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The Somewhat Doubtful Holy Land

My friend Marge recently returned from her first trip to the Holy Land. She excitedly showed us her pictures, and described standing on the spots where Jesus walked. Her travelogue brought to mind our own Holy Land trip some years ago. We were assigned a tour group, most of whom, it didn’t take us long to discover by their religious style, were from a charismatic church. It wasn’t until a couple of days in that we realized that the other half of the group (the ones without earrings, who only muttered soft “amens,” and only at the end of prayers) were Seventh-day Adventists. We had a lovely time becoming acquainted with both parts of the group.

The guides on these tours speak with authority about what happened at each site. But in truth many of the sites identified by the tour guides are approximations at best, and occasionally wild guesses.

In general, archaeologists and historians have a pretty good handle on where the important towns were. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Jericho—all have historical pedigrees. Some individual sites, such as the pool of Bethesda and the Garden of Gethsemane, have enough evidence for solid identification.

But you’d be surprised at how much question there is about many locations, from where Jesus was born and baptized to where he was crucified and buried. There isn’t 100% agreement on exactly where the temple was! If you can’t find the exact location of a huge building, one of the most important in the ancient world, how can you be sure of the precise spot in the river where John put Jesus under the water?

Which is why, to be on the safe side, tour guides will sometimes say, “This is the traditional site where such and such happened.”

It is instructive to know how these places got identified. The ancient believers had a strong sense of the sacred place, but often years passed before the full import of a sacred event was realized. People moved, governments changed, and records, if there were any, got lost. Believers probably erected shrines where they believed, from whatever memories local people had passed along, that important Christian events had happened. The Roman emperor Hadrian, in the second century, liked to tear down these Christian shrines and replace them with temples to Roman gods.

In the early 300’s the Emperor Constantine I became favorable toward Christianity, probably under the influence of his Christian mother, Helena. (He himself was baptized only on his deathbed.)

Constantine’s main interest appeared to be the mystical power of religious signs and relics. (His turning toward Christianity happened, according to Eusebius, when he marked a Christian symbol — either the cross or the chi-rho — on the shields of all his soldiers, and subsequently won an important battle.) Constantine sent his mother to Palestine to identify sites associated with the gospels. It would have been a wasted trip were she to come home with anything less than absolute site identification, so Helena made definitive decisions where each event took place. Some, like Jesus’ tomb, she identified by the heathen shrines Hadrian had built on them, which she tore down and replaced with churches.

To put her historical methodology in context, you have to know that she also came home with what she was told was a big chunk of Jesus’ cross, the nails and rope that had been used to fasten him there, as well as Jesus’ complete shroud. Constantine was said to have carried one of the nails into battle with him, fastened to his horse’s bridle, as a victory talisman.

When you visit the Holy Land today and see how they trade on the sacred stories, you become suspicious that the same thing may have happened to Helena. If the mother of the most powerful emperor in the world asked you for the true cross of Jesus, wouldn’t you be highly motivated to provide one, whether you had it or not? And if she wanted to see the precise stable where Jesus was born, wouldn’t you take her to some stable in the neighborhood of Bethlehem?

I recently read a piece in a journal called Annals of Tourism Research that was devoted to a theory (called theoplacity — figure it out) of how to give American evangelical pilgrims the kind of experience they want to have at sacred places even though you can’t be sure they were the actual sites. You do it by playing up the beliefs they came with, downplaying questions about the site’s authenticity, and adding experiences that increase travelers’ feelings of sacredness, like being baptized in the Jordan or having communion at the Garden Tomb (which almost no one believes was tomb of Jesus).

In other words, they see you coming, and they’re ready for you.

A major distraction is the churches and shrines that have been plopped down on top of every significant site. I know it was done out of reverence, but it kind of ruins the experience when you have to imagine what the pastoral setting of most of Jesus’ pre-Jerusalem miracles and teachings might have looked like, when massive Romanesque or Medieval buildings now block the view.

So I have to admit that visiting the Holy Land didn’t have the same spiritual effect on me that it did on some of our fellow travelers. I was more interested in the current culture of the place, how past and present blend, how people live next to ancient ruins and still carry grudges about things that happened among them two or three millennia ago.

I also learned a great deal from the geography, from seeing the lay of the land and the relationships of places to one another. I particularly remember the rugged drop-off between Jerusalem and Jericho, and how it illuminated the story of the Good Samaritan for me. And to someone who comes from the vastness of the American continent it is surprising to see how compact the area in which Jesus lived his whole life, and how close to one another the villages he visited.

So worth going? Absolutely. As long as you take along a bit a skepticism about some of the claims you’ll hear.

And by the way, that gift shop where they stop on the way back from Bethlehem, that your thoughtful guide tells you he picked because he knew you’d get the best prices there? Yes, it’s all set up beforehand, and your guide is getting a kickback for bringing you.

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