Back in 2012, I visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – a real hotch-potch of a church on different levels and sprawling over a large area. Within its ancient walls dating back to the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine is the reputed site of the crucifixion.
But not everybody agrees.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims trudge up the Via Dolorosa – as I did – following the last footsteps of Jesus to his place of death. The cobbled road is punctuated with all those familiar sites – such as the point at which he fell and where his face was wiped.
And it all ends up in the Holy Sepulchre. Within the church you can venerate the spot at which the cross was erected and also the tomb of Jesus.
It’s all rather convenient, a sceptic might think. What a happy accident to have both these sacred places under one roof. And the discovery of the location of the crucifixion and the tomb were made by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, on a state visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century AD. In fact, Helena just found one miraculous biblical item after another during her stay.
But there are problems. Was the crucifixion really carried out within the city walls? Wouldn’t it have been more likely for grim executions to be conducted outside the gates, by the local rubbish tip for example, away from the houses of local citizens? You have to consider that the bodies were normally left to rot and be picked at by animals for days afterwards. Did people really want to see that outside of their window?
Also, where is the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha?
This question led some Christians in the nineteenth century, mainly Protestants, to pick a spot for the crucifixion outside the city walls near a tall mound that does appear to have a skull-like appearance. It’s just north of the Damascus gate. They also alighted on an old tomb nearby as the final resting place of the Messiah – the so-called Garden Tomb.
Now, some critics have argued that this theory has more to do with Protestants having no control over any part of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even today, that church is divided between the Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian and Greek orthodox churches. They occasionally fight each other in turf wars over who controls which bit of the church – and they’re certainly not letting the Protestants get a look in.
All I can say is that while I adore the Holy Sepulchre, it’s not a convincing site for the crucifixion. However, the Knights Templar thought it was and their churches all over Europe replicated the circular design of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m sure many of you will feel that the symbolic significance is more important than the reality. But some of you may not. So what is the truth?
When you approach the site of the crucifixion at the Holy Sepulchre, there can sometimes be scenes of deep religious ecstasy. You may think I was a bit naughty doing this but on my old iPhone (so apologies for the grainy quality), I filmed some Russian nuns showing their devotion in 2012 before the place where Jesus was executed by the Romans.
We all know Bethlehem, birth place of Jesus. Clearly to the Templars and crusaders, capturing Bethlehem in 1099 had huge spiritual significance. Like the rest of the Levant, it had been taken by Muslim armies from the control of the Byzantine empire four hundred years before. Now it was back in Christian hands.
The Church of the Nativity had been built by the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, in the early fourth century CE. Helena had been on a visit to the Holy Land to promote the new state religion and she certainly left her mark, discovering both the sites of Christ’s birth and death. Immediately, basilicas began to be constructed over these places.
It was destroyed during a revolt by the Samaritan population but then rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Somehow the church survived various invasions including the Muslims and even the rule of the insane caliph Al-Hakim who smashed up the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Then the crusaders arrived in 1099. The first king of Jerusalem, Baldwin, was crowned in the basilica, recognising its importance.
I visited in 2012. Bethlehem is on the Palestinian side of the wall separating their territory from Israel. So you have to go through the high wall built by the Israel authorities. The town now is slightly depressed economically and the basilica has been ravaged by both ancient looters and earthquake damage. It’s a bit dowdy and unloved but at the same time, not over restored.
Here are my pictures of both the church and the wall you have to get through before arriving.
Today I visited the birthplace of John the Baptist as part of my journey to Israel. The Franciscan monastery at Ein Karem – a village now swallowed up by Jerusalem – is a nineteenth century construction sitting on top of an earlier Byzantine church destroyed during a huge revolt by the Samaritans in Israel during the fifth century. This is a revolt I knew little about before my current visit to Israel but the destructive wave it unleashed is becoming ever clearer – worth a blog post in the future I think!
Anyway – here is the church and the spot at which John the Baptist – dear to the Templars – was conceived.
I was at a christening two years ago when a priest in an Anglican church read a passage from the Old Testament. It was the story of how God’s annointed people, the Israelites, totally destroyed a rival tribe taking no prisoners and laying their villages waste. “It’s an allegorical story of course,” he lisped while I tried to suppress my laughter.
In the crusader era, nobody thought the bloodier passages of the Old Testament were allegorical. On the contrary, they were an object lesson on how to deal with the wicked enemies of Christianity – ie, the Saracens. For Saracens, read Canaanites and every other tribe that opposed the children of Israel.
