Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Jesus Played Yahtzee…And Other Historical Revisions

by columnist Madeline Karp

“Look at this!” my friend Kristen called me over to a case in the Ancient Greek wing of the Penn Museum. The case was right next to the bathrooms, small and probably often overlooked, except by those waiting for their friends to finish washing up.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (or the Penn Museum for short) focuses on a wide variety of ancient cultures, ranging from China to Iran, the Americas to Greece and Rome. College students take anthro classes in the museum, and kids and families from all over Philadelphia are invited for programs like the 40 Winks with the Sphinx museum overnight, Chinese New Year celebrations, and instructional tribal drum circles.

Kristen and I had decided to go to the museum one cold December night to attend a flashlight tour of the mummies exhibit (more on this next week), and needed to kill time before our tour slot. So we made our way to Ancient Greece.

“What is it?” I asked, circling back to see the case.

“Dice made from bones,” she replied. “Dated centuries before Christ.”

We quietly stood side by side as I took a moment to look at the dice, and then read the label, like a good museum visitor.

“Kristen, do you know what this means?” I said after a minute.

“What?” she asked.

“Jesus played Yahtzee!!”

Thus ensued giggling that lasted for the rest of the museum trip. The very idea of such a serious historical figure doing something recreational was oddly amusing.

A quick Wikipedia romp later that night informed me that Jesus could not, in fact, have played Yahtzee with the Apostles. The game wasn’t invented until 1956. But given that there were dice as early as the sixth century BCE, it’s not completely unrealistic to suggest that maybe Jesus played a dice game or two in his day.

After the giggles receded, the incident actually got me thinking – how important is historical accuracy in situations like this? Can we let loose just a little? (This coming from a history major? Horrors, I know. But hear me out.)

A large number of people who come through history and archaeology museums are not going to remember the fine details of the narrative. No matter how many times I told visitors to the National Archives in Washington DC that the original Bill of Rights actually contains 12 amendments, they left the museum saying that the oversized page has only 10. No matter how many times I insist to my family that the Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets…Vikings totally had horns on their helmets.

Sometimes tiny historical revisions are just more popular than the facts.

Suffice it to say, sometimes people put two and two together and get twenty-two. It’s not really right, but it’s not exactly wrong either.

So if this kind of revisionist logic rears its head – dice existed when Jesus did, Yahtzee is a game played with dice, therefore Jesus played Yahtzee – does it matter if that understanding is slightly wrong? I came out of my trip to the Penn Museum learning some things I never expected. I had no idea dice were so old. I had no idea Yahtzee was so new.

What started off as a punch line actually got me to look at objects in a new way. When we looked at cosmetic cases from Ancient Egypt, we wondered, “Did Cleopatra have a stylist?” When we saw ancient Roman coins we wondered, “Did Roman centurions hate it when their change jingled?” These thoughts are silly, yes, but are they totally unreasonable?

After the dice joke, long dead figures suddenly became way more human, and I was suddenly doing research on things like the history of eyeliner and coin purses and how people cut their nails before modern clippers were invented.

FYI – The first patent for a nail trimmer in the US dates to 1875, but it details an improvement to made existing clippers. So the implication is that they existed earlier than that.

What I want to know is this – at what point should we accuracy-obsessed history folk just shrug it off? It’s a losing battle to try and force people to remember every little detail about your favorite historical era. The average person probably does not care as much as I do that the General Lafayette was not a morning person. (One time, he slept through an early morning bread riot that was literally outside his Versailles window. True story.)

So if by using the “two and two” revisionist logic visitors do learn something, or get excited about history, or go home and research an object on their own – is it okay to let people assume that Jesus played Yahtzee? Can we have a sense of humor, and let some of the small stuff go? Personally, I think I could, if it meant people had fun in the museum and still understood the basic idea: Jesus and dice were contemporaries.

Could you let small revisions go? Or would you keep fighting for detailed historical accuracy at all costs? Let me know what you think in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. That’s right! There’s a famous Athenian redware vase (can’t remember whether it’s a krater or amphora) of Ajax and Achilles playing dice while they wait for Agamemnon to apologize to Achilles during the Trojan war!

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