An exhibition back in 2000 at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, which was curated by Yael Israeli and David Mevorah, shows artifacts from the early years of the Christian church. The exhibition was entitled “The Cradle of Christianity“:
The exhibition attempts to synthesize the literary sources with finds that have been excavated in this country, particularly over the past fifty years: architectural remains, liturgical objects from churches, personal belongings of the Christian inhabitants of this land, and souvenirs made for pilgrims.
They have made an effort to separate the artifacts from the religious doctrines, trying to present the artifacts as they are, objectively.
I found several things interesting as I browsed the website of the exhibition:
- “His disciples – the Apostles – were twelve in number – a symbolic figure, evoking the Twelve Tribes of Israel.”
- “This inscribed stone fragment belonged to one of a series of stone slabs that stood in the court of the Temple in Jerusalem and served as a divider between the area permitted to both Jews and Gentiles and the area permitted only to Jews. . . . The existence of such a divider in the Temple court is attested by Josephus: “in this (balustrade) at regular intervals stood slabs giving warning, some in Greek, others in Latin characters, of the law of purification, to wit that no foreigner was permitted to enter the holy place…” (Jewish War, V, 193-198). The actual inscription read thus: “No foreigner shall enter within the balustrade of the Temple, or within the precint, and whosoever shall be caught shall be responsible for (his) death that will follow in consequence (of his trespassing).”
- Regarding early church buildings, “The structure of the church edifice made it possible to maintain a separation between the members of the congregation and the catechumens, who had not yet been baptized and were therefore only permitted to take part in some of the rites.”
- “The functionaries of the church included the bishop, the priest, and the deacon, as well as various assistants. One could become a priest from the age of thirty and a deacon from the age of twenty-five. Women could also serve the church, as deaconesses. The large churches were headed by a bishop (episkopos), accompanied by a council of elders (presbyters). The deacons assisted the bishop with the collection of donations and the distribution of charity, and helped him perform the various rites. In the East, married men were not prevented from joining the clergy.”
- “The apse and the raised platform in front of it – the bema – were surrounded by a low stone partition – the chancel screen – which separated the congregation from the sacred area, where the liturgical rites were performed. The officiating clergy sat on benches built along the walls of the apse, with the bishop in the center. Toward the front of the bema stood the altar, beneath which, in a depression in the floor, a reliquary was hidden. Additional tables, on which the Scriptures and various liturgical objects were placed, also stood on the bema.”
- “The rite of baptism – symbolizing the purification of sins and rebirth – marks an individual’s acceptance into the Church. In the Byzantine period, this rite was only performed after the candidate for conversion (catechumen) had completed a rigorous course of study. During this lengthy ceremony, the catechumen was immersed in water, anointed with oil, and dressed in a pure white garment. Only then was he or she permitted to enter the church and participate in the Eucharist by partaking of the holy bread and wine.”
- “The most important part of the Christian liturgy was the Eucharist, in which the participants partook of the holy bread and wine – symbols of the body and blood of Jesus serving as a reminder of his sacrifice. The liturgical vessels that were set upon the altar during the ceremony included ewers of wine and water, a strainer, chalices, and patens (plates) for the holy bread.”
- “The painting depicts three figures wearing halos – apparently representing saints –their arms outstretched in an attitude of prayer. Their manner of dress is characteristic of that of Christian clergymen in the Byzantine period.”
- “In the rooms adjoining the church, the liturgical items were stored: the vessels used in the Eucharist, the holy books, processional objects, and the liturgical vestments. In addition to these precious objects, funds and gifts acquired by the church through donations, through the leasing of property that had been bequeathed to the church, and through the fulfillment of vows was also stored in the treasury, just as they had been stored in the temples in previous periods. It was forbidden to sell this property, unless this were necessary in order to pay for the release of prisoners or the redemption of captives. The donations of the faithful – both congregants and pilgrims – were the main source of the church’s wealth and were used for its maintenance and renovation.”
There are many more fascinating early Christian artifacts on the website of this exhibition. We thank thee, O God, for a prophet, who has restored these things in the latter-days.