A Review of Jerusalem and Rome: Cultures in Context in the First Century CE

“What was life like over 2,000 years ago? Discover the dynamic story of the First Century, from the daily lives of ordinary people to the greatest struggle for autonomy in the history of the Roman Empire in the museum’s largest temporary exhibit!”

So reads a tweet sent out by the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) on August 4, 2018, announcing the opening of Jerusalem and Rome: Cultures in Context in the First Century CE—a temporary exhibit highlighting archaeological objects on loan from and curated by the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that aspires to tell a complicated story of Jewish life in Palestine in the first century CE.

The basement-level exhibit gives the viewer a sense of daily life in first-century Roman Palestine by showcasing fine ware ceramics, lamps, makeup, ossuaries, and amphorae, as well as finds from Masada and the Roman legionary camp outside the stronghold. The arrangement of material moves from domestic life to burial practices and then takes up the Jewish War, from Josephus’ narrative account to the imagery of the Arch of Titus in Rome, ending with brief mentions of the rise of Christianity, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a small catalogue of first-century coins. Each section of the exhibit is accompanied by wall art that attempts to place the objects within a larger historical context and narrative.

The Hebrew University exhibit’s signage is well written. It conveys clearly how archaeological objects are used and interpreted, noting specific ways in which archaeology often provides alternative accounts of historical events to those found in our literary sources—including the Biblical texts and the works of Josephus—while making careful connections to daily life in ancient Palestine. And yet, although the exhibit boasts 195 objects, it still feels sparse, particularly after the viewer has passed through the objects found in and around Masada. A single bronze lamp illustrates the destruction of the Temple. An inkwell represents the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls. A handful of coins, with numismatic and historical summaries, close the exhibit. The sparseness of the exhibit is partially due to the arrangement of the space, which is perhaps too big for the exhibit. While the MOTB advertises the exhibit as its “largest temporary exhibit,” it could have benefited from the inclusion of objects related to farming, village life, or civic life. In addition, the inclusion of a single inkwell to stand for Qumran is a missed opportunity to include more evidence for daily life in this community beyond its production of written texts. These concerns aside, the exhibit is well-curated with nuanced and careful signage and it stands out from the permanent exhibits at the MOTB by the fact that it presents authentic artifacts and does not rely on facsimiles to fill out its story.

While the exhibit is responsibly curated, it suffers because of its association with the MOTB, both because of the museum’s problematic reputation, and because of issues compromising the exhibit outside of the control of the Hebrew University’s curatorial team. For example, as part of my visit to the exhibit, I participated in two guided tours led by MOTB staff, one of which was given by a coordinator of the “living history” program at the Museum. Most visitors to the exhibit are guided by MOTB tour guides, meaning that the narrative these guides offer is what knits together the collection on display and is the story that visitors take home with them, often trumping the carefully-worded signage on the walls.

On one tour, my guide used the fine ware pottery section of the exhibit to construct a binary opposition between Roman and Jewish identities. “Roman” pottery, which the guide incorrectly referred to as sigliatta, was described as expensive and luxurious—items only available to the wealthiest of the wealthy. “Jewish” pottery, on the other hand, was described as simple, affordable, and “pious.” Its lack of ornament was naively taken as an indication that it was produced according to halakhic standards. This is, of course, purely speculative and stereotypical.

Such incorrect uses of religious and ethnic stereotypes to interpret archaeological finds were likewise evident in my second tour guide’s answer to a question about Jewish burial practices: “The Jews have too many religious differences to have integrated with other ethnic groups.” I was taken aback to say the least. Anyone who has visited Jerusalem and walked through the Kidron Valley knows this is obviously false. The ceramics and ossuaries on display in the exhibit, in front of which the tour guide stood, show the integration of imagery drawn from the broader Greco-Roman world. It is too much to expect the MOTB’s guides to be experts in the arcane field of ancient ceramics; however, by constructing religious and ethnic distinctions to frame what are really just imported and locally-produced ceramic wares—distinctions not present in the carefully-crafted and researched signage produced by the Hebrew University curators—the guides created a narrative of religious and ethnic conflict around the objects.

Another example of this problem of the MOTB’s guides contradicting the curated information occurred when both guides introduced an ossuary that held the remains of “Alexander, son of Simon.” Since its discovery in the Kidron Valley in 1941 by E. Sukenik and N. Avigad, some scholars argue that this ossuary is connected to Simon of Cyrene, the character who carried Jesus’s cross in the Gospels of Mark (15:21), Matthew (27:32), and Luke (23:26). In the exhibit, the ossuary is set off from nine other ossuaries that offer different examples of burial practice during this period. A small placard on the side of the case says that this ossuary “may” be connected to the Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the New Testament. In contrast to this understated and careful framing, each of the Museum’s guides focused their viewers’ attention on the ossuary, asserting that the ossuary was “likely” or simply “was” that of Simon of Cyrene’s son and was therefore of immense historical importance as a result.

These two examples, to which could be added numerous instances where the guides gave factually inaccurate or Evangelically-biased interpretations (such as my first tour guide’s assertion that all of the texts in the Christian New Testament, with the exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews, were written before 70 C.E.), illustrate the potential problems for academic institutions inherent in partnering with the Museum of the Bible. In both cases, the tour guides I observed offered problematic interpretations that were in keeping with the conservative Evangelical narrative of the Bible and its history that shapes the Museum’s permanent collection and exhibits, which has so ably been catalogued by Candida Moss, Joel Baden, and Jill Hicks-Keeton, amongst others. On a guided tour, visitors listen to the tour guides more so than they read the signage. Thus, no matter how responsibly the curators at partnering institutions work to offer nuanced, historically-accurate exhibits, the experience of viewers is ultimately conditioned by the interests of the Museum itself.

This brings us back to the tweet sent out by the Museum that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Nowhere in the Hebrew University’s exhibit are claims made about the Jewish War as the “greatest struggle for autonomy” in Roman history, but this is the gloss imposed on the exhibit by the MOTB and its staff—a gloss that frames the Jewish War in ways that are similar to the American Revolution and the Christian nationalism that the Museum associates with this event. (My second guide called the outbreak of the Jewish War a “Boston Tea Party event”!) Thus, while the Hebrew University in Jerusalem’s exhibit curation shows a high quality of scholarly work, it ultimately suffers by its association with the Museum of the Bible. This should stand as a warning to other academic institutions looking to partner with this organization. It also should be yet another wakeup call for the Museum of the Bible’s administrators, who need to put responsible scholarship ahead of the evangelical theology of their donors and the interests of their marketing department.

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