Sowing the Seeds of Christianity


By Tom Freudenheim

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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You don’t need to be a born-again Christian to understand the critical role played by the Holy Land in the development of Christianity. That’s probably what the folks at Cleveland’s new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, which opened last October, are counting on by showing Cradle of Christianity, a major exhibition from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that opened early this month. Recent reports about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas and its potential meanings should make this show even timelier.

The exhibition was first developed in Jerusalem as part of the Millennium celebration, and its success in Israel suggested that a traveling version might work as well. Inaugurating its American tour at the Maltz Museum, the exhibition carefully addresses the complex interactions between Judaism and early Christianity, and in the process promises to enlighten even the most knowledgeable viewers about both. As an added incentive to draw visitors, there’s the inclusion of a Dead Sea Scroll, which makes any exhibition a blockbuster. Here it’s the Temple Scroll — one of the most interesting of these ever-resonant rare documents.

Anyone who visits Israel knows that archaeological excavations are essential to understanding the Jewish connections to the early history of the land, and that excavations have been going on for many years and very actively since the 19th century. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to examine many of the most important yields from these digs, and many of the artifacts have never before been publicly displayed — which makes this exhibit a real coup for Cleveland. But perhaps most important is the opportunity, for Jews and Christians, to re-examine many ways in which the two faiths lived alongside each other, with cultural and religious influences moving freely between them. Long the subject of scholarly study, the intimate relationship between the ideas of these two groups has probably never before been examined in the context of an exhibition; that’s especially important, because it will make accessible a range of ideas as well as artifacts to a much broader public than is likely to engage in serious study of this field.

Divided into several sections, the exhibition begins with the Second Temple Period, which coincides with the time of Jesus. Shown here is not only the rare Temple Scroll but also the burial ossuary of Caiphus, the high priest, with its extraordinary inscription bearing the name of Pontius Pilate. Through a rich array of related artifacts, Jewish visitors will be reminded of how intimately the Jesus narrative is connected with the Temple in Jerusalem, which we know from later western art interpretations but is much more directly understood through the actual objects of the time. Christian visitors may already know this narrative, yet they will surely delight in seeing many of these related objects for the first time. As the Israel Museum’s David Mevorah, curator of one of the exhibitions, told me, it’s important to remember that the various items from the time of Jesus are actually all Jewish objects, just as the inscribed names were all common names in the Jewish community of the time.

The section on the rise of Christianity includes a full-scale reconstruction of the chancel of a Byzantine-era church, as well as many objects related to Holy Land pilgrimages by early Christians. Interestingly, the fourth through seventh centuries provide the richest source of Christian objects, and it is also during this period that the synagogue develops — both as an institution and in relation to its architecture and artifacts. The exhibition includes several remains of excavated synagogues and a rich array of objects that carry Jewish symbols. Visitors will note that the characteristic signifier of early Judaism wasn’t the Magen David with which we are so familiar. A special feature of the exhibition is the display of the two largest three-dimensional menorahs ever excavated.

When the exhibition was on display at the Israel Museum, it drew more Christian than Jewish visitors, and museum representatives were especially interested in the enthusiastic reactions of the Christian clergy. “Some of them looked exactly like the images in objects from the Byzantine period,” Mevorah explained, presumably referring to the faces, beards and traditional robes of Middle Eastern clergy. It will be interesting to see whether that holds true for visitors in Cleveland. He added that it’s the additional “layering” of stories that many people — Jews and Christians — already know, which will make the exhibition especially valuable to visitors who might encounter these stories in historic artifacts for the first time. And that should surely provide an emotional experience for everyone, as these familiar stories become somehow more palpable.

Since the Cleveland building is constructed of Jerusalem limestone, there’s a happy symmetry that might even make visitors feel transported to Israel as they enter a building that shows so many objects bearing Israel origins. This relationship between early Christianity and Judaism is such an obvious exhibition topic, it’s amazing to consider that no one had previously thought to explore it.

Tom Freudenheim is a former museum director who writes about art and museum issues.

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