Jerusalem and Jesus, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.
One of the Roman procurators who served before the accession of King Agrippa was Pontius Pilate. His name would have died with him were it not for an execution warrant he signed during his term of office, AD 26-36. In order to reduce the status and importance of Jerusalem, hoping thereby to lessen its influence as the fount of Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, the procurators shifted the seat of their administration to the Herodian-built city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean. But they would visit Jerusalem on the principal Jewish festivals, the Pilgrim Festivals, when the Temple drew vast numbers of worshippers from the country and the Diaspora and the consequent dangers of insurrection were greatest.
It was on the Passover Festival, the traditional “freedom festival” of the Jews, when they recall their exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery, that Pontius Pilate came to Jerusalem. It was while he was there that he ordered the crucifixion of a Galilean Jewish preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, little dreaming of the effect upon mankind his action was to have.
The year was AD 33. Jesus and his disciples, observant Jews, had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. He had been making the pilgrimage since boyhood. “When he was twelve years old,” we read in Luke (chapter 2) “his parents [who] went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover” took him along. On their way home, after staying through the days of the feast, they missed the youngster, but thought he was with their kinsfolk. They had gone a day’s journey when they found that he was not with their group, and they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. They searched for three days, and then “they found him in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”
That was Jesus at the age of twelve. He went on to learn and study and argue and preach, becoming versed in the Torah and familiar with the teachings and sayings of contemporary and earlier rabbis. All that he learned and saw made him one with the people, moved by poverty, angered by repressive Roman authority, contemptuous of priestly Temple administration which he considered was more attentive to ceremonial than religious content. He wandered round the country giving utterance to his views, expressing the ethical values of the Old Testament and the Hebrew prophets in simple language and parables of telling directness. A man of charismatic power and magnetic leadership, his exhortations on the biblical concepts of human brotherhood, kindness, charity, and the equality of rich and poor before God were balm to the meek and hungry. The authorities hated him.
By the time he came to Jerusalem on what was to be his last Passover, he was already well known—and marked as a dangerous rebel. He was aware of the threat to his life if he forsook the comparative safety of Galilee and made this pilgrimage, when Jerusalem would be thronged with visitors and the Romans would be on the alert for revolt. He knew that many rebellious preachers before him had ended up on the cross, the traditional manner of execution by the Romans and hated by the Jews, who saw it as a cruel expression of a cruel tyranny. But Jesus came nevertheless.
What made his pilgrimage even more dangerous was the repeated claim that he was the Messiah. This angered most Jews, including the Jewish leadership with their experience of “false Messiahs,” and who also considered the idea of the “Son of God” most blasphemous. But the Romans feared that he might be greeted as an angel of liberation come to free his people from foreign oppression, and they would certainly take action against him.
Walking south from Galilee with his disciples, he reached Jericho and made the ascent to Jerusalem, going through Bethany and Bethphage, crossing the shoulder of the Mount of Olives and suddenly coming upon the Temple crowning the Mount, the courts, the esplanade, and the city itself. Like the thousands of other pilgrims, he came a short time before the festival, spending his days in and around the city and the nights with his friends in Bethany or bivouacking, “as his custom was” on the tree-covered slopes of his favorite place, the Mount of Olives.
The eve of the Passover Festival approached. It was marked then, as it is to this day by Jews all over the world, by a ritual meal called the “Seder” when the story of the exodus from Egypt is recited and certain foods are taken which symbolize the dramatic events of that liberation. The bread eaten (matzah) is unleavened—to symbolize the haste of the Israelite departure so that there was no time for the dough to rise; the tasting of bitter herbs is a reminder of the harsh life and labor suffered by the Israelite slaves; a shank bone represents the slaughtered paschal lamb whose blood was sprinkled on the doorposts of Israelite dwellings just before the exodus so that the angel of death would “pass over” them when he went to slay the Egyptian first-born. Four glasses of ritual wine are drunk during the recital.
Such was the Passover meal celebrated by the Jew, Jesus, and his disciples, the meal that was to be known very much later, with the rise of Christianity, as The Last Supper, and out of which was to grow the ritual of the Mass.
The meal was held in the “Upper Room” of a certain house, and there was to be much controversy in later centuries as to its exact location. The Gospels offer no clue, simply telling us that when his disciples asked him “Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the Passover?,” he told them to go into the city, follow a man with a pitcher of water, enter the house which he entered, and say to the owner, “The Master saith, where is the guest-chamber, where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples? And he will show you a large upper room furnished and prepared- there make ready for us” (Mark XIV). The traditional location of the “upper room” is on today’s Mount Zion. It is called the Coenaculum, which means refectory.
From now on, every move made by Jesus in the final hours of his days on earth was to be commemorated, centuries later, by a shrine. After the ritual meal, he and his disciples go across the Kidron valley to the Mount of Olives, and a little way up the slope come to an enclosed piece of ground called Gethsemane—Gat-shemanim is Hebrew for “oil-press.” Nearby is a cave where they are to rest during the night. Leaving most of them in the cave, Jesus decides to spend his last hours in reflection and prayer under the moon, among the silver olive trees, and takes three disciples with him to witness his Agony. It is from there in the garden of Gethsemane that he is taken on the route which is to lead to the cross.
He is brought first to the “palace of the high priest” Caiaphas. This is held by modern scholars to have been one of the buildings of the Hasmonean palaces, formerly the site of the Seleucid Akra, the fortress on the southwest hill across the Tyropoeon valley form the Temple compound; but tradition places it close to the Coenaculum.
