Cradle of Christianity
Explores Religion’s Roots in the Holy Land
The Bible may be subject to interpretation, but some things are set in stone.
For instance, the Greek words on a fragment of a “keep out” sign from the Second Temple of Jerusalem, the setting for many pivotal New Testament events. This is the place where the Gospel of John describes Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the cattle and sheep gathered there for sacrifice.
The stone fragment, chiseled with a warning to gentiles not to enter the sacred precincts of the temple—upon threat of death—is one of the artifacts featured in the exhibition “Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land,” that was on view at the Michael C. Carlos Museum through October 14.
“This same temple sign could have been seen by Jesus,” says Carl Holladay, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament Studies. Holladay is one of several Emory religious scholars whose commentary can be heard on an audio guide to the exhibition.
“The exhibition is extraordinary because it gives you direct contact with the early first-century CE—the time of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul—and brings you through the fifth century, during a formative period in the development of both Judaism and Christianity,” he says.
The exhibition traces the shared roots of the two faiths through some of the most significant biblical artifacts ever found, including the Temple Scroll, among the most illuminating of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although millions have made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land during the past two thousand years to view its sites and relics, “Cradle of Christianity” offers visitors an opportunity to catch a glimpse of selected objects from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which houses the foremost collection of biblical archaeology in the world, for the first time in the U.S.
“The very foundation of the Carlos Museum, reaching back to the 1920s, grew from the work of Emory theology faculty and their interests in building resources for teaching biblical history,” says Bonnie Speed, director of the Carlos Museum. “‘Cradle of Christianity’ renews the museum’s early emphasis on the exploration of religious history through compelling works of art. We are thrilled to be able to share these magnificent artifacts with our audiences.”
The only archaeological find bearing the name of Pontius Pilate, the first Roman prefect of Judea, who sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion, is included in the exhibition, along with a human heel bone punctured by an iron spike—the only tangible evidence for the practice of crucifixion.
Everyday objects, such as ancient water vessels, of the type referred to in the New Testament story of the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus was said to have turned water into wine, help recreate the atmosphere of the time.
“It is, for Jews and Christians alike, to see the era that they have encountered liturgically become three dimensional through these artifacts,” says Michael Berger, associate professor in the Department of Religion and the Institute of Jewish Studies.
Dramatically lit and guarded at all times, the Temple Scroll is a highlight of the exhibition.
“From other texts, it seems that the community responsible for the scrolls was originally expelled from Jerusalem, evidently in part because it objected to certain temple practices of the time,” says Brent Strawn, assistant professor in Candler School of Theology. “The Dead Sea Scrolls give insight into one of the many sects within Judaism of the time, and Jesus and his movement can be compared and contrasted with that.”
The Carlos Museum is one of only three U.S. venues for the traveling exhibition of artifacts from the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The artifacts are arranged chronologically, starting with the world in which Jesus lived, then moving into the development of early church art and architecture, and continuing through the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Many Jewish artifacts from the same era also are included.
The exhibition reveals that, even for decades after the death of Jesus, Christianity and Judaism were in many ways indistinguishable, Holladay says.
“Jesus and his immediate followers were Jewish, and the separation between Jews and Christians occurred much later,” he says. “Paul the Apostle, for example, considered himself a devout and observant Jew until the day he died. He was an important Christian thinker, but he was Jewish.” —Carol Clark