Jerusalem, the Bible, and the Jews

Norman Golb

Were the Jews "permanently banned" from Jerusalem, only to return "to rule the holy city after an exile of two thousand years"? This view, most recently expressed by the author and journalist Karen Armstrong, has no doubt become widespread, since Oslo and the intensifying debate over Jerusalem's future, among large segments of the reading public; but it remains largely unsupported by historical evidence.

There were, of course, periods when the Jews were, by imperial decree, indeed forced to abandon their holy city. Emperor Hadrian, with his victory over Bar Kokhba's insurgent forces in 135, issued precisely such an order as part of his general persecution of Jews throughout Palestine. The persecution was suppressed by his successor Antoninus Pius (r. 137-161) early in the latter's reign. We are informed by the tenth-century chronicler Eutychius (Ibn Batriq) that, during the 4th century, Constantine the Great once again prohibited Jewish habitation of Jerusalem--an assertion which, if true, can only indicate that during the intermediate two centuries the original decree had largely fallen into disuse. Like many other Byzantine decrees, this one too proved to be of a temporary nature. The Emperor Julian ( "the Apostate") who ruled from 361 to 363, favored the Jews and in consultation with them made efforts to restore the Temple. Jewish tombs of the 4th and 5th centuries have been found at Jerusalem, Hebrew liturgical poetry and rabbinic texts describe pilgrimages to the city, and during periods of warfare there between Persians and Byzantines and, later, between Byzantines and Muslims, Jews played an important role. Their presence and multifarious activities in the city later on, during Islamic times, are documented by hundreds of manuscripts serving as the basis of detailed descriptions by present-day historians.

Yet even though Jerusalem in its incarnation as spiritual and political capital of the Jewish nation of antiquity was uniquely its own creation and not that of any other group, and although only forced expulsion forced the Jews to abandon the city at certain moments in history, much effort has been expended, over the centuries, to minimize their fundamental role in the founding and subsequent evolution of that city. Beginning already in antiquity, the effort in question became in itself part of a two-pronged polemical undertaking to discredit the Jews, the other being propagation of the claim, which gained in ferocity with the passage of time, that the Jewish nation was not the bona fide creator of the writings contained in the Hebrew Bible nor their licit possessor.

Already during the first century, in a too little known compromise with the Jewish Christians of Palestine, those early founders of the Church representing the Gentiles--who insisted that believers need not observe the ritual laws of the Pentateuch--agreed nevertheless to adopt the "Holy Writings" of the Jews (in Hebrew, kitbe haqodesh, i.e. the Bible), as the Christians' own. No doubt because of the inherent fascination of the ideas and events contained in them, those writings had already been translated into Greek before the advent of Christianity. In that guise they had entered into the wider stream of literature of the Mediterranean world of that time; but never, so far as we know, had a claim been expressed that the writings in question were anything else than literary creations of the Jews. With the advent of Christianity, however, and in the ensuing struggle of the early church to gain adherents, theologians and polemists began to claim that the Christians themselves were the True Israel , the authentic heirs of the essential Biblical revelation which--so the claim went--was distorted and misused by the Jews. The Hebrew Bible came to be understood as containing the proto-history of Christianity rather than of Judaism. It did not in this view any longer belong to the Jews. (Marcel, Simon, Verus Israel, p. 76ff). In this way the Holy Writings of the Jews were transferred to and appropriated by the Church, which then propagated them to the world with the claim that they were that Church's very own sacred possession. This claim was often reiterated by Church figures in the Middle Ages and modern times.

