Letter to Paul Grimage continued:
I have been told that my last letter was not very cheerful. I’ll have you know that one of my readers laughed so hard upon reading it that she suffered an asthma attack. If that’s not funny I don’t know what is! Now on to the next lighthearted, humorous installment:
Before Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD, there was no clear distinction between Jew and Christian; in fact there was no clear distinction between the Jew and Christian until the complete defeat of the Jewish nation by the Romans in response to the Bar Kochba revolt around 130 AD. Before then, Christianity was thought of as a sect of the Hebrew religion.
By then, there were a number of forms of Christianity. There were the Gnostics who tried to combine Egyptian and Persian religion with the teachings of Jesus. There were Israelites who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but never conceded His divinity. Then there were His followers, the Twelve and the other disciples, who taught that Jesus was the Son of Mary and the Son of God, fully human and fully divine.
One often hears the question, “Why did the Jews reject Jesus?” Dr. Rodney Stark, a sociologist, makes the point that, in fact, the Jews didn’t reject Jesus. Many, perhaps most Greek-speaking Jews in the first centuries after Christ, accepted Jesus, His divinity, His humanity and His redemptive death. At the time of Christ there were 6 or 7 million Jews in the Roman Empire. Two hundred or so years after Christ there were less than a million. There must have been quite a bit of attrition through war and plague, but not enough to obliterate 6 million people. Dr. Stark, echoed by Fr. Richard Neuhaus, makes the point that much of the substantial Samaritan population and the even larger Jewish population of the Empire probably accepted Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ) and blended in with the Greek speaking population.
In this sense Christianity can be thought of as the first Reformed Judaism. One could eat pork and shrimp and not undergo circumcision but could still be a member of the House of Israel, reading the Torah and the prophets and singing the psalms that one had always sung — no worshiping Isis, or some snake-god or winged thing, and eating cheese on your hamburger. It was all good. Thus, though Jews were thrown out of Judea and enslaved, and though no Jew could enter Aelia Capitolina, the rebuilt Roman version of Jerusalem, there were always Christians there. The lines between Jew and Greek were blurred by Christianity, so the living memory of the places and events associated with Jesus were never forgotten. There was always someone on the site who remembered. In 190 AD, or thereabouts, Sextus Julius Africanus (a Greek Christian) who had been born in Jerusalem was able to interview the surviving relatives of Jesus regarding the discrepancies in Jesus’ genealogy. By the year 190 AD, people were very interested in this Jesus, whether they were Jewish, Christian or somewhere in between.
I thought all this bother and brouhaha about the pilgrimage sites was a bunch of hogwash until I went on a pilgrimage led by one of the very few Arab Catholic guides in the Holy land. Arab Christians, especially those from Syria, the Holy Land, Lebanon and like places are most probably descendants of those first Christians who were among the Jews who accepted Jesus. I personally know a family that can trace its origin to exiles from the first siege of Jerusalem around 70 AD. The Holy Land at the time of Christ was a mix of Greek and Jew and this mestizo culture blended even more under the reconciling influence of Christ. This Arab Catholic guide was no small intellect. He was a teacher and a graduate of the University of Albuquerque. He told me a wonderful story. His father took him to a field and pointed out a tree and told him, “My great grandfather proposed marriage to my great grandmother under that very tree. I took my grandson and showed him that tree.” His point was that small, personal details are not soon forgotten among the inhabitants of the Holy Land.
I thought about it. I remember my old pastor telling me when I was a boy that he had seen the sun dance during the Fatima miracle in 1917. It is now a hundred years later and I have told the children in my parish who will bring the story into yet another century. Human memory is longer than we moderns want to believe. Another factor is the incredible smallness of the Holy Land. Most of the ministry of Jesus happened in an area called the Gospel Triangle, bounded at three points by Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin. It is a triangle about 5 miles, by 4 miles by 2 miles. The multiplication of the loaves took place down the beach from where the sermon on the miraculous catch of fish was made and just down the hill from where the Sermon on the Mount was preached. Jerusalem is only a leisurely 3-day hike from Nazareth. For an old man to show his grandson where Jesus worked unforgettable miracles would take no more than an afternoon. By the time Christians were coming to Judea from all over the Roman Empire, these places were well known to many.
