HOLY HOLY HOLY LANDS
True sites, false sites, in Israel and the whys and wherefores.
Hold your breath. Prepare yourself for one of the greatest podcast episodes ever presented on ForverLDS.
Okay, that was a bit over the top. I hope it’s a good episode, but I can’t promise it’ll take your breath away. This is Chris Heimerdinger. Welcome to ForeverLDS, my personal, private, solely-owned and operated podcast for members of the Restored Church. Eh! That was overdramatic too. Stop it! Sorry Jared, and Michael, and others. Truth is, ForeverLDS wouldn’t exist without a little help from my friends, particularly Jared Buttars. And I’m sure he’s not too happy with me right now for allowing multiple weeks to go by without releasing a new episode. Trying to finish a novel. Life is complicated! I know everybody wants to hear an estimated release date. I don’t have one. Soon! Rearranging mostly at this point. Just part of the process.
Then there’s ForeverLDS. This podcast is scrumpdilicious fun. Doesn’t pay much, but I did just design a Patreon page for it yesterday. https://www.patreon.com/foreverlds. Link in the show notes. Like it’s really hard to remember. Just go to Patreon and type ForeverLDS.
I think I might have a plan to consistently release an episode every two weeks, as promised, without writing really complicated episodes with so much mind-numbing research, like the one you’re just about to hear. More about that idea at the end of this.
For now—da-da-da-DA!—Here we go.
Recently I posted on question on my Facebook Group page—the link for which I also posted on ForeverLDS.com in the shownotes. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/cheimerdinger/?ref=bookmarks)
This was the question: “If you could have your dream trip to the Holy Land, what would you most like to see?” Most folks provided the expected answers: Gethsemane, The Garden Tomb, Calvary, The Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and a few other places often advertised as destinations. Some mentioned the “upper room,” where the Savior conducted His Last Supper, or the place where Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers, or where Satan tempted Him to throw Himself from the pinnacle, forcing God’s angels to save him. Those last two are easy, and impossible, because they took place within the compound of the Holy Temple, which is no longer standing. But the grounds are there. If you cross ‘em enough times, you’re there. You’ve stood where the Savior stood. Well, most of Jerusalem, honestly, is ten feet deeper—covered in 10-20 feet of soil compared to 2000 years ago, but, anyway, you’re very close.
Point is, I got rather preachy with some of my responses on Facebook, spilling all the marbles of knowledge out of my head for everyone to see. Yet many answers were incomplete. And some were downright wrong! Don’t tell anyone I admitted that.
After a little more research, I realized that if I was misinformed, it was possible that many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were unfamiliar with the background or “authenticity quotient”—if we can pretend for a minute that such a thing exists—of some of these . . . let’s just call them “tourist destinations.”
Many sites in the Holy Land have become familiar and popular destinations for pilgrims of virtually every Christian denomination, as well as the tour guides they might hire. Some sites I’ll, well, sort of expose as . . . Let’s see, I’ll break it down this way. 1. The most improbable. 2. Probably improbable. 3. And a couple that might actually be genuine, as far as actual locations where some sacred event occurred.
Let me start off…I worry a little bit about coming off as too critical of any particular location. Some of these places….a lot of people have given that place a lot of emotional investment. I don’t want to sound critical of any location that promotes faith, or of any of the ancient Christian denominations that control various locations. So much devotion. So much faith that many—sometimes millions—have attributed to certain sites. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve never tried to pretend on this site that I’m an unbiased commentator. I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most Christians—unless they’ve been deluged by anti-Mormon literature would classify our faith as Protestant. Not particularly accurate, but we do hail from some of the same austere, standard—some might even say “spartan”—Protestant traditions that aren’t much for ornamentation or showiness.
Well, some of the more ancient Christian denominations that many of us are completely unfamiliar with—they don’t hail from that tradition. They are very much into ornamentation and ostentation and formality of practices and procedures. Many are so culturally different from the Restored Church. So different.
No secret. As a Church we believe that the Great Apostasy took hold of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Meridian of Time very early on—very shortly after it was launched. The brevity of decades that it took to become corrupt and for the authority of the Priesthood to be withdrawn from the earth was breathtaking. Less than a hundred years. It was pretty much gone before the end of the 1st century. A few pinpricks of light here and there, but it becomes clear that those who still held authority were following some kind of mandate not to pass it on.
Truth and authority disappeared so quickly it might make you wonder, what was the point? What did it accomplish? The answer? The scriptures themselves—the New Testament. So many details of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ are miraculously preserved. Not perfectly preserved. We’ve all read—any many memorized—the 8th Article of Faith, so we know the Bible isn’t flawless. But the vast majority of that text is gold, despite the best efforts of many to muck it up. No printing presses in those days. No copy and fax machines. No emails with attachments. Just scribes who painstakingly copied each and every word over and over and over. Our gratitude should be overwhelming that so many faithful saints of that first generation made so many copies of those 27 books that were eventually compiled into today’s New Testament. Were there more? Possibly. Probably. But at least we have those 27, and perhaps fragments of others. See D&C Section 91. As well we ought to feel eminently grateful to all of the Jewish scribes who preserved the manuscripts of the Old Testament.
Scholars continue to discover very old copies and fragments of books that are already part of our Biblical canon. We can compare these with what we already have and, at times, propose minor corrections. Sometimes alternate wordings can be confusing or frustrating, but what we should emphasize is the overwhelming unanimity of the texts, and the devotion of those scribes and copyists who strived to be as accurate as possible.
In spite of this, the wide variety of belief systems that have sprung into existence since the earliest days of Christianity—all proclaiming to worship the same Jesus Christ as the long-promised Messiah and Savior of the World—can boggle the mind. It’s also a fascinating and revealing attestation of the nature of those poor wretches—us—whom Jesus Christ was sent to save.
The variety of doctrines, rituals and methodologies of worship is often disconcerting to us. But our way of doing things is often disconcerting to them. In spite of this, if you’re honest—if your heart and open and your love and compassion for God’s children is sincere—it’s impossible not to feel awed by the passion and piety of these believers in Christ. And some of the places where that devotion and passion are best represented, and on full display, is at these Holy Sites.
Now, before I start this, I gotta note: As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we have to remind ourselves that, since Jesus actually created the earth, we’d be hard pressed to find ANY spot on the planet where the Savior hasn’t stood. However, for many of us flesh and blood human beings, that idea might be too abstract. So we feel a sincere curiosity—a yearning—to visit the exact place where Christ was born, or where He was baptized, or where He died and was resurrected. And there are longstanding and established traditions about exactly where those locations are.
Now, if I bring into question some location that you’ve always been led to believe is authentic—the right spot—please, don’t take it personally. Every site we discuss has an extraordinary history, even if we can’t confirm that it’s the location of the event ascribed to it. Ask yourself, does it matter? Every one of these sites can be places of solemn reflection, allowing you the opportunity to make a deep, visceral, spiritual connection. Well…except maybe for one of them. But we’ll get into that.
Still, every one of these locations is wondrous and rich in history. It just may not be copasetic with what we can learn or what we can observe based upon analysis from respected, unbiased researchers and archeologists. Unbiased. There’s a loaded word. The older you get the more you realize how hard it is to achieve that state of mind. I can’t give up on that though. It remains the zenith that we seek to attain. My experience is that those who are the least biased and the most balanced and even-minded are the ones whose opinions are the least dogmatic and the most humble, which axes me right off the list. But I’ll do my best. I’ll give it a shot.
For fifteen hundred years or longer, many sites in the Holy Land have been places of pilgrimage and worship for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of faithful, ardent, and broken-hearted Christians. Each of these individuals has likely suffered excruciating personal trials we’ll never know. Maybe trials similar to yours. Bask in the spirit of that. This state of mind allows you to unite with those millions of souls, living and dead, whose singular objective was, and is, to adulate the Savior, seek His forgiveness, His healing, His miracles.
I’ll try to discuss as many sites as I can reasonably fit into a single podcast. Undoubtedly, I’ll miss some. Probably dozens. Virtually every location we discuss are sites I’ve personally visited. Not that this is particularly unique or gives me some kind of edge or special ability to know everything about them. Some, especially scholars—even students and professors, say, at the BYU Jerusalem center—have visited these sites dozens of times.
And what’s notable right off, as I mentioned, is that these ancient denominations just “do” Christianity differently. Members of our Church and other Protestants might find the wardrobes and frescoes and architecture . . . gaudy, to say the least. It might be jarring. Expect it to be jarring. If you’re prepared for that, you’ll likely get more out of it. Just the crush of human bodies at some sites can be disquieting, like trying to get out of the stadium after a Utah Jazz game, or some other concert venue or sporting event. How are you supposed to concentrate on spiritual things in that kind of atmosphere?
