DURING a recent visit to Israel a fellow traveller asked the following question: Would an agnostic or someone whose faith had nearly lapsed be likely to discover or re-discover Our Lord in the Holy Places?
This seems to be another way of evaluating the historicity of the gospels. Do we know, from other than biblical sources, anything of the life of Jesus Christ? Very little.
But there is mention of Jesus in the first century by two Latin authors. Tacitus wrote that the Christians were named for a Christus who had been condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. And Pliny the Younger, in his Letter to Trajan said that Christians sang hymns to a certain Christus as to a God.
While we were looking round Caesarea — founded by Herod the Great and Palestine's capital for six centuries — I overheard a Jewish guide telling his group that there was no mention of Jesus in the writings of the Jewish author, Flavius Josephus.
Later I got into conversation with the guide in question and told him politely that he was wrong. Less polite was his reaction and he naturally didn't believe me. In fact Josephus, in his vast work on The Antiquities of the Jews, mentions James, "a brother of Jesus who is called Christ."
This, at least, makes an auspicious beginning for the objective seeker after Jesus in the Holy Land. Thereafter he must look to the scriptures and see if the "holy places" in that Land make the gospels come alive.
FOR most people, they do, though, naturally, they depend, to some extent, on the eyes of faith. Hence the difficulty of the original question. Can the sceptic be convinced?
No one could have been more of a sceptic than the 19th century orientalist and philosopher, Joseph Renan. But even he said something very interesting about the Holy Land. He called it the "Fifth gospel."
The only way to "read" this gospel is by trying to look beyound the hills of Galilee, the shores of Lake Tiberius and the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and to recapture, if possible, the scenes of 2,000 years ago.
It is necessary, unfortunately, to put aside images inherited from childhood and the equating of Christ's miracles with something akin to magic. The reality is more exciting, if, at times, bewildering and challenging.
Pilgrims, for example, are directed in their thousands to Nazareth to view the traditional place where Mary was visited by the Archangel with his stupendous message. A vast, modern and — to most people's way of thinking — very ugly basilica today surmounts the spot where the Annunciation might have occurred:
THE evangelists, however, do not agree as to where Mary and Joseph lived before the birth of Jesus. Though Luke favours
Nazareth, Matthew implies that it was Bethlehem. The leading expert on the Holy Land, Fr Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, says that Matthew is more probably correct.
Were Nazareth their home, he argues, it would have been more natural to return there when Herod menaced the family than to go to Egypt. But Joseph was a Judean, and Judeans automatically thought of Egypt as a place of refuge.
If Mary lived near Jerusalem, moreover, it would have been natural for her to visit and stay as she did — with Zachary's wife Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. No young Jewish girl, on the other hand, would have been permitted to make the three-day journey on her own from Nazareth to the "Town of Juda" where Zachary and Elizabeth lived.
Pilgrims to Nazareth are also, as a rule, shown a cave identified, since the 17th century, as the workshop of Joseph. But this, says the learned Dominican Murphy-O'Connor, is merely "a pious tradition that has no foundation." The gospels, furthermore, designate Joseph simply as a "worker," ( Matt. 13:55), not specifically as a "worker in wood" or carpenter. He might have been something like a smith or a stonecutter.
Another cherished image shattered, one might say. But might not the sceptic take heart at this very point and come much nearer to the historical Jesus? For he, the sceptic, would prefer the frank facing of inconvenient facts to the perpetuation of familiar fables.
Jesus, moreover, did live in Nazareth as a boy and there visited a synagogue. Recent archaeological discoveries have had sensational results, particularly as to the uncovering of a pre-Byzantine shrine dating back almost to Apostolic times. Many stones were found to bear recognisable graffiti including the Greek for "Hail Mary," "Lord," and "Christ." (The sceptic should be getting less sceptical by the minute.)
AND so to Bethlehem, where the seeker after Jesus must first visit the "fields" near the town to see the sort of caves where the shepherds sheltered their animals.
In such a cave must Jesus have been born, though not necessarily on the spot now enclosed within a complex basilica.
