Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story

I'm taking the class offered jointly through Rice Continuing Studies and the Houston Museum of Natural Science based on the exhibit The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Study. Personally, I feel I got much more out of this exhibit after just the brief lecture our class was given before we viewed it. To that end, I'm posting my impressions. Go see the exhibit. I found it incredibly moving and I can't wait for the other classes, to learn more about the people who gave rise to my faith.


There’s a dream-like quality to a museum after hours. A stillness deepened by hushed voices, shadows deepened by the few last lights left on. I think this class will take on a completely different dimension from being in the museum in the evenings. Knowledge seems to hang in the air as palpably as incense in a temple.

Today’s first class began with a lecture given by one of the co-curators of the exhibit, Matthias Henze, a professor of biblical studies at Rice. Dr. Henze spoke about the creation and development of the exhibit as a collaboration between himself and two archeologists in Israel. He discussed the history of scholarship focused on Judaism during the period the exhibit covers, and the story the exhibit tells in response to that scholarship.

Until mid-way through the 20th century (CE), scholars of Judaic history focused on the writings of Josephus, a Jewish rebel captured by the Romans during the 1st century CE who eventually returned with Titus to Rome, Latinized his name, and became a historian. He described the Jewish people as three schools of thought, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, and for many years his writings were taken as authoritative.

This changed midway through the 20th century, primarily due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, expanded study of non-canonical texts, and archeological projects begun in the newly established state of Israel. This exhibit aims to show that Judaism of the Second Temple Period was much richer, more complex, and more diverse than Josephus' three-school paradigm, and that Christianity at its roots was one of many Jewish groups. Jesus himself and his followers were raised within Jewish society and tradition, and Paul in Romans 9-11 describes the foundling faith as a branch grafted onto an olive tree, and supported by the roots of Judaism.

Dr. Henze summarized the five time periods that divided the exhibit and suggested a particular display to take note of in each. The class then proceeded into the exhibit hall for a self-paced tour.

The first part of the exhibit comprises artifacts from the Helenistic period beginning in the 4th century BCE when Alexander the Great conquered pretty much everything. The Jewish people divided along the lines of acceptance or denial of the new Greek culture. Some took on Greek names, others adhered strictly to their own traditions. This reminded me of an idea I discussed a bit with a friend about what seems like a recent increase in neo-traditionalism in some Christian faiths. At any rate, those tensions culminated in the Maccabee revolt in the 2nd century, when the temple in Jerusalem was retaken and the Hasmonean dynasty established.

The first point of interest was actually the time line near the entrance, stretching from the 6th century BCE into the 1st century CE. Just standing at the timeline reading it brought forth things to give pause. After about three minutes of confusion, I realized that the timeline was oriented from right to left, the way Hebrew is read, instead of the left to right I was expecting. While I was realizing this, I overheard a Jewish couple as they discovered out loud that AD did not represent the years after the death of Jesus. They’d always thought that’s when the counting began, but here the death of Jesus was in 34 CE (AD).

Me being me, I piped up that AD, standing for anno domini, meant “the year of the Lord” and so measured time beginning with Jesus' life, and that I used to think it stood for “after death” and had been confused as well. When I began my unsolicited expounding, they turned to me with looks of rapt attention, and I remembered the cross hanging from a chain around my neck above my collar. For no real reason I began to feel like I must sound pendantic and patronizing, and I felt my face go hot. I’m sure I didn’t offend. I hope I didn’t. They seemed interested. It just made me feel so self-conscious of the things I take for granted. It’s not that I’ve never noticed them before, and worked to be more aware of them. It just hit closer to home for a few moments than it normally does.

I stared at the timeline for several minutes more, just collecting myself and letting my face cool before moving on to the next portion of the exhibit, covering the Roman period. Pompey conquered the Jewish lands in the 1st century BCE, and from 37-4 BCE, Herod the Great ruled as the king of the Jews, elected to this position by the Roman senate. The point of interest here was the model of Herod’s rebuilt Jerusalem. The docent and the accompanying text described the different sections along with Herod’s renovations to the existing temple (including the addition of a commercial arcade directly bordering the temple precincts). The docent spoke of Herod’s struggle to rule a Jewish people when he himself was Roman with only faint traces of Jewish ancestry, the controversy surrounding views of his personality and leadership, and his undeniably rich gift to the Holy Land in terms of architecture.

I found it interesting, of course, that the Herod who slew the innocents in the New Testament died four years before the birth of Christ. I think this is something I knew before. I’ve never had the benefit of a theological explanation, but to the literary critic in me, it seems like a clear retelling of Moses’ escape from the slaughter of Pharaoh, used in the context of the Gospel to emphasize the authority of Christ as a figure leading his followers out of oppression (it was hoped) and establishing with them a faith that in the time of the gospel writing would have been straying ever farther away from Judaism. Reason number 428, I suppose, why I can’t interpret the Bible literally.