A visitor will find themselves side-by-side with Pentecostals, Holy Rollers, Catholics—every variety of Christian that you can imagine and some that you possibly can’t, or haven’t. Some denominations will behave and dress very strangely. You’ll hear unfamiliar prayers, liturgies shouted as loud as a human voice can shout, folks wearing funny hats. You’ll see pious tourists striving to emulate the Savior’s final journey to Calvary by literally renting a massive wooden cross and dragging it from one end of the city to the other along a route called the Via Dolorosa or “Way of Sadness” or “Suffering”. Yup, they’ve established a traditional “route” where they believe Jesus once dragged the cross, from the location of the no-longer-standing Fortress Antonia that once housed the Roman garrison that occupied Jerusalem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a distance of about 2000 feet, or a little under half a mile. Some believers are zealous enough to drag this cross all the way from the top of the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Maybe some have dragged that 60 to 100-pound cross all the way from Nazareth. I wouldn’t be surprised.
In any case, the “official” Via Dolorosa—and I give that air quotes in case you can’t see me, which you can’t—anyway, this route has been altered numerous times over the centuries. Then, in 2001, another monkey wrench got thrown into the mix. Archeologists discovered what they believe are the ruins of Herod’s Palace beneath a corner of the Tower of David. Understand, the Tower of David isn’t a tower that’s been standing since the reign of King David. It dates to about the 13th century, but it’s positioned on the western side of Jerusalem, opposite the location of the Holy Temple and the infamous Fortress Antonia that once overlooked it.
Two first-century Jewish historians, Philo and Josephus, both stated—independent of one another—that the Roman Governor (Praefectus), made his digs at Herod’s Palace whenever he came to town. This was where he held court with Jerusalem’s citizens, on the steps of a plaza immediately outside the main doors. Philo and Josephus had both been to Jerusalem. They’d stood there. Philo was a contemporary of Jesus. He lived in Alexandria in Egypt—which in the of Christ had a higher population of Jews than Jerusalem. But Philo did visit Jerusalem—at least once—as most Jews did, much like the Islamic tradition of visiting Mecca at least once in your life (Philo, On Providence 2:64).
Philo wrote his philosophies and exegesis of Hebrew scripture prior to 50 A.D., when he died at the ripe old age of 75. Scholars sort of label his works as syncretistic, which means he melds Greek philosophy with Jewish doctrine. He’s often credited with the Greek concept of referencing Christ as the logos or “the word”—or perhaps a better translation, “the living word”—as it was applied in the 1st chapter of the Gospel of John, but I don’t want to get off into the weeds with all that.
The point is that Philo never mentioned Christ or Christians, at least not in any of his works that have survived. I’m not sure, since he lived in Alexandria, that we ought to expect him to have mentioned Christ or Christianity. Not sure how widespread Christianity would’ve been in 50 A.D., when Philo passed away. During those initial decades Christianity likely wouldn’t have seemed all that unique to outsiders. Just another Jewish offshoot among many, and not even the first one that followed some messiah. But, like Josephus, Philo did discuss that tidbit of protocol about the Roman governor holding audience with Jerusalem’s citizens on the steps of Herod’s palace, which throws off the whole present-day curriculum of the Via Dolorosa. But, you know, this is a spiritual ritual or penance, so the accuracy of the route may not be the point.
Flavius Josephus, for those who don’t know, is considered the foremost secular historian of Jewish history and antiquities, at least to the end of the 1st century A.D. Yes, he was a Jew, but his works were intended, primarily, for gentile readers, or those who came at the subject having no prior knowledge or understanding of Jewish culture and tradition. In fact, Josephus was the rebel commander of the district of Galilee, fighting against the Roman General Vespasian. After the last stronghold of Galilee, Jotapata, was destroyed, Josephus’s life was miraculously spared—after what must have been some great rhetorical gymnastics—so that he became a chief advisor of Vespasian, and later of his son, Titus, who was put in charge of crushing what remained of Judea after Vespasian returned to Rome to be named as Emperor. That’s right. Josephus became the ultimate Benedict Arnold, directly aiding and abetting the enemy against his own people, a fact that he frequently laments in his writings, but…there is it. What are you gonna go?
Thus, Josephus was a direct eyewitness of Jerusalem’s total demolition in 70 A.D. Some might question Rome’s efficiency on stuff like this, thinking historians like Josephus used a lot of hyperbole. I’m sure he did, but not so much in this case. The legions of Rome were like General Sherman’s troops on steroids. Roman soldiers were well-motivated to rape and pillage because, well, like other ancient armies, this was often the best, or only, way to get paid. Whatever you plundered, you kept.
If a Roman General ever spared a city from ransacking, a historian generally mentioned this, because it was very much the exception. The whole point of what the Romans did in Judea was the humiliate the Jews, demoralize them, de-humanize them. This was Rome’s objective in both revolts. The Empire strikes back. They were mad. Oh, and for those who didn’t know, yes, there were two major wars fought against the Jews in Judea—one in 66-73 A.D., which is the most well-known, and another in 132-135 A.D. Of those two, which one do you think was the most destructive? We’ll get into that in a minute.
In order to understand the difficulty in nailing down the precise location of many events in the New Testament, it’s important to understand both of these conflicts, and just how much the land, the people, and the culture of Judea was turned upside down.
Regarding just the First Jewish Revolt in and around 70 A.D., historian Flavius Josephus writes, “Jerusalem . . . was so thoroughly razed to the ground by those that demolished it to its foundations, that nothing was left that could ever persuade visitors that it had once been a place of habitation" (Josephus, Jewish War, 7:1:1). Hyperbole? Josephus would have been mindful of pleasing his Roman patrons. History is always told through the eyes of the conquerors. Yet Josephus was expressly determined to provide an unbiased account, favoring neither side, yet warning the reader that his account might at times lament the circumstances of the vanquished (Josephus, Jewish Wars, preface 3, 4). In any case, he understood what a word like “demolished” meant. What it looked like. And his overt objective was to forever preserve the history, culture, and beliefs of his people.
Then, 65 years after the First Jewish Revolt, documented in stunning detail by Josephus, Jerusalem and Judea were demolished again. This conflict from 132-134/135 A.D. is known as the Second Jewish War, or the Bar Kokhba Revolt. After this second war ended, it became officially illegal—upon the point of death—for a Jew to even enter the environs of Jerusalem or of the province of Judea. This edict remained in place for the next 500 years, except, after a period of bellyaching, the locals—mostly Greeks—who lived on the site of a newly constructed city now called Aelia Capitalina, finally permitted some scattered Jews to visit the place where their Holy Temple had once stood—one day per year—on Tisha B'Av—I hope I didn’t butcher that pronunciation—a day that became a universal day of fasting and mourning for the loss of their capital and Temple.
We don’t talk as much about the Second Jewish War. I’m going to presume—which may not be wise on my part—that most listeners already know the basics of the First Jewish War around 70 A.D. I’ll cover some details of the First Jewish War, but mostly the Second Jewish War or Bar Kokhba revolt. The difference between these two conflicts is notable. It can certainly be argued that the First Jewish War laid the foundations of irreparable hatred between Romans and Jews, well, because this first conflict led to the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but it was only after the Second Jewish War that this hatred was permanently entrenched.
Only after the Second Jewish War was Roman law actually altered so that it became the official policy all across the Empire to persecute and punish the Jews, their culture, and religion. These laws remained in force until the fall of Rome and well beyond. You can also date the permanent rift between Christianity and Judaism to this second war. Prior to the Bar Kokhba Revolt Christians still actively proselyted among their Jewish brothers and sisters. After the Second Jewish War? Not so much. In fact, they often stood arm-in-arm with the persecutors.
It was the Emperor Hadrian who put down the Bar Kokhba revolt in 134/135 A.D. Hadrian is an interesting character. He was one of Rome’s longest ruling emperors, 21 years. He spent much of his reign traveling far and wide throughout the realm. From Britannia to the Black Sea, Carthage to Mesopotamia. The prior emperor, Trajan, had expanded the Roman Empire to its maximum historical boundaries, all the way to the Persian Gulf. However, Hadrian gave a lot of that conquered territory back. Oh, there were a lot of Romans who despised Hadrian for that.
See, here was the situation from Hadrian’s point of view. Rome was almost broke. Trajan’s conquests had sucked Roman coffers dry. Hadrian therefore reconfigured Rome’s prime directive from one of expansion to consolidation. Hadrian personally took to the field to put down some minor revolts, but most of his energy was devoted to reinforcing Roman defenses, especially on its frontiers. He commissioned massive rebuilding and restoration projects. Roads, aqueducts, even the reconstruction of cities that had laid in ruins for generations. He commissioned the construction of the famous wall across northern Britannia to cut off the, uh, savage Celtic barbarians that we know today as the bagpiping Scotts.
Hadrian had figured out that a fortified wall was actually cheaper than leaving a standing army spread east to west across the island. The focus of Hadrian’s reign? Diplomacy. Make friends. Nurture good relations. He gave some territories semi-autonomy and granted the Parthians full autonomy. Roman historian Cassius Dio said the people loved this guy everywhere he went.
The only tiny concession Hadrian required from his provincial subjects was that they allow him to construct new temples and shrines to worship Roman deities. Some of these deities were past Emperors, and a few were even beloved family members and friends who’d died during Hadrian’s lifetime. All you had to do to become a god in the Roman Empire was convince the Senate to pass a vote and—voila—you’re a god! And if it was the Emperor himself who initiated the request, not a good idea to vote against him.
