A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
There is a common misperception that although Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, conflicts between Judaism and Christianity arose very early on, perhaps even in Jesus' lifetime. The exhibit Cradle of Christianity at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, Ohio, uses artifacts from the first and second centuries A.D. to show that Jesus' ministry and the early Jesus movement remained closely identified with Judaism. Even after the two religions had clearly parted ways, they thrived as neighbors well into the sixth century.
The centerpiece is a never-before-shown fragment from the Temple Scroll of the Dead Sea Scroll collection. A radical sectarian Jewish community known as the Essenes evidently produced these scrolls. Although not directly related to early Christianity, the Essenes, like the Jesus movement, represented a form of apocalyptic Judaism critical of the Jerusalem religious establishment.
The exhibit also features many artifacts from everyday life, including ossuaries, clay jars, lamps, and coins as well as a scale model of the Second Temple, set in the context of Jesus' "entrance" and "cleansing" of it before his arrest around A.D. 30.
Passages from the Gospels accompany the artifacts. The story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, for example, accompanies six first-century clay jars. Of course, they say nothing about the veracity of the miracle, but do give visitors a sense of life in Jesus' time.
One display focuses on Jesus' crucifixion. It includes the ossuary of the only known victim of crucifixion, a Jew named Yehohanon ben Hagkol, as well as artifacts related to the two powerful figures implicated in Jesus' crucifixion: a fragment of a plaque with the name Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who ordered the execution, and the ossuary that likely holds the remains of Caiaphas, the high priest who delivered Jesus to Pilate. The display implicitly identifies Jesus as yet another Jewish victim of Roman domination.
Cradle of Christianity is at the Maltz Museum through October 22, then travels to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University.
Timothy K. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve and author of Roadside Religion.
Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.