The documents incorporating the decisions of Vatican II indicate that, during the century just past, efforts were indeed made by Latin Christianity to ameliorate the regrettable stance of earlier Church figures, but a perusal of the texts by which this attempt was made offers little succour. Without acknowledging or even alluding to what can only be called a deeply-ingrained and shameful polemic, the Council decreed that "Holy Mother Church...holds" that the Old and New Testament writings "are sacred and canonical because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit...they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself." (W.M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, 1966, pp. 119 ff.) The text asserts that, in composing Scripture, "God chose men" who, " true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted." As for those men who were charged with setting down the Old Testament, the document states (ibid.) that God "first entered into a covenant with Abraham...and, through Moses, with the people of Israel...To this people which He had acquired for Himself, He so manifested Himself through words and deeds as the one true and living God that Israel came to know by experience the ways of God with men....Israel gained a deeper and clearer understanding of His ways and made them more widely known among the nations..." In the following paragraph the document states that "The principal purpose to which the plan of the Old Covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming both of Christ, the universal Redeemer, and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy..."

The Vatican document quoted thus does not explicitly champion either the "True Israel" claim of former centuries or its derogatory corollary, but also does not repudiate either the one or the other. Its authors could have done so, however delicately, merely by adding after the words "the people of Israel" the simple explanatory statement "namely, the Jewish nation" and adding words to the effect that the principal purpose of the Hebrew Bible for the Jews was and is not the same as for the Christians. By refraining from taking these few steps, or in any other way repudiating the polemical claims with their very long history, Vatican II tacitly left the door open to further attempts at deligitimation of the Jews and the Jewish historical experience.

The Christian treatment of Jerusalem has mostly been of a piece with this ancient polemic. It was early on claimed that it was because of the sins of the Jews and their failure to recognize the Christian truth that the Lord had taken Jerusalem from them and put an end to the priestly rituals of the Temple. The true primordial priest, it was held, was not Aaron, but the ancient Melchizedek of the Book of Genesis, who like the Patriarchs and prophets was a genuine "Hebrew" as opposed to the Jews and their priests of ensuing generations who practised a corrupt and deceitful religion. This theme is sounded time and again by the Christian polemists. Thus Iranaeus of Lyons would eventually assert, alluding to the destruction of the Temple, that if "those who pride themselves on being the House of Jacob" would have known in advance that they would "lose their inheritance and God's grace, they would not have hesitated to burn their Scriptures with their own hands." In all the literature of the period, observes James Parkes, "there is only one reference [i.e., in the Didascalia Apostolorum] in which the destruction of the Temple is not cast up at [the Jews] as a gibe, as a proof that their glory had departed."

The effect of these highly concentrated polemical efforts is not difficult to perceive. While Christian writers, in imitation of the Jewish custom, continued to refer to Jerusalem as "the Holy City," the latter did not occupy a high position in Church administration or authority, and was for several centuries not even designated as a metropolis. In the ranking of the Church, Jerusalem came fourth in all of Christian Palestine, after Caesarea, Scythopolis and Petra. Only in the sixth century was Jerusalem declared to be the seat of a fifth Church patriarchate, but the latter had a troubled existence throughout most of its subsequent history. It was mainly as a place of pilgrimage to holy sites connected with the life of Jesus that Jerusalem exerted an attraction on the Christian world, culminating finally with the First Crusade and the attendant widespread slaughter of Jews and Muslims within the city. For centuries subsequent to the Crusades, Christianity's interest in Jerusalem notably slackened. The only statement in Vatican II referring to Jerusalem has to do with the "Heavenly" or "Celestial" Jerusalem which awaits all true believers in the afterlife: "In the earthly liturgy, by way of foretaste, we share in that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, and in which Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle." (Abbott, ibid., p. 141). The celestial "true tabernacle" alludes, of course, by contrast to that other one-- the tabernacle of the Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 A.D.

Although through the centuries some calmer voices in the Church, popes and others, have counseled benevolence towards the Jews, the prevailing ones, virtually down to our own time, have not. And the force of the twin messages--fallen Jerusalem and a destroyed Temple as proof of the Jews' perfidy, and Christianity as the True Israel having a superior moral or religious right to possession of the Hebrew Scriptures--has even today hardly vanished, but rather continues to encourage, subtly but surely, the concept of the Jews as a people permanently dispossessed of their ancient heritage.

