Ancient souvenir was a pocket-sized lamb of Bethlehem for Christian pilgrims

Israel Museum researcher finds rare eulogia token showing both baby Jesus and Church of the Nativity as it may have looked 700 years after his birth

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Token with 'The Nativity,' Syria-Palestine, 6th-7th century CE, Terracotta, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Bequest of Dan Barag, Jerusalem (Courtesy Eli Posner)
Token with 'The Nativity,' Syria-Palestine, 6th-7th century CE, Terracotta, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Bequest of Dan Barag, Jerusalem (Courtesy Eli Posner)

A unique Byzantine-era blessing token featuring baby Jesus was recently unveiled by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, harking back to a time before a pandemic kept pilgrims from thronging Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Christmas.

Eulogia, Greek for blessed objects, were small souvenirs collected by early Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

The token depicts a nativity scene, with the baby Jesus at its center in a crib, a bull and a donkey above him. It likely belonged to a pilgrim who visited Bethlehem in the 6th or 7th century CE, given the architectural style of the Church of the Nativity depicted on the eulogium, said Morag Wilhelm, assistant curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine archeology at the museum.

Wilhelm found the token, which is about the size of a modern 10-agora coin, in a collection bequeathed to the museum by Israeli archaeologist Dan Barag, a Hebrew University professor who died in 2009. She recently finished part of her research into the object, though the study is ongoing and the piece is not being displayed for now.

The depiction of the birth of Jesus against the scene of the Church of the Nativity indicates the token was a memento from a pilgrim’s visit to the holy site, and possibly a souvenir for a special religious experience someone may have had there.

An ancient token once held by a Christian pilgrim in the 6th or 7th century, depicting baby Jesus watched over by a bull and donkey, in the Church of the Nativity, drawing by Michael Smelansky (Courtesy Israel Museum)

Tokens or eulogia were common in those times, said Wilhelm, imprinted with scenes related from the life of Jesus that took place at a particular site, including his birth, the Crucifixion and the Baptism in the Jordan River.

Made from the earth of sacred sites, the tokens also held protective and remedial value. The scrape markings that often appear on the token’s soft edges would be filled with dust, which was then mixed with liquid and ingested as a medicine.

While no longer religiously themed or curative, the coin memento idea still exists today, in the form of gift shop medallions or pressed souvenir pennies popular at many US attractions.

“I love the continuity represented in this piece,” said Wilhelm. “Pilgrims are usually here, and when they come to Israel, they still collect souvenirs, they take home water from the Jordan River, they do the same things they once did.”

A group of tourists and pilgrims visit the Grotto, believed to be the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born, as others pray at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 12, 2018. (THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Pilgrims have been making the journey to the Holy Land since at least the 4th century to visit religious sites and pray. The highlight of the journey is often a visit to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto that Christians believe holds the manger where he was born, runs a close second. 

Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, don’t appear in this particular token, as they typically do in such scenes. Instead, the figures are shown inside an impressive architectural structure that likely represents the grotto in the Church of the Nativity as it looked in the 6th and 7th centuries CE.

Two pillars above support an arch, with a large lamp hanging from the top.

A Byzantine church as depicted in the Byzantine gallery of the Israel Museum, part of the bequest of Dan Barag. (Courtesy Elie Posner)

While tokens of this kind were not unusual, the iconography of this item is unique, said Wilhelm, mentioning a similar one on display at the British Museum in London.

The incorporation of the Church of the Nativity with the scene of Christ’s birth is unusual, and conveys the event of the sacred birth, said Wilhelm, as well as the pilgrims’ experience in visiting the Church of the Nativity, where the vision of the infant Jesus himself is revealed to the devout.

“It’s an object that moves me,” said Wilhelm. “There would normally be tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims in Israel over Christmas, and they come to the museum, to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, to look at objects like these from the life of Jesus.”

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