April 18, 2004

Comments and Critique of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit (nearly identical to the earlier exhibit Archaeology and the Bible at Montreal’s Musée d'archéologie et d'histoire de Montréal-Pointe-à-Callière

David Steinberg




I should start by saying that Ancient Treasures was a tremendously rich exhibition and that many thanks are due to those who brought it to Ottawa and put all the work into its design.  It was a privilege for me to be a small part of it.  However, even the best can be improved and so the following are offered by way of constructive criticism.

N.b. I had no part in planning this exhibit but I did work as a volunteer interpreter.  I have never done this kind of work before and have no training in the philosophy of museum design, psychology of museum visitors etc.  However, I do realize that, whereas individual artifacts are usually meaningful only to the specialist, the assemblage should be designed to tell one or more stories to the ordinary visitor.  In addition, the designers may be telling stories reflective of their own values, concerns, fears and personalities of which they may well not be fully aware.


1. What was the objective of the exhibit?  Put another way – what were the visitors expected to walk away with in the forms of information, ideas or historical insights?

The answer to this question was never clear to me.  I listed under III.Themes of the Exhibit some possible insights that visitors might have taken from the exhibit.  

From what Dr Roitman said in a talk in Ottawa, a key aim was to encourage Christians and Jews to consider the implications of the fact that the findings of extensive modern archaeology in the region suggests that the descriptions of Israelite history before, say, 950 BCE, given in the Hebrew Bible appear highly anachronistic i.e. they reflect the realities of the Kingdom of Judah c. 700-586 BCE not the periods of which they purport to tell i.e. c. 1700-1000 BCE.  The signage did not provide adequate support for this aim. I dedicated several sections of my Guide to this issue (e.g. Annex 1 History Archaeology and the Bible – What Really happened and How can we Know it?; Pentateuch - The Documentary Hypothesis; and, The Spirit of Torah).


2. A Conscious Theme that Succeeded though Almost Unrelated to the Bulk of the Exhibit

Renaming the exhibit Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls emphasized the 3 scroll fragments more or less isolating them from their context in the exhibit.  All of the lectures, unfortunately from my point of view, were on the Scrolls.  In my view, all except one of these lectures were of good quality.


3. A conscious theme that failed

The theme of David/the House of David presumably was designed to appeal to Christian visitors.  I did not think that it added enough value to compensate for the disorientation caused by artifacts being placed, so as to emphasize the “David” theme, in situations unrelated to the surrounding artifacts.  Examples:

Ø      Tel Dan inscription placed at the beginning of the exhibit

Ø      A modern Hebrew Bible open at the Psalms at the beginning of the First Temple political leadership display.  (Royal theology type Psalms could have been used as link between secular leadership and cult in the Kingdom of Judah.)

Ø      The Second Temple reburial plaque of Uzziah being also placed in the First Temple political leadership display.  Perhaps it could more usefully been used to illustrate the Hebrew Bible’s perception of disease as divine punishment and the problem it causes in view of the Bible’s view of Uzziah as a good king.

Ø      A Latin Bible and Rabbinic Bible, open at the beginning of 1 Kings, irrelevantly placed in the Byzantine Galilee display.


3. Some Unacknowledged Themes

 A Secular Alternative Explanation for the Rise of the first Religion Based on Written Scriptures (i.e. post-Deuteronomic revolution  Judaism).  The religious explanation is that a supernatural God delivered a revelation.  In the context of this explanation archaeology can provide no more that illustrative artifacts.  However, a secular view would see both the scriptures and the religion(s) based on them as human cultural artifacts.  Thus, from this viewpoint, human culture and history are determinative.  The key point being made is that the first religion based on written scriptures came out of the political, religious, commercial and social context of the First Temple period Kingdom of Judah.

B. Using the testimony of the enemies of Ancient Israel to defeat the Biblical Minimalists without even admitting that the latter exist.


4. Inadequate Information

This was particularly true in the following areas:

a)     Historical – political.  What was needed was an explanation of why the great empires (Assyria, Babylonia, Rome) behaved the way they did in dealing with Judah – see my explanation for what I think was needed.

b)     The information in the religious section of the First Temple display was really inadequate and, at times, misleading. See my comments

c)     The section labeled everyday life was mostly about commerce related to the top fraction of one percent of the population.

d)     The section of the exhibit dealing with Jews and Christians in Galilee in the post destruction period, which I entitled Jewish and Christian Life in the Galilee and Golan in the Byzantine Period (fourth century to mid seventh century CE) – Coexistence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity

Galilee at the beginning of this period (say 100 CE) was 80 percent Jewish and probably about 15 percent pagan with most of the rest being Samaritans.  The pagans and Samaritans go unmentioned in the exhibit even though one would think that the Good Samaritan and Jesus and the Samaritan Woman would be angles of interest to Christian visitors.  Before the mid-fourth century the Christian population in Galilee was very small.  After the conversion of Constantine (early 4th century) the Church and government made a concerted attempt to Christianize Galilee (see) and severely persecuted Christian “heretics” (including Judeo-Christians), pagans, Samaritans and Jews in roughly that order. By 600 CE the Galilee population was 80 percent Christian.

Modern Canadians are acculturated to a tolerant multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-racial society.  When they are told that in Galilee the Christians and Jews; spoke the same two languages (Greek and Aramaic); used the same type of building for churches and synagogues; used the same types of artifacts (mosaics, lamps, chancel screens) probably made by the same craftsmen with only different religious symbols – all of which are true – they very naturally jump to the conclusion that Byzantine Galilee was a tolerant multi-religious society living in social harmony i.e. 21st century Canada in ancient Galilee.  However, the reality was that Christians in Galilee were using the machinery of government and the church to actively persecute all other groups.  This false conclusion is obviously inevitable under the circumstances unless countered with authentic background information.

5. Suggested Change in Organization of the pre-Scrolls Periods

a)     Proto-Israelite History – late 13th- early 11th centuries BCE

b)     First Temple Period – mid 11th – early 6th centuries BCE

                                      i.      Political History

                                    ii.      House of David – Secular Leadership

                                  iii.      Cult – Religious Life and Leadership

                                  iv.      Commerce and Everyday Life

·        Subsistence Farming

·        Commerce

·        Literacy and Literature

·        Role of Women