Notes for a Lecture given by the Very Rev Antony Bridge
Ladies and Gentlemen. Anyone talking about Jerusalem has to face the fact that Jerusalem has a dual personality -in fact, it wouldn’t be too far wrong to say that there are two Jerusalems - or so it seems. There is the ancient city exhaustively explored by archaeologists, layer by sedimentary layer, stone by ancient stone, and fragment of pottery by fragment of pottery - the city of prehistoric traces, Jebusite remains, forgotten walks, Solomon’s foundations, Hellenistic pavements, Herod’s ambitions, Roman occupation, Crusades, churches, mosques, Ottomon fortifications, and even British colonial villas - the historic city largely covered today by the capital of Israel with its large University, its five-star hotels and its spreading suburbs. The history of that ancient stone-built city, lying across what has been called the cross roads of the Middle East between such superpowers in their day as the Hittites, the Babylonians and the Persians in the North, and the Egyptians, Alexander’s Greeks, and the Romans in the south, has been one of wars, invasions, sieges, surrenders, deportations of its people into the land of their enemies in desperate foreshadowings of the death camps of our own time, and on more than one occasion the total destruction of the city. If that has been its public political history, the civic history of Jerusalem down the ages has been studded with hatred, religous bigotry, bloodshed and massacres - not least in Christian days, when the Crusaders excelled themselves in these respects - and alas, even today when Moslems throw bombs into Jewish markets and Jews retaliate by shooting Palestinian terrorists.
But at the same time there is the other Jerusalem - the transcendent city enshrining the hopes and belief of half mankind - Jews, Christians, Moslems - the holiest city in the world For Jews it is David’s city, Zion city of our God. For Christians it is Jerusalem the Golden, the place where Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. For Moslems it is the place where Muhammed during his celebrated Night Journey ascended into heaven and was granted the ineffable vision of God. While for all these people and many others it is the place on which some of mankind’s most astonishing visions of the nature of God and of Man himself, of the purpose of existence, and the triumph of hope over despair and meaning over futility have been centred; and what I want to do this morning, however briefly for lack of time, is to ask how Jerusalem Number Two - the Jerusalem of religious vision and faith - grew up with and in a sense out of Jerusalem Number One, and how much shall we see of the Jerusalem of religious vision and faith.
The answer is ‘Not as much as we should like’; but we shall see some of it. For as the people who have lived there in the past, from the Jebusites who were there five thousand years ago down through the ages to the Palestinian Arabs under their Ottoman masters in the nineteenth century, have left traces of their ways of life for the archaeologists to uncover, so too the various inhabitants of the places have left traces of their religious ideas and beliefs, hopes and prayers, visions and dreams in layer upon dusty developing layer for the archaeologists of the mind to study and try to undrstand; and this what I want to look at.
The history of the place can be divided into three sections.
Number One - its beginnings in about 3,000 BC up to the conquest of the city by the Jews under King David - Number Two, its period of greatness under Solomon, the building of the first Temple, the Exile in Babylon, the time of Christ, and the destruction of the city by the Romans under Hadrian in AD 135 -and Number Three, all that followed including conquest by Islam, two centuries of war with the Crusaders and their short-lived kingdoms. All of these periods have helped to shape and form the city we’ll see tomorrow, and all I can do is look for a moment at the highlights and major events in each period which have done so. There is vastly more to the history of Jerusalem than that, and whatever I say, will be wildly inadequate, but even so I hope you may get a slightly better idea of how and why Jerusalem has become what is now is - the holiest city in the world to millions and millions of people - and of who played what role in its making, if we scan those highlights of the city’s past than if we don’t.
Rather as the first few years of a child’s life are extremely important in determining what he or she will be like when he or she grows up, so the early years of Jerusalem were immensely important to the formation of its future nature. We have two windows on those early years - archaeology and scraps of information left by yesterday’s historians, writers, poets, and story-tellers Neither window reveals as much as we should like, nor is what we see always very clear; but nevertheless by comparing information from those two sources we can get a surprisingly vivid picture of the time.
