The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought
by Robert L. Wilken
Yale University Press, 448 pages, $35
Twice in the history of the region have Christians controlled Palestine: first during the height of the Christian Roman imperium, from the early fourth through the early seventh centuries, and second during the Middle Ages, when Christian princes regained Palestine for a time, and called it Outremer. But in the Western historical imagination, this later era of the Crusades stands as the primary instance of Christian presence in the land of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and their followers. In later centuries those medieval attempts to recapture the holy places from the hands of the infidel echoed romantically as the melodic line in every subsequent encounter with the Muslim Orient. The Western support of the struggle for Greek independence, with its ultimate and ruling idea of regaining Constantinople, and the endorsement of expansion into Arab territories by Israel are two instances of the nostalgic power an old dream wields.
The dream is especially potent when absolute good and utter evil seem visible to the naked eye, and God is felt to be directing one's own hands. Reportedly the first crusaders shouted Deus vult before their departure. The medievals' prize was the Holy Sepulchre, until the Arabs under a Kurdish general took back the land and, most importantly, the Jerusalem they too regarded as sacred and knew as al-Quds. Modern Westerners inherit something of the crusaders' views but without their religious goal, and this continues to obscure their views of the region and its people. Robert Wilken's masterly book accounts for the deep origins of this later encounter by describing how Christians first began to cherish the land of Palestine as holy.
When the ancient and profound distrust of the Islamic Middle East distorts Westerners' view of political events there, the complicated reality shrivels into a simple encounter between the forces of good and evil. Lost then is any potential for knowing why Christian communities have made a certain peace with the Islamic culture in which they must live. The most recent example came in the Gulf War, when American strategists and journalists were startled to discover that Christians of a very ancient and Semitic lineage were living in Mosul and Baghdad. There in Mesopotamia, in the early centuries of the Common Era, these people had converted from Judaism or paganism, had built their villages and churches, and continued to baptize their children and celebrate the liturgy from century to century until the present. Though reduced in numbers by conversion to Islam, occasional massacre, and emigration, they survived to become, in 1991, objects of curiosity because some of them worked in the government or served in the army of Saddam Hussein, and others, including the Chaldaean Catholic bishop of Baghdad, supported the Iraqi cause. Protecting their lives in the bloodbath became one of the objects of Pope John Paul II, and made him both less than enthusiastic about the American conduct of the war and less than popular in the United States.
If The Land Called Holy could gain a wide readership among the literate citizens of Washington and New York, those who want to understand the present disposition of religious, and hence political, matters in the Middle East could grasp how it is that groups of Christians living scattered there tenaciously cling to houses, buildings, and, most importantly, shrines that cause them the greatest personal inconvenience. For although the Christians of Iraq have an inheritance they believe as ancient as the apostolic church itself, the Christians of Israel believe they possess the weightiest patrimony of all: the soil trodden by Jesus himself, as well as descent from his next-of-kin. For lasting life in the land they have been willing to exchange second-class status under a succession of governments—although in the years of the Intifada and the Israeli government response to it they have been leaving even more rapidly than following the Six-Day War.
Robert Wilkin has movingly evoked their pathetic exodus in the Epilogue to a scholarly volume that is otherwise for the most part written in the normal dispassionate tone of the historian:
For Christians the Holy Land is not simply an illustrious chapter in the Christian past. . . . [N]o matter how many centuries have passed, no matter where the Christian religion has set down roots, Christians are wedded to the land that gave birth to Christ and the Christian religion. . . . If . . . the only Christians to survive in the Holy Land were caretakers of the holy places, Christianity would forfeit a precious part of its inheritance. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity . . . is not a European religion. Its homeland is in the Middle East, and continuity with its past is dependent on the Christians who continue to live in that land in which the faith is native. . . . Without the presence of living Chris tian communities, the witness of the Holy Land can only be equivocal. The martyrs and teachers, the monks and bishops, the faithful who lived in Bethlehem and Beit Jala and Nazareth and Jerusalem would no longer be signs of a living faith. . . . Bethlehem would become a shrine, and Christian Jerusalem a city of ancient renown. Only people, not stones and earth and marble, can bear an authentic witness.
