The Arts: Cradle for Two
Using objects excavated in Israel, a traveling exhibit explores the similarities and distinct points of difference in Judaism and the early days of Christianity.
In the year 2000, as one millennium drew to a close and another began, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem launched the new era with a dramatic and innovative exhibition dedicated to the archaeological history of Christianity in the veritable cradle of its infancy. Born as it was in the land of Israel, the Jewish experience and Jewish ethos had a profound impact on the nascent religion.
Drawing on the museum’s unrivaled collection of finds excavated in Israel over the past 150 years, an inspiring visual presentation was created. For the first time, literary and historic sources were paired with ancient artifacts to render a cohesive and comprehensive chronicle of the interrelationship of two great faiths whose adherents shared a common landscape and a common culture.
Visitors of many nationalities and many religions, preeminent among them the late Pope John Paul II during his millennium visit to Jerusalem, flocked to the museum to view “Cradle of Christianity” and were deeply moved by its ecumenical message. James Snyder, curator of the Israel Museum, observed that it provided “an opportunity to explore Christian heritage in the context of the concurrent formative development in this land of the Jewish and Muslim traditions.”
It was clear to educators and religious leaders of all faiths that this unique pedagogic experience should travel from Jerusalem to other venues. It was that imperative that inspired Tamar and Milton Maltz, founders of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, to bring “Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures From the Holy Land” to their own city, accurately perceiving it to be a bridge of understanding and a gateway to tolerance.
Their prescience was rewarded. Since its opening last April, hundreds of tour groups from diverse communities throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Canada, including almost every Christian denomination as well as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and many others, have filed through the museum. Scheduled to be in Cleveland through this month before traveling to locales in Georgia and Florida, thousands more are expected to take in the exhibit.
Installed with meticulous curatorial oversight and deep aesthetic sensitivity, the exhibition is divided into two sections that re-create the ambience of ancient Israel during the first centuries of Christianity. Viewers are first introduced to the final days of the Second Temple (the Herodian period and 1st century C.E.), when Jesus lived, and all its historic complexity and messianic yearnings.
It is a gentle segue then to the second section, which explores the 4th through the 7th centuries C.E., the rise of Christianity, an era of early Church art and architecture and the onset of pilgrimages, both Jewish and Christian, to the land sacred to both faiths. There is a balanced concentration on the concurrent development of Jewish life in its various and varied dimensions during that period as, with the destruction of the Temple, synagogues with their attendant symbolism and art developed. Fascinating similarities of both design and execution during those formative years are revealed. The treasures of each faith, from amulets and oil lamps to ossuaries and altars, reflect the dedication to ritual and continuity embraced by both communities.
The entrance to the exhibit is marked with a passage between two nearly identical marble chancel screens carved in relief; the screens were once placed around an altar or bima to separate the clergy from the congregants.
Both have a decorated wreath on top of a scrolled form ending in an arrow-like leaf. In one chancel screen, which dates back to the 5th to 6th century C.E. and was found in the church at Nessana in the Negev, there is an image of a cross within a flower inside the wreath. The other, from the 6th century C.E. and found at Hammat Gader in the Golan Heights, has a menora. The two are strikingly alike in material and workmanship and can be differentiated only by the discrete symbols.
Also near the exhibit’s entrance is a marble capital decorated with a cross that was excavated from a church in Matzuba and dates back to the 6th century. Its Jewish counterpart, placed next to it, is a marble capital with a menora at its center; it was retrieved during the excavation of a synagogue of the same period at Caesarea.
Everyday objects bear testimony to shared practices. A series of stone jars, differing only slightly in shape and size, from 1st-century Jerusalem, may well be similar to those referred to in the story of the Miracle of Cana, a marriage ceremony that Jesus attended with his mother and his disciples, where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus turned water into wine. According to John (2:1-6) “…six stone jars were standing there for the Jewish rites of purification.” The Jewish custom of using stoneware because it does not contract impurity thus had an impact on Christian observance and played a role in the narrative of a New Testament miracle.
