Commentary Magazine

Christians and the Holy Land

Among the world’s great religions, as they were called in pre-multiculturalist days, Christianity occupies a middle ground in its attitude toward the sacramental. On the one hand, it is far removed from the intricately sacralizing activity of Judaism and from the latter’s comprehensive schemas of chosen and not-chosen, holy and profane, clean and unclean, commanded and prohibited; indeed, it was the desire to transcend what they considered the restrictive particularism of rabbinic Judaism that impelled the early Christians to break with it.

And yet on the other hand, if one compares Christianity to a religion like Buddhism, its attachment to particulars seems great enough. For the Buddhist, Buddha’s teachings are all, his life nothing; nothing non-legendary is known about that life, and had it been lived in another age or country—or even not at all—it hardly would matter. For the Christian, by contrast, Jesus’ life is at the center of things; it is the Divine incarnated in a definite time and place in human history, and abstracted from that time and place neither Jesus’ teachings nor Christianity’s interpretation of them can fully make sense.

From the outset, therefore, the Christian Church regarded the time-and-place-ness of Jesus’ life with ambivalence, half-denying and half-affirming the importance of his Jewish and Palestinian specificity. In its geographical aspect, the question was: is Palestine still a holy land for Christians as it is for Jews, both because of the biblical prophecies concerning it and because of the many places in it linked to Jesus’ life and ministry?

Or, rather, does the abrogation of Jewish particularism mean that Palestine too has lost its special standing, and that just as in Jesus Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither ritually clean nor ritually unclean acts, so, all lands being equally dear to God, there is no longer a Holy Land vs. other countries?



It is this dilemma and the response to it that Robert L. Wilken, professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, examines in The Land Called Holy, a study of Christian attitudes toward Palestine from the time of the first Church Fathers to the Muslim conquest of the country in 636.1

As Wilken shows, the Church Fathers were split on the point. Some, like the 2nd-century Justin Martyr and Iranaeus, held that Palestine remained central to the Divine plan; both refused to allegorize it into a more universal metaphor and both fully expected that the land of Israel would regain God’s blessing and that Jerusalem would be gloriously rebuilt. But other patristic writers, like the early-3rd-century Origen, took an opposed view and argued that all the biblical prophecies concerning the land of Israel and its redemption should be read symbolically as referring to the entire “kingdom of earth.”

“I plan to dispel the mistaken notion that the sayings about a good land promised by God to the righteous have reference to the land of Judea,” wrote Origen in Contra Celsum, and in this he was joined by such figures as Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine. The last, indeed, the most influential of all early Christian theologians, went so far as to spiritualize completely the concept of a redeemed Holy Land, which referred in his opinion to the Kingdom of Heaven.

And yet even the 4th-century Augustine was not entirely clear-cut on the question. As evidence, Wilken cites a case in which, as he puts it, “piety collided with his theology” when Augustine gave a worshiper in his North African bishopric sanction for ordering a shipment of virtue-rich Palestinian soil. (The soil soon proved its efficacy by healing a paralyzed young peasant.)

One sees here the beginnings of a distinction between a Holy Land that is no longer the object of present or future Divine favor and one that is still a repository of past sanctity—a view first put forth most vigorously by Augustine’s contemporary, Gregory of Nyssa, for whom the sites trod on by Jesus had “received the footprints of Life itself.” Not that Gregory was unequivocal, either. Even though these sites bore “signs of the Lord’s sojourn in the flesh,” he objected to making pilgrimages to them; since God was no more present in Jerusalem than elsewhere, it was a waste of time and money to travel there.

In fact, Christian pilgrimages to Palestine were practically unknown in the first two centuries after the death of Jesus, and if by Gregory’s time they were becoming common, this was largely due to the development of a growing Christian community there that had a strong political and economic stake in encouraging them.

The turning point in this respect was the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who, apart from founding a new Christian capital in Constantinople, invested heavily in building in and around Jerusalem. It was now that the “discoveries” of the True Cross and of the exact location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the various dramas of his last days in Jerusalem led to the construction of grand Christian shrines like the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Church of the Ascension, as well as to a proliferation of other Christian pilgrimage sites throughout the country.

In addition to the better-known of these sites, the famed “pilgrim from Bordeaux,” who visited Palestine in 333, four years before Constantine’s death, reports being brought to the well in Sychar where Jesus met the Samaritan woman, to the tree in Jericho that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, and to the spot on the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. While in the Jordan Valley, the same pilgrim also visited the house of Rahab the harlot in Jericho, still standing 1,500 years after the town was razed by Joshua, and the exact place where Joshua circumcised the Israelites and buried their foreskins. His travel diary, the Itinerarium Burdigalense, testifies to an already well-established tourist industry that was no doubt an increasingly important source of income for Palestinian Christians and a major factor in the prosperity that the country enjoyed until the end of the Byzantine period.