Before the city was éven founded, the site, upon which Jerusalem was eventually to be built, was enough to ensure that it would come to be regarded as a holy city. For it was built on a hill from which there flowed a perpetual spring of sweet water; and in an arid and rocky land this was enough to make it potentially a sacred place; springs were god-given things, life-giving things. In today’s Jerusalem the same spring is known as the Fountain of the Virgin, while in Jesus’s day it fed the Pool of Siloam, in which he told the man born blind to wash after he had cured his blindness, and he would be clean. Moreover, if springs were sacred throughout the ancient world of the Near East at this time, hills were often believed to be the dwelling places of the gods -places where men could make a rendez-vous with the gods and both talk to them and listen to them. Moses received the Law from God on the summit of Mount Sinai, while Elijah flying for his life from the vengeance of Queen Jezebel, sought refuge on the same mountain and poured out his troubles to God there, speaking as a man might speak with his friend; and of course the Semites were not the only people who worshipped hill-dwelling gods - the Greek gods were resident on Mount Olympus, as everyone knows. Thus a hill marked with a perpetual spring was almost inevitably bound to be seen as a holy place at some time or another, and the fact that Jerusalem was so regarded from a very early date is proved by the existence of an ancient Rock of Sacrifice, with runnels cut for the blood to run off, crowning the hill of Jerusalem, covered today by the much later Dome of the Rock, while archaeologists have uncovered other ancient altars of sacrifice there dating from the time of the city’s foundation, that is to say, about 3,000 BC. But I’m going to leave the subject of sacrifice and come back to it later after I’ve had a look at the literary evidence of Jerusalem’s early existence.
There are references to the city in Assyrian and Babylonian records of the second millenium BC and some inscribed clay tablets from Tel-el-Amarna in Egypt, but I won’t bother you with them. Far more interesting are references to Jerusalem -named Ur-usalem - May the god of Salem provide - in some of the ancient stories preserved in the first few chapters of the Bible. Some regard these stories, emerging as they do from the dim mist of half-remembered time for their brief moments of immortality before sinking back again into the darkness and obscurity of pre-history, as such a strange collection of myths - Creation, the Fall, the Flood - legends like that of the destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah - and ancient patriarcal stories like that of Abraham and his covenant with God -that our world doesn’t know what to make of them. In fact, many of them are half legendary rather than strictly historical, though most are based on historical events. But in some ways their historical accuracy - or lack of it -matters less than their legendary nature, for as the great Greek myths of gods and men and their epic stories immortalised by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey are pictures of the Greek world -the world carried around in the heads of the men of Troy, of Mycenae, and of Athens - so those early stories in the book of Genesis are pictures of the world in the heads of the founders of our world - four or five thousand years ago - the founders of the Jewish world, the world of Christendom and that of Islam -of their self-understanding and their understanding of the nature of their gods - and as such these stories are beyond price.
Look at one of them - the story of Abraham. In about 2000 BC Abraham, a citizen of Ur of the Chaldees in what is now Iraq, had an experience -not unlike that of St Paul on the Damascus road - a visionary life-changing experience - a moment of disclosure - which convinced him that he and hs descendants had been chosen by God for a special purpose.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land where I shall show you, and I will make of you a great nation.”
