THE DEAD Sea Scrolls, in short (which they are not, running longer than a politician's promises), are the oldest known biblical manuscripts in existence. Perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, they made their North American debut Saturday at the Franklin Institute, where they'll stay through mid-October.

To many atheists, they are the Chronicles of Riddick, or a graphic novel. To most believers, the Dead Sea Scrolls — more than 900 parchments and fragments — offer proof (or at least evidence) that events they believe in actually happened.

Even if you believe that religion is a fairy tale, the 2,000-year-old scrolls deserve respect simply because of their age — they were written between 250 B.C. and 68 A.D., probably by the Essenes, who were hard-line true believers. They were written mostly on parchment (animal skin, ewww), without a Word program, keyboard or even spell-check, which would have been greatly challenged as the Scrolls are in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The scrolls — one even says, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" — could be describing something imaginary, but if so, it was an imagination that changed the world, by creating a platform for just-forming Judaism, then Christianity and, later, Islam.

Before I get into what some see as a vast angel-wing conspiracy that laid the foundation of modern religion, I have to report that the scrolls — 20 at the Franklin Institute, but only 10 on display at any time — are a small part of the wide-ranging exhibition.

Doing its usual stellar job of presentation, the institute has loads of other artifacts, including pottery, crockery, coins, musical instruments, jewelry — even a terra-cotta bathtub with Jacuzzi jets. [Editor's note: Stu's at it again. The bathtub does not have Jacuzzi jets.]

The collection extends through several rooms, supported by audiovisual displays and the omnipresent Sony flat-screen TVs.

One minor display I found fascinating was an animated map of the Mideast, starting in 1000 B.C. with the United Kingdom of Israel being replaced by succeeding waves of conquerors, from Babylonians to Romans to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, displaced after World War I. Takeaway lesson: No empire lasts forever (not even the American empire, for the uber-left who think we own one).

The scrolls were found between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves along the northwest shore of Israel's Dead Sea, a popular tourist attraction because of the falafel stands, chintzy souvenirs and such a high concentration of salt that nothing can live in it (that's why it's Dead), but the salt makes it possible for anyone to float on the water, just like Ivory soap. Tourists try it for the photo-op.

The scrolls were placed in clay jars and hidden in the caves not because of a Batman fetish, but because the ancient Jews feared that the invading Romans would destroy everything they could lay their callused hands on, which of course they did. The darkness and low humidity of the caves protected the manuscripts.

They likely were hidden during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, and remained undisturbed for 2,000 years, which is even longer than Philadelphia has waited for a Super Bowl victory. The scrolls loudly, if silently, proclaim Jerusalem's centrality to Jewish history, which inconveniently contradicts recent statements by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the city belongs only in "Islamic-Christian religious history."

Most of the scrolls are nonbiblical, representing a variety of religious legal writings, prayer texts and predictions of a coming apocalypse. Israelites depended on the writings to understand their history and their relationship with their one and only god.

Whether or not you believe in a one and only god, the scrolls are a priceless window into history. n

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