The rare archaeological artifacts on display in The Israel Museum, Jerusalem reflect and echo the ancient Scriptures, bringing to life the Old Testament period, the days of Jesus, and early Christianity in the Holy Land. In this, they join the Dead Sea Scrolls and the model of Second Temple-period Jerusalem, which are exhibited in the Museum, as cultural and religious attractions for many thousands of visitors from around the world.
The route takes the visitor through the Museum galleries, connecting several sections. The first deals with the time of Jesus, describing the environment in which he lived and worked, and illustrating significant events of his life. The second deals with the Old Testament and its importance to the Christian faith. Finally, the third section is devoted to the structure and liturgy of the Early Church, and pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The route includes unique exhibits – a huge model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus; ancient Biblical texts; archaeological artifacts; architectural remains; liturgical elements; personal belongings and souvenirs – that illuminate people, events, and places that are well known in Christian tradition.
The objects on view are more than 2,000 years old. Nevertheless, the story they tell is relevant to the present, for events that took place in this region two millennia ago shaped the history of Europe and the Mediterranean region, and their impact continues to be felt today.
The Israel Museum is the largest cultural institution in Israel, and is ranked among the world’s leading art and archaeology museums. Founded in 1965, the museum houses encyclopedic collections ranging from prehistory to the present day, in its Archaeology, Fine Arts, and Jewish Art and Life Wings. It includes the most extensive holdings of biblical archaeology in the world, among them the Dead Sea Scrolls. Over its first 50 years, the Museum has built a wide-ranging collection of nearly 500,000 objects, through an unparalleled legacy of gifts and support from its international circle of patrons.
The Israel Museum’s 20-acre campus, which underwent a comprehensive renewal in 2010, features the Billy Rose Art Garden, the Shrine of the Book, the huge model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, and more than 225,000 square feet of galleries for its collections and temporary exhibitions.
Our knowledge of life in the Land of Israel during the time of Jesus (the late Second Temple period), and of the major events of those decisive years, is based on the writings of the historian Flavius Josephus, the Mishnah (Jewish “Oral Law”), the New Testament, and other literary sources, as well as extensive archaeological excavations conducted throughout the country. This information has enabled us to reconstruct the atmosphere during the days of Jesus and his disciples, to understand the background to his teachings and the reasons for his censure, and to grasp the intense sense of messianic expectation that pervaded Jewish society in those years.
The Second Temple Period was a time of religious turmoil and social tensions in Jewish society. Questions of identity arose, sects began to form, and the anticipation of the messiah was almost palpable. This was the background to the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, who criticized the Jewish establishment and preached an observance of the Law based on moral principles, love of God and one’s fellow man, and abstinence. His teachings, propagated by his disciples, and coupled with the belief in his divinity as the “son of God” and the awaited messiah, subsequently led to the birth of a new religion: Christianity.
Here is a glimpse into the world in which Jesus lived, some two thousand years ago.
This huge model evokes ancient Jerusalem, not only during one of the most crucial periods in the history of the Jewish people, but also in the lifetime of Jesus.
The 1:50 scale model, covering nearly a quarter of an acre, shows the ancient city at its peak. It recreates the topography and architectural character of Jerusalem in 66 CE, the year of the outbreak of the Great Revolt against Rome, which led to the destruction of the Temple and the city in 70 CE. Jerusalem was then at its greatest extent, with an estimated population of 50,000−80,000, and an area of some 450 acres. It spread over two ridges separated by the Tyropoeon Valley: the Temple Mount and its southern spur (the City of David) to the east, and the Western Hill, occupied by the Upper City (modern Mt. Zion, and the Jewish and Armenian Quarters). As the city prospered and flourished, it expanded to the north. Jerusalem was developed on an unprecedented scale, first by the Hasmoneans in the early first century BCE, but especially during the reign of Herod the Great at the end of that century. Unquestionably, it was that builder-king more than any other who must be credited with the splendor of Jerusalem and the magnificence of its buildings.
The model is a Jerusalem cultural landmark that offers a concrete illustration of the period in which Christianity was born. At first glance, the city seems to have a clear Hellenistic-Roman character. The architecture reflects this well: the urban plan, the style of buildings and streets, the presence of a sacred hilltop enclosure, the splendid public water installations, the massive monuments, and entertainment facilities. A closer examination, however, reveals the Jewish character of Jerusalem. In the first place, there was only one sacred precinct – the Temple Mount – with just one temple dedicated to the One God. In addition, there was no idol or relief of a person or animal to be seen, in obedience to the Biblical prohibition.