Although Wilken is more interested in theology than in economics and hardly dwells on the connection between them, that connection cries out from the pages of his book. Even the monastic ascetics he writes about at length, who flocked to the Judean desert in the 5th and 6th centuries, making it a more densely populated area than it ever had been before or was to be again, must have needed cash to buy supplies with; and the brisk trade they did in Holy Land relics, or “blessings,” must clearly have been furthered by the theological notion that they were thereby helping to advance a “God-trodden land” in which, in the later words of Fra Francesco Suriano’s medieval treatise On the Holy Land,

there is not . . . a mountain, a valley, a plain, a field, a fountain, a river, a torrent, a castle, a village, not even a stone which the Savior of the world did not touch.

“Oil from the lamps in the Anastasis [the Church of the Holy Sepulchre], water from the Jordan River, dried flowers from the garden of Gethsemane, stones or dirt from Golgotha”—these are but some of the items mentioned by Wilken that Christian pilgrims to Palestine purchased and took home with them from the 4th century on.

Such “God-troddenness,” of course, need not necessarily have been an idea cynically promulgated by those who profited from it. Human beings everywhere are adept at believing in the theoretical justifications for practical benefits, and the Christians of Palestine were no exception. Indeed, as they came to be a majority in the country during the last centuries of Byzantine rule, they quite naturally harked back to the views of Justin and Iranaeus and associated themselves with the many biblical passages promising the land to God’s chosen. In some cases they even gave these views, as Wilken observes, “a political interpretation” aimed at asserting their own primacy in Christendom, as when, in the great catechismal dispute over the nature of the Father and Son in the Trinity, they demanded special weight for their opinions because these emanated from “the holy and adorable places” of “the mother of the churches, Zion.”

It is thus ironic but not surprising that when Palestine fell to conquerors in the 7th century, first to the Persians in 614, and then, after a brief Byzantine reconquest, to the Muslims, its Christian inhabitants, turning again to the Bible, found a prooftext for their situation in the Book of Lamentations, which was originally written after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. For centuries, Christians had considered Israel’s loss of land and sovereignty to be the definitive proof that the Jews had fallen out of Divine favor; now, for the first time, they found themselves identifying not only with a biblical Israel blessed on its soil but with a biblical Israel punished on it. In The Capture of Jerusalem, a lament written by the Palestinian monk Strategos, the city’s sacking by the Persians is compared to both the crucifixion and the expulsion from Eden:

O gates of Zion, . . . how many calamities have passed through you. . . . O gates of Zion, an honored cross went out from you twice; for once the cross went out with Christ, and now the cross goes out with the patriarch [of Jerusalem] and shepherd Zachariah in captivity. O Zion, how much joy and sadness and lamentation you have showed us. . . . Zachariah the patriarch went out through Zion’s gate as Adam went forth from paradise.

The Land Called Holy ends at this point and does not pursue the further history of its subject through the first Muslim period, the Crusades, the long periods of Seljuk, Mamluk, and Ottoman rule, and the 20th century. Certainly, however, the same nexus of theology, politics, and economics continued to be operative in Christian attitudes toward Palestine up to modern times.

The most obvious case is the unprecedented centrality given the country in the theological literature of the age of the Crusades, in which its permanent return to Christian rule was considered by many ecclesiastical writers to be a prerequisite for Christ’s Second Coming. But less dramatic examples are in some ways more interesting.

The Israeli historian Joshua Prawer has pointed out, for example, that one reason Christian pilgrims continued to flow to Palestine in undiminishing numbers from the 7th through the 11th centuries, even though the Christian population of the country was declining due to a high rate of conversion to Islam, was that the Mediterranean shipping industry did everything it could to promote and encourage such activity. During this period, Christian Europe ran a heavy trade deficit with the Muslim Middle East, importing far more than it exported, and ships carrying cargoes westward across the Mediterranean had to make the return trip eastward with empty holds—unless these could be filled by Christians convinced that a journey to the Holy Land was more meritorious than trips to such nearer pilgrimage sites as Tours in France or Compostela in Spain.

