Monday, April 9, 2007

The Cradle of Christianity

Today I was able to escape from the cutting edge of marine geology long enough to visit a museum exhibit I have been excited to see since I heard of its existence. The exhibition, entitled The Cradle of Christianity, is on display until 15 April 2007, and brings with it items from the Holy Land to illustrate the connection between Judaism and Christianity. I would like to highlight some of the more interesting artifacts I saw there.

The first part of the exhibition attempted to bring into focus the background in which Christ's life, death, and resurrection were played out. Here I saw ossuaries with names common to the time period: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (an ossuary is a decorated box to store the bones of the dead after the flesh has rotted away). It is somewhat hard for us in the modern age to imagine that Jesus was a common name in the Judea in the first century AD. Also on display were dishes and cups that were very common in Jesus' day. Although these were probably not the dishes used at the Last Supper, it is likely that dishes like these were used by Jesus and his disciples.

There was also a grisly reminder of the Roman method of crucifixion: an ankle bone with the nail still embedded. Although we know that crucifixions occurred during the first century, this ankle bone is the only direct evidence of this method of execution. Next to the ankle bone is the only known physical evidence that a certain governor of Judea lived: Pontius Pilate. At some point Pilate had an inscription made dedicating a piece of stonework to the current emperor of Rome: Tiberius. Next to the aforementioned stone is another ossuary which at one time contained the bones of Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest who was instrumental in getting Christ executed.

On down I was able to enter a darkened room and look at a few fragments of a document. Those pieces were written by scribes in the second century AD and were preserved in caves around the Dead Sea. That's right, on display for the first time anywhere was a fragment of the Temple Scroll; the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once I left the darkened room I entered a recreation of an early church; which closely resembled the Jewish synagogues of the time.

The last part of the exhibit focused on the pilgrimages early Christians made. It seems that relics were very common back then and trips to familiar places like Golgotha and Gethsemane as well as Jericho and the Sea of Galilee were encouraged.

Although I thought the highlight of the visit for me would be the Temple Scroll; I found when I left that it was not. Yes, the Temple Scroll is an ancient manuscript seen publicly for the first time ever, but the room was so dark it was hard to see the scroll at all. No, what really struck me was the ossuary of Caiaphas. It wasn't behind glass or in a darkened room and when I read the translation I thought to myself, "Who's Joseph Caiaphas?" And then it dawned on me: that's the High Priest who wanted Jesus crucified! It's difficult to explain, but at that moment I felt a renewed sense of awe as I realized all over again that the stories of the Gospels aren't actually stories, but are actual accounts of actual events. There before me was physical evidence that Caiaphas was a real person and was actually the High Priest who put Jesus on trial. It was truly an amazing experience to stand the day after Easter in front of the ossuary of one of the people responsible for Jesus' death, but to know that there is no ossuary labeled "Jesus of Galilee, son of Joseph" because the tomb is, and forever shall be, empty.