Thus, as Hubert Richards points out in his Pilgrim to the Holy Land, "Bethlehem provides as good an example as any of the relative unimportance of authenticity. Who could ever guarantee the exact location of
the 'inn' or of the 'manger' in Luke's story of Jesus' birth? Did he even have an exact location in mind? Does it matter? All that matters is that eventually this spot was chosen to embody the story, and that in coming here one joins the millions of pilgrims who have here pondered on the mystery of the incarnation — and here understood that God is no longer to be thought of as distant or inaccessible." (More comfort for the sceptic, one hopes.) It is also important to remember that no stick or stone of present-day Bethlehem or Jerusalem existed in Jesus' time. The discerning seeker after Jesus must strip away the palimpsest of the centuries in order to try and imagine the almost unimaginable. The present "upper room", for example, possible scene of the Last Supper and/or the coming of the Holy Spirit, dates only from the 14th century. But a visit to it evokes an imagery of Jesus such as can never be achieved without actual presence in the Holy Land.
Jerusalem, moreover, was almost totally destroyed in AD 70. Its destruction was completed another 70 years later by the Emperor Hadrian but his thoroughness unwittingly helped the Christian cause. In building a new city (Aelia Capitolina) he was well aware of the very strong oral tradition as to the sites of Jesus's crucifixion and nearby burial.
These sites Hadrian purposely desecrated with pagan temples, thus helping the Constantinian excavators the more easily to identify the original sacred spots.
So arose the first Holy Sepulchre church over the places of Our Lord's death and burial.
To visit the present church is inevitably a terrible shock at first. Its six "occupants" — Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians — jealously watch each other almost round the clock for any infringements of rights. It is as disedifying as the remembrance of the massacre of all of Jerusalem's Moslems by the first Crusaders.
But so many have found faith in Jerusalem that even the hardiest sceptic should be comforted. He should now turn his steps toward Galilee where Jesus performed his public ministry.
On the Mount of the Beatitudes, for example, you may not be standing on the exact spot where Our Lord said, "Blessed are the Meek" for the gospels make no attempt to locate the famous Sermon at any specific place. The scenery hereabouts, however, is spectacular and conducive to meditation on that most poetic of all sermons. At nearby Capernaum, the original house of St Peter has (almost certainly) been identified by archaeologists. You are now getting as near as perhaps is humanly possible to retracing the actual steps of Our Lord.
In the Holy Land, then, is to be encountered constant mystery which (unlike magic) is the very essence of faith. So precious is the gift of faith that many often feel they have temporarily lost it and get into a panic. The apostles themselves lost faith in Jesus at the very moment when He was about to undergo his Passion. They fled in disarray only to receive enough strength to spread His word when His Spirit came upon them.
Meantime they had seen Him often, though only dimly realising at first that his Resurrection meant, not a return to this life, but proof, through brief bodily appearances, that life went on for ever in another world.
It is disconcerting to read what the experts have to say about the lack of definite authenticity about almost all the actual locations associated with Jesus's life and ressurection. But surely every Christian should go at least once to the Holy Land, particularly, perhaps, the sceptic, in order to discover that there is something more important than cast-iron physical proof.
The political situation in Israel may, of course, intrude on the peaceful progress of the pilgrim, to say nothing of inevitable commercialism. Stresses and strains seem, moreover, to have taken their toll on the Israelis. Their general attitude is now markedly hostile to Christian visitors.
They are unfriendly or often just plain rude, and the personnel at hotels and such places as the airport are off-hand and unpleasant. This is doubly distressing to one who warmly supports the cause of Israel and regrets certain aspects of the Church towards that country, whose ordinary people have largely become their own worst enemies.
It is very sad indeed.
The Arabs, by contrast, are usually much more pleasant and welcoming. I confess I never thought I would have to state this fact in writing having met so many charming Jews who do not let fervour for the Land spoil their good manners.
Thus the sceptic who visits the Holy Land must come away with a regrettable feeling that the three great religions of the world are no nearer, in a Land special to them all, of any kind of reconciliation.
THE saddest thing to happen, within a few hours of my return from Israel, was to hear of the death of Eamonn Andrews to whom I would like to add my own humble addition to all the other tributes.
He bore his illness with such fortitude that few suspected that he was even suffering.
His immense success on television was combined with a genuine sense of self-effacement which made him well-nigh unique. Who can replace him on the right side of this page — or anywhere else?