And Abraham went. It is such a simple story - almost childishly simple - that it is hard to realise that it is the story of a turning point in the history of mankind - of human thought - the birth of a whole complex of enormously influential ideas - the idea of a chosen people, of a redemptive community, of a promised land, of the faithfulness of God, and of man’s response of obedience, trust, and faith - and it lies at the base of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
But to continue the story - when he left Ur, Abraham had no children, and as the years went by and his wife Sarah reached the age when - as the Bible delicately puts it - ‘it had ceased to be after the manner of women,’ inevitably the problem arose as to how his descendants could become a great nation since he had none. God, however, promises that Sarah will conceive and bear a son. Abraham believes him, while Sarah laughs her head off at the husband’s gullibility. Later, however, Isaac - a miracle child - is born, Sarah is proved wrong, and the strength of Abraham’s faith in God is vindicated. So far, there is no reason to doubt that the story is substantially historical. Sarah may well have conceived worryingly late in life; but like all these stories it is not so much concerned with historical accuracy as with religious teaching - in this case, with God’s miraculous trustworthiness and with Abraham’s unquestioning trust in God, even when to trust him seemed ridiculous, as Sarah demonstrated by laughing. But the full moral of the story is still to come; for when the boy Isaac was in his teens, Abraham was told to offer him to God as a burnt offering - to sacrice him -and once again Abraham doesn’t question God’s demand. He takes Isaac his son to a sacred mountain, prepares a pile of wood on which to burn the boy, when the child. seeing the preparation for a sacrifice, asks his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God will provide himself the lamb, my son” and you all know the rest. Abraham’s hand is stayed by God at the last moment, when a ram caught by the horns in a thicket is offered in Isaac’s place. But what you probably don’t all know is that, whether it is historically true or not, for centuries people have believed that the Rock on which Isaac was so nearly sacrificed was none other than the ancient sacrifical rock, which is now covered by the Dome of the Rock on the hill of Jerusalem. In a way, it is a hideou story; but it is hideous only if it is taken to be a mere anecdote - the story of God telling Abraham to murder his only son - whereas in fact the whole point of the story is that God prevents Abraham sacrificing his divinely promised son - saves the life of Isaac - even though he may have suggested his sacrifice to test Abraham’s obedience once again. I have told the story at some length, because the fact that later it was said to have happened in Jerusalem contributed so strongly to the city’s growing reputation for sanctity - that is to say, a place where God had often been at work.
But to move on. Before the arrival of the Jews in Jerusalem, other major events were going to contribute to the city’s eventual reputation as the holiest city in the world, and I don’t want to bother you with all of them, even if I had the time. But I must mention two, however briefly - the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. You all know both stories. Up to the time of their bondage in Egypt, like everyone else, the Jews probably believed in a number of gods, of whom their own God was but one; but whatever may have happened at the time of the Exodus - Moses confrontation with the Pharaoh, the flight from Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea - seems to have made some of them wonder how a bunch of Hebrew slaves had managed to prevail over the power, not only of Pharaoh’s army, but of the Egyptian gods as well, and to conclude that there could be only one answer - the Egyptian gods were no gods, whereas their God the Hebrews’ God - was the one true God. After their miraculous escape from Egypt, their status as the chosen people was greatly reinforced by the giving of the Law to Moses by God on the summit of Mount Sinai, and confirmed, so to speak, by the long years in the desert before they eventually reached the land promised to Abraham a thousand years earlier. If any story influenced the final shape of Jerusalem’s sanctity more than any other - except the story of Christ’s life, death, ministry and resurrection - it was the story of the Exodus, Mount Sinae, and the desert years which followed and ended in the conquest of the promised land and its capity city by King David in 1000 BC.
After so many years of hardship and endurance, their period of greatness had arrived, and the Jews began to celebrate. God had honoured his promises to Abraham, they knew themselves to be his people, and all was right with the world. There was only one thing missing - Jerusalem had no Temple in which God could dwell in the midst of his people. David wanted to build one, but it was not until his son Solomon succeed him in 975 BC that the first Temple was built. You will walk tomorrow on the place where it once stood, though it has long gone. It was built over the ancient rock of sacrifice, where even then tradition had it that Isaac’s life had been spared by God, and its own altar stood actually over the old rock of sacrifice. Behind it stood the Holy of Holies, in which God was believed to dwell, and at the time its completion put the seal on the holiness of Jerusalem. But then it all began to go desperately wrong.
