It may not be the Ark of the Covenant, but the next best thing has arrived for a limited time at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The Ten Commandments Scroll, one of the oldest surviving copies of those biblical laws, is on view for 80 hours from October 10 to 18, as a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World exhibit.

The fruit of the ROM’s two and a half year negotiations with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the display represents the Ten Commandments Scroll’s only international stop before it returns to the Holy Land. The scroll’s sensitivity to light and humidity explains its fleeting engagement.

“It’s a one shot deal,” said Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibition.

Arguably the most famous and influential passages from the Bible, the Ten Commandments still resonate as a moral compass, even in our largely secular society.

“The text of the Ten Commandments is so well known, even if you’re not a religious person,” said Levitt Kohn. “When times are tough, people turn to all kinds of things for inspiration. It shows you that people had the same kinds of concerns 2,000 years ago as they do today.”

Showcased in a separate space from the rest of the scrolls, the exhibit snakes through an informative pastiche of facts and images, situating the scroll in its historical context.

William Thorsell, ROM Director and CEO, said in his opening remarks at the scroll’s unveiling that Toronto, as a crossroads of many faiths and cultures, was the right place in the world to display the scroll and discuss its shared history.

One of the greatest archeological finds of the twentieth century, the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. Originally discovered by Bedouin goat-herders, the scrolls, which date from approximately 250 BCE - 68 CE, are ancient manuscripts containing some of the oldest surviving examples of biblical books, hymns, and prayers. As the earliest record of biblical patriarchs and prophets, they represent a common link among the Abrahamic faiths.

A small and unassuming sheet of leather parchment, the Ten Commandments Scroll was uncovered in 1952 in Cave 4. The scroll is written in Hebrew and dates to 30-1 BCE. It contains the Ten Commandments text from Deuteronomy 5 and is the best preserved of all the discovered Deuteronomy manuscripts. Experts believe that the scroll may have been intended as a prayer leaflet, due to its portability and its range of Deuteronomy verses.

More than 16,000 people have seen the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit since its June 27, 2009 opening, a testament to its continued relevance.

“We hope that people will leave having learned something, not just having seen something,” said Levitt Kohn. “It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” It will certainly make keeping up with the Indiana Joneses that much easier.

The Ten Commandments Scroll will be on view until Oct. 18, 2009. Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World runs through Jan. 3, 2010.

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