Here Wilken knowingly makes a political, a religious, and a theological point. His implied political judgment is that Christian communities in the Holy Land are on the verge of extinction; he is perhaps suggesting that those three peoples to whom the territory of Palestine is sacred might well negotiate a means of sharing the holy places lest any of their devotees, Muslims, Jews, or Christians, be defrauded. His religious point is that Christianity, though a universal and not an ethnic religion, is so deeply rooted in the land of its founder, and is such a profoundly historical faith, that it would undergo a massive change of unpredictable consequences should it become uprooted. His theological point is, of course, the Incarnation. As the early Christian pilgrims realized, when Almighty God became human he did not hover between earth and heaven, but grew up and rendered unto God and Caesar in particular places which then themselves became holy through his stamp. All but the most transcendental of religions build shrines, but the particular meaning of shrines in the Holy Land is that, for Christians, their Lord was and is still present there in a way analogous to his presence in the Holy Eucharist.
Yet this realization was neither early nor undisputed in ancient Christianity. Two-and-a-half centuries elapsed from the death of Jesus to the time when Christians frequently made pilgrimages to visit the sites associated with his life and that of his mother and his disciples. Only in the late fourth century did Jerusalem assume the centrality for Christians that it had long enjoyed among the Jews, and even then its role was questioned. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 389) was, as Wilken notes, an appreciative pilgrim to the places that “had received the footprints of Life itself,” but he also argued against associating God with any particular place and issued the first of many somber warnings against the frivolity and venery of those who, traveling on pilgrimage, yielded to the perennial opportunities of the footloose.
A later Gregory, the Syrian Orthodox philosopher-bishop Abu-I-Farag (1226–1286), known as Gregory Barhebraeus because his father had converted from Judaism, wrote when Palestine and Jerusalem had finally and definitively slipped from Latin Christian into Muslim hands. The Christian warriors of four crusades had first established, then lost, the Holy Land as a Christian principality, though Christians of all countries still made the pilgrimage—a dangerous and costly one—to the holy places. By Barhebraeus' time, the various Christian communities that had established themselves in Palestine in the fourth century, including Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Arabs, and Latin-speakers, could welcome their countrymen from home only after the latter had been escorted through the perilous countryside by Muslim dragoman-guides.
Barhebraeus' Ethicon, written in Azerbaijan in 1279, voices the same Christian uneasiness about pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Gregory of Nyssa expressed, and that was to explode three centuries later in the Latin West. Barhebraeus was a polymath, learned in classical philosophy, Christian theology, and Arabic literature. In the first memra, or metrical homily, of the Ethicon, the bishop felt constrained to discuss the question of whether the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was beneficial. Barhebraeus opens chapter nine, “On Going to Jerusalem,” by remarking,
We find that there exist two opposite opinions about worshipping in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The first is that of prudent, educated people . . . the perfect solitaries and the select Doctors, who only yearn to travel to Jerusalem on high (Galatians 4:26), the assembly of the first-born in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). They are ready to worship God who is spirit, spiritually (cf. John 4:24), as they have learned from the Word himself and have been encouraged, instructed, and guided by Him, for God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)
But the bishop was himself no mean traveler, and it may be suspected that although he admired the superior—i.e., interior—pilgrimage, he also enjoyed the more corporeal realities. Hence he remarked that other worthy believers “from all parts and corners assemble there [Jerusalem] in order to receive a blessing from the Lord's Sepulchre and . . . [their] souls thirst after seeing the holy places where the Lord and his select disciples walked about.” Since pilgrimage was for seeing and touching those places, Gregory added four further sections concerning the various opinions about living in Jerusalem, the nine canons to be observed on the way there, the six canons directing behavior in the city itself, and scriptural texts teaching pilgrims how to meditate during prayer at the holy sites within the city.
