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Christian and Jewish Views of the Holy Land, Aaron Demsky, BR 18:05, Oct 2002.

Mosaic Map from Madaba, Jordan
The famous mosaic map in a church in Madaba, Jordan, and the not-so-famous mosaic inscription from an ancient synagogue near Tel Rehov, in Israel’s Beth-Shean Valley, reflect two very different views of sacred geography.

In Christianity, the Holy Land is perceived as the totality of holy sites sanctified by saints and revelation. In Judaism, the Holy Land is seen as a distinct geographical area in which specific religious laws (halakhot) applicable only to that land are to be observed.

6th century mosaic map from church in Madaba, Jordan

The Holy City of Jerusalem as it appears in 6th century mosaic map from church in Madaba, Jordan

In truth, the archaeological remains reflecting these two very different views—namely, the Madaba map and the Rehov inscription—share a great deal: Both are mosaics. Both were located on the floors of houses of worship. Both date to the end of the Byzantine period in Palestine. Geographically, they were located only 55 miles apart, although on opposite sides of the Jordan River.

Considering that each mosaic was placed in a house of worship, we can assume that each was intended to deliver a religious message—visually imparting to their respective worshipers the meaning of the Holy Land.

The beautiful Christian map was part of the floor of an ancient church in Madaba. Discovered in 1884 during church renovations, the mosaic remains on view to visitors today. The Madaba map is usually dated to the late sixth century C.E., although one scholar has recently suggested that it should instead be dated to the mid- to late seventh century C.E.(1)

The Madaba mosaic was originally a rectangular map of the Holy Land, measuring about 35 feet in width by 15 feet in length, or about 560 square feet.(2) It used an estimated 2 million tesserae (tiles) in at least eight different colors to realistically portray the cities, landscape, fauna and flora of the region. Unfortunately, the map is only partially preserved; an estimated third of the original has been lost.

East is at the top of the map, corresponding to the biblical view of space. The south is toward the right and north toward the left. The map probably extended from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Transjordan in the east, and from Phoenicia in the north to Lower Egypt (including part of the Nile Valley) in the south. The map may originally have included the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast in what is now the missing northwestern corner (lower left) of the mosaic.

Mosaic map originally covered a quarter of church's nave floor

Map showing Dead Sea and vicinity

The Christian mapmaker displays some maximalist tendencies by including the Nile, which he seems to imply should be identified with the elusive Brook of Egypt (Numbers 34:5), and the region east of the Jordan, because of the presence of a significant Christian community there, including the Madaba community that produced the map.

The basic biblical source for the mapmaker was the detailed description of the borders of the Promised Land in Numbers 34:1–12 (“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Instruct the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as your portion, the land of Canaan with its various boundaries…’”). To locate specific biblical sites within this region, the mapmaker followed the fourth-century church father Eusebius of Caesarea, who in 325 C.E. composed his Onomasticon, a gazetteer of biblical place names and their locations. Eusebius wrote his Onomasticon as a manual for literate Christian travelers who were seeking the numinous in the Holy Land. To aid pilgrims, he would mention a site according to the books of the Bible and note the distance between sites in Roman miles. The brief labels identifying cities on the Madaba map are often borrowed from Eusebius.

Jerusalem lies at the center of the Madaba map. It also appears at a larger scale than the other cities (approximately 1:1,600 as opposed to 1:16,000 for the whole country). This is not only our oldest map of Jerusalem, it is our primary visual source for knowing how the Byzantine city looked (see drawing of Madaba mosaic). The map is so accurate that it can be followed even today as a guide in locating various Byzantine buildings and streets. There is no reference on the Madaba map, however, either in image or in quotation, to Jerusalem’s former glory. There is not even a note locating where the Temple once stood. The city’s early history, both biblical and Jewish, has been erased. Instead, “the Holy City of Jerusalem,” as it is labeled in the mosaic, is filled with churches, a declaration of Christianity’s view of its historical triumph and theological vindication.(3)

Several of these churches line the Cardo Maximus, the main north-south street of Byzantine Jerusalem, which appears on the map as a row of white tiles flanked by rows of columns supporting a red-roofed portico. Archaeologists in Jerusalem have now reconstructed the ancient Cardo based on its appearance on the map.(a)

At the northern end of the Cardo lies the main gate into the city, then known as St. Stephen’s Gate and today called Damascus Gate. In Arabic, the gate bears the unusual name Bab el ‘Amud, or the Gate of the Column—a name that was understood only with the discovery of the Madaba map, which shows a freestanding column standing inside the gate. The column may have originally supported a statue of Emperor Hadrian (ruled 118–138 C.E.). In the Roman period, this column was used as the starting point for measuring Roman miles along the road system found in the Land of Israel.