Among the chief cities that were the stage for early Christian history – Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople – only Jerusalem could claim a tangible link to Jesus of Nazareth himself. As a child, Jesus journeyed with his parents on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and visited the city as an adult on numerous subsequent occasions. The account of his life as presented in the Christian gospels climaxes in Jerusalem around the year 30 CE, when Jesus and his disciples came to the city for the pilgrimage festival of Passover. The challenge Jesus represented for the Jewish establishment led to his arrest and subsequent transfer to the jurisdiction of the Romans, who tried and executed him by crucifixion.
The distinctive white dome of the Shrine of the Book is a Jerusalem icon. Its form was inspired by the lids of the ancient clay jars in which some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The world-famous scrolls, housed in the dimly lit Shrine below, are ascribed to the Hellenistic-Roman period, from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE. They were hidden in caves in the Judean Desert, near the site of Khirbet Qumran, home to a reclusive Jewish sect, probably a group of the Essenes, who were active in the days of Jesus. The manuscripts fall into three major categories: Biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. The Biblical manuscripts comprise several scrolls and thousands of fragments that collectively represent some two hundred copies of books of the Old Testament. Only one, the full 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah, was found completely intact. The collection contains the earliest full Biblical texts ever found, making them an archaeological find of primary importance. The scrolls have greatly enhanced our knowledge of Jewish society in the Land of Israel during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and illuminated the origins of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.
Apart from the original scrolls, the Shrine of the Book also houses archaeological finds from the Qumran site, as well as rare manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, especially the world-renowned Aleppo Codex, dating to the Middle Ages. In the adjacent Dorot Auditorium, a film screening is available to complete the visitor's experience.
Among the different factions that existed within Jewish society during this period, the Essenes stand out as a distinct community. Its members lived an ascetic, communal life strictly adhering to the laws of purity, shunning accumulation of wealth and property, removed from the iniquities of the world.
Many tenets of early Christianity resemble doctrines of the Dead Sea Sect. Some scholars see an affinity between John the Baptist and the sect, based on their life style, their ethics, and religious details like immersion for remission of sin. John the Baptist is believed to have been born in Ein Kerem, west of Jerusalem. As an adult, he came to live in the Judean Desert, advocating a life of abstinence, and calling for repentance, for which he set a personal example by his immersion in the Jordan River. John, who was active a little earlier than Jesus, prophesied the impending Day of Judgment, and the bitter fate of all those who failed to forego their wicked ways. He had a large crowd of followers, and even Jesus came to be baptized by him.
The first Christians viewed John the Baptist as the precursor of Jesus:
The quotation from Isaiah, according to the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of the Hebrew Bible, served the authors of the Gospels as the theological basis for the explanation of John’s activities. The passage appears in the Isaiah scroll, discovered at Qumran and the oldest copy of that Biblical book ever found (partially on display here).
This verse also provided the theological impetus for the settlement of the sectarians in the desert, as reflected in their scroll known as the Community Rule. The use of the Book of Isaiah as an authoritative source was undoubtedly widespread among various Jewish groups during the Second Temple period.
The Habakkuk Commentary, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, tells of the founder of the Dead Sea Sect, called the "Teacher of Righteousness," whose description is recalls that of Jesus in certain details. Like Jesus, who was compared to the prophets of Israel, the "Teacher of Righteousness" was also said to have possessed the gift of prophecy, to have been persecuted because of his beliefs, and to have died for the sake of his mission. The information on the founder of the Dead Sea Sect is of great historical importance, for it provides the proper historical background for the figure of Jesus himself, particularly with regard to concepts of leadership prevalent during the last centuries of the Second Temple period.
Paul, the most influential apostle of the Early Church, never met Jesus. Nevertheless, it was in his letters that the theological tenets of Christian faith were first laid down. Judging from the first-century Thanksgiving Scroll of the Dead Sea Sect, it seems that some of Paul's religious ideas were current among the members of the sect as well. Like Paul, the sectarians believed in the doctrine of revelation, and that through it they had received knowledge of divine secrets. They also subscribed to the proposition, as did Paul, that mankind was inherently evil. This striking affinity does not negate the profound differences between the doctrines of the Dead Sea Sect and the teachings of Paul, but the similarity of emphases points to a common cultural tradition.
From the Christian perspective, the Holy Bible includes both the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible – and the New Testament. Together, in the words of the 2nd-century church father, St. Irenaeus, they constitute, "the foundation and pillar of our faith." There is no contradiction between the two "testaments": together they represent the written framework of God's revelation.
The exhibits at the next two stations are inscriptions from the Old Testament period. Their importance for Christianity derives from their unique Biblical context.