Given the Vatican's apparent reluctance to repudiate the historically long-held views of Church figures on Jerusalem and the Hebrew Bible, it follows that the Pope would not do a volte-face and suddenly pronounce in favor of any kind of Jewish sovereignty with respect to the holy city. His well-known call (reiterated only last week) for a Jerusalem under international rule--i.e., with the Jews removed from authority--is consistent with an aspect of Church policy that was regrettably not ameliorated by Vatican II. The fact that a significant part of the Christian Arab population of Israel and the Middle East looks to the Vatican for moral support surely has much to do with this persistence, as does, of course the Vatican's concern for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. As for these various sites, however, it is a matter of record that they have been notably well protected by Israel, just as they were for centuries by Muslim rulers (with the singular exception of the somewhat deranged Fatimid caliph al-Hakim at the beginning of the 11th century ). The experience of the past vitiates a serious case for internationalization of the city on the grounds of protection of its holy sites.

On the other hand, to justify this policy, as writers recently have, by placing emphasis on the fact that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have in common the belief that Jerusalem is a holy city, distorts the historical reality. The concept of Jerusalem as "the city of holiness" or "of the holy [Temple]" (Hebrew `ir haqodesh, cf. Isaiah 52.) was created by the Jews. It is a concept that, in the process of their becoming authentic monotheistic religions, was only borrowed from the Jews by both Christianity and Islam, which emerged, the one as the other, from basic Jewish teachings. The common Arabic sobriquet for the city, al-Quds, is but a shortened form of the Jewish-Aramaic qarta d'qudsha used to designate Jerusalem. "Al-Quds" was never used of Mecca, Islam's holiest city, for which Muslims have always employed more indigenous Arabic expressions denoting sanctity. The documentation is endless proving that the sanctity of Jerusalem for the Jews has always been primary, as Mecca for the Muslims.

While the imposing Mosque of Omar shields the Temple Mount rock that Mohammed, according to a (relatively modern) Muslim view, stood upon for his mi'raj or nocturnal ascent to heaven, and the al-Aqsa mosque also graces the same Mount, the presence of these and other, more modest, mosques in Jerusalem also does not warrant calls for internationalization, which would be an extremely dangerous measure never before attempted in either Muslim or Christian lands. The stance of the Muslim countries themselves--all of which, according to Ms. Armstrong, would have to be satisfied by any solution proffered for Jerusalem before assenting to it--is diametrically opposed to that of the Vatican. Only recently, when Chairman Arafat consulted with several relatively moderate leaders of Islamic countries, not one of them offered his support "for surrendering claim to sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem" (New York Times of 29 July, 2000). Thereafter, according to reports in the Times and elsewhere, he has denied the Jewish history of the Temple Mount site in antiquity.

Precisely why these positions are being taken is a matter not fully understood even by many diplomats. During the early centuries of conquest and attendant religious success, Muslim theologians gradually created the twin religio-political concepts of dar al-islam, "abode of Islam," and dar al-harb, "abode of war." According to the doctrine hinged to these concepts, all territory taken by Muslim armies were to be Islamicized and remain forever a part of the Islamic state, their non-Muslim inhabitants, if Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians, being tolerated as subjugated minorities upon payment of special taxes. Those countries under non-Islamic rule adjacent to the dar al-islam were to be fought against until conquered, denuded of their idolatries, and brought under the rule of Islam. Any country reconquered by Islam's enemies become once again, in principle, part of the dar al-harb. In more recent centuries this latter rule has been modified to provide for a country's continuing to be treated as part of the dar al-islam as long as certain aspects of Islamic law or practice have been found to persevere within it. To the best of my knowledge, however, this latter contingency has, during the past half century, never been proposed by any Islamic thinker with respect to Jerusalem, no Islamic head of state has suggested it, and Chairman Arafat keenly depends on the support of at least the more moderate among them.

Given the present conditions and their historical background, what can the nations of the western world reasonably expect of Israel at the present juncture?

Revised: October 25, 2000
Created: September 25, 2000