Early Christians’ Imaginings of Jerusalem and the Holy Land

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On a Sunday night in Jerusalem, I attended the Detroit Methodist Choral group’s performance. The talented choir’s first sung lines, were “I am bound for the land of Promise….” With similar meaning, the choral group might have sung “I am bound for Jerusalem” or I am bound for the Holy Land.” While the notion of land of promise, Jerusalem, and the Holy Land is deeply rooted in contemporary Christian psyche, earlier Christians did not see necessarily this land in the same way. If one scans the first few centuries, there was been a fascinating see-saw attitude toward this land, a decided ambivalence.

Early Christian writers hesitated in commending Jerusalem or the Holy Land. Origen (b. 185) wrote “I plan to dispel the mistaken notion that the sayings about a good land promised by God to the righteous have reference to the land of Judea (Wilken, 4).” In fact, although Origen in his writings uses the word Jerusalem, he restricts its meaning primarily to the heavenly Jerusalem in contrast to the earthly Jerusalem. When using language about Jerusalem, Eusebius (b. 265), the early church historian, repeatedly stressed the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman as recorded in John 4: 20-23. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem but in spirit and truth.” For Christians, Jerusalem was not essential for worship; instead, Christians could worship God truly anywhere. Conveniently, because of this attitude, Eusebius attacked the Jewish attachment to the earthly Jerusalem’s Temple and praised the church’s recognition of a more supposedly universal divine Spirit. Later, Jerome (b. 347) wrote: “What is praiseworthy is not to have been to Jerusalem, but to have lived a good life while there…But I do not presume to limit God’s omnipotence or restrict to a narrow strip of earth Him whom the heavens cannot contain (Neuhaus, 94).” Gregory of Nyssa (b 335) answered a question about the necessity of pilgrimage to Palestine and in the process, implicitly devalued Jerusalem. “Do the commandments indeed demand this [pilgrimage to Jerusalem]? When the Good Lord calls the Christians to inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven, he did not list the journey to Jerusalem among the good acts (Wilken, 101).”

These words devaluing the significance of Jerusalem corresponded to the scarcity of Christians in Jerusalem and Israel. According to Eusebius, there were only three Christian villages in the entire province in the late 290’s. Jerusalem itself did not contain many Christians. Furthermore, most people did not even speak about Jerusalem but used the Roman-given name Aelia Capitolina (Walker, 23). Walker illustrates the unfamiliarity of the name Jerusalem by recalling the story of the provincial governor interrogating a Christian. “… the governor asked him where he came from: ‘from Jerusalem,’ he replied. Formilianus [ the provincial governor] then asked him where precisely this was…. (Walker, 22).” The provincial governor did not even know the older name for one of his cities! So much for the importance of Jerusalem.

Christians in the early centuries did not emphasize Jerusalem and the Holy Land. In fact, early Christians would have reinterpreted the Detroit Methodist Chorale’s words “I am bound for the land of Promise” to confirm the Jewish failure to live according to the conditions of that promise. Eusebius wrote in ways that exhibited and even escalated the church’s anti-Semitism: “believers in Christ, gather from all parts of the world, not because of the glory of Jerusalem, nor to worship in the ancient temple at Jerusalem, but that they may know that the city was occupied and devastated as the prophets foretold… (Wilken, 81).” If early Christians wrote about Jerusalem, then they wrote about the ruined Jerusalem with its destroyed Temple as proof that Christians and their church were superior than the Jews and their synagogues. By believing that the church had superseded the Jews, these early Christians shared an anti-Semitism that has plagued Christians for centuries.

