… Continued from “Digging the Bible, I” …
This history of destruction and disregard was only reversed in the fourth century, well after all memory of the actual localizations o the Holy Places had been forgotten. What accounts for the resuscitation of interest in the Holy Land was the Christianization of the empire under Constantine (ca. 280‚Äì337). The surge of official interest in localizing the Holy Sites and relics of Palestine, some historians have conjectured, may have been orchestrated for the purposes of increasing imperial prestige. Throughout the 320s and 330s Constantine and his mother, S. Helena, carried out an aggressive campaign to recover and restore places of biblical and/or Christian significance throughout Palestine, and particularly those in the vicinity of Aelia Capitolina (which Constantine rebaptized Jerusalem in 325). In these early days, this meant essentially the excavation of buildings and objects in neighborhoods loosely thought to have been of some biblical significance, the ‚Äúidentification‚Äù of the resulting discoveries as authentic Holy Places and relics, and the construction of new, commemorative churches over them.1 While on pilgrimage in 328‚Äì329, for example, Helena presided over the excavation of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher, the discovery of the True Cross, and the erection of basilicas in Bethlehem and on Mount Sion.2 Eusebius of Caesaria (ca. 260‚Äìca. 340), Constantine‚Äôs contemporary and the first Church historian, accordingly memorialized Constantine as the inventor of the Holy Land in his Vita Constantini.3
Within Constantine‚Äôs lifetime, the burgeoning number of Palestinian Holy Sites began to attract the attention of the wider Christian community, and pilgrims and ecclesiatical authors alike began what was to be a long process of describing and memorializing them in written texts. The principal objectives of these textual commemorations were to attest the authenticity of the Holy Sites from ‚Äòeyewitness‚Äô experience, and to publicize them to the wider Christian world in the interest of stimulating devotion to them and, ideally, pilgrimage. In so doing, these texts had the ancillary effect of weaving these sites together into a composite portrait of ‚Äúthe Holy Land.‚Äù This process of historical and topographical bricolage arguably begins with Eusebius’ Vita Constantini (cited above). In order to praise the result of Constantine and Helena‚Äôs program of excavation and church-building, Eusebius made a conscious attempt to reduce and conform the complex reality of fourth-century Palestine to a Christian Holy Land.4 According to Jonathan Z. Smith, ‚Äúwhat Constantine accomplished with power and wealth was advanced by rhetors like Eusebius, who built a ‚ÄòHoly Land‚Äô with words.‚Äù5
Overcoming Christians’ reluctance to venerate Palestine was not, however, solely a matter of ‘rediscovering’ the holy places, unearthing relics, and erecting grand basilicas. Christian theologians maintained their objections, in spite of the Constantinian restoration of the Holy Places. Their aversion was founded on scriptural, pragmatic, and theological grounds, a combination marshaled perhaps most trenchantly in the works of Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335‚Äìpost 394). Gregory, who was born after the Constantinian restoration, delivered nothing short of a blistering attack on monastic pilgrimage as unbiblical, practically dangerous, and intellectually misguided in his letter On Pilgrimages (379).
As Gregory notes at the outset of his letter, ‚Äúit is right that we should apply … a strict and flawless measure … ‚ÄîI mean, of course, the Gospel rule of life.‚Äù And so he first puts pilgrimage to the test of Holy Writ:
There are some amongst those who have entered upon the monastic and hermit life, who have made it a part of their devotion to behold those spots at Jerusalem where the memorials of our Lord‚Äôs life in the flesh are on view; it would be well, then, to look to this rule, and if the finger of its precepts points to the observance of such things, to perform the work, as the actual injunction of our Lord. But if they lie quite outside the commandment of the Master, I do not see what there is to command any one who has become a law of duty to himself to be zealous in performing any of them.