Most of the Roman world was cool with this. “Another god? No problem! The more the merrier!” So it was that just prior to the outbreak of the Second Jewish War, Hadrian announced that a Temple to Jupiter would be constructed on the grounds of the former Jewish Temple.
The reaction of the Jews seemed to confound him. “What? They don’t want a Temple to Jupiter on that site? What’s the deal? Why so offended? We commissioned a temple to Zeus on the site of the old Samaritan Temple to Yahweh on Mt. Gerizim and the people seemed thrilled! Wouldn’t you rather have a beautiful pagan edifice standing there than nothing at all? What was wrong with these people? These ‘monotheists’?”
Here’s the thing. Somehow, the scattered Jews—who may not have lived in Jerusalem anymore, but still in Judea and surrounding areas—got it into their heads that Jeremiah’s prophecy, pronounced in 600 B.C.—the time of Lehi—proclaiming that Solomon’s Temple would be rebuilt in 70 years—a prophecy fulfilled when King Darius of Persia allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylon to go home, would be repeated. Re-fulfilled after the same 70-year time span, or in about 140 A.D. Obviously Hadrian’s plans were about to obliterate that dream.
We commonly think the Bar Kokhba revolt—132 to 135/136 A.D.—wasn’t as all-encompassing or dramatic as the First Jewish War, 65 years earlier.
Okay, I better clarify. Some history buffs might call me out because they refer to the Bar Kokhba Revolt as the Third Jewish War, but the circumstances of the Kitos Rebellion under Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, that erupted in about 114 A.D., are a bit muddier. Yes, it was a major uprising, and yes, the fighting was mostly against Jews—but also Parthians, and it mostly took place outside of Judea—except for a final assault at Lydda, near modern-day Tel Aviv. No doubt all three conflicts co-relate, but I’ll follow the tack of most historians and call the Bar Kokhba Revolt the Second Jewish War.
Besides, the Kitos War ended without a clear victor, because Hadrian, in the first year of his reign, declared a truce. “Everybody just lay down your arms! Hug it out and go home.” Hadrian intended this as an act of good will. Appeasement to the Jews, hoping they might finally fall in line and become devoted supporters of the realm. Then, seventeen years into his reign, they revolted again. That’s gratitude for ya.
So in response to Hadrian’s announcement about building a pagan Temple on the grounds of Solomon’s Temple, the Jews, perhaps predictably, went ballistic. They declared a new messiah. I guess it’s more accurate to say that Bar Kokhba declared himself the messiah. According to several early Christian fathers, Bar Kokhba was particularly nasty to Christian Jews, many of whom were pacifists and refused to join his cause or acknowledge Bar Kokhba’s messianic claims. Jewish Christians must’ve felt they were getting bashed on all sides. Worst time in history to be a Christian and a Jew in the Holy Land.
In 132 A.D. Bar Kokhba and his compatriots destroyed the Roman garrison in Judea and gained full autonomy from the Empire for the next three/four years. The reason I keep fudging on the official end-date of the Bar Kokhba Revolt as 135 or 136 A.D. is because Hadrian declared victory—held parades and all that—a full year before hostilities ceased.
The beginning of Bar Kokhba’s Revolt was an Imperial disaster. Much like the First Jewish War, Rome totally underestimated Jewish unity and organization. Roman commanders were forced to call in reinforcements from as far away as Gaul (modern France) and Espania (modern Japan. Just kidding. Modern Spain). After a brutal conflict, the Romans finally turned the tide. Most historians hold that the Jewish slaughter that took place in 135 A.D. was far worse than the first Jewish slaughter in 70 A.D.
One third of the entire Roman army had taken part in putting down this rebellion. At least 10 legions, a considerably larger force than the one commanded by Vespasian and Titus 65 years earlier. So sure, in 70 A.D. Jerusalem and its Temple were demolished, but many of the outlying Jewish communities in Judea had been allowed to rebuild. Not so after the Second Jewish War. After 135 A.D. nothing in Judea with any hint of Jewish heritage was permitted to stand.
Scholars generally date the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, not to the First Jewish War, but to the Bar Kokhba Revolt. (Taylor, J. E. The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford University Press. “Up until this date the Bar Kokhba documents indicate that towns, villages and ports where Jews lived were busy with industry and activity. Afterwards there is an eerie silence, and the archaeological record testifies to little Jewish presence until the Byzantine era, in En Gedi. This picture coheres with what we have already determined in Part I of this study, that the crucial date for what can only be described as genocide, and the devastation of Jews and Judaism within central Judea, was 135 CE and not, as usually assumed, 70 CE, despite the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple's destruction.”)
According to Roman Historian Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews perished in the second war. Considerably more died of hunger and disease. And multitudes of Jewish captives were sold into slavery. Roman casualties during the Bar Kokhba revolt were also heavy. Because of losses, several Roman legions forever disbanded. Cassius Dio records that in Judea 50 fortified towns and 985 villages were demolished. Utterly razed to the ground. That’s over a thousand settlements in an area that really wasn’t very big. Unlike the First Jewish War it didn’t include Galilee and Samaria. Just Judea (Cassius Dio, Translation by Earnest Cary. Roman History, book 69, 12.1-14.3).
Obviously, the reason the Second Jewish War is lesser known is because there was nobody like Flavius Josephus to present his priceless, first-hand, blow-by-blow, account of events, as he’d done for the First Jewish War. We get a general summary from Cassius Dio and others, but Josephus’s commentary on the First Jewish War is so detailed that portions have been adapted into screenplays.
What is clear is that the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 A.D. broke Hadrian’s heart. I know. It’s hard to feel much empathy for anybody who rules almost half the world. But Hadrian had made it his lifetime objective to establish a new Pax Romana—a period of perpetual peace and tranquility throughout the Empire. And that Jews dashed all that. The whole vision. And Hadrian, like virtually all Romans, wanted vengeance.
To begin with, he flattened Jerusalem and desecrated its Holy Temple again. You might ask, if it was already in ruins, what was there to flatten? Well, this time he plowed the whole thing under to establish an entirely new urban plan—a Romanized city plan. The name “Jerusalem” was stricken from every Roman map. It would be Aelia Capitolina for the next 500 years—500 years!—that is, until the Arabs reconquered the city in 638 A.D. and renamed it Jerusalem. That’s right. It was the Muslims who reestablished its ancient name and, mostly starting after the turn of the first millennium, allowed a limited number of Jews to return.
We don’t have any record of how Hadrian responded to Christians, or in particular, sites that might have been considered important or sacred to those who belonged to this religion. We do know that in addition to building a Temple to Jupiter on the site of Jewish Temple, he built another Temple dedicated to Venus on the site that would later be built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and yet another pagan temple—this time to Adonis—in Bethlehem on the site that would later become the Church of the Nativity. Hmm. More than a little suspicious, eh? Well, in future centuries, at least some of the ancient Christian denominations thought so.
Scholars, usually representing, or directly tied to, one or another of these old denominations, have proposed that the very fact that Hadrian built shrines to pagan gods on top of these very places, well, obviously he was trying to cover up a site once revered by Christians. Such scholars chuckle at Hadrian’s naivete. By building directly atop Christian holy sites, this vengeful Roman emperor unintentionally preserved these sites for time and eternity.
200 years later, Helena, the mother of Constantine, and her “guide” Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, were permitted by the Emperor Constantine to tear down these pagan shrines and proclaim these two pieces of real estate as the original birthplace, and burial place, of Jesus Christ.
The only problem with that argument…Okay, lemme state again: Hadrian built temples and shrines everywhere across the Empire. Not to desecrate places or offend the locals, but to curry their favor, to earn their loyalty.
According to the layout of the new Roman polis of Aelia Capitalina, Hadrian’s Temple to Venus wasn’t meant to destroy or cover up anything. It was simply positioned at the crossroads of the new highway system: north, south, east, and west. Location, location, location.
The biggest challenge for those who believe these are the actual sites of sacred Christian events is that they must corroborate those beliefs with what Christians may have believed in the years after the Church was established, and particularly in the decades between the first destruction of the First Jewish War, and the second destruction after the Second Jewish War. Had these places ever been identified or memorialized by Christians? Did early Christians even know the specific location where Jesus Christ was born? Considering the tragedy, horror, and confusion that the first generation of Christians felt about the Savior’s death, would anyone have been inclined to mark the places where such tragedies occurred? Apparently, no one commemorated the spot where the resurrected Christ appeared in Galilee (Matt 28:10, Mark 16:7, John 21:1) or to “above five hundred brethren at once”, as Paul describes in First Corinthians 15:6, even though these events much have been so much more positive and memorable. Remember, it was a time of chaos and incomprehensible miracles. Not a time to commemorate plots of real estate that would become places of reverence and pilgrimage for future generations.
Two early Christian theologians—Eusebius from the 3rd century and Epiphanius from the 4th century—reported that prior to the first destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in 70 A.D., Christ’s disciples were warned by revelation to relocate to Pella to avoid the impending massacre, which all of you’d already know if you’ve read Tennis Shoes 5: The Sacred Quest. Pella is a city northeast of Jerusalem in modern-day Jordan, a region once known as the Decapolis.
