Early Christian Attitudes Toward the Holy Land

Western Christian interest in the land of Israel is closely associated with the birth, demise and subsequent resurgence of the pilgrimage movement. The word 'pilgrimage' comes from the Latin peregrinus which means a foreigner or traveller, and describes a journey to some place regarded as holy, undertaken for a religious purpose and in the hope of receiving spiritual or material blessing.27

In both Islamic and Hebrew traditions, pilgrimage is regarded as a religious obligation imposed on the entire faith community and taught in their sacred scriptures, hence the importance of the land of Israel, and in particular the shrines associated with Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, to both Jews and Moslems. For Christians however there is no such emphasis or requirement. Jesus taught instead that the sacred is located not in a place but in the body of the believer, and worship is something to be offered to God anywhere and everywhere (John 4:21-23).

In the earliest days of the Christian Church therefore, there does not appear to have been any perceived benefit from undertaking a pilgrimage. But the desire to visit the scenes associated with the birth, life and death of Jesus grew partly from natural interest and partly through the influence of superstitious beliefs the Church inherited from the surrounding pagan religions. Initially the idea of pilgrimage was seen as something voluntary and optional.28

Jerome (345-413), in common with most Protestant pilgrims today, regarded pilgrimages to Palestine as an essential way of gaining a greater understanding of the Bible, '...so we also understand the Scriptures better when we have seen Judea with our own eyes...'29

However, Augustine (354-430), John Chrysostom (344-407) and especially Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) recognised the dangers of associating sacredness with particular shrines. Consequently they actively discouraged Christians from undertaking pilgrimages to Palestine. Augustine and Chrysostom insisted,

'God is indeed everywhere, and he who created all things is not contained or shut in by any one place.'30

'The task is not to cross the sea, nor to undertake a lengthy pilgrimage... both when we come to church and when we stay at home, let us earnestly call on God.'31

Nevertheless, Empress Helena's visit to Palestine toward the end of the fourth century ensured that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land became a fashionable as well as a religious duty.32 Despite the costs, hazards and arduous nature of such a journey, pilgrims increasingly travelled to the Holy Land to do penance, to obtain redemption from serious crimes, and to secure relics for their churches.33 In a desire to create greater unity within his empire, Constantine did much to encourage pilgrimages by building large churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem which became foci for devotion and worship. Eusebius for example, claimed divine inspiration was behind Constantine's desire to make the Church of the Resurrection 'a centre of attraction and venerable to all.'34 Under Byzantian rule, despite the periodic liberalisation of the ban on Jews visiting or residing in Palestine, the Holy Land was essentially perceived as the land made holy by Jesus and now the inheritance of the church.

Prior to the Reformation, traditional Catholic thought had no place for the possibility of a Jewish return to Palestine nor any such concept as the existence of a Jewish nation.35

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