Midway along the Cardo on its western side lies the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which faces eastward. One can discern on the map the stairway that led up to the church, the main basilica, the courtyard of Golgotha behind it and the rotunda that marked the traditional (Catholic) location of Jesus’ tomb. Built by Constantine in the early fourth century C.E., this building was the focal point of Byzantine Jerusalem, and as such was considered the center of the world.(b)

At the southeastern end of the Cardo is the Nea Church built by Justinian in 543 C.E.(4) The late Professor Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University uncovered the church in the 1970s as part of his excavations of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. The Nea is the largest basilica ever found in Palestine.(c)

In all, the Madaba map depicts about a dozen Jerusalem churches, six gates and three major streets.(d)

More than a decorative element on the church floor, the Madaba map was conceived as an illustrated guidebook for local and itinerant believers. The final product is an idealized picture of the Christian view of the Holy Land, indeed a “mosaic” of biblical, Roman and contemporary Byzantine sites.(e)

From a conceptual viewpoint, early Christianity saw the Holy Land in terms of the holy sites where biblical events occurred. The land was the great stage of miraculous acts of revelation and redemption. Here latter-day churches displayed relics of early saints and martyrs. Here visitors could relive the great moments of religious history. In this way, Christianity gave renewed meaning to pilgrimage as a religious act. By visiting the sites of the Holy Land, one could sense or witness, albeit vicariously, a bygone biblical event or divine revelation. Through pilgrimage, the individual could draw spiritual strength or even experience mystical communion. The devout Christian pilgrim might have expressed his inner joy on his religious journey by quoting from the ancient Liturgy of St. James: “We give Thee thanks, O Lord, for Thy holy places, which thou hast glorified…by the visitation of Thy Holy Spirit.”(5)

When Constantine became sole emperor and patron of Christianity in 324 C.E., the literature of Christian pilgrimage began to emerge. Eusebius’s Onomasticon was soon followed by the famous itinerary of the traveler known only as the Bordeaux Pilgrim.(6) Somewhat later, in the early fifth century, the travel records and letters of Jerome and his disciples further encouraged Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.(7) The Madaba map is a public expression of Christian land-theology, an illuminated concretization of the religious concept of the “Holy Land.”
The Rehov mosaic differs strikingly from the Madaba map, most obviously because it is all text. The mosaic is now on permanent display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, although a copy is located at the entrance to the community synagogue of Kibbutz Ein Ha-Naziv, on whose land it was discovered.

Measuring about 14 feet by 9 feet and dating to the sixth or seventh century C.E., the Rehov mosaic is the longest inscription from any synagogue in the Holy Land. It consists of 29 lines of black Hebrew lettering on a white background. There are no colorful, pictorial elements at all. In this, the Rehov mosaic stands apart not only from the Madaba map but also from most other synagogue mosaics, which contain illustrations of biblical scenes, zodiac motifs or votive elements.(8)

The Rehov inscription is primarily a collection of passages from early rabbinic writings (Tannaitic literature) and the Palestinian Talmud (a commentary on the Mishnah, the earliest rabbinic law code), which date from the second to fourth century C.E. In fact, the mosaic text is the oldest extant version—by several hundred years—of these rabbinic sources. The 29-line mosaic inscription is simply a compilation of the commandments relating to agricultural produce incumbent upon Jews living in the Holy Land.(9) The text includes the halakhot (laws) relating to sabbatical years, heave-offerings and tithes required of those Jews living in the Holy land—in Hebrew, mitzvot hatteluyot ba-’aretz.

The mosaic repeats commandments related to the shmittah year—every seventh year, when the land is to lie fallow. Produce grown in the Holy Land in the shmittah year may not be marketed. Even in other years, produce grown in the Holy Land may be eaten only if it has been tithed. (The shmittah year is still observed by religious Jews in Israel. The year 5761 anno mundi—that is, from September 29, 2000, to September 17, 2001—was a shmittah year.)

The Rehov inscription begins: “Shalom! These fruits are forbidden at Beth-Shean in the seventh year, and in the other six years of the sabbatical cycle they are tithed (as) demai [produce that may have been improperly tithed]: the marrows and the melons and the cucumbers and the parsnips and the mint that is bound by itself and the Egyptian beans that are bound in shavings and leeks from the Holiday (Sukkoth) to Hannukah and seeds and dried figs and sesame and mustard and rice and cumin and dry lupine and large peas that are sold by measure and garlic and village onions sold by measure and pressed dates and wine and oil.”