Admittedly, claims of a wholesale Jewish Christian migration from Judea might be overstated, but if the bulk of Jewish Christians and their leaders relocated for two or more generations, who stayed behind to keep track of sacred sites? I’ll note again, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. no one resided there. And after 135 A.D. Jews—and presumably Jewish Christians or anyone who somehow identified with Jewishness—was banished from the entire region of Judea by Roman edict, warned that if they tried to return they would be executed. So whose grandfather still lingered to remind the young ‘uns of the location of significant New Testament events, a volume or collection of scripture, by the way, which would not exist for another two centuries? We’d all like to think these traditions were accurately passed down from generation to generation. But after two separate, distinct, cataclysmic destructions, how distinguishable would such sites have been amidst all that plowed earth and rubble?
After the Second Jewish War, it became Hadrian’s personal mission to erase all memory of Judaism from human history. The question is, did he feel the same level of animosity toward Christians?
We don’t know. I mean, it’s muddy. Maybe he viewed Jews and Jewish Christians as one and the same. Potato-Potata. Not as two distinct religions, at least now in Judea. However, history does indicate that Hadrian knew about Christians who were not also of Jewish heritage living in other parts of the Empire.
Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, was the first Roman emperor to suggest any kind of official government policy regarding Christians. Pliny, who was the governor of a province named Bithnyia-Pontus (in modern-day Turkey) wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan in about 112 A.D.—so 20 years before the Bar Kokhba Revolt—asking what ought to be done with Roman subjects who adhered to this infectious superstition that worshipped a man named Chrestus? Trajan replied to Pliny that, as with other societies and syndicates that might become so influential as to threaten Roman authority and governance—such as the Dionysians a couple centuries earlier—if these “Chrest-ians” refused to burn incense and pay homage to Roman gods, go ahead and punish ‘em. Even execute them. But—and here’s the critical instruction—do not go searching them out or rounding them up, especially based on anonymous reports from individuals who might be seeking to take advantage of them for gain. “For this,” writes Trajan, “is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”
We consider this statement from Trajan the first secular reference of government policy toward Christians. And the policy pretty much remained in force, except sporadically in certain localities, until about 249 A.D. under the Emperor Decius, and particularly during the time of the Emperor Diocletian (Dy-oh-cl-e’shan) in the early 300s, who truly deserves the credit of transforming Christian martyrdom into a popular form of public entertainment.
Anyway, considering the history—considering all the centuries of turmoil experienced by Christians and Jews, what’s the verdict on the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Is it authentic? Does it really circumscribe the tomb where Jesus Christ arose from the dead? The area of the Church is about 650 square yards. But that depends on who you ask. Are we including the entire complex? What about the Cave of Zacharias? Or every station of the Via Dolorosa? Or the approximately three miles of cavities and tunnels underneath the Church, which has caused the structure significant instability for millennia?
Now we gotta break it down even further. You see, this single location claims to be the genuine location of about 30 different universally sacred events. First and foremost, the tomb where Christ arose from the dead. Additionally, it’s said be the site of the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where Joseph was finally buried because he’d given his first tomb to Jesus. Also, the sites of Calvary and Golgotha, because historically those two terms haven’t always meant the same thing. Also, the place where Mary Magdalene first set eyes on the resurrected Jesus. Then there’s the Arches of the Virgin where Christ first saw His mother, the Chapel of the Parting of the Raiment where (you guessed it) the Roman soldiers gambled over Christ’s clothing.
Then there’s the crypt where the original—and I mean original—wooden cross—or True Cross—was supposedly unearthed by Helena and Eusebius in the 4th century. Then there’s the tomb of Adam—yup, the first man, Adam—situated directly below Calvary, and the excavated skull of Adam is believed by some to have been anointed in the blood of Christ as it seeped down from above. Then there’s the Angel’s Chapel where sits the stone upon which the angel announced the resurrection. I feel like I’m just getting started.
To many denominations the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is like a one-stop shop if you want to see practically everything associated with the most sacred events in Christianity.
Whatever you believe, keep in mind that there are many fascinating things inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that have nothing to do with the New Testament. A chapel dedicated to Helena, mother of Constantine, the tombs of the first two rulers of the Crusader Kingdom in the 1100s, or at least the inscriptions once associated with those tombs since the tombs themselves were destroyed by fanatical Greek monks in 1808.
See, that’s the murky side of this place. If there’s any site in the Holy Land perpetually associated with violence and discord, it’s the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Six ancient Christian denominations—count ‘em, six—own or control different portions of the property—the Greek Orthodox Church controls most of it, then the Roman Catholics, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Armenian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, and even the Ethiopian Christian Church, which maintains a small shrine on the roof.
Beginning in the mid-1700s/mid-1800s these denominations have semi-agreed to a certain Status Quo dividing various times of worship and spaces of ownership down to the exact second and centimeter. Roman Catholics may control the place where Jesus was said to have been crucified while, five meters away, the Greek Orthodox Church controls the place where the three crosses were supposedly raised. There’s also a “common area” around the Holy Sepulcher itself—well, “common” for three of the denominations, excluding the Copts, Syrians, and Ethiopians, who somehow lacked the political clout when these privileges were divvied up. Each hour is carefully divided between the Greeks, Armenians, and Roman Catholics to say mass. During one denomination’s designated time, every other denomination is prohibited to participate or attend.
The scene is surreal, even a bit unsettling, especially for members of our comparably simple, spartan places of worship like those of many Protestants and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which—except for our Temples—are minimally adorned. Actually, even our Temples don’t really compare.
A visitor to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is generally surrounded by hundreds of tourists, impassioned, enthusiastic believers, kissing the wooden beam of the True Cross, despite having already been kissed that same day by hundreds of Christians from a hundred different countries. There’s chanting and incantations, swinging incense holders and candle carriers. Much of the ceiling is black from centuries of smoke, while in other areas the ornamentation is eyepopping.
I’ve watched as monks and priests from different denominations exchange places in the common area. Those of one denomination will sing a particular hymn as they depart, and the incoming denomination will sing a totally different hymn. It’s as if the incoming denomination intentionally chooses a hymn that’s discordant with the hymn of the departing monks and priests. They compete for who can sing the loudest, creating a cacophony.
And these monks and priests are no little guys. They are usually musclebound and large-in-stature, selected especially to emphasize the intimidation factor. Why? Because giant fistfights are not uncommon between the disparate groups. The last really big one that I read about was in 2012. But there’s almost always scuffles of some sort, especially during Easter week. It’s can become like a barroom brawl or a riot between two football teams after a flag is thrown. The Israeli police will jump into the fray to restore order while spectators look on in shock. Yet compared to past centuries, today disturbances are relatively tame. Not that long ago more than just fist fights broke out, but massacres. After the dust settled, murdered monks and priests lay amidst what all sides believe to be the holiest places on earth.
An interesting story. Since 1909—some say as far back as the 1700s—a certain ladder has been leaning against one of the walls. No denomination will move it because they believe one of the other denominations left it there, so it’s not their responsibility to put it away. Thus, there it still sits.
With all this chaos and discord it’s not hard to understand why some might actually HOPE that nothing sacred EVER took place inside this compound. The idea seems so contrary to the atmosphere of this place. However, those who believe the most sacred event—the resurrection of Christ from His tomb—took place here do have one ace up their sleeve.
Keep in mind, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been demolished and rebuilt multiple times. It’s been torn down by invaders, shaken by at least 30 earthquakes, burned to the ground in numerous fires, and, of course, suffered the dilapidation and decay of age.
Even during Constantine’s reign in the first third of the 4th century—that means the early 300s (sometimes that can be confusing)—anyway, by the time of Constantine reconstruction of Jerusalem or Aelia Capitalina was still unfinished. Hadrian and his successors never got ‘er done!
Okay so here’s the possible ace up their sleeve. Maybe not an ace. Maybe a ten. Or a 9. A jack? Somewhere around there.
I don’t know about all the other myriad claims concerning this site—the Garden of Gethsemane or the spot where the Virgin Mary first laid eyes on her resurrected Son or unearthing the wood of the True Cross. But the central idea that within this structure lies the tomb where the Savior laid for three days and arose from the dead, does carry some—I emphasize some—archeological weight. This claim was bolstered by research conducted as recently as 2017. That must sound refreshing. We’ve been talking about the passage of millennia. This event happened after the election of Donald Trump.
For the first time in many hundreds of years, a team of Greek archeologists was granted the opportunity to remove the outer marble layer covering the ancient chamber. Beneath this layer was another layer of white rose marble dating to the Crusader period—or the last time we think this tomb was exposed. Beneath this, there is an even older, grey marble slab. The mortar on this slab dates to the 4th century, or when the Emperor Constantine first ordered Hadrian’s temple to Venus pulled down and replaced by a Christian basilica.