Such a careful discussion within a medieval Syriac text written from the Caucasus can only show that the Middle Eastern, Semitic Christian community for which Barhebraeus wrote was still connected with the Holy Land by affection, by travel, and by an ancient form of ethnic colonization that had begun well before the emperor Constantine provided funds and labor for the excavation of the holy cross and the building of Christian accommodations in the city. But how did it happen that a religion of strangers to the world, born out of Judaism in the first century and departing from the cultus of the Temple in favor of a spiritual worship in the acheiropoe¯tos, came around to imitating its mother religion in establishing a center of pilgrimage on an alternate mountain, Calvary, with a new and very solid temple, the Church of the Anastasis paid for with Caesar's own coin?
The answer lies in early Christianity's rejection of Gnosticism and its gathering into one book the two covenants, interpreting the old by means of the new, as well as its acceptance of political reality and the adaptation of Hellenistic philosophy for Christian moral and metaphysical use. It also lies in Christianity's continuing connection with living Judaism, its mother and now its rival for possession of the old covenant, its interpretation, and the land that God gave to Israel in consequence of that covenant.
The harsh land of Palestine and the isolated, arid city of Jerusalem were not of the highest strategic or commercial importance in the Greco-Roman period, and traditionally had been badly administered by the successors of Alexander the Great. Therefore it is one of the ironies of the history of late antiquity that a land and a city so impoverished by natural and political circumstance should become and remain so enriched by trade, by cultivation, and by imperial order. The land, Palestine, and the city, Jerusalem, became the objects of mutual jealousy by Christians and Jews, so much so that sensational stories could circulate and gratify hearers in distant countries—in this case credulous Christian people who perhaps were unable to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but liked to hear stories about it nonetheless. The story of Barsauma illustrates the way in which Christians continued to look over their shoulders while taking possession of the land they now understood to belong to the body of Christ.
A Syriac-speaker, probably a monk, told the tale as follows. In 439 the famous rabban Barsauma (a name meaning “the Faster”), whose monastic lifestyle included the practice of perpetual standing, traveled to Jerusalem. He had a reputation as a fierce opponent of the Jews, having harried them already in his north-Syrian homeland. During this second stay in Jerusalem, when Juvenal was bishop and the empress Eudocia was in the vicinity, a group of Jews allegedly responding to a Roman offer to reestablish the Temple were killed while on the Temple mount during the Feast of Tabernacles. Barsauma's Mesopotamian monks were accused of the murder; the Roman governor travelled from Caesaraea to adjudicate; the city's Christians feared that Eudocia, supposedly sympathetic to the Jews, would put them to death. During the governor's interrogation of the monastic prisoners, an earthquake occurred; in discussion with the governor Barsauma construed this as a divine warning; and simultaneously the Jews' death was reported as having come about due to natural causes.
Barsauma then assumed mayoral and even messianic status: at his suggestion, crowds of citizens roared, “The Cross has triumphed”; in five hundred groups, led by the desert monks, villagers and townspeople together with the residents of Jerusalem staged an adventus and mimesis of Palm Sunday for Barsauma.
When the blessed Barsauma went around the places of the city in the midst of his brothers many spread before him excellent perfumes and choice unguents, and as he advanced they threw at his feet incense and agreeable aromatics. And they conducted the blessed one to the great church that had been built on Sion and there the blessed one offered the Holy Sacrifice.
That this event was a fabrication of Barsauma's hagiographer is well known, and doubtless the reason Wilken does not dignify it with lengthy discussion in The Land Called Holy. I tell it here to underline the object of the book, which is to show how Palestine and Jerusalem became the beloved and contested object of devotion for Christians and Jews during the years of the Christian imperium.
The Life of Barsauma shows how even Christians who lived at some distance—in northern Mesopotamia, which had its own “blessed city,” Edessa, itself possessing relics of Christ—worried that Jerusalem might slip through their fingers, that the Temple might once again be constructed and Jews stream back from the dispersion to reestablish worship in the face of Christian shrines. By the mid-fifth century this was paranoia and sensationalism on the level of supermarket tabloids, but even so it testifies to the devotion to Jerusalem in the Christian world beyond the borders of Palestine.