From there he is led straight to the procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the Praetorium, and taken “unto the hall of judgment.” The Jews remain outside. There is scholarly controversy as to whether the Praetorium was the Antonia fortress, next to the Temple on the east hill, which housed the bulk of the Roman garrison, or whether the Praetorium, which was any office or residence where the Roman praetor (chief or leader) hung his shield and before which he place his tribune, was Herod’s palace. A unit of Roman troops was stationed there too. The majority hold that it was the latter, and that the trial of Jesus therefore took place on the southwest hill, close to today’s Jaffa Gate and Citadel. Tradition, however, has it that the event took place in the Antonia castle.
After Pilate has given judgment—the private part of the trial took place within the castle, the public part in the courtyard open to the populace—“the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall…and led him away to crucify him.” In the “common hall,” he is scourged and crowned with thorns. He then makes his painful way, his via dolorosa, to Golgotha, site of the execution. If the Praetorium were Herod’s palace, he would have proceeded along the northern section of the Old City wall, the First Wall, through the Gennath or Garden Gate, roughly midway between Herod’s Hippicus Tower and the southwest section of the Temple Mount, and then turned northwards, through a gate in the Second Wall, and out to the west of the northern suburb of Bethesda. If the scene of judgment was Antonia, the sad procession would have come upon Golgotha from the northeast, and would have gone through the same gate in the Second Wall but would not have touched the first. That is the route traditionally accepted, marked by today’s Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. Executions took place outside the city walls, and at the time Golgotha was outside. It became enclosed only a few years later when King Agrippa built his northern or Third Wall.
Jesus, the tablet with his sentence hanging from his neck, reaches the small hillock reserved for capital punishment “called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha.” From this came Calvary, which is the more familiar name for the site. (Calva is Latin for “bald scalp,” which is what the hillock looked like.)
Then follows the Passion of Jesus, his sufferings on the cross. At sundown, he “gave up the ghost.” Now come Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who take down the body from the cross “and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” Nearby is a garden “and in the garden a new sepulcher,” a tomb cut in the rock. “There laid they Jesus,” sealing the entrance with a great round stone.
At the time, a time of tensions and conflict, and an atmosphere of rebellion against the rule of imperialist Rome, the death of Jesus caused scarcely a ripple in Jerusalem. His disciples cherished his memory, spoke endlessly of his deeds and goodness, and recounted his miracles, Resurrection and Ascension. But they, too, went unnoticed in Jerusalem. They made their utterances far from the site of the crucifixion, gaining small groups of adherents in the countryside and beyond the borders of Judea. Indeed, for two hundred years the story of Christianity in the country is obscure, and there was nothing to mark any of the sites in Jerusalem or elsewhere associated with the life of Jesus. The first records mentioning “Christian” refer to events outside Judea. The very name was coined—as a term of contempt—in a neighboring land, in the city of Antioch (now in southeastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border), one of the important cities of the Roman empire. Hellenic influence left it largely Greek-speaking, and followers of Jesus were mocked by the Antiochans as believers in the one they claimed as “Christos,” Greek for “anointed one,” or the Messiah. “Christians” was the jeering cry they heard when the passed. They accepted the label with pride.
It was a strictly orthodox Jew and rabbinical student, Saul of Tarsus (Tarsus, also in Turkey, is across the Gulf of Alexandretta from Antioch), who did more than anyone else to spread the gospel of Christianity. He is known to the world as Paul the Apostle. This “Pharisee of the Pharisees,” the most zealous Jewish sect, was converted to Christianity and went round the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean on fiery missionary journeys, seeking to convert the Jews to the new faith. The doctrines he espoused were largely Hebraic, but he dropped the restrictive and irksome regulations of the Old Testament, and this certainly made his appeal more attractive.
But it made little impact on the Jews of Jerusalem and the Jewish communities outside who did not look for physical ease from their religion nor a release from ritual obligations. In the end, Paul turned his back on his own people, the Jews, gave them up as hopeless, became very bitter towards them, and took his message to the wider non-Jewish world. He found ready ears and thus began the universal spread of the new faith. It is commonly accepted that without the labors of the Jew, Paul, it is unlikely that Christianity would have become a world-wide religion.
In Jerusalem, however, Christianity at first made little headway. (James, “the Lord’s brother,” led a small group of followers.) And even when it did, it was several centuries before the Christian leader in the city was given authority over all the Holy Land. That was in AD 451. Up to then, he was the suffragan (assistant) bishop to the metropolitan of Caesarea, who was himself subordinate to the patriarch of Antioch, though from the third century he did enjoy a courtesy eminence.
Jerusalem, in common with other parts of the Roman Empire, rose in importance as a Christian center only in the fourth century when Christianity was adopted by the emperor, Constantine the Great and, more particularly, after his mother, Queen Helena, visited the city. She it was who interested herself in sites associated with the final events in Jesus’ life, she who, guided by tradition and her own faith, decided their location, and she who marked them by the erection of shrines. Her visit, too, occasioned the discovery of sacred relics. Thus began the custom followed in succeeding centuries, notably during the Crusades, of building churches, monasteries, convents and hospices in Jerusalem to enshrine the memory of Jesus’ last hours, as well as the Resurrection and Ascension. These attracted even more pilgrims. Up to the fourth century—some three hundred years after the death of Jesus—Jerusalem had been the center of pilgrimage for the Jews alone. Henceforth, it was to be also the center of Christian pilgrimage.
But much was to happen to this extraordinary city before then.