And beneath this 4th century layer was uncovered part of the original limestone burial bed, intact. The Greek team is said to have collected “considerable documentation” to later conduct extensive tests, looking for evidence of symbols or graffiti or whatever else might confirm—or discredit—the authenticity of this place. Almost immediately after the archeologists finished their work, the tomb was resealed, leaving only a tiny glass observation window. It may never be fully uncovered again, at least not before the Savior Himself returns to verify its genuineness personally, as if that question will still be anyone’s first priority at that point.
Five or six similar tombs have also been uncovered beneath this Church, which is what, I suppose, is we ought to expect for a 1st century-Judean graveyard. To accept this as the actual burial place of Jesus Christ, you must believe that Christians kept alive the tradition of exactly where this tomb was located amidst hundreds of other possible tombs for three centuries. Not an easy prospect considering what I’ve told you about the destruction of Jerusalem in two Jewish wars, or the fact that during those 200 years, when it was presumably underneath a pagan temple, no reputable Christian would have set foot inside.
You must accept that Hadrian erected his Temple to Venus on that spot with a blatant motive to desecrate a Christian holy site. Then, you have to believe that a highly-motivated Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, and Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, and Empress Helena, after Constantine gave his mother approval to tear down the Temple to Venus, managed, amidst that rubble, to locate the exact spot. Maybe they did. Eusebius, who is considered the first bonafide historian of Christianity, proclaims—and note that this next quote represents everything he wrote on the matter—that “as soon as the original surface of the ground beneath the covering of earth appeared (surface of the ground beneath the covering of earth—that sounds like the same thing. Continuing:) after the covering of earth appeared, immediately, and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hollowed monument of our Savior’s resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful similitude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light, and afforded to all who came to witness the sight, a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene, a testimony to the resurrection of the Savior clearer than any voice could give (Eusebius, Vita Constantini, III, 30-32).”
Flowery stuff. And slim in details. Typical of the way Eusebius wrote, which after a while makes you feel like you’re overdosing on sugar.
No, I’m not a big fan of Eusebius. The guy just couldn’t shake off the tone of perpetual salesman and propogandist for his way of thinking. He was as likely to declare his devotion to Christ as spew hatred at those who disagreed with him, especially, at least later in his life, Arians. Arians were a school of Bishops and believers who adamantly refused to abandon their conviction that the Father and Son were two separate beings. Eusebius also spewed perpetual hatred against the Jews, whom he called the murderers of Christ. Unlike earlier Christian fathers, who declared that in the last days the Jews would be restored to the Kingdom of God, Eusebius saw the Jews as so vile, they would play no future role in Christianity whatsoever. As Constantine’s right-hand religious adviser, Eusebius of Caesarea also played a significant role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D., which, of course, is just about the most nonsensical, abstract, meaningless document ever written, unless you compare it to later revised creeds.
If you’ve ever heard about how references in the histories of Josephus regarding Jesus, John the Baptist, and James, the brother of Jesus, were altered—or added—so as to state that Josephus proclaimed Jesus as the true Messiah? Yeah, this is the guy that likely did it. That might not be fair. A lot of Bishops from that period might have done this or done it in cahoots.
Fortunately, we do have references by Christian fathers predating Eusebius that make it clear that, although Josephus may, in fact, mention Jesus and other New Testament figures, he never claims that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:47). Mentioned Him and John the Baptist, and Jesus’s brother, James, but only as historical figures. This left modern scholars with the unenviable task of deciphering what Josephus did write about these figures before Eusebius, or one of Eusebius’s contemporaries, adulterated the text.
Okay, so Eusebius himself strikes me as a kind of an “ends justify the means” guy. In spite of this—in spite of the fact that he was a major suck-up to the Emperor, in spite of the fact that he may indeed have been one of the “designing and corrupt priests” described by Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 327)—Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea might also have gotten this one right. Was he inclined to fudge the truth from time to time to suit his agenda? Absolutely. Many Church Fathers did that, and then justified it in the name of acting in the service of God. It was a giddy time for Christianity in Rome. They had the support of a living, breathing emperor, and he wanted the Church unified by any means necessary. Therefore burn the writings of the Arians and any other sect whose doctrines disagreed with the majority opinion, which Eusebius and others did enthusiastically. Funny that when Constantine was finally baptized—not until he was on his deathbed—he was baptized by a Bishop who firmly believed the Arian doctrine of God and Christ as two separate beings. Oh well.
Despite ALL of these other contradictions and controversies, the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher does date to the right time period. That’s more than we can say for the famous Garden Tomb, a tourist destination popular with Protestants, and even members of Restored Church.
Starting in the early days of the Protestant Reformation, the tomb in the Church of the Holy Secular began to be poo-pooed by European scholars and archeologists. I have no doubt that one motivation for this backlash was that the feeling inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is so disquieting. A popular argument for many decades was that the New Testament clearly states that Christ’s tomb had to be located close to the city, and yet outside of Jerusalem’s walls, according to Jewish law (Mark 15:20, John 19:20, Hebrews 13:12). Well, as any modern-day pilgrim can clearly see, the entire Church of the Holy Sepulcher is inside those city walls.
Except that, like I said, today’s walls aren’t the same walls that surrounded Jerusalem in 30 A.D. Finally, in the mid-1980s, a Jewish archeologist named Dan Bahat convincingly demonstrated that in Christ’s day the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would have been outside of Jerusalem’s city walls. Besides the six tombs excavated beneath the Church itself, additional 1st century tombs have been discovered immediately west of the edifice, also inside the present-day walls, confirming again that the placement of the walls after Hadrian’s reconstruction of Aelia Capitalina was not the same.
The Garden Tomb, located a couple hundred yards north of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, has been competently dated to the 7th or 8th centuries B.C. In the New Testament, John the Beloved wanted us to know that Christ's tomb was "a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid" (John 14:31). John emphasized this because it was the Jewish tradition to wait until the flesh of a corpse had decayed, then place the bones in a stone box called an ossuary so that the bench inside the tomb could be used for another body.
The Garden Tomb, first discovered in 1867, was initially purchased by the Anglican Church of England, and today is co-owned by a consortium of Protestant churches. The tomb is decisively carved in an older "style" than tombs of the 1st century. I won’t get into the weeds with all that, but it has to do with the bench, the layout, the niches for ossuaries.
Yes, I’m well aware that several General Authorities have expressed their “feelings” that the Garden Tomb is the right location. It’s not hard to sympathize with this. The Garden Tomb is beautiful. The upkeep is immaculate. It’s so much more likely to evoke the appropriate feelings. So much easier to commune with the Spirit in this placid, tranquil location, festooned with flower gardens and trees. Even those who operate the place today no longer try to convince tourists that it’s right location. But it definitely represents the right atmosphere. You can sit on the stone benches, among the flowers, pray in relative peace, and ponder the sacred events of Christ’s resurrection so much easier than you can at the harried, chaotic Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
I’ll mention a few other tourist sites, such as Gethsemane, where Christ prayed and bled from every pore, and the Upper Room, where the last supper transpired and where Jesus instituted the sacrament. The truth is, we can’t confirm the authenticity of the traditional sites (yes, plural—sites) consigned to these events at all. For example, the various ancient denominations I’ve named support at least four different locations for the Garden of Gethsemane. Take your pick.
As I’ve said in prior episodes, Gethsemane is not a location name. The word means "oil press." How can you identify one specific “oil press” among dozens, perhaps hundreds, on the Mount of Olives. At least we got the right MOUNT, which, besides once boasting copious olive groves along its 2-and-a-quarter-mile ridge down to its lowest elevations, even stretching into the Kidron Vale—a more level area that separates Jerusalem from Olivet. Thousands of Jewish tombs have been excavated in this corridor, as well as many Islamic tombs or Jewish tombs that were transformed into Islamic tombs. A tourist guide, when selecting a location for his patrons that might evoke the right atmosphere for Gethsemane, will choose one of several locations where two-thousand-year-old olive trees still stand. He chooses a location for aesthetic and practical reasons, based upon availability and the negotiated cost of entry. If a tour guide is honest, he or she will readily admit that its authenticity can’t be confirmed since it’s likely that the olive grove where the Savior gathered with His disciples no longer stands. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such groves have been cleared since the 1st century. There are still a few scattered trees that are two thousand years old or more, but mostly higher up the slope. It depends upon how far you think Jesus and His disciples might have walked.
Now, the “Upper Room”….There is a traditional "Upper Room" favored by tour guides, although competing locations do exist. The most famous “Upper Room” is inside the very building selected by Helena, Eusebius, and Macarius of Jerusalem. Of all the traditional locations selected by the mother of Constantine, this one is the least likely to be accurate. Remember, the city was "leveled”. Some bricks in this traditional “Upper Room”—today known as the “Cenacle”—have been identified as Herodian, or from the time of Herod the Great. If true, it’s likely because it was built from existing rubble, like so many other reconstructions from the period. Some areas of the Cenacle may date to the 2nd Century A.D., but most of it dates to the Byzantine era.
