Regardless of whether its first scribes were touched by a divine hand as Christians believe, the Bible`s evolution from ancient Hebrew text to the English language is a rich lesson in the history of civilizations, origins of the written word and the revolution of printing.
The tale is recounted in an exhibition opening at the Florida International Museum on Jan. 13 that boasts artifacts as rare and priceless as they come, among them bits of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a fragment of the Gospel of John dating to about 250 A.D., a 1455 Gutenberg Bible and a first edition of the King James version from 1611.
William H. Noah, founder and curator of the exhibit, isn`t a biblical scholar but a pulmonary physician who lives near Nashville, Tenn. He said his personal interest in the history of the sacred text led him to study it and begin to assemble a collection that opened in Tennessee a year ago called "Ink & Blood: Dead Sea Scrolls to the English Bible."
"I had traveled the world researching this for years and was just curious," Dr. Noah said. "You get all these extreme views [of the Bible] from different groups, and as I started to research this, I found that the real academic view was an incredible story."
Dr. Noah said the focus of the 8,500-square-foot exhibit is more historical than religious, tracing the evolution of the Bible from pictograph writings on clay tablets 5,000 years ago to the Dead Sea Scrolls -- the oldest known copies of most of the Old Testament books, written on animal skins -- to translations into Latin, German, French and English.
The displays include a working replica of Johannes Gutenberg`s printing press, which brought the Bible to the masses in the 15th century.
The St. Petersburg opening is the first big splash for the exhibit, which was tested in civic centers in Knoxville, Tenn., and then Lexington, Ky., last year, drawing about 100,000 visitors. The four-month St. Petersburg stop is the exhibit`s first in a museum and its first in a major population center.
"I wanted to open in a smaller community because of the controversial nature of anything biblical, and I wanted to see how it would be received," Dr. Noah said. "I was very impressed."
The crowds, he said, included academicians, religious leaders, the faithful and the curious. The exhibit was held over in Knoxville because of the demand.
In Lexington, the exhibit drew visitors from all across Kentucky, said Niki Heichelbech, spokeswoman for the city`s convention and visitors bureau.
"Whatever you may go into it with, you come out with a completely different feeling," she said. "It definitely opens your eyes in ways you thought it might not. It certainly had an effect on people."
The exhibit is being promoted heavily with mailings to area churches and schools, and the museum hopes to lure the area`s wintering snowbirds.