However, there have been tender souls throughout the Christian era who have found the violence in the Bible a little hard to handle. And different solutions to the conundrum have been offered. In the earliest years of Christianity, there were conflicts between two groups called the Ebionites and the Marcionites. The former believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and was essentially a Jewish figure. The followers of the thinker Marcion of Sinope decided that the Old Testament was such a ghastly, blood drenched text that the Christian god could not possibly have inspired it. The solution: lose the Old Testament entirely.
In the second century AD, this was fiercely opposed by Origen – who is not a saint because he thought Jesus was inferior to God the father (tut tut in later Catholic eyes). Along with the fifth century theologian Augustine, he argued that these were illustrative stories. Sure the Israelites went off and smote people in foul ways that would have landed them in a tribunal at the Hague in our own time….but these tales are simply pointing us towards better behaviour. So – for example – the Israelites finding and killing five kings in a cave – it’s not what it looks like. No, the five kings (Origen tortuously explains) are the five human senses which dwell in the cave of our mind.
That didn’t wash with the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century – including a couple of the Founding Fathers of the United States. The writer and fervent supporter of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, even said that the god of the Old Testament was so abhorrent that he had little by way of moral virtue. He should be completely discarded.
In a book out last year called ‘Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the bible’s violent verses‘ – Philip Jenkins says it’s pointless trying to ignore the insanely vicious nature of some of the bible. He argues that the bible is actually more violent than the Koran, it’s just that Christians have gradually eased away from the tribal conflicts that obviously fired up some of the book’s many authors. Parts of the Old Testament are borderline genocidal and Jenkins asks us to try and look at the Israelites through the eyes of the Canaanites – and imagine how scary they would have seemed.
Several blogs give almost amusing examples of the psychotic behaviour of God. For example – he leads his people out of captivity in Egypt. A joyous occasion for the world to be sure. Unless you happen to be King Og of Bashan and his people whom God took a dislike to and ordered the Israelites to slay en masse not leaving a single person standing. Expanding in to Palestine, God ordered his people at various times to wipe out entire populations including the citizens of Jericho. The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to kill all the Amelakites….and he meant all of them. Men, women, children, babies in arms, herds, flocks, camels, asses, etc Quite how a camel had offended God is anybody’s guess.
Or how about Isaiah on what should happen to the good folk of Babylon: “All who are found will be stabbed, all who are taken will fall by the sword, their infants will be dashed to the ground before their eyes…”
For fifteen hundred years, Christians have grown used to the idea of just Four Gospels. But these are the magic four that the early Church decided, for a variety of reasons, were acceptable to the faithful. Not that the faithful always agreed and we see different competing bibles in circulation during the first centuries of Christianity. The current compilation took a while to take root and to be universally accepted – and there are still differences between, say, Catholicism’s bible, Protestantism’s bible and that of the Eastern Orthodox church.
So what happened to the missing Gospels? They were suppressed, burnt, condemned and so on. But over the years, they have stubbornly turned up in other writings or simply been dug out of the ground. A list of those Gospels and their translations can be found here. These include the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of St Peter and the Gospel of the Egyptians. The latter was condemned for its insistence on sexual abstinence as a way of breaking the endless cycle of life and death and taking all our souls skywards to heaven. This would not do as the church insisted we had to go through an earthly cycle to, as it were, prove our worthiness to go to heaven. The earthy teacher and invigilator for this admittance exam for entrance to heaven would, of course, be the church.
In fact, any gospel that threatened the power and very raison d’etre for an earthly church was roundly condemned. As were gospels – like that of the Ebionites – which presented Jesus as too mortal (and Jewish) or those that failed to present him as mortal enough (the Marcionites and Gnostics who saw him as a purely divine force to be understood through a kind of transcendental meditation).
Interestingly, these gospels offer more information on key parts of the bible story. The Infancy Gospel of James gives a whole heap of detail on Mary’s birth to an elderly couple who had given up hope of having children. It explains why the Temple insisted on her marriage to the carpenter Joseph and then tells how Jesus was born in a cave with Salome acting as midwife. As Herod’s troops approach, Jesus is hidden in an animal trough to avoid detection.
The Gospel of St Peter is at the more anti-Jewish end of the Gospel spectrum. As the noted scholar Bart Ehrman has noted in his excellent books on biblical texts, you can crudely divide up gospels in to those that lean more towards a mortal and very Jewish Jesus and those that lean towards a more divine figure and tend to blame the Jews for his crucifixion. In the Gospel of St Peter, Pontius Pilate is completely exonerated for the death of Jesus. By washing his hands, he really has refused to have anything to do with the trial and it’s Herod Antipas who passes the death sentence. The Coptic church took this interpretation a step further by looking at Pilate as a virtual saint.
