Texas seminary acquires 3 fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls

FORT WORTH — Only eight months after the Kimbell Art Museum purchased an exceedingly rare Michelangelo painting, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary dropped its own antiquities bombshell Wednesday — the school has acquired three fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the world’s most important archaeological and spiritual discoveries.

The fragments — appearing to carry verses from the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus and Daniel — are admittedly tiny, measuring only a few square inches each and protected in a sheath of glass. But because the scrolls are the oldest version of the Hebrew Bible ever discovered, it would be impossible to overstate their importance to religious scholars, not to mention the leadership of the Baptist seminary.

"This is an occasion of considerable consequence," said Paige Patterson, president of the seminary.

The seminary bought the pieces for an undisclosed price from a private collector who had them in a Swiss bank.

Seminary Trustee Gary Loveless, who owns an oil and gas exploration company in Houston, provided the funding for the purchase, which also included a wooden writing instrument found with the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel.

It is believed that only two other institutions in the United States have pieces from the ancient biblical texts — the University of Chicago and Azusa Pacific University in California. Even the Princeton Theological Seminary, considered one of the foremost institutions on the scrolls, does not own any pieces.

The vast majority of the scrolls are held by museums in Israel and Jordan.

The seminary does not appear to be done collecting, either.

Patterson and Loveless said they intend to establish a group of patrons to acquire more fragments. They would go on display next year in the school’s new chapel, which is under construction.

Peter Flint, a religious studies professor and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in Canada, likened the acquisition to getting a private Rolling Stones concert, which prompted some laughter at the evangelical and fiercely conservative seminary.

"There is no greater discovery than the Dead Sea Scrolls," Flint said. "These pieces of leather may look like scraps. But on these scrolls brought here today are written the very stuff dreams are made of.  . . . This only happens at a place with vision."