 

Corresponding to these interpretations, the early Christians actions can be linked to the infrequency of pilgrimages to Jerusalem or the Holy Land. There were occasional pilgrims such as the Bordeaux pilgrim who traveled to Jerusalem in 333 CE. He wrote terse comments: he was not intent on elaborately describing the land or Jerusalem. “Mount Carmel is there. There Elijah did his sacrifice.” He wrote about Golgotha “where the Lord was crucified and about a stone’s throw from it the vault where they laid his body and he rose again on the third day (Wilken, 109)” without mentioning any Jerusalem church built over the sites. While Egeria’s account is much more famous in 381-384, as Wilken describes her pilgrimage as a “sightseeing tour of biblical history, the breathless journey of one of the idle rich (Wilken 112),” there still are only a handful of references to pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

As in many areas of life, Constantine and his successors fostered a change in people’s attitudes toward Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Theodoret (b.395) used the psalmist’s words “Let us go up to the place of the Lord” as a justification for Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In fact, the crowds of pilgrims that traveled “to the city of Jerusalem to worship God not in the temple of the Jews but to see those famous places, that of the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension” were proof that God’s prophecies were being fulfilled. For Theodoret, Jerusalem is not simply a heavenly place, but, in fact, associated with the earthly Jerusalem.

With Constantine promoting Christianity, pilgrimages increased. When these pilgrims arrived at particular sites, they found that particular liturgies for each site had been developed. Egeria was among the first to notice this characteristic:” What I admire and value most is that all the hymns and antiphons and readings they have, and all the prayers the bishops say, are always relevant to the day which is being observed and to the place in which they are used (Wilken, 113).” This development of specific worship for specific sites showed a sensitivity to particular places. Helen, Constantine’s mother, visited Jerusalem, and in the process purportedly found pieces of Jesus’ actual cross. (Church historian Wilken sarcastically asks if she is the “first great archaeologist (98).”) Because of her visit, numerous churches were built encouraging even more pilgrims to visit Jerusalem. Jerusalem was on the way to becoming valued as the site of the Incarnation, with a recognition of the importance of place, of space, of concreteness.

Yet as these post-Constantinian generations began to attribute holiness to specific places, such as Jerusalem, their attitude did not guarantee a broader characterization of the entire land itself as the Holy Land. Other features contribute to “holiness” expanding from specific sites to a reference to the whole Holy Land.

Certainly, a key cause for this expansion was the growth of monasteries. Although Egypt is the birthplace of Christian monasticism, the monks and nuns soon adopted as home the Judean hills and wilderness. The monks desired to be close to the places associated with the events of Jesus’ life. In a letter to Emperor Anastasius in 512, two leaders of Palestine monastic communities wrote: “We the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as it were, touch with our hands each day the truth through these holy places in which the mystery of the incarnation of our great God and savior took place… (Wilken, 170). These two Christian leaders began to use the language about the Incarnation as backing for the special nature of this land. As such, they even began to speak about the church of Jerusalem as “the mother of the churches (Wilken, 171).” Eventually, over 100 monasteries with possibly 3000 monks and nuns soon occupied the hills and desert east of Jerusalem (Wilken, 165). As residents of this land, these Christians began to consistently use the expression “Holy Land.” “From that precious and supernatural mystery of Christ…we, the inhabitants of this Holy Land, have kept it invulnerable and inviolable in Christ.” Rather than restricting holiness to a site here or there in Palestine, such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, or Jerusalem, the monks began to talk about the whole land as holy, thus a Holy Land.

By the end of the 5th century, Christians used the terms “land of promise,” Jerusalem, the Holy Land differently.  While some might have used these terms to refer to a heavenly Jerusalem, there was a growing sense that the actual, earthly Jerusalem and the entire land of Palestine was itself holy. This change in attitude led to the outpouring of grief when the Holy Land was conquered first by the Persians in 614 and then by the Muslims in 629. According to Wilken, John, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and not the Jews, sang a lamentation over the Holy City “as though he had been an inhabitant of the city.” He cried that “the Jerusalem above wept over the Jerusalem below (Wilken, 218).” The fall of Jerusalem was a disaster not only for the people of Jerusalem but also a disaster for Christians everywhere. Thus, every day for a whole year, in worship and in writing, John the Patriarch mourned that destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City.

The Detroit Methodist Chorale sang using old familiar language. The language about Jerusalem and the Holy Lands is a fixture in Christian speaking and thinking. Whatever the words reference, I suspect that there will be more and more hymns about being bound “for the land of promise, “for the promised land, ”for Jerusalem.”

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