Tableware, dining utensils and housewares are also on display, and a wonderfully lucent jag of blue glass discovered at Helez in the northern Negev might have graced the dining area of any of the period’s households.
Of particular interest are ossuaries fashioned of stone from 1st-century Jerusalem. The inscriptions on the somber burial boxes, each decorated with a simple leaf-like pattern, are in Hebrew, the one reading Yeshua Ben Yosef (Jesus son of Joseph) and the other Yehuda Bar Yeshua (Judas son of Jesus).
Such inscriptions do not signify a mysterious coda (pace Dan Brown) but simply suggest that the names of Jesus and members of his family and his disciples were common within the Jewish community of that period. Also on display are the ossuaries of “Joseph son of Caiaphus,” probably that of the high priest Joseph Caiaphus pivotal to the story of Jesus, dating back to the 1st century and discovered in southeastern Jerusalem, and that of “Yehohanan son of Hagkol.” The latter was found at Givat Hamivtar in north Jerusalem, and it contains the young Jew’s right heel bone. Punctured by an iron nail, which, presumably, his family could not extricate from his foot when they took him off the cross for burial, it is the only significant archaeological evidence of the practice of crucifixion.
Images of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper throughout the ages merge in a stunning multimedia presentation starting with Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” The Italian masterpiece swiftly and smoothly morphs into varied renditions of that poignant scene, including a painting by Salvador Dali and a photograph by Annie Liebowitz—the figures in her image are all in modern dress and emanate a bewildering ennui. The scene that inspired Da Vinci has captured the imagination of artists throughout the world and catapults viewers from one era to another, from one world to another: Included in the presentation is a painting by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, with understandably Oriental portraiture, and a Ugandan, David Kibuuka, who sees Christ and his disciples as dark-skinned natives of Africa. Israeli Adi Nes assembles soldiers of modern Israel in Israel Defense Forces uniforms around the table where that famous last supper was shared.
The link between jewish and christian ritual is also evident in a meticulous reconstruction of a church chamber with graceful columns and a central nave, typical of churches found in Jerusalem, Bethlehem or the Galilee in the 4th century, a time when the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and declared it the official religion of the empire. Even during a time when Christianity was gaining prominence, vestiges of the religion’s ties to Judaism remained—in the altar that may correspond to a bima and the chancel screen, which, according to scholars, is derived from the separation of the high priest from the worshipers in the days of the Temple. Similarly on display is a basin discovered at the Beit Shean excavation that might have been used in a Christian rite emulating the washing ritual associated with the Jewish priesthood. The influence of the Temple both in ritual observance and spiritual concept is apparent throughout the exhibit, but particular historic significance is ascribed to a stone block that fell from the parapet of the southwestern corner of the Second Temple’s enclosure and was found in the Western Wall excavations. This jagged, rather large fragment is distinguished by its Hebrew inscription: “To the place of trumpeting…,” each letter deeply carved.
It was from that balustrade that the priests blew their trumpets to announce both the onset and the ending of the Sabbath. The Temple’s great height, and perhaps that very pinnacle on which the priests stood, is part of the Gospel (Matthew 4:5-6) in which the devil purportedly takes Jesus to that upper reach of the Temple and said: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” The Temple Mount, so holy to Judaism, is also relevant to Christianity.
The Temple, or rather an idealized temple, is the focus of perhaps the most important object on display, a section of the Temple Scroll (columns 41-44), the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which has never before been on view outside Israel. Because of its fragility, this particular scroll is in a light- and climate-controlled antechamber. It will be replaced by another part of the same scroll to limit each sections’ exposure to light. Its inestimable value requires a constant police presence and, indeed, throughout the exhibit great attention is placed on security.