It's important to understand the term "upper room" in 1st century Jewish culture. "Upper rooms" were generally the living area of a private residence. The "lower floor” was reserved for storage and the housing of animals (or should I say, the place where a "manger" would have been situated.). They didn’t have neighboring barns the way we think of them today. Such animals were too valuable, and the further away they were kept, the more vulnerable to rustlers and bandits. So they were kept close, despite the pungent odor that might emanate from below, which for ancient cultures was just part of life.
Scholars generally believe the Last Supper took place in Jerusaelm’s lower city, but there’s disagreement here too. In the synoptic gospels Jesus tells two of his disciples, “Go into the city…” which could as easily mean any of Jerusalem’s dense suburbs outside the city walls. It’s possible that the “upper room” was a second-story room, or even a THIRD-story room. A third-story room was often an enclosed area with part of the rooftop exposed or covered by a canopy. Jewish families spent a lot of time in their “upper rooms”, especially during the warmer months of the year, seeking relief from the cool breezes of evening. Such rooms would have been lavished with a family’s finest decorum, since it was also where guests were entertained. For the Savior and His disciples, such a location may have allowed the actual residents of the house to remain on a lower floor so as not to disturb the sacred proceedings above, but, again, speculation.
Still, none of these details correspond to the traditional “Upper Room”—the Cenacle—that remains one of Jerusalem's most popular tourist destinations. Just as a side note this location is also sacred to many Jews, but for a different reason. They believe it to be the site of the tomb of King David.
I mentioned earlier that the ground level, or street level, in Jerusalem today is about 12 feet higher than ground level at the time of Christ. So an authentic “upper room”—in the unlikelihood that such a structure was even left standing—would be about even with, or even below, the present ground level of Jerusalem. Nobody’s “upper room” meets those parameters. Even the Church of St. Mark, today owned by the Syrian Orthodox Church, may have a better evidentiary claim of being the “Upper Room” because of an “old” (I put that in air quotes) Christian inscription discovered in 1940 when the Church was undergoing renovation. The inscription, written in Syriac, reads, “This is the house of Mary, the mother of John who was called Mark; and it was proclaimed a church by the Holy Apostles in the name of the Mother of God, Mary, after the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into Heaven; and it was built a second time, after Jerusalem had been destroyed by King Titus, in the year 73 A.D.”
Interesting. Yes, it was the Emperor Vespasian’s son, Titus, that destroyed Jerusalem in the First Jewish War, but he was never king or even emperor. We might overlook that error, except that the ancient Syriac in this inscription is literally—I mean literally literally—butchered. The Syrian Orthodox Church didn’t own the site until the 15th century, when they bought it from the Ethiopian Coptic Church. So . . . why would anyone write such an inscription in Syriac before the 15th century?
Besides, no writer of Syriac in the 1st century—or even the 6th century, which other scholars have ascribed to the inscription—would have botched their own language so badly. The inscription was found under a layer of plaster on a wall that dates to Crusader times, or around the 10th century. Therefore, the wall itself didn’t exist in 73 A.D. And if it did, why would anyone plaster over the top of it, unless, somehow . . . it embarrassed them???
So what about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem—the place where Jesus is proclaimed to have been born? I’ll give it this: This site does have the oldest "tradition-narrative" of any New Testament site in the Holy Land. The centerpiece of this basilica, controlled today by at least three ancient denominations, is a cave or grotto thought to have housed the stable where the newborn Jesus was laid in a manger.
A couple very early Church fathers, including Justin Martyr who lived in the middle of the second century, wrote of a cave in Bethlehem believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Nothing more specific. Just a passing statement in his Dialogue with Trypho written about 160 A.D., or about a century after the First Jewish Revolt.
By then Hadrian’s Temple to Adonis would have stood in Bethlehem, which Justin doesn’t mention, so . . . what visible cave is he referring to? Origen of Alexandria wrote something a bit more detailed in the first half of the 3rd century. Quote:
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsum, book 1, chapter L1).
Again, “pointed out”? A century later Helena and Eusebius proclaimed that such a place was covered over by the Temple to Adonis. Both Origen and Justin Martyr had undoubtedly visited Judea. Justin Martyr had been born in Samaria. Origen died in Lebanon.
I gotta go off on a bit of a tangent for a second. You know, these early church fathers…especially ante-Nicene fathers, which means Christian writers who lived before 300 A.D., or before the time of Constantine and the 1st Counsel of Nicaea. There’s not a lot of these guys. Just a handful whose works survived to today, like Origen and Justin Martyr. Sometimes we just have bits and pieces. There always seems to be references to important books that have been lost. We also get spurious books attributed one of these early church fathers—in other words, some no-name theologist from the 4th or 5th century or whatever felt his words would carry more weight and authority if they attached to it the name of Polycarp or Clement of Rome or Justin Martyr or even an original apostle, although over time a forgery that blatant became a lot harder to get away with.
Scholars have mostly weeded out the stuff attributed to early church fathers that just ain’t so. It’s those books and epistles deemed authentic that modern scholars—and particularly Latter-day Saint scholars—will often carefully study to try and figure out what the earliest congregations of the Christian church taught and believed. Researchers in our own Church have often made it a pastime to find evidence of teachings once held by the earliest Christians—doctrines that Joseph Smith or another modern prophet restored. Nothing wrong with this. It can be an enlightening pastime. But you gotta be careful. You might find some obscure reference to Baptism for the Dead or Temple ordinances and go—ah ha!—but then you read the next paragraph and the writer mentions something so bizarre and off-the-wall that you go, “What the—!” I’ll do the Bugs Bunny one. Yosemite Sam. “What in tar-nation is he talkin’ about?”
That can be the problem—at least for me—doing an episode like this, especially when I’m simultaneously trying to do other projects. I’ll come across some reference that says, “Justin Martyr said there was a cave in Bethlehem believed to the very place . . .” and instead of just trusting Wikipedia, or whatever other article or book made this reference, I have to go back and read the original letter from Justin Martyr. And that sends me down a rabbit hole of reading everything ever written by Justin Martyr, which might take an entire day. By the way, I could never do that with Origen. The amount of stuff he wrote is encyclopedic. He had a rich Christian patron named Ambrose who provided him with a whole team of scribes and secretaries.
Origen was kind of the Hugh Nibley of his day. He was invited to preach everywhere, but never held office as a Bishop or leader of any congregation. In fact, when his own Bishop in Alexandria, Demetrius, refused to ordain him a Priest, Origen convinced the Bishop of Caesarea to ordain him, which sent Demetrius into a tirade, writing letters of condemnation everywhere. Apparently, ordination by a foreign Bishop, outside your own see, or ecclesiastical jurisdiction, just wasn’t done.
When you dig into one of the manuscripts of these early fathers it’s kind of a suspenseful experience. “Yes, he got that doctrine right. Cool! He got that one right too. Ah, man! How did he mess that one up so badly!” Reading Justin Martyr is like that. I know it sounds really pretentious and cavalier, but after a lifetime of being immersed in basic gospel doctrine, calling balls and strikes sort of becomes routine. “Yes, Justin really emphasizes that Christ was resurrected not just in spirit, but in body, and he uses the same examples we use: Jesus says, “Feel the prints of the nails in my hands and feet? He demonstrates that He could eat fish!” Then Justin might say, “But God the Father is incorporeal and just a spirit.” Awww! Then why did you say a few chapters back that man’s purpose was to become like God both spiritually and materially? It very clear that by the middle of the second century, the Priesthood is gone. The keys have left the building.
When I read these guys—any of these ancient writers—I try to do it three-dimensionally. Just because they wrote a couple thousand years ago doesn’t mean they weren’t flesh and blood human beings. They had flaws and strengths and insecurities. That’s the feeling I get when I read some of these early Church fathers. This percolating insecurity just beneath the surface. So many of these early writings are just rhetorical debates with heretics and pagans.
It’s like that scene in Jurassic Park where the little girl cries out, “He left us!” “[They] left us!” They being the Apostles. Even in the New Testament Christ and the Apostles warned of difficult times ahead: “We won’t always be there for you.” Confusion is coming. Apostasy. Put yourself in the position of a regular Church member hearing that. “Uh-huh. I get it. Sometime in the distant, unimaginable future you and the other Apostles aren’t going to be around anymore. Gotcha.” They couldn’t grasp it. They were in denial. Then when they all started disappearing— “What? Peter and Paul were martyred at Rome? Thomas is gone too? And James? Who’s even left? What are we supposed to do now?”
What would you do? You still have undeniable faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. You’d do the best you could. What else could you do? Lacking prophets and apostles they relied heavily on Greek philosophy—dialectics, polemics—to best defend their beliefs and positions. And it was a mess. Persecution from without. Apostasy from within.
What is clear to me is that the earliest theologians did seem to grasp things better than later theologians. Or later Church fathers, who became increasingly abstract and rigid, especially after Constantine. Not as a rule, but in general.
You might be impressed, for example, that Origen, whose stuff predates Constantine by about a century, talks about the premortal existence of humankind and how we started out as disembodied intelligences that became spirits and then came to earth to get a material, visible body, gain knowledge, and be perfected. Profound stuff, right? Unfortunately, that’s somebody else’s summary of what he said. He taught that God the Father didn’t need a body. He was God! That was beneath Him.
