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The Israel Museum

This museum is one of the most interesting places in Jerusalem.  It must be among the best museums in the world.  We got a cab out on Saturday and our driver suggested he come back in an hour, we said no, two, after which I went out and told him to go away for another two.  Even then we felt we had missed a lot, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But perhaps they are better viewed on-line and we had seen a very small fraction in Jordan to get a sense of their physical reality.

You can see inside the Museum in Google Street view - click here  and see the Dead Sea Scrolls here

The most interesting thing was, with the exception of the galleries given over entirely to Jewish religious objects and scholarship, the lack of any discernable religious bias. 

As in say London, New York, Paris or Sydney religion is approached as an anthropological phenomenon.  So there is a record of the evolutionary progression from primitive animism to complex transcendental beliefs as knowledge and understanding grew, technology developed and social structures evolved. 


Israel Museum
Israel Museum - Introduction to the Anthropological collection


Thus early animist religions evolved as agrarian technology led to cities; and trade; and writing; and numeracy; and money; and large scale warfare.


The oldest sickle ever found - evidence of agriculture


The development of ceramics and metal smelting led to iron and steel and glass manufacture as well as fine metalwork and jewellery.


Sophisticated Polytheism in early civilisations and gold and metal working technologies


The development of wheels machines and cranes and metalworking and rock cutting techniques led to the construction of vast, long lasting, stone structures and tombs.  In the Middle East and then in Europe polytheism gave way to monotheism.

This evolution in human thought and capability is beautifully set out and illustrated in this museum together with the sometimes bizarre religious beliefs that man's changing conception of his place in the universe spawned.


The Dawn of Civilisation


There is a well endowed pre-Columbian gallery but, as one would expect, the larger part of the anthropological content is about the development of civilisation in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean over the past 10,000 years and illustrates the antiquity of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

Abraham was said to have come from here but it seems certain that in his times, at around 2000 BCE, the Hebrew were semi-nomadic herders.  They are mentioned in Egyptian records as wandering raiders and possibly some found employment as slaves in Egypt. 

Many scholars believe that Abraham is a ' literary construct' by the authors of the Jewish Bible (J and E).

It is thought by modern scholars that the Pentateuch was mostly written by author J (called J as he named God 'Yahweh') just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE.

Significant parts of Genesis, for example the legend of the Flood and passages from Ecclesiastes seem to have been borrowed more or less in tact from the much older Epic of Gilgamesh, mankind's oldest known work of poetic literature, written around 1200 years earlier in Ancient Mesopotamia, that formed part of the polytheistic Babylonian belief system. 


Ecclesiastes and the Epic of Gilgamesh
Ecclesiastes and the Epic of Gilgamesh


Thus the Pentateuch, and in particular Genesis, was a fantastical writing about a much earlier time and could be likened to Victorian romantics writing of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.

The Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian records provide the only contemporary (slightly more reliable) documentation of the actual period.  Although significant battles bracketing the alleged escape from Egypt are recorded in some detail (down to body count) in the Egyptian records there is no mention of an escape of Hebrew slaves or of an Egyptian army being caught in a flood.  Secular scholars consider these events to be mythical. 

But Egypt had a brief monotheistic period (Atenism) and it is possible that a monotheistic Egyptian prince left with followers after the reinstatement of polytheism at the time of Tutankhamen (circa 1332 BCE).  We saw ample evidence for this in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as well as in the British Museum and those in Paris, New York and Berlin and there was further evidence here.


The emergence of monotheism in Egypt


After leaving Egypt, according to the Bible, the Hebrew wandered about until God allegedly told Joshua to massacre the local inhabitants of several towns in Palestine to establish the first homeland (of milk and honey). 

Around a thousand years BCE King David was born in Bethlehem and was said to have written the Psalms that are basic to all three Abrahamic religions, although at least one Psalm is Egyptian in origin tending to support the theory that the Jewish religion evolved from Egyptian theology.  David's son, Solomon is said to have built the first temple in Jerusalem.

There is evidence that the the Jewish religion was well established not long afterwards.  A silver amulet found in a tomb dated to 600 BCE is written in ancient Hebrew and reads:

May the Lord bless you and guard you
May the Lord make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord lift up His countenance [face] unto you and give you peace

Early evidence of the Jewish Religion - the amulet


This is known as the Priestly Blessing and will be familiar to any of you brought up, as I was, in one of the Abrahamic religions.  But note the second line, it's straight out of Atenism, the Egyptian monotheism of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV).