It is also fitting to cite the text because it displays a distorted reflection of that reality which the author of The Land Called Holy portrays so well: Jews and Christians shared the city and the land. Wilken tells the fascinating story of how Christians came to learn what Jews had already known: congruent with the inmost truth of their religion was the realization that not only the heavenly Jerusalem, the “Temple not made with hands” familiar from the Letter to the Hebrews, but the very soil of eretz Israel was holy. Why? For Christians, though certainly not for Jews, because it had been trodden by Christ himself. Once the Cross was excavated by Helena and her local Christian helpers from beneath the superimposed temple of Jupiter, and the church of the Anastasis erected, Christians were free to take possession of the city and the land, to embellish it with churches and monasteries, and to water and cultivate it. During the years when they did so, from the reign of Constantine to the reign of Heraclius, those practices took root that made the Holy Land a permanent fixture of Christian imagination and practice. The practice of pilgrimage made it an international city, and contributed to communications among Christians of different languages and customs; the establishment of businesses produced wealth for merchants and inhabitants; the building of monasteries gave opportunities for libraries and scholars beginning with the likes of Jerome and Rufinus and continuing with such as John of Damascus after the Arab conquest. In a sense, Palestine became a common homeland for all but the most millenarian of Christians, precisely because the dirt itself came to be identified with Christ's own body.
Because Wilken begins The Land Called Holy with the exile of the Jews in Babylonia, and ends with the exile of the Christian bishop, he has demonstrated structurally the similarity of Christian and Jewish experience. Thanks to their developing exegesis and to their Christology, Christians took over the text of the Old Testament and its God as well as the primary Jewish site. Yet their occupation of the land suffered, at least apparently, the same fate: driven away by conquest, they could return and remain principally as guests in their former lands.
In fact, despite the parallels between Jewish and Christian understandings that the land of Palestine was terra sancta and Jerusalem hagiopolis, the evolution of the concepts was quite different in the two religions. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, and it is made more interesting by the book's structure: instead of making the story of Jewish Israel and Jerusalem merely an explanatory preface for the Christian era in the land, Wilken alternates his attention between the documents and monuments of each community, Christian and Jewish, to show that Jewish hopes for a return to the land remained very much alive, even to the point of covert action, throughout the period of late Roman rule. What would have eventuated had the Byzantines been able to hang on to Palestine we do not know; the Arab conquest added a third layer of holiness to land and city, gave it a third brand of pilgrim, and relegated Jewish and Christian communities to dhimmi status. Only foreign intervention interrupted this suspension of religious hopes.
What was the character of the differing Jewish and Christian hopes for the Holy Land? For the Jews, as Wilken shows, the idea of the holy land was rooted in the conviction that the land was a gift from God to his chosen people, a gift accompanying the promise to Abraham of innumerable descendants. That gift was thus part of the covenant between God and Israel. The idea of “possessing the land” did not diminish in strength despite the voluntary migration of Jews into neighboring countries, or the Exile after the Persian conquest, or the destruction of Jerusalem and establishment of the Provincia Palestina in the first century. The concomitant ideal, for the Jews, remained the return of those dispersed, the rule of Jews over their own land, and the reestablishment of right worship in the Temple. Wilken rightly makes the point that the importance of Temple worship should not be minimized despite the growth of the synagogues in Hellenistic Palestine and the dispersion.
Despite the destruction of the Temple under Titus, Jewish hopes for the reestablishment of native rule did not die; in fact, they remained lively throughout the period of Roman rule in Palestine. Doubtless the continuity of Jewish institutions provided the context for this continuity of hope; as Origen noted, the patriarch was like a king over his people, and as archaeological evidence has established, during the period of Roman domination, in which Israel became the Christian Holy Land, the Jewish community enjoyed no little material prosperity. Jews had certain considerable rights under Roman law, and these were not abridged significantly until the reign of Justinian, despite Christian polemic and (in the case of the Barsauma Life) fantasy. Such were the conditions that allowed for the production of Jewish apocalyptic writings during the Sassanid conquest of Jerusalem, the books of Zerubbabel and Elijah, which expressed the hope that the Christians would be driven from the land. As Wilken notes, “By claiming that the Land of Israel was a Christian Holy Land, Christians dispossessed the Jews of their inheritance, and hence of their future.” This led a Jew debating a Christian in the Byzantine period to ask, “Why do you take what is ours and make it your own?” And if the Armenian historian Sebeos is reporting a real incident, a group of Jews told the Byzantine emperor on the eve of the Muslim invasion of Palestine that the land was their patrimony: “Give it up peacefully, and we will not invade your territory; otherwise we will retake with interest what you have taken.”