Even though the years which followed were important years for Jerusalem - years when the faith of those, who called it holy, was tested again and again almost to breaking point, it would be tedious to describe them in detail. The briefest of brief summaries must do.
In 598 BC the land was invaded by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King, Jerusalem was captured, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, and the majority of the people were lugged off into captivity in Babylon. It was at this time, during the captivity in Babylon that Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son, had his celebrated Feast, though I must say that Sir William Walton’s Oratorio - Belshazzar’s Feast - magnificent as it is - makes a good deal more of it than does the Bible, where it is described in only eight verses.
Meanwhile, it was a terible time for the Jews. By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion. As for our harps, we hanged them up upon the willows that are therein. For they that led us away captive required of us then a song and melody in our heaviness. Sing us one of the songs of Sion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land is asked. Fifty years later, their children and their grandchildren returned to Jerusalem, and tried to start life again in the ruins, building another Temple, but they were not left in peace for long. Alexander the Great conquered the whole area, and after his death in 323 BC, Judea and Jerusalem, fell into the hands of his successors, one of whom - Antiochus Epiphanes - horrified the Jews by placeing a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Temple built by those who had returned from Babylon years ago, thus desecrating it. They were followed by the Romans, whose rule was not much better from the Jewish point of view than that of their Greek predecessors, except during the reign of Herod the Great, whom the Romans tolerated, and who built the Third Temple in the same place as that once occupied by the first two - namely the Temple Mount. Herod’s Temple was destroyed later by the Romans, but in the meanwhile, of course, it was the Temple which Jesus knew in his life time, and although later it was very thoroughly destroyed - razed to the ground -a part of its great foundations, known today as the Wailing Wall, still exist - you will seem them tomorrow - and form a focus for the prayers of many of the Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem.
However, long before this time the Jews had become convinced that, if the promised land was ever to be restored to them, God would have to do it; they themselves would never have the power. A Messiah was needed; which brings me to the time of Christ. At least, it does for Christians; for as everyone knows, Christians believe that the Messiah has indeed come and done his work, while Jews do not; and I must just say that - although Christians have often reviled the Jews for their failure to recognise Jesus as the Christ, it is not surprising that they have never done so, for the Messiah they were expecting was a divine figure coming on clouds of glory in power and great might to restore the kingdom to Israel, while Jesus of Nazareth came as a helpless baby born to a poor family, promising, when he grew up, the open the Kingdom of God to all people, whether they were Jews or not. Moreover, it seems that even during his life, no one was sure of who or what he was; it was only after his death and resurrection that anyone began to realise his true significance.
Now, the subject of this talk is the holiness of Jerusalem not its history nor TRUTH - what ideas and events have contributed to its reputation as the holiest city in the world - and obviously for Christians everything touched by Jesus during his ministry in the city and its environment - the wilderness of Judea around the city, where Jesus so often walked with his disciples, the Garden of Getsemane, the Mount of Olives, the place where Herod’s Temple once stood in which Jesus overthrew the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves for sacrifice, the Antonia fortress where he was tried by Pilate and mocked by the Roman soldiers, and much more - make it uniquely sacred; but I think it’s true to say that, as the Mount where both Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples once stood is probably the most sacred place in Jerusalem to the Jews, so the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking both the hill on which Jesus was sacrificed and the tomb from which he was raised from the dead on Easter morning is specially sacred to Christians. For what is said to have happened there two thousand years ago changed the whole perspective for billions of people on the nature of man, of God, and of life and death. Moreover, it seems that at least this site does genuinely mark the place it clams to mark. In a recent book, The Tomb of Christ, Martin Biddle, a Professor ofArchaeology in Oxford University, who has worked in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for years, has said this:
Jesus was executed outside Jerusalem in year 30 or perhaps 33. Ten years later the places of his crucifixion and burial were incorporated within the walls by the expansion of the city. Decades later these places were buried beneath immense dumps of rubble brought in by the Romans to level the area in AD 135. Even so, Golgotha, the place of crucifixion, was still pointed out inside the city three centuries later. it served as a landmark for excavations which discovered several rock-cut tombs under the rubble. For reasons never stated, one of these tombs was immediately hailed as the Tomb of Christ. The Emperor Constantine ordered that Golgotha and the Tomb should be preserved and embellished, and that a great Church should be built beside them. This basilica was dedicated on 17 september 335.
