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Early Christianity comes to life in Holy Land museum

  • Judith Sudilovsky, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • June 24 2016
Elie Posner

New exhibit route at the Israel Museum highlights origins of Christianity and pilgrimage in Jerusalem

For many Christian pilgrims worldwide, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a once-in-a-lifetime highlight of their faith. Few, however, may reflect on the fact that they are a link to a religious ritual that has played out for centuries — one that dramatically changed the landscape of Jerusalem during the Byzantine era of the fourth and seventh centuries A.D.

It was during this period that the Byzantine Empire began funneling tremendous amounts of funds to support infrastructure for the growing flow of Christian pilgrims who were coming to venerate holy sites connected to the life of Jesus. Interestingly, these vast numbers of churches, shrines, hospitals, guest hostels and souvenir shops catering to the pilgrims were built side by side upon a landscape where there were already Jewish synagogues, and in later times shared the space with Muslim mosques as well.

Side by side

This whole context of the early years of Christianity is easily lost on pilgrims coming to the Holy Land today, noted David Mevorach, senior curator of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine archaeology of the Israel Museum. While able to visit the holy sites themselves, pilgrims are unable to witness the context in which these places existed at the dawn of Christianity.

Therefore, the Israel Museum recently inaugurated a special tour emphasizing artifacts from early Christianity. The new “Cradle of Christianity” route aims to place the story of Jesus into a broader historical context by providing a window into the development of the period, he said. The route takes visitors to 12 exhibits located throughout the permanent collection, allowing them to view archeological artifacts specifically reflecting ancient Christian history. The route is self-guided but can also be taken as a preregistered tour with a museum guide. It includes objects that had been put together in a special exhibit of the same name for the Jubilee Year 2000.

“It gives the visitor a chance to touch upon crucial moments in the history of Christianity within the context of its time,” Mevorach said.

The last stop of the route is in the Byzantine gallery, where a reconstruction of an early church is juxtaposed to a reconstruction of a synagogue from the same period reflecting their similar structure and furnishing. A nearby display of the various souvenirs, trinkets and religious mementos such as small bottles filled with earth reveals how similar pilgrimages have remained over the ages. The souvenir and tourism/pilgrimage industry continues playing an important role not only for pilgrims but also for the local economy some 1,500 years later.

“It is striking to see how similar the practices are from then and today. It continues exactly the same way, though the materials may have changed. The iconography, the idea, the belief is the same. People still come here to touch, to breathe and to take some of the holiness back with them,” Mevorach said.

“I think it is interesting to see that all this happened here concurrently, with the development of Christianity and Judaism [side by side]. We had here churches and synagogues which were very similar in structure and furnishings. That is something people can see and understand here,” said Mevorach, noting that this final exhibit, which shows the close interconnection of the religions, is his favorite stop of the tour. “This development was not happening in two different worlds. Their closeness and differences where happening [next to each other]. And then a third religion, Islam, came. It all happened here in this place at the edge of the map and this gallery allows people to see that.”

Biblical connections

Other stops along the route include stone inscriptions from the Second Temple that would have been familiar to Jesus, a Latin dedicatory inscription bearing the name of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and the ossuary, or burial box, of the high priest Caiaphas — two men associated with the trial of Jesus.

“It is extraordinary to find names of Biblical figures [in archaeological finds] and it is extraordinary to have the names of two key figures ... who played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus,” Mevorach said.

Another inscription includes a reference to the Davidic dynasty, the only such evidence ever found to have a possible connection with the biblical King David, from whom Jesus, as the Messiah, was descended.

Also on exhibit is a sample of the Tyrian half-shekels from A.D. 47-48 used to pay the yearly tax to the Temple required of every Jewish male over the age of 20. These coins were not common and needed to be purchased from money changers in the Temple. These were the money changers whose tables Jesus overturned when he cleansed the Temple.

Crucifixion evidence

The route also features a replica of a human ankle bone pierced by a nail — the only direct archeological evidence ever found of Roman crucifixion. Due to religious sensitivities regarding ritual purity of Orthodox Jews, the actual crucified ankle bone — or any bone — cannot be exhibited at the museum, explained Mevorach. Thus, the bone on display in the museum is a replica, while the real bone is kept in storage.

Archaeologists cannot determine why the man was crucified, but because the bone was found on-site in a family tomb in north Jerusalem, they know his name was “Yehohanan son of Hagkol” and that he was crucified approximately around the same time as Jesus, Mevorach said. The bones discovered in the tomb allowed archaeologists to reconstruct the method used for the man’s crucifixion, leading them to determine that his legs had been nailed to the sides of the crucifixion post while his hands were tied or nailed to the crossbar.

“It is the only find in the world of such a phenomenon, even though crucifixion was a common Roman punishment. Thousands and tens of thousands of people were killed this way,” Mevorach said.

The find may be so rare because perhaps crucifixion nails were taken to be reused once the person was taken down from the post, he said, or because, as he tends to believe, the nails were seen as powerful amulets and were taken for protection.

When faced with this proof of a crucifixion, some Christian groups visiting the museum stopped for a moment of prayer in front of the display, which includes numerous ossuaries from that time, Mevorach said.

A visit to the Shrine of the Book, which houses sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls, including a full scroll of the Book of Isaiah — the oldest copy of the Bible to be found, believed to be from some time between the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. — reveals the philosophical and religious turmoil rampant in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus, Mevorach said.

A miniature model of the Old City from the Jewish Second Temple period located in a courtyard outside the museum building provides a full overview of the layout of the city as it was during Jesus’ time.

“These objects can help pilgrims complete the picture and shed a bit more light on Jesus’ life,” Mevorach said.

Exhibit online

Click here to learn more about the items in the exhibit through the museum’s archives.


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