Panel with adoration Scene of Aten - Egyptian Museum
Aten Worship - circa 1350 BCE
Depicting characteristic rays seen emanating from the face of God  (Wikipedia commons)
Panel with adoration Scene of Aten - Egyptian Museum



Other Collections

Part of the Israel Museum is a fine arts gallery with an excellent collection spanning European and North American art from the renaissance to contemporary works.

This is a small sample.

European and North American Art



By the way, David is surprisingly well preserved. Yesterday just outside the Zion Gate in Jerusalem a nice Jewish man showed me his coffin. The man (a rabbinical scholar?) gave me some lavender to smell and blessed me and my family with a passage from the old testament.  Wendy had to go in the other side but didn't get blessed.

I asked several men there how we could now find the room where Jesus is said to have held the last supper.  None of them would tell me or admitted to any knowledge of such a place.

A Muslim man in the street was more helpful.  It's in the same building!   But the structure seemed far too recent to be either the resting place of a three thousand year old king or to have been the location of a dinner party a thousand years later.  I guessed it was crusader vintage and I was somewhat mystified by a Koranic script in Arabic in tiles on the wall adjacent to a Muslim niche in the upper room.  But we also learned that a Pope had endorsed this as the location of the last supper - so it must be true.

The Cenacle

I was sceptical so I looked it up in the guide book. It's called the Cenacle.

The Gospels do not mention the exact location of the Cenacle. However, the tradition which dates to the times of early Christianity, spots the place on the Mount Zion just outside of the Zion Gate.

Epiphanus wrote: “Hadrian… [135 A.D.] found the city entirely raised to the ground and the Temple of God destroyed and trthramped upon, with the exception of some houses and a certain small church of the Christians, which had been constructed in that place, in which the disciples, after the Saviour was taken up to heaven from Mount Oliviet, betaking themselves, mounted to the Cenacle.

The Crusaders built there a three nave edifice and named it ‘St. Mary’s of Mount Sion’. During their rule, none of the pilgrims to the Holy Land mentioned in their writings the presence of King David’s tomb there, however under the power of Saladin, who captured Jerusalem in 1187, its legend revived.  The Franciscan friars, who took over the possession of the Cenacle in 1336, kept the tradition as well.

One of the rooms on the lower floor, which with time was taken by Muslims, contained the tombs of David and Solomon. On the upper floor was the place of the Last Supper as well as the Chapel of the Holy Ghost, which was actually restored only in the middle of the 15th century.

In 1928 the Upper Room was turned into a mosque and a mihrab was erected there. Since 1948 the Cenacle room is open to the visitors. However, the Franciscans are permitted to have there a mass only twice a year: on the day of Pentecost and on the Holy Thursday.

The former Chapel of David is now a Jewish shrine of the King David’s Tomb. A statue of the king decorates the entrance. The room is divided into two sections for prayer: one for men on the right and one for women on the left.

Sometimes it's most interesting to approach a place in ignorance and try puzzle it out before fact checking - I was quite pleased to see that I was quite close to arriving at the generally accepted explanation.




We left Jerusalem for Nazareth by Bus from the Central Bus Station.  We had given ourselves plenty of time and before catching our bus I sat in the food hall with the bags while Wendy roamed the shops.  Thin and obese men, pretty girls and young people of both sexes in uniform came and went. 

A young man in uniform sat down close by with a tray from MacDonald's. He laid his automatic rifle across his lap took a magazine that I could plainly see was loaded with live rounds and inserted it into the weapon. Then he ate his meal. when he'd finished eating he removed the magazine from his weapon and went on his way.  I concluded that he feared being attacked during his lunch in this place.

Sitting there I remembered my own time in the University Regiment when live ammunition was never taken into a public place and speculated that, as I well knew at the time, not all young people of that age are mentally stable, or bright, and accidents must happen from time to time.  I remembered, with some amusement, a lad in our School Cadets, shooting his own toe through his boot while trying to 'ease springs'.  He didn't seem to find it quite so funny at the time - fortunately it was just a flesh wound.

What happens when bystanders are accidently or deliberately shot?  I suppose that in this ongoing war environment it's usually put down to enemy action.



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