Sea Scrolls a special offering is its remarkable breadth, both a tribute to Israel's antiquities handlers and scholars, and a sweep through the history of a religion and culture ancient and modern. The exhibition is the largest collection of artifacts ever to tour outside Israel — more than 600 relics plus the selection of scrolls, and a three-ton stone from Jerusalem's Western Wall, a remnant of the second Temple. At some point in the exhibition, the fragments from the Dead Sea Scroll collection will be replaced by other fragments because the 2,000-year-old parchment scrolls, written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, are fragile and can be exposed to only so much light at a time.
The scrolls were discovered in 1947, hidden in caves in the Judean desert on the Dead Sea's northern shores. That in itself is an astounding story: A Bedouin goatherd threw a rock inside a cave and heard a shattering sound. When he and his friends explored, they found leather-bound scrolls. Among them are the oldest existing copies of the Five Books of Moses, or the Torah, or the basic portion of the Old Testament, which are all the same.
The exhibition solidly recounts through video, displays, the scrolls and artifacts, the rush to exploit or protect the scrolls, and other finds from the caves. Some from the site are among the treasures on view: pottery, cord fragments, parts of sandals, a perfectly carved boxwood comb, Jewish religious artifacts, and even Tyrian shekels. These are the silver-rich coins Jewish men used to pay tax to the Temples, and were the coins on the tables of the money-changers that Jesus overturned. They bear the Hellenized face of a Phoenician god.
These particular artifacts date from 1 B.C. (Instead of B.C. and A.D., the exhibition uses the more academically and theologically neutral B.C.E. and C.E., for before the common era and common era.) Many other remnants, from all over what is now modern Israel, date from much earlier, or into the first hundreds of centuries A.D.
I have seen the exhibition three times. The first was at Manhattan's Discovery Museum in 2011, when a friend invited me to join him; I was entranced by the way it linked me to the past, and stayed for hours.
I saw it again recently when it opened at the Franklin Institute, then spent a few hours with it again several days ago. Each time, I found something new or something to mull over once more — the labeling and placards, as well as the video screens with further information and the audio tour, all easily invite such rumination. (A Web search shows that during its New York run, some parties challenged the exhibition's interpretations of one thing or another.)
When I sat down to write this, it struck me that reviewing the Dead Sea scrolls is an outrageous idea. Generations of noted scholars have pored over them — so what do I say? They're dusty? In pieces? Not immediately accessible? Poorly lit?
All this is true, and none of it without reason. Yet when you walk into a room and see the flat-screen image of a scroll bearing the Ten Commandments, and press a button to watch the Hebrew rendering of a specific commandment emerge from the scroll's text and hear its English translation, you begin to understand the full impact of these writings.
Yes, it was the artifacts, not the scrolls, that I found particularly affecting. But by tracing, through both, the trajectory of the Israelites in turbulent ancient times, "Dead Sea Scrolls" is also cataloging Western culture. In the end, as the exhibition makes clear, if you declare yourself Jewish or Christian or Muslim, the roots of your faith and the evolution of your values are shared here.
Exhibition Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times Through Oct. 14 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St. Information and tickets, 215-448-1200 or www.fi.edu/scrolls/