Pilgrimage, of course, fails this test: ‚ÄúWhen the Lord invites the blest to their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, he does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem amongst their good deeds; when he announces the Beatitudes, he does not name amongst them that sort of devotion.‚Äù
Things are no better when Gregory moves on to the purely practical arguments against pilgrimage. According to Gregory, the practical demands of Near Eastern travel demand the mixing of the sexes, which invites sexual sin and detracts from the Christian‚Äôs devotion. Not that there was good reason to avoid such sin on the journey‚Äîshould one manage to arrive in Palestine with virtue intact, writes Gregory, Jerusalem itself will soon steal it. For Gregory and his followers, Jerusalem had become a dangerous den of sin and iniquity, a cesspool that threatened the pilgrim‚Äôs body and soul. This was a direct consequence of Christ‚Äôs Crucifixion, which was said to have “cursed” the city‚Äîin the words of Jerome, “because it has drunk the blood of the Lord.”6 Thus,
there is no form of uncleanness that is not perpetrated amongst them [ie. the inhabitants of Jerusalem]; rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarrelling, murder, are rife; and the last kind of evil is so excessively prevalent, that nowhere in the world are people so ready to kill each other as there; where kinsmen attack each other like wild beasts, and spill each other‚Äôs blood, merely for the sake of lifeless plunder.
Ultimately, however, it was the theological argument against pilgrimage that Gregory found most compelling. Like his fellow patristic theologians, exceptionally concerned with ‘judaizing,’ Gregory considered it a damnable fallacy to think that the Holy Sites were somehow still imbued by a residual holiness dating to Christ’s physical presence there:
What advantage, moreover, is reaped by him who reaches those celebrated spots themselves? He cannot imagine that our Lord is living, in the body, there at the present day, but has gone away from us foreigners; or that the Holy Spirit is in abundance at Jerusalem, but unable to travel as far as us. Whereas, if it is really possible to infer God‚Äôs presence from visible symbols, one might more justly consider that He dwelt in the Cappadocian nation than in any of the spots outside it. For how many Altars there are there, on which the name of our Lord is glorified!
Gregory could speak with authority on these matters, for he had traveled to Palestine on ecclesiastical business; and even after having seen Jerusalem, still he could affirm that
We confessed that the Christ Who was manifested is very God as much before as after our sojourn at Jerusalem; our faith in Him was not increased afterwards any more than it was diminished. Before we saw Bethlehem we knew His being made man by means of the Virgin; before we saw His Grave we believed in His Resurrection from the dead; apart from seeing the Mount of Olives, we confessed that His Ascension into heaven was real.
In fact, he and his traveling companions ‚Äúderived only thus much of profit from our travelling thither, namely that we came to know by being able to compare them, that our own places are far holier than those abroad.‚Äù His conclusion? “O ye who fear the Lord, praise Him in the places where ye now are. Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever thou mayest be, God will come to thee, if the chambers of thy soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in thee and walk in thee.”
What finally turned the tide against the objections of theologians like Gregory was not the imperial archaeology of Constantine, but rather scholarship (and here we return to the theme with which I opened this post). From the very earliest days of pilgrimage‚Äîeven prior to Constantine’s accession‚Äîone argument alone had redeemed Holy Land pilgrimage from critics like Gregory. That was the need to study the Holy Land, so as better to understand Scripture. Here the model is certainly Gregory’s great contemporary S. Jerome (d. 419), the Holy Land’s model student.