Dan, ca. 830 BCE, Basalt, Israel Antiquities Authority
This Aramaic inscription, part of a monumental stone slab commemorating the military victories of Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus, contains the earliest reference to the Davidic dynasty outside the Bible itself. In the inscription, the king boasts of killing King Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of "the House of David" (Judah). The text contradicts the Biblical account (2 Kings 9), according to which Joram and Ahaziah were killed by Jehu, who then assumed the throne of Israel. The find is extremely important, since Jesus is often referred to in the New Testament as "son of David." Matthew's gospel opens with
Burial cave in Ketef Hinnom, Jerusalem, beginning 6th century BCE, silver, Israel Antiquities Authority
These two silver amulets bear the oldest passage of Biblical text known to us today. They are centuries older than the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The amulets, inscribed with ancient Hebrew script, were found rolled into tiny scrolls in a burial cave in Jerusalem. They were incised with a sharp, thin stylus, no thicker than a hair's breadth, and thus deciphering the inscription was difficult. The lower part of the inscription has been identified as a version of Numbers 6:24-26:
The Temple in Jerusalem was Jesus’ area of activity, and the target of his dire prediction of inevitable destruction. Only a small number of finds directly related to the Temple have been discovered in archaeological excavations. These unique artifacts have importance for the Christian world, not only because they date to the time of Jesus, but because they are relics of the very Temple he knew. They also shed light on Jewish religious life in the Land of Israel, exactly in the period in which Jesus was articulating his spiritual world-view.
Here are a number of rare finds related to the Temple Mount that Jesus knew:
Ossuary of “Simon, builder of the Temple.”
Jerusalem, 1st century CE, limestone, Israel Antiquities Authority
"No foreigner shall enter"
Jerusalem, 1st century CE, stone, Israel Antiquities Authority
It was one of many similar signs set into the barrier around the Temple that differentiated between those areas allowed to all, and the sanctified area into which only Jews were permitted. The fragment is one of the few remains from the Second Temple enclosure.
A complete inscription of identical text, found in Jerusalem a century ago and now in the Archaeology Museum, Istanbul, made it possible to restore the fragment exhibited here. The existence of such a divider in the Temple court is attested to by the contemporary historian, Flavius Josephus, in The Jewish War:
"Place of trumpeting"
Hebrew Inscription, Temple Mount, Jerusalem, 1st century BCE, stone, Israel Antiquities Authority
This stone block fell from the parapet at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount to the street below during the destruction of the Temple. Its inscription, “to the place of trumpeting to... ,” indicates that it marked the place a priest would stand to signal by trumpet blasts the beginning and end of the Sabbath and holy days. The third word is cut off, but can be completed in two ways: to “announce” the beginning and end of the Sabbath or holy day, or to “separate” between sacred and mundane.
Flavius Josephus, in The Jewish War, describes the practice exactly:
47/48 CE, silver, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, gift of the Israel Coins and Medals Corporation.
Every Jewish male over the age of twenty was obliged to pay a yearly tax to the Temple, and the Tyrian half-shekel silver coin was designated for this purpose. The funds raised were used for maintenance, the purchase of sacrifices, and, indirectly, as a means of conducting a census. Because Tyrian coins were not particularly common, they needed to be purchased from money-changers in the Temple, who charged a commission for each transaction. Each half-shekel was worth 128 bronze coins.
Fulfillment of the various religious obligations associated with the Passover festival generated a great deal of business, and the streets and the Temple courts were filled with peddlers and moneychangers. Jesus saw them as defiling the sanctity of the site and overturned their tables, which (some suggest) may have also been a symbolic hint of the destruction of the Temple that was soon to come.
Jerusalem, near the Temple Mount, 1st century CE, limestone, Israel Antiquities Authority
This limestone building inscription demonstrates that synagogues existed before the destruction of the Temple. However, they had not yet become substitutes for the Temple and its rites, but rather filled other religious and social roles.
According to the Gospels, Jesus’ earliest activities were concentrated in the Galilee region. Wandering from village to village, he taught and preached in synagogues or wherever a crowd gathered.
This dedicatory inscription sheds light on the existence of a synagogue near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was in use in the time of Jesus. The inscription reads:
Theodotos, son of Vettenos, priest and head of the synagogue, son of the head of the synagogue, who was also the son of the head of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and for the study of the precepts, as well as the hospice and the chambers and the bathing-establishment, for lodging those who need them, from abroad; it [the synagogue] was founded by his ancestors and the elders and Simonides.