Then when you try to read Origen’s actual words . . . I can’t figure out what he believed about the pre-existence, and I don’t think he knew either! You read it and tell me! He references Jeremiah 1:5, just like I did as a missionary. Some of his concepts seem really profound. Spot on. But were these doctrines passed down to him by his Bishop and his Bishop’s Bishop, etc., etc.? I don’t know. Hard to say. My impression is that Origen came up with this stuff on his own, independent of anyone’s doctrinal tradition. He just made a natural deduction.
But then he gets all metaphysical and talks about reincarnation and perpetual earths—not in the sense of other planets, although he does have plenty of wild things to say about astronomy, too—but in the sense that THIS earth and its events keep repeating themselves over and over and over again. Modern analysts will say, “You just don’t ‘get’ Origen. He didn’t believe in a premortal existence or all this other stuff. He was just being allegorical.” In all fairness, Origen later admits, “This is just our opinion and don’t take it so seriously.” Not sure why he says this in the plural—“our” opinion. Is he expressing the general opinion of Christians those of himself and his scribes?
Whatever the case, a couple centuries after he died a martyr’s death—tortured beyond healing under the Roman Emperor Decius—he was posthumously excommunicated by the Roman Church for his teachings. Many of his contemporaries—and some scholars even today—have called him “the greatest genius the early Church ever produced” (McGuckin, John Anthony (2004), The Westminster Handbook to Origen). But what Origen actually taught is still debated. His followers and haters were already altering his words while he was alive, to say nothing of the counterfeits and forgeries that emerged after his death. The Catholic Church couldn’t even come to a consensus on whether his teachings were anathema, but in 553 A.D., at the Second Counsel of Constantinople, they decided that just in case they were heretical, “No sainthood for you!”
So Justin Martyr was given Sainthood, but not Origen, which doesn’t really seem fair since Justin Martyr didn’t write even 1/20th of what Origen wrote. The key seems to be, “Don’t write too much or they’re gonna find something in there that will give them a reason not to make you a Saint!” Frankly, if you did say something that someone else disagreed with your stuff probably got burned away. After Origen was declared anathema they tried to burn all his stuff. He just wrote too much. It was too ubiquitous and widespread. Just wasn’t possible to gather it all up. But they got a lot of it.
Not to worry. A lot of stuff ascribed to Origen hasn’t even been translated. We’re talking one of the most prolific writers of human antiquity. I’m telling going over all this to emphasize that there’s no smoking gun that lets us completely reassemble what the earliest Christians taught. Hey, maybe if you thought the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had its controversies—Aye-yie-yie! Now you have a little more perspective why we need prophets. Keyholders. Those who possess the right authority and hold the proper Priesthood keys.
So, bringing it back around to the Church of the Nativity, at least two ante-Nicene fathers talked about a cave visited by pilgrims in Bethlehem, but neither one of them happened to mention that it was presently buried under a pagan temple, which is what it would have been at that time. Sore they talking about a different cave? Did they jumble up the details? Maybe folks simply pointed at the Temple of Adonis and said, “Beneath that building is the cave where Jesus was born.” But again, a cave wasn’t traditionally where Jewish families kept their trough for feeding animals, or as we call it today, a manger.
So we have to ask, was Hadrian’s Temple to Adonis built specifically to desecrate a Christian holy site. Or again, was it just another of the hundreds of pagan shrines and temples that Hadrian commissioned? Bethlehem is a little out-of-the-way, ain’t it, for a fancy Roman shrine? I can’t address that. I don’t know how urban or rural Bethlehem was when the Temple to Adonis was erected. And even if a specific birth site hadn’t been identified, this village called Bethlehem was certainly known to all Christians. Hence, Hadrian’s natural motivation to build a pagan temple that would dominate the area and draw tourists.
Luke admits at the opening of his gospel that his intent is to bring about "...a more accurate understanding of all things from the first days..." (Luke 1:3, Wayment Translation). He admits in verse 2 of chapter 1 that he, himself, is NOT a direct eyewitness, but that the information was "passed on" to him from eyewitnesses. Already this is problematic, ESPECIALLY as pertaining to the Nativity, since NONE of Christ's apostles or disciples ever claimed to have been there or seen it.
And, as suggested by Luke, the most reliable witness of this event wasn’t talking. Mary, the Savior’s mother, “kept [or treasured] all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary didn’t yet comprehend the destiny of their infant son, and “marveled” at all the attention he received from shepherds, as well as a devout believer named Simeon (Luke 2:25) and a “prophetess” named Anna (Luke 2:36-38). Luke says these two individuals are already elderly, so it seems certain they’d passed away by the time Luke wrote his gospel. Gospel writers often seem to interrupt the flow of the text specifically to mention the name of a certain individual. Why would they do that, particularly since so many other important figures are not named? I think we can infer this was because such individuals, or the relatives of such individuals, were known to many members of the Church. With Simeon and Anna, Luke seems to suggest that acquaintances or descendants of Simeon and Anna’s families directly provided some of Luke’s source material. That would make Luke’s “witnesses” of the Savior’s birth tertiary—or third-hand, witnesses. Now the game of post office comes into play, showing how easily a story can change over time. So even if Luke was totally sincere, the quality of his witnesses, especially regarding the Nativity, are dubious. I guess I can be classified as a person who intermingles the pragmatic with the spiritual or the miraculous. I personally believe Luke’s sources and witnesses from the time period of John the Baptist onward would have been considerably more reliable. Firsthand. It’s only the events surrounding Christ’s birth that might be “iffy”.
It’s my impression—which carries about as much authority as anybody else’s—that Matthew generally utilized more reliable sources and witnesses for his own gospel, especially since it more easily satisfies the two prime requirements of Rabbinical tradition—that the Messiah be born in the city of David—Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)—but that He later hailed from Nazareth, without the various contortions proffered in Luke’s narrative? It doesn’t mean Luke wasn’t devout and doing the best he could. It doesn’t even mean Luke’s account is wrong. But it does prompt some questions.
I’ve touched on these in other episodes, but okay, I’ll beat everyone over the head with ‘em again. A Roman census or taxation just wasn’t conducted in the way it reads in Luke Chapter 2. Even Romans weren't so unreasonable as to make an entire population migrate to their city of birth, forcing a woman 9-months pregnant to ride a donkey 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The particular census Luke cites when "Cyrenius" was governor of Syria is confirmed by several independent historical sources, but it occurred in 6 A.D.
A census of this magnitude didn’t take place every year. It would have been a big deal. And it would have been memorable to those who acted as Luke’s sources. That doesn’t mean they remembered the right year. They might have easily associated this momentous event with Christ’s birth by mistake, despite the best estimates of modern scholars in the modern information age—not only computers or the internet—but the age of the printing press and the wide distribution of documents—that the Savior’s birth was likely ten years prior to this census. Even if it happened that year or exactly in the traditional millennial year, Cyrenius was not the governor, or procurator, of Syria at that time. And when this census did take place, King Herod the Great had been dead for a decade. So which part of the Nativity story is accurate—the part about the census, or the part about Herod and the massacre of the infants? Maybe there was a different census in 4 B.C. Trust me, every possible variable has been researched, it’s always possible that some new clue will come to light that will make it all crystal clear.
In any case, such a census or taxation event would have been conducted locally, where Joseph and Mary already resided. Bethlehem was only 6 miles from Jerusalem. Not much hassle to travel 6 miles, where Joseph’s and/or Mary’s family may have owned property. Lodging? Yeah. They still would’ve needed overnight lodging, which they probably thought they’d receive from a local relative. The idea that Mary and Joseph may have been turned away and forced to sleep in the stable, which as I’ve said, was traditionally located on the first floor of a Jewish residence, was, well, perhaps the consequence of certain dynamics of familial disapproval, knowing that Mary was showing signs pregnancy prior to her marriage to Joseph. Oh, such a scandal! So think about it. If direct relatives of the Savior are, 30 or 40 years later, serving as witnesses for Luke’s gospel, how would they feel about tarnishing their family’s reputation—potentially for all time—by admitting what actually happened? “You forced Mary, the Mother of God, to give birth to Jesus in a stable?” Yeah, best to leave those kind of skeletons in the closet.
As I said, Matthew doesn’t describe any of this, either because he felt he owed the family of Jesus, and of his compadres, James and Jude, the Savior’s half-brothers, a modicum of discretion, or because he’d never heard these accounts, or because it didn’t happen that way at all. I’m recounting this information to suggest that if there are, indeed, seeds of truth in Luke’s account, we might want to be open to a more pragmatic interpretation.
Matthew, as I’ve said, suggests that Joseph and Mary were already living within, or very near to, Jerusalem. He explains that, being warned in a dream, they fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod the Great, and after Herod died, and his son Archelaus took over, Joseph was warned again, this time to relocate to Galilee. Voila! A much more logical explanation that also satisfies Biblical prophecy.
Does this mean we need to revise our Christmas pageants and dispense with shepherds and donkeys? No. Because we can’t know for certain which details are correct. And those images are wonderful.
