Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at New York's Discovery Center marred by anti-Jewish theme
This is the first of several articles focusing on mistakes and misrepresentations in a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit taking place at the "Discovery Center"in New York.
In this article I discuss the fact that, like a number of other recent exhibitions of the Scrolls created in cooperation with several Evangelical scholars, the current exhibit focuses to an exaggerated degree, in the context of ancient Jewish texts, on the theme of the origins of Christianity. In the process, it ends up dishing out false information — some of which even has nuances historically tied to Christian anti-Jewish themes.
For example, the exhibit falsely states that
By the end of the fourth century, after Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity (313 CE) … the region of Israel had become predominantly Christian.
Similarly, under the rubric “The Sign of the Cross,” we are told:
When Constantine became a Christian and legalized the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Israel became the “Holy Land,” the place of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.
Both of these statements are historically false. Christian "predominance" in Palestine came only around the end of the fifth century, and lasted only for a relatively short time, until the Muslim conquest; and ancient Jewish sources including the Bible and the Mishnah were already calling Israel the "Holy Land."
(See, e.g., this book, pp. 67, 70, 74, and, for example in the Bible, Zechariah 2:16.)
The exhibitors' statements seem designed to cater to popular, religiously grounded notions about the antiquity of Christian dominance in the Holy Land. These notions do not correspond to what historians know to be the reality of ancient Palestine. In an apparent effort to lend credence to what amounts to a popular fiction, the exhibit’s historical summary section fails to provide any information at all on the rise of rabbinical Jewish culture in Palestine during the first several centuries of the Christian Era.
Moving in the same direction, the exhibit ignores the basic difference between pre-rabbinic (or what’s often called “intertestamental”) Judaism and rabbinic Judaism. In the process, it repeatedly obscures the simple, basic fact that Judaism is historically antecedent to Christianity. We are told for example that
Judaism and Christianity emerge from the same religious tradition—that of ancient Israel—at the same time. Both claim to embody “Israel.” Indeed, both initially define themselves as the children of Israel, and not as Jews or Christians.
And we are told, on one giant wall text quoting a popular book written 50 years ago, that “everything that is important to Israel in the centuries before Christ is also important for Christianity.” This is again simply historically false, as historians of the two religions (or those who keep kosher) know.
The exhibitors admit that no New Testament writings were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but then emphasize that the
earliest Christians and the authors of some Scrolls share religious ideas. These include… identification of their community as the “ideal Israel.”
The term “ideal Israel” is an unfortunate invention of the exhibitors. It echoes the old Christian term “true Israel” (found nowhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls), which has been studied at length by various historians of religion, in most detail by Marcel Simon. As Simon shows in his detailed book on the topic, the term “true Israel” expresses an anti-Jewish idea invented by early Church fathers who wanted to convince the world that Christianity was actually the “true” Israel and that the Jews were living in sin.
It is the case that many non-specialists are not aware of the history of the "True Israel" doctrine. It seems that the Discovery Center exhibit’s organizers either took this for granted when they came up with the “ideal Israel” variant, or else simply were themselves historically ignorant in preparing their popular exhibit.
In view of the many other distortions contained in the exhibit (some of which I will discuss in follow-up articles), the curators seem to have some explaining to do.
Tags: Discovery Center , Exhibitions , Dead Sea Scrolls , Anti-semitism , Judaism , Christianity , Bible , New York , Religion
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