New Penn Museum Exhibit Adds Context to Jewish History

The new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

We tend to think of Jewish history as isolated, as the story of a chosen people, as the plight of a fallen kingdom with no nation (until the return to Israel in the 20th century). But Judaism’s origin story is far more expansive than that, according to a new exhibit at the Penn Museum on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.

Like Judaism today, the religion’s founding and development cannot be separated from the larger context in which it exists. There were three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — that emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean region that includes modern Israel, Jordan and Syria, among other nations. All three spread, as one museum display puts it, “throughout the world.”

Yet they were all born and raised in the same vibrant and eclectic region. And it was that territory’s melding of different cultures and ideas that led to such an impactful legacy, according to the Penn Museum’s new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery.

The exhibit opened on Nov. 19 and includes “nearly 400 artifacts from the Middle Bronze Age (2,000 to 1,600 B.C.E.) to the Ottoman Period (the 1800s),” according to a press release from the museum. The gallery “reveals how innovation was rooted for more than 4,000 years” in that area. As visitors walk through the 2,000-square-foot space, they should gain an understanding of “how their own lives are impacted by concepts first introduced in this region.”

“The new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery showcases a territory that has always been central to the human story,” Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods said. “Today, of course, but also in antiquity.”

When you first walk into the gallery and turn right, you see a display about how, before the emergence of the monotheistic religions, deities took on specific forms. But over time, the idea of a formless deity emerged.

It’s an important lesson that clarifies the timeline behind the key concept that unites all three of these religious traditions. But it’s not the only reason for Jewish residents of the greater Philadelphia area to visit the new gallery, according to Lauren Ristvet, the exhibit’s lead curator and a Penn professor of anthropology.

These are some others.

A Large Collection of Objects from Israel

The exhibit includes the largest collection of objects from Israel in the United States and Canada, according to Ristvet. It’s also the third-largest such collection in the world. The Penn Museum has led excavations into Israel, Jordan and other Eastern Mediterranean countries since the period following World War I.

More Historical Context about the Torah

“Basically, the early period that we’re looking at, the period from 1800 B.C.E. to 1150 B.C.E., is the period that’s really represented in stories in Genesis and Exodus,” Ristvet said.

Lauren Ristvet, the lead curator for the new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

But the stories only happened during that period. They were not yet written down. That would come later. First, though, from around 1150 B.C.E. to about 700 B.C.E., Jews started crafting “a lot of the historical books” about the Kingdom of Judah, which lasted for almost 400 years during much of that same era.

This was a time when Jews had an empire, both the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel. Though by this point, they were likely separate instead of united as they had been in the time of Saul, David and Solomon.

“They are really starting to write. These people invented the alphabet,” Ristvet said of the 1150 to 700 stretch. “We have early Hebrew inscriptions.”

And then from 700 B.C.E. to around 330 B.C.E., the Torah as we know it was “edited, put together,” she added.

“A lot of religious traditions and thought are really formed during this period,” Ristvet concluded.

More Historical Context about Beit She’an

This ancient Israeli city played an interesting role during the Roman Empire period, according to Ristvet. It was home to a multi-faith community that used both synagogues and churches. There were plenty of different groups living in the city at the time.

The Penn Museum has “pretty cool material” from this period showing the changes that took place after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. The Romans took Jerusalem in 70 C.E., forcing the Jews to become the wandering tribe we know today. After the destruction, Jews had to settle in multi-faith places like Beit She’an. Roman era Beit She’an is an early example of the way Jews would go on to live for almost 2,000 years…until the creation of modern Israel after World War II.

“We get a little bit in the end of what’s happening in that later phase,” Ristvet said of the gallery. JE

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