One thing is certain to me—those who wrote the New Testament were individuals of deep, devout conviction. They knew that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah. Beyond that, they were human beings, just like you and me.
To me the greatest miracle is how much the four Gospels agree. How much they reinforce each other. But the human side of things can present a fascinating lens through which to view events, and it helps us to understand how a location like the Church of the Nativity, or the idea that Christ was born in a cave, may have come about, possibly invented out of thin air because the demand to fill in that minor gap in the narrative became so pressing. Maybe the locals did keep the authentic location of the Savior’s birthplace alive for the next four generations, or until Justin Martyr mentions it in passing in 160 A.D. Or maybe . . . they didn’t. Either way, it’s okay.
Nobody really wrote a specific account of how the Romans treated Bethlehem itself during their various plunder-and-destroy campaigns. However, we DO have detailed accounts of how the Romans ransacked and demolished even the tiniest of hamlets in Galilee. Josephus describes this in horrifying detail. They ravaged and ransacked the entire landscape. That’s the reality of war, and it seems certain that Bethlehem suffered the same fate. Thus, the challenge of verifying the authenticity of the place where Jesus was born.
Now, it seems inevitable that some people will say with frustration: “What’s wrong with you? Exercise a little faith, will ya?! God would not have allowed our knowledge of these sacred locations to be lost. He’d have preserved this knowledge so such sites could be enjoyed and celebrated to the end of the world.” Or someone might ask in disgust: “How could anybody with a shred of decency spread an outright lie? How could anyone fake an inscription? Or fraudulently allow others to believe something that just ain’t so? Wouldn’t God strike that person with lightning for such blasphemy?” Here’s the question you really want to know: Wouldn’t God’s Supreme Will enforce or insure the purity and preservation of eyewitness testimony, including evidence that authenticates the location of a holy site so that it might be rediscovered and revered by future generations?
The answer is: Why? For those inspired beings and divine souls who understand the full scope of the miracle that we managed to perverse everything that we did preserve, they might ask, “What more do you want? You don’t understand how lucky, how fortunate, how blessed we are to have what we have!”
If the spiritual history of the earth teaches us anything it’s that the flaws of human nature and the perfection of divine intervention can and does co-exist. Each individual has to fight the struggle of daily repentance, improvement, and keeping that balance in check. Sometimes we fail miserably, and the consequence is individual or mass apostasy. Or partial apostasy, I suppose, although that phrase is kind of an oxymoron because when the authority of the Priesthood is gone, it’s gone, and it can only be divinely restored.
The point is that faith and conviction does not require that we must also be naïve. No, that’s not true. Sometimes we are required to follow blindly. That’s part of the test. That’s why we continually repent and earnestly cling to the Gift of the Holy Ghost within us.
You might as well ask: How could God allow the true gospel of Jesus Christ to fall into apostasy in the first place? As Joseph Smith taught, we are given correct principles and then we govern ourselves. It’s in our hands. And the nature of humankind throughout history has not changed.
No point of doctrine states that God is required to preserve the accuracy of any location where a sacred event took place. The adulation of a historical or religious site is a natural, mortal thing. Human beings are emotional creatures. Sometimes standing in a place where a holy event is said to have occurred can inspire us, help us to empathize, direct us to ponder the importance of an event, and evoke a very real communion with the Holy Spirit. But haven’t we been taught all our lives that anywhere on earth can serve that purpose? Aren’t we told that we should transform our very homes into holy sites to achieve that objective? To say nothing of chapels, and especially Temples, no matter how many we build or where they are dedicated? That site suddenly becomes holy ground where any and every variety of miracle can, and has, occurred. Sure, we can commune with the Spirit on a mountaintop. We can do so watching a sunset. Also, as we sit stuck in traffic. Or in my case, when I was 18 years old, on my knees, in a tiny rabbit-hutch of a dorm room at BYU’s Deseret Towers. You get the point.
The Restored Church does reverence many holy and historical places. Believers have done this for time immemorial. Like every other culture and religious tradition, we erect monuments and put up plaques where we believe significant events took place. It helps us remember. It helps us ponder. But nailing down the exact plot of earth isn’t the point. If it was, we’d know the precise spot in the sacred grove where Joseph saw the Father and Son. We don’t. We’d know exactly where Joseph unearthed the plates on the Hill Cumorah. We don’t. We’d know exactly where John the Baptist ordained Joseph and Oliver with the Aaronic Priesthood. Unknown. We’d know the specific location on the Susquehanna River where Joseph baptized Oliver and vice-versa. Again, we’re not sure.
One of the most sacred events of the Restoration was when Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood. We have no idea where, or even when, that occurred. Nobody thought to write down the date! Knowing would be nice, but a lot of stuff happening at that time, and remembering to mark such locations with a pile of stones or something for later commemoration apparently didn’t occur to anyone. And that’s okay. Because, when it comes to commemorating a spiritual event, it’s not about location. It’s about the event itself.
In many instances we’re lucky enough to know exactly where sacred events took place. We can visit the Kirtland Temple and know that at that pulpit the Savior, Elijah, Moses, and Elias appeared. Or the room in the Carthage Jail where Joseph and Hyrum were martyred. But even if those places had been torn down—and many important Church history sites have been torn down—it’d be okay.
More locations in the scriptures are unknown than known. We can’t be certain of a single location mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Maybe Nahum in Saudi Arabia where Lehi and his family passed through on their way to Bountiful. Otherwise, we’re just guessing. We’re applying the best research and technology. Still, strong opinions exist about alternate locations. Beyond that, God hasn’t deemed it necessary to reveal further details. Having a testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ or the Book of Mormon does not require location. Thank goodness. Many of us will never have the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. Or even important sites of the Restoration. We don’t need to find a road sign that reads Zarahemla to know that Zarahemla existed. And we don’t need to visit Edicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to know that Jesus is the Christ, and that He arose from the dead. That’s the miracle and promise of faith. Instead of fussing over what we don’t know, we cherish what we do know.
Don’t get the impression that I’m discouraging folks from visiting the Holy Land or holy sites. Whatever knowledge we gain in this life, it rises with us, and these are extraordinary places for buttressing knowledge.
And you know what? There are many sacred events described in the New Testament wherein we DO know the exact location. There are places where you CAN know that Jesus walked or where some other wondrous event occurred. We know the location of the Pool of Siloam where Jesus healed a blind man, who, after being criticized by the Pharisees, declared, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. What I know is that I was blind, and now I see. (John 9:25, Wayment Translation).” We know the location of the bubbling pool called Bethesda, where the Savior caused a lame man to rise, take up his bed, and walk. (John 5:8). We know the location of the ancient city of Capernaum, discovered in the 19th century, with most archaeological restorations taking place in the 20th century. Since it was in this village that the Savior resided during His ministry more than any other place, it seems impossible to walk amidst its ruins without feeling confident that you are crossing paths with places where the Mortal Messiah walked and stood. Even the fortress of Masada where the last of the Jewish rebels—960 men, women, and children—held out until 73 A.D., and then chose to take their own lives rather than submit to the Roman yoke. It’s right there at the southern end of the Dead Sea! It may not be a New Testament event, but it’s certainly related, and it’s awe-inspiring, and sacred, especially to the citizens of Israel. There are so many others. Maybe not as grandiose, but the authenticity can be verified.
So of the more grandiose sites in the Holy Land where sacred events are said to have taken place, which site is the most likely to be genuine? My opinion? The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That overcrowded basilica of tension and chaos. Take with a grain of salt all the dozens of other sites and events identified inside those confines, but the tomb itself, where Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, could be on the mark. It has the support of tradition, of ancient Church Fathers, and of current archeology. Sure, you can poke holes if you want, but it’s got more going for it than most.
And if indeed this jam-packed and rambunctious tourist destination with such a long history of conflict and violence and destruction is indeed the place where Jesus Christ arose from the dead, maybe we ought to think of it as less of a symbol of the events that transpired there, and more as a reminder of those children of our Father in Heaven who cram themselves inside its walls, each an imperfect being, deeply flawed and full of sin, in desperate need of the fruits of the great and eternal Atonement that culminated at, or very near, this location.
Thank you for listening to ForeverLDS. It’s been a difficult year, as I’ve said, and keeping up with the podcast has been a challenge. I’d like to release episodes more consistently. One idea I had was to post every few weeks, between more formal episodes, chapters of my only book not currently released on audio: Muckwhip’s Guide to Capturing the Latter-day Soul.
Then I wouldn’t have to knock myself out so much writing original episodes like this and focus on my novels. Seems like a reasonable plan, especially since many followers of ForeverLDS have expressed their appreciation for the podcast. And because a few days ago on ForeverLDS.com I posted about 40 different comments from listeners that have been collecting all summer.
Thanks again for all that you do. Without you, my listeners and readers, none of these efforts make any difference anyway, so I’m grateful for your support.
May God bless us all as we strive to progress, to succeed, and to endure to the end. If anyone listening doesn’t feel quite as close to the Savior as you felt yesterday, who moved? So move back. Then move back again and again.
This is Chris Heimerdinger and this is ForeverLDS.