The Gospel of the Ebionites portrays Jesus and John the Baptist as vegetarians and Jesus takes a decidedly dim view of animal sacrifice in the Jewish Temple. This makes Jesus a Jewish reformer – probably in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the soul searching that took place among Jews. This event took place decades after the crucifixion but it shows how what was happening as these Gospels were written insinuated in to the stories. Basically, the Gospels (including the four we know) were often part of a polemic between different Christian/Jewish groups. They simply put words in to the mouth of Jesus and his apostles to support their view.
The Gospel of Mary controversially places Mary Magdalene above the disciples – not just in the affections of Jesus but as a follower. As with many of these Gospels and the four we know (mainly written in the very late first century and most in the second century AD), what we can actually discern here are some early disputes between Christians. In this case – are women allowed to preach and hold high position in the church? The argument is portrayed in a dispute within the Gospel between St Peter and Mary Magdalene. Peter is obviously telling Mary Magdalene to get back in the kitchen and make some tea for the lads (I’m joking) while Mary has different ideas. This same story of a bust up between the two appears in at least three other suppressed Gospels – the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of St Thomas.
The latter gospel is very interesting. St Thomas is said to be the apostle who takes Christianity to India. While in India, he encounters a huge snake that reveals itself to be the devil. I love this encounter where Lucifer explains the difficult relationship with a father who he feels has been rather unfair to him – here is a quote:
“And he said unto him (devil to Thomas): I am a reptile of the reptile nature and noxious son of the noxious father, of him that hurt and smote the four brethren which stood upright. I am also son to him that sitteth on a throne over all the earth, that receiveth back his own from them that borrow. I am son to him that girdeth about the sphere and I am kin to him that is outside the ocean whose tail is set in his own mouth. I am he that entered through the barrier in to paradise and spake with Eve the things which my father bade me speak unto her. I am he that kindled and inflamed Cain to kill his own brother and on mine account did thorns and thistles grow up in the earth.”
One thing to note about the Thomas gospel is that Jesus is rarely challenged as he sets down the law of his father. But in Gospels that are regarded as earlier than Thomas – the so-called Oxryhynchus 1224 Gospel written very close to Jesus’ death – Jesus has to argue hard with his opponents in the market place.
Well, there’s plenty more than can be said about the Apocrypha but I’d advise going to the first web link here where you will find translations of all these Gospels to read at your leisure. If you thought there were contradictions in the accounts of the four Gospels authorised by the Church (compare their accounts of the empty tomb discovery for example), then you’ll find plenty more confusion when you add these in to the mix.
Bernard of Clairvaux was an odd chap. From an aristocratic background, he rejected earthly gains in favour or a very severe asceticism that won him more influence on account of his stern piety. In spite of his saintliness, he was renowned for having a short temper and wasn’t shy about dabbling in papal politics.
He had retreated to a place called Clairvaux with a group of Cistercian monks to form a monastic group that would reject the ostentation that could now be seen in most medieval churches. He believed places of worship should be minimally decorated – and in this he anticipates the protestant backlash against Catholic showiness by about four hundred years.
In his writings, Bernard talks about churches in the twelfth century – and a lot were being built at this time – having “immoderate length”, “superfluous breadth” and “strange designs which attract the eyes of the worshiper, hinder the soul’s devotion”.
Though Bernard did not condone the crusade era pogroms against Jews, he does say that the glittering designs now cropping up in churches reminded him of “the old Jewish ritual” – which one assumes he did not think was a positive development.
All those aspects of gothic cathedrals we are used to and like, gargoyles pulling faces and smiling saints – were complete anathema to Bernard when they were being constructed. Pack it in, was his simple message to the masons and the clerics who employed them.
Bernard believed that if it was beautiful to the eye then it was “dross and dung”. He beheld the “great trees of brass” that had replaced plain candlesticks and asked: “What do you suppose is the object of all this? The repentance of the contrite or the admiration of the gazers?”
Put the paint pots down was one of his regular shouts. Whether it was gaudy illumination in bibles or saints richly coloured on church walls. The insertion of griffins and other fantastical animals in to sacred imagery was abhorrent and pagan in his view.
“Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren when reading”
He railed against “disgusting monkeys”, “ferocious lions”, “monstrous centaurs”, “spotted tigers” and other things littering the gospels and peering from walls. “You may see there one head with many bodies or one body with numerous heads”.
Quadrupeds with serpent tails and a fish with a beast’s head might seem enchanting and mysterious to us but to Bernard the ascetic, it was absolutely repellent.
“Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them!”