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Editor's Note: PBA 30 in Atlanta, GA will air a documentary about "Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land" on August 13 at 8:00 pm. The Carlos Museum worked with James Cool of Cool New Media to create this film. Emory University faculty members Dr. Michael Berger, Dr. Carl Holladay, Dr. Carol Newsom, and Dr. Richard Valantasis are featured in the film. Israel Museum Curator, David Mevorah, also appears in the documentary. (Check with your service provider to locate your PBA channel and for more information visit PBA.org .)

"Cradle of Christianity" will be at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA; through October 14, 2007

On a recent humid Saturday morning, not much after the stroke of ten, the third floor of the Carlos Museum was already brisk with visitors. After a security check on the ground floor (no foods, liquids, or sharp objects) and being banded with a blue stick-on bracelet, visitors make their way one floor up to the ticket counter ($15) and then elevator their way to the third floor to collect an audio tour and at last, enter the Cradle of Christianity.

The exhibit is compact but rich — six centuries are spanned in almost six rooms. But while time is compressed, the interplay of artifact, text, and audio creates a three-dimensional experience that brings stone and clay to life in an exciting way: the past becomes real.

Many of the objects on display are the earliest existing physical evidence we have of Christianity and the Judaism from which it emerged. The exhibit is organized into three sections: the Second Temple period (Jesus's lifetime); the Byzantine period (from the fourth through the sixth centuries); and Early synagogues and Jewish symbols (again, fourth through sixth centuries).

The exhibition is on its last leg of a three-museum tour that began at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the permanent home to the collection. The curators are Yael Israeli and David Mevorah of the Israel Museum.

These ancient stones, bones, pots, and mosaics tantalize, teach, and thrill; they are often the only material proof we have for persons mentioned in the Bible. In one of the first rooms, a large stone block clearly bears the name PONTIUS PILATUS chiseled in tall Roman letters — the only existing evidence for the one who sent Jesus to the cross.

The ossuary of Joseph Caiphus once contained the bones of the son of the Jewish high priest "Caiphus" of the Gospels, who handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate after questioning him. Carved with elaborate floral rosettes, the ossuary speaks to the family's wealth and priestly status. It is one of the few objects we can clearly connect to the Christian scriptures: Caiphus was here.

These physical witnesses bring to life sacred stories and aid the religious imagination; the most startling example of how narration, text, and image combine to create a new way of seeing is at the display of six large stone water vessels. As you listen to professor Gail O'Day read the Wedding at Cana, the cannily chosen vessels mimic the exact number and size of those described in the Gospels; the story suddenly pops to life. The girth and depth of the vessels, the image of them brimming with wine even as the party has peaked, becomes a visual metaphor for God's abundance. It's a combined impression from sight and sound that makes an old text seem new.

Perhaps most importantly, these fragments speak of inter-religious symbiosis and shared duress under the press of Empire. There was not a monolithic Judaism, but "Judaisms" in the words of Professor Carol Newsom. She describes the importance of the Temple Scroll, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, thought to be composed by the Essenes, a Jewish sect who may have had a theological impact on early Christians. A fragment from this famous scroll is shrouded in velvet and dimly lit at the Carlos.

One riveting item on display is a replica of a crucified heel bone, with a large nail hammered through it, as well as wood from the cross. Not a remnant from the most famous crucified Jew, but from another: Yehohanan, son of Kagkol. The audio narration by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us that crucifixion was not unique to Jesus, and that "thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans" to both torture and intimidate.

All this sets the earliest Christians firmly in the world of Jews and Judaism under Roman rule, a context that does not always leap to the minds of twenty-first century Christians.

As if to make this point of familiality early on, the first display visitors see are of two marble "screens" carved with wreaths that features on one, a menorah, on the other, crosses. Both carry identical decorative motifs, with only the religious symbols swapped out. They date from the sixth century.