Similarly, the final collapse of the Crusader Kingdom in 1291, the ejection of the Byzantines from the Levant by the Turks, and the weakening of Mediterranean trade in the late Middle Ages all led to a gradual de-emphasis of Palestine in Christian thought—a trend reinforced by the rise of Protestantism, whose repudiation of the Catholic sacraments included pilgrimage (called “counterfeit worship” by Calvin). And yet when France, Great Britain, and Germany, the last two predominantly Protestant countries, developed renewed imperial ambitions in the Middle East in the 19th century, Christian interest in Palestine revived and new streams of European travelers set out for it.

Although these were for the most part modern-minded tourists—adventurers, travel writers, and archeologists—many of them were also bent on reconciling their Christian faith with the historicism of the times, and a Christian education and Christian emotions certainly motivated most of them. Since many also needed occasional protection from brigandage and a corrupt and inefficient Turkish bureaucracy, they offered a welcome pretext for the European powers to assert and extend their political influence by operating highly active consulates whose functions went well beyond the normal diplomatic ones.



For the Zionist movement, it was certainly a stroke of luck that, when Palestine became a European colonial possession at the end of World War I, the possessor was Protestant England rather than Catholic France, which took control of next-door Lebanon and Syria. One has only to look at the history of relations between modern Israel and the Vatican, which to this day has refused formally to recognize the Jewish state, to realize that, however ambiguous the British position on Zionism was, no Catholic country would have ever issued the 1917 Balfour Declaration or permitted large-scale Zionist settlement under its aegis. Although the Catholic Church may have come a long way in recent years toward moderating its hostile position toward Judaism, there is still clearly a sense in which it finds Jewish sovereignty in Palestine a hard bone to swallow. Unlike the Protestants, whose total desacramentalization of Christianity meant the surrender of all theological claims to the Holy Land, the Catholic Church still finds itself in a state of theoretical juridical conflict with a Jewish government there.

At the same time, when it comes to Israel, one might wish that a number of Protestant churches today, particularly in the United States, would display a bit more of Catholicism’s traditionally hardheaded political realism. Certainly, from a Jewish point of view, Israel’s Protestant foes these days are only slightly more worrisome than some of its Protestant friends. The former include mainline groups like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, which in the years since 1967 have come to view the Middle East conflict as a medieval mystery play with the Palestinians cast as the crucified Jesus and the Jews as the New Testament mob that howls for his blood.

But should one feel any better about the American evangelical fundamentalists who write pro-Israel letters to their Congressmen and who cheerfully reassure us that the Jewish state is God’s will because, now that he has restored the seed of Abraham to its land, Armageddon and the Last Judgment cannot be far behind? In both cases we have the kind of politically naive millenarianism that Origen attacked in the 3rd century and that Catholicism managed to keep a fairly tight lid on until the Reformation. Pondering it, one is moved to concede that the Catholic priesthood may have had a point when it sought over the centuries to keep the Bible out of the hands of the Christian laity.



Wilken concludes his book with a brief epilogue in which, while eschewing any specific reference to contemporary events, he deplores the shrinkage of the Palestinian Christian community and declares:

If it should happen that the only Christians to survive in the Holy Land were caretakers of the holy places, Christianity would forfeit a precious part of its inheritance. . . . Its homeland is in the Middle East, and continuity with its past is dependent on the Christians who continue to live in that land in which the faith is native. Were the holy places turned into museums or archeological curiosities, as they have been in Turkey and Tunisia, the tangible links that stretch back through history to the apostles and to God’s revelation in Christ would be severed. . . . Only people, not stones and earth and marble, can bear an authentic witness.

These are eloquent words, and because Wilken writes with sympathy for Jewish feelings and aspirations throughout The Land Called Holy, it would be unfair to suspect him of blaming Israel for the steady emigration of Palestinian Christians which has given even Bethlehem, once the most Christian city in Palestine, a Muslim majority. And yet since he does not say so outright, it needs to be said: the major reason that many Palestinian Christians feel they no longer have a future in their country is not Israel, but rather the rising tide of Muslim fundamentalism in the Palestinian national movement, which equates Palestinianism with Islam.

This is especially ironic because, as in Lebanon and Egypt, Christians in Palestine have tended over the course of this century to look to nationalism as the one force that could, by creating a secular identity in which religion played no role, make them the full equals of Muslims. In this respect, like their distant ancestors who were made to discover that the Book of Lamentations pertained to them too, they have been condemned to relive a Jewish fate; for what people in modern times has learned more bitterly than the Jews that an ideology of leveling secularism can easily devour the minority hand that fed it? Only if the Christian community in Palestine were to revert to an earlier outlook, in which it saw itself as Christian first, and Arab or Palestinian second, could it survive, both physically and spiritually, to shoulder the burden that Wilken wishes for it—but this is not likely to happen.


1 The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought. Yale University Press, 448 pp., $35.00.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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