In the church of the Holy Sepulcher there is an interesting graffito. As I mentioned above, the emperor Hadrian obliterated what was left of the city of Jerusalem in 130 AD. Jews were not allowed to enter the city. But Greeks were allowed and Greek Christians and those Jews who had been Hellenized by their exposure to Christianity never stopped venerating the shrines associated with the life of Christ. In order to put a stop to it, Hadrian paved over the remains of Jewish Jerusalem and built his city, Aelia Capitolina, directly over the old quarry where the tomb of Christ and Calvary were located, he place a central plaza and a temple to Aphrodite over the tomb and a statue of Zeus directly over Golgotha. On the huge stone blocks of the retaining wall of that plaza, there is a drawing of a Roman ship and a graffito in Latin “Domine, ivimus” or “Lord, we shall go” Possibly a reference to Psalm 122. It is thought to have written anytime from 150 AD to 300 AD. It was certainly written before the church of the Holy Sepulcher was built. Bishop Melito of Sardis around 150 AD said that the site of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher were in the middle of the street, in the middle of the city, right below Hadrian's temple in honor of Aphrodite.
The story goes that when the empress Helena, mother of Constantine, came looking for the holy places in around 325, bishop Macarius of Jerusalem told her right where to dig. Eusebius the historian, who lived at the time of the first excavation of the tomb, said that the tomb showed “…clear and visible proof”. People think these signs must have been supernatural. I don’t. Christians as we have seen, scrawl graffiti everywhere. The tomb of Peter in Rome is covered with them. The house of Peter in Capernaum is covered with them, so why not the tomb of Christ, buried under the rubble of the old Jewish city?
Everyone knew where the Lord had been buried. It was not on hill far away, it was at one of the main gates of the city. The Romans reasoned, “Why waste a perfectly good execution? Have it somewhere where everyone can benefit by it.” And of course, the Bible says that in the place was also the tomb, and so it was found. The other tomb, the second tomb which you mentioned, called the Garden Tomb, was discovered only in the last century. A German scholar named Otto Thenius decided that a hill north of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem was the real Calvary because if you squinted and tilted your head the right way it sort of looked like a skull. He found a tomb nearby and decided that it must be the tomb of Christ. Another archaeologist upon hearing of the discovery said, “Ach, du meine Gute! I hope that’s not the tomb of Christ! I myself took the bones out of there just a few days ago!” It turns out that the tomb was from the 1st temple period about seven hundred years before the time of Christ. There is only one site continuously venerated as the site of Calvary and the tomb and that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The site of Christ‘s birth was just as well known and commonly pointed out to pilgrims from the first days. It is only about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. It was a cave. Emperor Hadrian, (remember him?) had the place turned into a shrine for Adonis, the Greek god of beauty. St. Jerome, wrote around 410 AD that the cave had been consecrated to Adonis by the pagans and that sacred grove had been planted there to wipe out the memory of the birth of Jesus in that place. Justin Martyr (© 100 – 165 AD) also a native of the Holy Land wrote in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave just outside of town. “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.” (chapter LXXVIII). Hadrian, far from obliterating the holy sites, marked them for posterity!
Why a cave? Homeowners took advantage of caves. They were pre-dug basements; cool in summer, warm in winter. They kept livestock in them which kept the place a little warmer in winter — space heaters on the hoof. The ancestral home of my family in lower upper-Hessia had a built-in chicken coop on the first floor. Mmm... chickens... nice, warm chickens.
Where was I? Yes. That’s the joy of being a Catholic, or for that matter orthodox. We have long memories. We, like the Blessed Mother have treasured these things in our hearts for two thousand years. There is a stone manger, a feed trough dug into the wall of the cave. It is like other feed troughs dug into the stone of that hard land. I have no doubt that you can go there and touch the very manger into which Mary laid the Baby Jesus on the first Christmas two thousand years ago. We have never forgotten where it was.
The Rev. Know-it-all