The Temple Scroll, which dates back to the 1st century, was discovered in the mid-20th century in the caves of Qumran by an Arab shepherd. The dramatic story of that find and its reclamation by Israel is succinctly recounted and the contents of the particular scroll are discussed in detail on adjoining panels. Essentially, the scroll provides a detailed plan for a temple based on the biblical descriptions of the Tabernacle, the Temples of Solomon and the visions of Ezekiel. Like Jesus, the Essene scribe voiced opposition to certain Temple practices at that time; however, while Jesus’ objections were moral, the scroll’s author concentrates on supposed violation of ritual.
Jews and christians alike built houses of worship in the Holy Land: An exquisitely designed map pinpoints the locations of both churches and synagogues throughout Israel. Most synagogues built after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. followed torahitic prohibitions regarding graven images and were constructed to meet both the religious and social needs of resident Jewish communities.
The menora became the Jewish symbol (as opposed to today’s Magen David) as did the shofar, the incense shovel and the four species specific to the celebration of Sukkot, the lulav (palm branch), etrog (citron), the myrtle and the willow. These images reflect a yearning for the destroyed Temple and the days of the pilgrimages of Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot. Such a menora, carved of limestone and decorated with pomegranates and flowers was found at the excavation of a 5th-century synagogue at Hammat Tiberias and is on display along with the reconstruction of the largest menora ever found, crafted of marble and plaster and decorated with lions, recovered at the site of a 6th- to 7th-century synagogue at Ma’on.
As compared to synagogues of the 6th and 7th centuries, the churches were heavily designed. Built in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Galilee, locations closely linked to the life of Jesus, they were impressive, generally of basilical design and decorated with intricate wall mosaics and frescoes, most of which have been lost. Some of the mosaic floors, however, have survived. On display are a number of magnificent hunting scenes and images of animal life from a section of the floor of a church at Kissufim in the Negev (circa 6th century).
As Christian rituals became institutionalized, objects were crafted for specific practices. On view are bread stamps thought to have been used in the Eucharist, as well as chalices and ampullae, flasks used to store oil from lamps that burned in the churches of the Holy Land or water from the Jordan, crafted of both glass and pottery.
With the rapid spread of Christianity through Europe, pilgrimages to the Holy Land, despite the arduous journeys, became an important experience for believers. Just as diaspora Jews had always remained faithful to the concept of Zion and undertaken journeys to fulfill the pledge of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” so Christian pilgrims were intent on visiting the landmarks of their faith.
Many of them kept journals describing their travels and the ecstasy of reaching their destination, not unlike the chronicle of well-known Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela. A charming video, accompanied by cartographic visual aids and sonorous readings, graphically recounts the tales of both Christian and Jewish pilgrims and their odysseys.
Such pilgrimages also gave rise to the concept of physical sanctity contained in specific objects and a cottage industry of souvenirs, which were purchased by early pilgrims. On display are ampullae and Eulgiae, clay tokens crafted of earth from the Holy Land with various images from the life of Jesus, as well as amulets.
A number of these amulets and pendants, many with patterns of crosses and circles, were discovered in tombs. Of particular interest is a mold-blown glass hexagonal bottle adorned with menoras, which was probably used by a Jewish pilgrim to take oil from lamps at sacred sites. Such glass containers have also been found decorated with crosses or other Christian symbols.
The exhibit as a whole bears witness to the long and intertwined history of two great monotheistic faiths. Many of the Christian visitors acknowledged in books kept for comments on the exhibit that it was their first exposure to the shared heritage of Judaism and Christianity.
More than one church visitor recorded gratitude to the Israel Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority for diligent guardianship of their sacred relics. But Carole Zawatsky, the energetic and creative director of the Maltz Museum, is particularly proud of a single entry in the visitors’ book: “This exhibit really puts Judaism and Christianity during this period into perspective,” wrote a Christian minister who visited on Good Friday. She is gratified that when “Cradle of Christianity” leaves Cleveland for its subsequent museum stops, thousands of viewers will have the opportunity to share that perspective.