ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Bible's evolution from ancient Hebrew to modern languages and from clay tablets to printed books is a rich lesson in the history of civilizations, the origins of the written word and the revolution of printing.
The story of how the text of the Bible has been written and disseminated over the centuries is recounted in a new exhibition at the Florida International Museum 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.
The exhibit's founder and chief curator, William H. Noah, isn't a biblical scholar but a pulmonary physician who lives near Nashville, Tenn. He said a personal interest in the history of the sacred text led him to study it and 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," 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."
Noah said the focus of the 8,500 square-foot exhibit is more historical than religious, tracing the evolution of the Bible from early 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 first shown in civic centers in Knoxville, Tenn., and then Lexington, Ky., in 2005, 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," Noah said. "I was very impressed."
The crowds, he said, included academicians, religious leaders, the faithful and the curious. The exhibit was even held over in Knoxville because of the demand.
While in Lexington, the exhibit drew visitors from all over the state of 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."
James Strange, a University of South Florida religious studies professor and an expert in Bible archaeology, said examples of the many of the exhibit's oldest artifacts exist elsewhere - including an extensive Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in a museum in Israel. But it's not often that general audiences get access to such a variety of them.
"The average person has never seen the original version of the King James Bible, let alone the Dead Sea Scrolls," he said.
Kathy Oathout, executive director of the Florida International Museum, said "Ink & Blood" fits with the mission of the 10-year-old museum, which hosted an exhibit about Princess Diana last year and a Titanic show in 1997. "Our history is that we've told stories," she said.
The exhibit is being promoted heavily with mailings to area churches and schools, and the museum hopes to lure the area's wintering snowbirds.
Oathout shrugged off criticism from some who have said the exhibit leans toward being too evangelical. Every visitor will take away something different, she said.
Said Noah: "Whether someone believes the Bible is inspired or not, they cannot ignore that this is the most significant group of writings in Western culture."
If You Go...
BIBLE EXHIBIT: "Ink & Blood: Sacred Treasures of the Bible" is at the Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. North in St. Petersburg, through May 14; http://www.inkandblood.com or (877) 332-4253. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays, noon-6 p.m. Adults, $16; seniors and those in the military, $14; students, $9; children 6 and under, free.