Along with Origen and Eusebius, Jerome was one of the first Christian intellectuals to advocate for the centrality of eyewitness topographical knowledge to intelligent exegesis. Against the criticism of influential contemporaries like Gregory, Jerome argued that one could not understand the historical narrative encapsulated within the Bible without first familiarizing oneself with the historical sites of Old- and New-Testament Judea.7 In the Preface to his Latin translation of the Septuagint‚Äôs version of the Book of Chronicles (Paralipomenon), written in 387, Jerome argued that
In the same way that one understands better the Greek historians when one has seen Athens with his own eyes, and the third book of the Aenead when one has journeyed from Troade to Sicily and from Sicily to the mouth of the Tiber, so one understands better the Holy Scriptures when one has seen Judea with one‚Äôs own eyes and contemplated the ruins of its ancient cities.8
Jerome repeated the comparison five years later, in a letter sent from Bethlehem to the Roman aristocrat Marcella in the hope of persuading her to join him in the Holy Land. Writing in the name of his charges Paula and Eustochium, he lauded ‚Äúthe bishops, the martyrs, the divines, who have come to Jerusalem from a feeling that their devotion and knowledge would be incomplete and their virtue without the finishing touch, unless they adored Christ in the very spot where the gospel first flashed from the gibbet. If a famous orator [ie. Cicero of C?¶cilius] blames a man for having learned Greek at Lilyb?¶um instead of at Athens, and Latin in Sicily instead of at Rome (on the ground, obviously, that each province has its own characteristics), can we suppose a Christian‚Äôs education complete who has not visited the Christian Athens?‚Äù9 Similarly, in a letter to Paulinus of Nola, Jerome compared the Holy Land pilgrim to the Apostle Paul, whose willingness to “go up to Jerusalem” (Galatians 1:18) proved that he was the kind of admirable man, like Pythagoras or Plato, who had “traversed provinces, crossed seas, and visited strange peoples, simply to see face to face persons whom they only knew from books” and thereby to “find something to learn” and “become constantly wiser and better.”10
Thus it was every serious Christian‚Äôs duty to study the topography of Palestine, God‚Äôs classroom, without knowledge of which the living drama of the Bible would remain an abstract document. In an effort to encourage such studies, Jerome translated Eusebius‚Äô Greek Onomasticon (ca. 330), a gazetteer of biblical place names, into Latin as the De situ et nominibus locorum Hebraeorum.11
As E.D. Hunt has shown, this belief in the scholarly value of travel was one that Jerome and his peers had inherited from the classical culture in which they were raised.12 Hunt speculates that this early Christian practice of scholarly pilgrimage is a continuation of an ancient pagan tradition of “erudite, investigative tourism favoured by leading men of learning and leisure, and reaching its heyday in the freedom of mobility afforded by the pax Romana.”13 He cites the examples of Demetrius from Tarsus (Cilicia) in Plutarch’s dialogue On the Decline of Oracles, who is said to have traveled on imperial orders as far as Britain “for the purposes of investigation and sightseeing,” as well as the group of Roman travelers who congregate at Delphi in another of Plutarch’s dialogues, The Oracles at Delphi.14 Perhaps the best example, however, is Pausanias’ Description of Greece.15 Hunt notes that Pausanias’ work is much less a guide to modern Greece than it is a “panorama … dominated by the vestiges of Greek antiquity,” “a committed search for what he perceived to be the roots of Greek culture and identity.” He also notes that John Elsner “has made illuminating comparisons between Pausanias’ quest for … religious self-identity [in Greece] and the Christian traveller’s immersion into the biblical landscape of the Holy Land.”16
- For an overview of Christian imperial construction in Jerusalem, see G?ºnter Stemberger, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land: Palestine in the Fourth Century, trans. Ruth Tuschling (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), 48‚Äì120. [↩]
- Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and her Finding of the True Cross (Leiden: Brill, 1992). S. Helena‚Äôs time in Jerusalem is described in Eusebius’ Vita Constantini, III.42‚Äì47, and Rufinus of Aquilea’s Historia Ecclesiastica, X.7‚Äì8. [↩]
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, ed. & trans. Averil Cameron & Stuart G. Hall, Clarendon Ancient History Series (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999). [↩]
- Robert L. Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 81. [↩]
- Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago, 1987), 79. [↩]
- Maravall, “Saint J?©r?¥me et le p?®lerinage,” 347. [↩]
- Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering the Sacred, 69; F.M. Abel, “Saint J?©r?¥me et J?©rusalem,” in Vincenzo Vannutelli, ed., Miscellanea Geronimiana (Rome: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1920), 138‚Äì139. [↩]
- Jerome, Praefatio in Librum Paralipomenon de graeco emmendato (395), in Biblia Sacra iuxta Latinam Vulgatam Versionem ad codicum fidem … , vol. 7: Liber Verborum dierum (Rome, 1948), 7‚Äì10. ‚Äúquomodo grecorum historias magis intellegunt qui athenas uiderint, et tertium uergilii librum qui troade per leucaten et acroceraunia ad siciliam et inde ad ostia tiberis nauigarint, ita sanctam scripturam lucidius intuebitur qui iudaeam oculis contemplatus est et antiquarum urbium memorias locorum que uel eadem uocabula uel mutata cognouerit.‚Äù [↩]
- Jerome, Ep. 46, ¬?9. [↩]
- Jerome, Ep. 53, ¬?1‚Äì2: ‚ÄúWe read in old tales that men traversed provinces, crossed seas, and visited strange peoples, simply to see face to face persons whom they only knew from books. Thus Pythagoras visited the prophets of Memphis; and Plato, besides visiting Egypt and Archytas of Tarentum, most carefully explored that part of the coast of Italy which was formerly called Great Greece. … Again we read that certain noblemen journeyed from the most remote parts of Spain and Gaul to visit Titus Livius, and listen to his eloquence which flowed like a fountain of milk. … Apollonius too was a traveller‚Äîthe one mean who is called the sorcerer by ordinary people and the philosopher by such as follow Pythagoras. He entered Persia, traversed the Caucasus and made his way through the Albanians, the Scythians, the Massaget?¶, and the richest districts of India. At last, after crossing that wide river the Pison, he came to the Brahmans. … After this he travelled among the Elamites, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, the Assyrians, the Parthians, the Syrians, the Phoenicians, the Arabians, and the Philistines. Then returning to Alexandria he made his way to Ethiopia to see the gymnosophists and the famous table of the sun spread in the sands of the desert. Everywhere he found something to learn, and as he was always going to new places, he became constantly wiser and better. … But why should I confine my allusions to the men of this world, when the Apostle Paul, the chosen vessel the doctor of the Gentiles‚Äîwho could boldly say: ‚ÄòDo ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me?‚Äô knowing that he really had within him that greatest of guests‚Äîwhen even he after visiting Damascus and Arabia ‚Äòwent up to Jerusalem to see Peter and abode with him fifteen days.‚Äô‚Äù [↩]
- Onomasticon: The Place Names of Divine Scripture, including the Latin Edition of Jerome, ed. & trans. R. Steven Notley & Ze‚Äôev Safrai (Leiden: Brill, 2005). See also John Wilkinson, ‚ÄúL‚Äôapport de Saint J?©r?¥me ?† la topographie de la Terre Sainte,‚Äù Revue Biblique 81 (1974): 245‚Äì257. [↩]
- E.D. Hunt, “Travel, Tourism and Piety in the Roman Empire: a Context for the Beginnings of Christian Pilgrimage,” Echos du Monde Classique/Classical Views 28 (1984): 391‚Äì417; idem, “Were there Christian Pilgrims before Constantine?,” in Pilgrimage Explored, ed. J. Stopford (Suffolk: York Medieval Press, 1999), 25‚Äì40. [↩]
- Hunt, “Were there Christian Pilgrims,” 36. [↩]
- Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum, 419‚Äì420; idem, De Pythiae Oraculis, 395a, 397e, 400d‚Äìe; both in his Moralia, trans. F.C. Babbitt, 15 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, YYYY), 5:260, 276, 292, 402‚Äì404. [↩]
- Hunt, “Were there Christian Pilgrims,” 37. On Pausanias, see C. Habicht, Pausanias’ Guide to ancient Greece (Berkeley, CA, 1985), 1‚Äì27. [↩]
- John Elsner, “Pausanias: A Greek Pilgrim in the Roman World,” Past & Present 135 (May 1992): 3‚Äì29. [↩]