Whoever wrote the introductory text couldn't suppress a desire to spoon up some moral medicine before we enter, though, telling us, "artifacts don't lose their relevance" for "it has become increasingly important to recognize the common roots of all monotheistic faiths and promote mutual understanding."

But to the museum's credit, the impressive series of lectures and discussions surrounding the exhibit include several interfaith discussion led by local clergy.

The later rooms that deal with the fourth through sixth centuries show us the early structures, symbols and ritual objects still present in synagogues and churches today. Their familiarity, despite their antiquity, is part of the awe of they inspire.

A cut-and-paste sixth-century Byzantine chapel made of parts cobbled from a variety of sites provides a time-travel experience. There, one can see the marble chancel screens, the stone altar, lively floor mosaics (that depict hunting scenes and Alexander the Great) and the depth of the stone baptismal font (for adult, full body immersion). But perhaps most interesting is an array of metal crosses that dangle above the altar, one of which clearly is part cross, part ankh — the Egyptian symbol for eternal life.

The Madaba map replica of the sixth-century original from Jordan is also on magnificent display, in a room of its own. A slideshow/audio presentation allows visitors to listen to the words of early Christian pilgrims as they describe the sites illustrated on this stunning and unique mosaic map of the holy land.

A small display about pilgrimages and reliquaries does a fine job of explaining how early Christians believed that "sanctity could be stored" and that holiness could be touched and transferred. The case shows several small pilgrims' pottery flasks — shockingly familiar to modern Orthodox or Catholic Christians who invariably have seen a rubberized replica on their grandmother's kitchen shelf. Likewise, the votive bread stamps, circular and intricate, are still used today in Orthodox Churches and kitchens.

The third and final section of the exhibit features information on early synagogue structures and Jewish symbols. Parallels with Christian architecture and symbols are suggested; they even shared a similar floor plan. The menorah by then was as much a symbol of Jewish identity, as was the cross for Christians. On display are two of the most impressive three-dimensional menorahs ever found in excavation, one carved from stone, the other made of marble and plaster.

A word about time travel: The exhibit does jump from the 1st century to the sixth century. But as the Museum website notes, early Christian material data from the first to the third centuries is extremely rare; this was a period of time during which Christianity still ran afoul of the Roman empire. It wasn't until the Roman emperor Constantine had his own conversion experience in 312 that Christianity was officially allowed to flourish — and voilá! — Christian structures and devotional objects reappear from the fourth century onwards.

For Jews in the time of Jesus, Herod's Temple, or the renovated Second Temple was the center of worship. Its destruction in the year 70 by the Roman emperor Titus created a similar archaeological gap for Jews, until the fourth thorugh seventh centuries, when synagogue remains in Israel appear, and mark the change towards decentralized Jewish worship.

It is helpful to be reminded of these physical gaps, because it helps explain the flow of the exhibit, which (due to the circumstances) makes rather large leaps in time. A visit to the exhibit website prior to the museum would be well worth it: http://www.carlos.emory.edu/cradle/learn_more_christianity.php

The only mild detraction in an otherwise excellent exhibit for a small, University Museum, is the changes in tone in the explanatory text. At times respectful of faith traditions but also of historical fact; at other times it seems to have been authored by another hand. Fortunately, the audio commentaries correct any slights of hand.

As an example, in the room about Christian pilgrimage, the text states that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre "was built on the fourth-century site of the crucifixion (Golgotha) and Jesus's tomb (the Holy Sepulchre)." But if you listen to the audio, Professor Valentasis mentions the site "was believed to be" the burial site of Jesus. Subtle, but worth mentioning.

The objects in this exhibit speak wonders, by virtue of their antiquity and their witness to religious history. The audio tour helps these stones and pots speak with a voice that situates them, and sobers our understanding of the Jewish-Christian-Roman mix in the first six centuries in the land of Israel.

Moira Bucciarelli, Atlanta, Georgia

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Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=702

 
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