End of quotes. Of course Martin Biddle’s account doesn’t prove anything ; but the fact that three centuries after these events a spot within the walls of the city was unhesitatingly pointed out to be the place to excavate,when everyone knew that the Goispels all said that Jesus had been crucified and buried outside the walls, goes a long way to show that after the expansion of the city, the whereabouts of his tomb had indeed been remembered by the earliest Christians and handed down to their successors over the years - as one would expect of them.
In the days before the printing press - let alone computerised recording machines - memory and oral tradition were the normal means of passing information from one generation to the next. That we don’t know why the excavators apparently had no doubt that one of the tombs they uncovered was Christ’s is tantalising; but you can’t have everything, and I think that you can be reasonably sure tomorrow that youwill be standing very near indeed to the place where for two thousand years Christians have believed that Christ was crucified and raised from the dead.
I’ve almost finished, but before letting you off I must say something about Islam; for Jerusalem is sacred to Moslems as well as to Jews and Christians. Muhammed was born in AD 570 at Mecca in Arabia, where everyone practiced a primitive kind of animistic polytheism. This rudimentary faith of his native land failed to convince, let alone attact, Muhammed. By contrast, the faith of small groups of Jews and also that of Christians living in Mecca greatly impressed him, and when he came to preach his new religion of Islam - the word Submission - submission to the will of God - he also acclaimed the Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses,v as the founders of Islam, and the great Jewish prophets as prophets of Islam, of whom Jesus was the greatest with the exception of Muhammed himself.
This heritage, shared with both Jews and Christians would have been enough to make Jerusalem sacred to his followers, but there was more. Moslems do not believe that Muhammed was essentially any different from other men - he was a human being -they would treat any claim that he was divine as blasphemy -and there are only two miracle stories in which he features. He used to spend long hours in prayer in a cave near Mecca, and during one of these prayer sessions, God revealed the Koran to him word by word - virtually dictated it to him. Since Muhammad is said to have been illiterate and by anyone’s standards the Koran is a literary masterpiece, it is not surprising that the birth of the Koran has always been regarded as a miracle by all Moslems. The only other miracle story attributed to Muhammed, to which I have already briefly alluded, is the story of the so-called Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and back again in one night. Plucked from his bed and trasported to Jerusalem on a miraculous flying horse, he landed on the sacred Rock on the Temple Mount, where he was granted an ineffable vision of God before returning to his bed in Mecca by the morning. It is said that in the process, Muhammed left a miraculous footprint in the Rock as he ascended to heaven, and inevitably this whole story greatly added to the sacredness of Jerusalem in the eyes of all Moslems, who conquered the city in AD 638. A little later in 691 the then Caliph - or successor of Muhammed - a man named Abd el Malik, who was a rival of the Governor of Mecca ordered the present Dome of the Rock to be built over the Rock as a rival to the Kaaba in Mecca housing the sacred Black Stone there; and both buildings hav been sacred to Moslems ever since.
I’ve finished - one more thing and I’ll stop. Don’t despise stories - tales, legends, myths - it doesn’t matter what you call them. Many of the most profound insights into the mystery of being alive - of the origin of the ideas of good and evil, of why we are the only animals which are part of the created Universe and yet are also able to stand aside and ask questions about its nature and purpose, whether there is a God or not, and what sort of creatures we are ourselves -have been enshrined in stories. Many -indeed, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam most - are based upon history. But the facts of history are not their only concern. They are more concerned with the significance of those facts - their meaning -and that, surely, is something which must concern us all.