The third section of the exhibit featured a number of ossuaries, relatively small boxes, about 1 ft by 3 ft, used to hold the bones of the dead after their remains have lain for a year in the customary rock tombs, sort of like the above-ground burial tradition in New Orleans.

What struck me most about the ossuaries was how, no matter how beautifully the stone boxes were carved, the names seemed to be scratched on, or even written on in ink, as an untidy after thought. The docent I questioned pointed out that one would buy these boxes from a master carver, the artist who created them, and the name would be put on later, but this didn’t really make sense to me, because after all, you have a year to be coming up with this box and all before you actually put the next person in it.

One ossuary had an elaborately carved rosette on one side, and an unfinished raised circle of stone on the other. The docent said that one theory of why it was left unfinished is that it was needed suddenly, and once the body was put in, the carver could no longer touch it for reasons of ritual purity. Again, this seeming haste doesn’t make much sense to me, considering that not only does one know for a year that one will be needing this thing, but one might also have already used it, since some ossuaries are inscribed with multiple names, and held the remains of several family members. It is interesting to note, though, that the unfinished one was inscribed in Hebrew while the only ossuary with artfully and carefully inscribed names had them in Greek. Another was inscribed with Aramaic, another instance of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the times.

The point of interest in this section, though, was not the most ornate ossuary. The most significant ossuary there hadn’t even been smoothed. Its sides still showed the scalloped marks the chisel that carved it out of a block of limestone. But faint scratches mark it as the ossuary of “Alexander, son of Simon the Cyrene,” the same Simon of Cyrene, father of Rufus and Alexander, that helped Jesus carry the cross.

Awe is not what a 52” LCD hi-def television inspires, no matter how many times my friend insists that his television is literally awesome. Awe is the icy grip that clenched my stomach and made my heart race standing before this plain stone box. The terror and humility of my own smallness before this depth of history and power of tradition, a force that can make something so rough and ordinary mean so much. Amazement that after so much has been destroyed by time or war, this box is still here to dovetail with a seemingly inconsequential detail from a text almost two thousand years old.

Still in awe, I walked into the Masada section of the exhibit, to be turned farther inward by the music of a flute, low and hauntingly sad, more of a moaning wail of breath than melody. Looking at a photograph of those startling hilltop ruins, the sigh of the flute became the sound of a desolate wind wailing around rock crags, the only voice in an empty waste.

The artifacts here aren’t the artifacts of commerce and luxury as in the other exhibits. They are the artifacts of life under siege. Jars for the storage of dry goods in storerooms that all too soon must have begun to look as bare as the unassailable and inescapable hilltop the fortress perched on. Built by Herod to house his family in safety during revolts in his own time, by the time the rebels of Masada fled there, the palace fortress was already a ruin. Long after the Romans put down the revolt elsewhere, Masada still stood in unconquered isolation, until the remaining Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than face their inevitable capture and enslavement.

The point of interest in this room is the Jeselsohn stone, a tablet of two columns of Hebrew are written in black ink, faded with time, the same format used for the Dead Sea Scrolls. The tablet appears to recall a visitation by an angel. One scholar, somewhat controversially, interprets the text as an angel’s account to a messianic figure of his impending death, to be followed in three days by his resurrection to eternal life. The stone is estimated to be contemporary with the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to before the birth of Christ.

The fifth and final section of the exhibit was in a room darker than any before it. I’m not sure if anything was intended by the journey from well lit rooms into this darkness, just as Jewish and Christian artifacts begin to appear side by side, other than protection for the most delicate pieces there: passages of gospel in Greek on papyrus, and the gem of the collection, fragments of the Dead Sea Scroll containing the book of Isaiah. I leaned over the display, my face close to the clear cover, taking in ever detail of the text, the discoloration of the fabric it’s written on, the fine, even grain of the material that makes it look like woven silk, and makes me wonder what methods of preservation were necessary to keep this brittle, fragile parchment safe on it’s travels. This scroll will leave next week, to be replaced by another. By law the scrolls cannot be outside of Israel for more than three months.

It was a gift to see it, Isaiah, beside early manuscripts in Greek of the gospel of Luke and a letter of Paul. To see newly emerging Christian imagery, the overlapping chi and rho, and even Christ with a sword defeating a basilisk, a drastic departure from the strict avoidance of graven images in the Judaic art, with its menorahs, shofars, wreaths, or purely geometric ornaments. The exhibit was a gift, and gave me so much to think about in the weeks ahead, as I learn more of the stories behind the objects.

I walked into the museum in a kind of dream. I left in a dream of a different sort.