For Christians, the idea of the holy land was more complex in origin. The major portion of Wilken's book is devoted to showing how the earlier Christian neglect of Palestine and insistence that the Jerusalem above was the true holy land gave way to the conviction that Christ's presence had sanctified what lay within the borders of Palestine, and had especially made holy the city of Jerusalem. Such a conviction could never have occurred without a sacramental theology that grew increasingly explicit in early Christianity.
Complex in itself, the early Christian idea that the sacrifice of Christ was replicated in the sacrifice of his martyrs led to the collection of their physical remains and the reverence of their remains as holy. These bones and ashes were believed by some to have curative powers. They merited special handling, and eventually the erection of martyria around them. At the same time, the sacrament of the Eucharist was believed to have a causative effect in sanctifying the Christian people. The elements of the sacrament were regarded as both apotropaic (effective in averting evil) and therapeutic. Both relics and host had the power to convey holiness from the divine to the human.
Of course, such a bare statement of complex and diffuse ideas betrays the complexity of Christian thought and practice, yet at the same time, it is this inclination in Christianity to regard the body of Christ as sanctified and sanctifying which made fertile ground for the idea that, where Christ himself taught, ate, wept—this entire territory was analogous to a sacrament, its material substance subject to reverence. Chapter six, “At the Very Spot,” makes this quite clear: “Holiness,” Wilken writes, “was transmitted through touching. . . . For the pilgrim the holy places were not simply historical sites that invoked a memory of the past. Seeing was more than seeing, it was a metaphor for participation.” This analysis cannot but remind the reader of the visio beatifica, in which the metaphor of sight is made to stand for the entire experience of participation in the beloved: a pilgrim praying in the church of the Anastasis would find himself grounded in the circuit between the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalems.
When the pilgrims came, the monks came as well; some of them began as pilgrims. Over three centuries they became the colonizers of the Judaean desert, living out one aspect of the life of Christ in imitation of his forty-day fast in the wilderness. As Wilken points out, Sabas and Theodosius, leaders of monastic communities in sixth-century Palestine, took the ideas of pilgrimage to holy places and extended them to make a “nascent theology of a Holy Land embracing a territory.” The idea of a Holy Land was the idea of Palestine's Christian—and specifically monastic—inhabitants, but because of the incarnation of which they wrote, it came to be recognized as a land holy for all Christians. In On the Holy Images, John of Damascus, living in the monastery of Mar Sabas under Muslim rule, so understands it: like the holy images in whose defense he wrote the treatise, the holy places were “receptacles of divine energy.” From their veneration Christians were led, not to idolatry, but to authentic worship of the reality to which they witnessed. Because the Word of God became flesh, earth and stones may be holy.
The Land Called Holy is a rich work, evocative and sympathetic in accompaniment with its careful discussion of the texts and archaeological remains out of which its author has reconstructed the idea of Christian Palestine in late antiquity. This book is not only for historians or scholars of patristics, or for believers counting themselves among one of the three great traditions that cherish Jerusalem as the Holy City. The book could profitably be taken up by all thoughtful readers who wish to know the origins of their political world, and who want to grasp why this land is fought for. They can be grateful to Robert Wilken for providing this careful study, and for his final reminder that the Holy Land remains sacred for Christians especially because of its native Christians.
The Christians of that place love the land, as do Jews and Muslims, with a devotion which to the outsider often resembles fury, but really betokens a ferocity of desire lost on those in homelands more easily held: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”
Robin Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America.