SAN DIEGO — The first commandment for showing the Dead Sea Scrolls is: "Let there not be too much light."
It has been handed down by the Israel Antiquities Authority, custodian of most of the 2,000-year-old parchments and papyri. The scrolls, many of them pieced together like puzzles from fragments and tatters, contain the oldest known biblical writings -- among them a text of the Ten Commandments that will be part of the six-month Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition that opens Friday at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It's billed as the largest and most comprehensive ever.
Museum-goers accustomed to prolonged gazing will have to adjust their expectations when they reach the show's darkened climactic room. There, each of the 15 scroll fragments lies in its own case, with separate climate controls and a fiber-optic lighting system that's set to turn off five seconds out of every 20 to avoid overexposure.
The scrolls' appeal shows no signs of fading. Since the Israeli government began making them regularly available for exhibition a few years ago, they've been a hot attraction in international museums -- not bad for an assortment of documents so visually mundane that in 2003 a Montreal museum director said that "they look like little pieces of burned paper."
A little controversy never hurts at the box office, either. Most scholars consider the scrolls to be the articles of faith of a small Jewish sect that lived an ascetic life near the Dead Sea, avoiding what it saw as the corrupt religious establishment while waiting for the Messiah. But dissidents have kept up a literary crossfire disputing the majority's thinking -- and some complain that the public has gotten a slanted view of the scrolls.
Whoever they were, the ancient scribes created documents -- including complete texts or excerpts from every book of the Hebrew Bible except the Scroll of Esther -- that continue to resonate among Christians, Jews and lovers of ancient history.
Writing mainly on animal skins, they began around 250 BC and continued through the time of Jesus. The copying suddenly ended, archeologists believe, in AD 68, during a revolt that was crushed by Roman overlords who destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, then besieged the fortress of Masada until the last holdouts committed mass suicide. The scrolls, which also include many religious texts not found in the Bible, were secreted in caves overlooking the Dead Sea, to be discovered in 1947 by a young shepherd. By 1956, fragments of about 900 scrolls had been found in 11 caves above Qumran.
The scrolls seldom toured until the early 1990s, partly because until then they were in the custody of scholars who zealously withheld them. Since 1998, combinations of six to 15 scrolls have been seen in seven U.S. cities, including Chicago, Houston, Seattle and Mobile, Ala., as well as in Europe, Japan and Brazil. American museums have marketed them extensively to churches, and some have drawn record-setting attendance.
"We've got to go down and see them," said John Mann, assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. "The significance is that these words that were preserved in these manuscripts are the inspired word of God."
The scrolls in San Diego include a dozen from Israel and three lent by Jordan. After three months, Israeli authorities will exchange their first assortment for 12 others, including a Deuteronomy parchment that contains the Ten Commandments. It's part of the attempt to limit their exposure to light; after each showing, a scroll is given at least a year of "rest" in the dark, says Pnina Shor, head of conservation for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The $24-to-$28 adult admission in San Diego, including an audio tour, compares to a high of $20 elsewhere; the natural history museum expects to sell 450,000 tickets.
Michael "Mick" Hager, president of the museum, expects the exhibition to cost about $6 million, with donations covering half. Museum leaders think it will broaden their audience and donor pool. The scrolls have pulled in Joan and Irwin Jacobs, leading cultural philanthropists, as the show's lead sponsors.
After learning about the geology and natural landscape of Israel, visitors descend to a facsimile of a cave mouth, with strains of Middle Eastern music and whiffs of frankincense and myrrh helping to set the mood as displays detail how the scrolls were discovered and pieced together from thousands of fragments. They see everyday artifacts from Qumran, including clay jars in which scrolls were found. "We've tried to produce rich, detailed context to show the wonder of these objects, even though they're very plain," said Nancy Owens Renner, exhibit developer for the museum. "All of this is to build your sense of anticipation and excitement before the main event."