The next objects shed light on two main figures who were involved in the arrest, trial, and punishment of Jesus, and illustrate the exceptionally harsh manner of execution by crucifixion.
Talpiot, Jerusalem, 1st century CE, limestone, Israel Antiquities Authority
Joseph Caiaphas, high priest from 18 to 36 CE, is chiefly known for his involvement in the arrest of Jesus, described in detail in the New Testament. The Gospels relate that while Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, he was arrested and brought to the house of Caiaphas, where he was interrogated and held overnight.
The suspicions against him revolved around his claim of authority (Luke 20:1-2) and power (Matt 26:53; 61-62), and the establishment’s concern about incitement and public disorder; but the final priestly accusation was blasphemy (Matt. 26:63-66).
The following day, Jesus was delivered to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate.
The ossuary, or bone chest, on display here was discovered in a small burial cave in southeast Jerusalem, near the Sherover Promenade. The cave had been plundered in ancient times, but still yielded twelve ossuaries, four of which were decorated. This was the most elaborate of them. The name "Joseph son of Caiaphas" is inscribed in Hebrew twice on this ossuary. That, and the bone chest's splendid ornamentation, suggests that this was indeed the ossuary of the Caiaphas we know from the New Testament.
Caesarea, 26–36 CE, stone, Israel Antiquities Authority
Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman prefect of Judea, who governed for ten years, presided at the trial of Jesus and sentenced him to death by crucifixion. Both Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria describe Pilate as a cruel, harsh, and unpopular ruler. Unlike his predecessors, he was entirely insensitive to the religious sentiments of the local population. On one occasion, Pilate brought military standards bearing the likeness of the Emperor into Jerusalem, deeply offending the Jews.
The dedicatory inscription exhibited here is the only known artifact bearing Pontius Pilate's name. Found in Caesarea, it was probably set into a temple built in honor of Emperor Tiberius. The limestone slab bearing the inscription was discovered in secondary use as a stair of the Roman theater at Caesarea, the Roman administrative center for the province of Judea, and the seat of the procurators. The procurators visited Jerusalem only on special occasions, or at times of unrest. The inscription reads:
... building in honor of [Tiberius ... Pon]tius Pilate ... [Praef]ect of Judea
Heel bone and nail
Jerusalem, 1st century CE, bone and iron, Israel Antiquities Authority
In the course of excavations of a burial cave in northern Jerusalem, an ossuary was found inscribed in Hebrew with the name of the deceased: Yehohanan ben Hagkol. Examination of the remains preserved within the ossuary revealed that the right heel bone was pierced by a large iron nail, to which fragments of wood were still attached at either end. The find attests to Yehohanan’s death by crucifixion. This humiliating and excruciating form of execution was used to punish rebels, thieves, and captives. Though many met their fate in this manner, this find represents the sole archaeological evidence of the practice of Roman crucifixion discovered anywhere to date.
Ben Hagkol was 24-28 years old at his death. He was not a known historical figure, and we therefore know nothing about his life or the crime that led to his torturous death on the cross.
His bones have enabled us to reconstruct the manner in which he was crucified (historical sources tell of more than one technique): His feet were nailed to the sides of the crucifixion post, and his hands were either tied or nailed to the crossbeam.
After he died, Yehohanan's body was taken down from the cross, presumably by the members of his family, for burial in the family tomb. However, the nail that affixed his right heel to the wooden post had been bent and was difficult to remove. In order to avoid damaging the body, it was necessary to remove part of the post along with it. After a year, Yehohanan's bones were gathered and deposited in an ossuary with his name incised on it, as was customary at that time.
The Roman Empire underwent an enormous change in the 4th century CE. The emperor, Constantine the Great, relocated his capital from Rome to Byzantium – whence the term "Byzantine" period. He granted Christianity the status of a tolerated religion, but by the end of the century it had been declared the official religion of the empire. The Land of Israel, where Christianity was born, acquired a sacred status. Imperial construction led to the institutionalization of Christian holy places, a process that continued throughout the period and had a decisive impact on what became known as the Holy Land.
The sanctity and prominence of the land where the formative events of Christianity had taken place steadily grew. Its natural center was Jerusalem, the "Mother of all Churches," at the heart of which stood the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site where, it was believed, Jesus had been crucified and buried, and then had risen from the dead. The number of holy places increased over time, commemorated by churches or chapels that became way-stations on the path to God and Redemption.
Christianity turned this region, which in the Roman period was little more than a remote province in the eastern part of the Empire, into a thriving center and a focus of world interest.
The church, the place of religious ritual and ceremony, was the main building in any Christian town or village. About three hundred churches in the Holy Land are known from this period. In many cases, the early churches were erected to commemorate sites associated with important traditions, such as Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, his teaching and glorification on the Mount of Olives, his tomb in Jerusalem, and God's appearance to Abraham at Mamre, north of Hebron.
Most of the churches were built on the basilica plan: a spacious hall divided lengthwise into a central nave and two side aisles. At the end of the nave was a large, semicircular apse. At the front of the apse, but within it, was a raised platform, the "bema," where the clergy sat, separated from the nave – and the congregation – by a low marble chancel screen. This is where the altar stood, and on it the elements of the ritual and the Scriptures. Most churches were oriented to the east, the direction the congregation faced when praying, in symbolic reference to Jesus as "the sun rising from above."
Church interiors were richly decorated. The walls were covered with mosaics and frescos, and the floors with colorful floor tiles and rich mosaic carpets. Capitals of columns and chancel screens were carved with a variety of motifs. Donor inscriptions and Biblical verses appeared on the walls, floors, and furnishings.
The focal point indicating the direction of prayer in the three monotheistic religions represented in this gallery – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – show a remarkable similarity. All three are designed as niches, symbolizing sacred space. Apses in traditional churches are oriented to the east; the “hHoly aArk” of a synagogue, which houses Torah scrolls, faces Jerusalem – the reconstructed bema of the Susiya synagogue seen here is a good example – – and the “mikhrab,” showing the direction of Muslim prayer, always faces Mecca, as depicted in a Muslim mosaic from Ramla. Despite their theological differences, the three religious groups shared much in the way of material culture and a certain stylistic uniformity.
The church bema reconstructed here comprises original architectural elements excavated at 17 different sites. The pieces fit together perfectly, as if they had come from the same building
In the early Byzantine era, pilgrims streamed to the Holy Land from near and far, motivated by the belief that the power of a holy person, a relic, or a location could be transferred through contact. They sought the sacred places mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments, in particular those connected to the Life and Passion of Christ. They yearned to see, touch, and breathe the air of the holy places, and thereby experience their faith to the fullest.
Standing at these commemorative sites, pilgrims could identify with the figures they venerated, and imagine that they themselves had participated in the fateful events of the past. When they touched the stones, they felt that they imbibed something of their sanctity. It was in this spirit that the ceremonial rites were established: the prayers, the processions, the presentation of holy relics and their adoration, the performance of symbolic acts, and the reading of relevant scriptural passages.
On display in this section are rare Byzantine artifacts that highlight ritual acts, both individual and communal, and illuminate the pilgrim's quest for spiritual healing, atonement, and enlightenment. These include blessed tokens, flasks for holy oil, jewelry with symbols and depictions of holy scenes, boxes for sacred relics, liturgical objects, and so on. These objects were often decorated with scenes from the life of Jesus and various saints. Apart from simply holding the tokens, it was also common to scrape their edges (the tokens were fired at low temperatures and thus crumbled easily), and either scatter the resulting dust over afflicted parts of the body, or mix it with some liquid and ingest it as medicine.
In many churches, the sacred relics were the focus of the liturgical rites and cultic processions. The relics were bones, bits of clothing, or fragments of objects that had belonged to a holy person, and were kept in special boxes called reliquaries. The reliquaries were placed beneath the main altar, within a depression in the floor, and sometimes in the rooms alongside the apse or in the side apses, which were called for this reason "martyria." The cult of the sacred relics was based on the belief that the relics passed their sanctity onto whatever they touched. Thus it was also possible to insert small objects into the box by means of a rod. Another means of obtaining the blessing was to pour oil onto the relics through the hole in the lid and then decant the oil into small containers that the faithful brought with them especially for this purpose.
The pilgrimage movement brought economic prosperity and a significant increase in construction. Many pilgrims ultimately settled in the Holy Land, altering its social fabric and creating a cosmopolitan atmosphere. But most returned home with their treasures, mementoes that vividly recalled their spiritual experience, and gave them a new sense of divine protection.
For some modern pilgrims, the Holy Land experience still retains at least something of its ancient power and mystique.Ampullae
Production: Lital Vilensky
Authors: David Mevorah, Hagit Maoz, Rachel Caine-Kreinin, Tali Sharvit, Dr. Adolfo Roitman, Eran Arie
Tour Coordinator: Roni Peled
Head of Marketing: Ran Lior
Photography: @ Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Website Design and Development: The New Media Department, The Israel Museum
Web design: Haya Sheffer; Development: Avi Rosenberg; Editing: Hanna Caine Braunschvig; Head of the Department: Susan Hazan