739-Rehob Inscription

Plan of the Rehov Synagogue

The Rehov mosaic details the precise location of areas in which it was or was not permitted to eat of the untithed local produce. For example, food grown within the city limits of Beth-Shean as well as in the district of Caesarea Maritima did not have to be tithed and therefore was permitted, whereas the food from Jewish villages in the gentile provinces of Sussita (Hippos) and Tyre was not permitted to be eaten until it was tithed.(10) The last lines (lines 26–29) of the mosaic list 19 tiny villages in the province of Sebaste in which it was permitted to eat fruit grown there because it did not require tithing and to market local produce grown in the sabbatical year.(11)

Oddly, the inscription itself does not even mention the city of Jerusalem. That’s because the commandments regarding Jerusalem, which dealt with the eating of sacrifices and with ritual purification, were applicable only as long as the Temple service existed. From the end of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (the so-called Bar-Kokhba Revolt, 132–135 C.E.) until the end of the Byzantine period (seventh century C.E.), Jews were not permitted to live in Jerusalem, although some would come and gaze at and mourn the Holy Mountain plowed over and left in ruin.(12) In contrast, the Rehov mosaic is concerned with practical agricultural regulations still applicable in the later period.

While Jerusalem is not mentioned explicitly in the inscription, it is not forgotten, for it is implicit in the orientation of the mosaic, which was placed at the entrance of a synagogue constructed on a north-south axis facing the Holy City.

The commandments detailed in the Rehov inscription require a precise definition of the Holy Land and its borders.

Marble Chancel Screen

Fragment of Rehov Synagogue Wall

3947-Rehob Synagogue

Traditionally, Judaism has two definitions of the Holy Land. One is similar to the Christian concept and is based on the Hebrew Bible. According to this first definition, the Holy Land is the Promised Land chosen by God, conquered by Joshua and united under David.(13) It is the place of prophetic revelation and the space sanctified by God’s blessing and the indwelling of the Shekhinah, God’s presence and glory as in the cloud that led the Israelites in the desert. The term “Holy Land’ first appears in the Bible in the writings of the prophet Zechariah (dated to about 520 B.C.E.). In a vision, the prophet sees the return from the Babylonian Exile, the renewal of the covenant and particularly the indwelling of the Shekhinah as signs that God has chosen the territory of Judah and Jerusalem as his “portion in the Holy Land” (Zechariah 2:16).

This first definition is reflected also in the Madaba map, which depicts the places that witnessed biblical events and thus were sanctified by the divine presence—albeit from a Christian point of view.

The second rabbinic definition of Holy Land refers to the land the exiles settled when they returned from Babylon. According to this second understanding, the Promised Land of Joshua and David had been sacred in its own time, but with the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the exile of the tribes of Israel, it ceased to be holy. After the Exile, the Holy Land was “the Land of Israel as settled by those who came up with Ezra out of Babylon” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 32b). While this second definition is associated with the return of the Jews in the early Second Temple period, this term perhaps reflects the pattern of Jewish settlement and demography during the latter half of the Second Temple period and the Roman period (second century B.C.E. to fourth century C.E.).(14) The majority opinion of the rabbis is that “this second (later) sanctity prevailed in its own day and continues unabated to the present” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 7a).

The Rehov synagogue inscription points to this second definition of Holy Land. The mosaic demands Israel’s initiative and physical presence in the land. Sanctification is through the continued and constant observance of those mitzvot (commandments) relating to the produce of the land. This land-theology is a particularly Jewish concept of sacred space. It is a this-worldly approach, essentially rationalistic and geographically defined, which places upon the Jews full responsibility for maintaining the holiness of the land in which they live. It is thus distinct from the other form of holiness, reflected in the Madaba map, which is based on the belief in God’s everlasting spiritual presence in the land. For Jews living in Palestine after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the categories such as revelation and sacrifice were recognized as belonging to an earlier historic period that had ceased to exist—although it was believed that, if merited, they might be renewed at a later time.

Under this second definition the fulfillment of those mitzvot applicable to the Holy Land was not a purely spiritual or theoretical matter, but rather a practical, daily issue.

In sum, the Madaba map and the Rehov inscription present very different views of sacred space. For Christianity, holiness was to be found in visiting places identified with specific biblical sites and in experiencing vicariously the divine grace of days past. For rabbinic Jewry, holiness was to be found in the reality of working the whole land and eating its permitted produce.(15)

a. See Nitza Rosovsky, “A Thousand Years of History in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter,” BAR 18:03.

b. See Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” BAR 12:03.

c. See Meir Ben-Dov, “Found After 1400 Years—The Magnificent Nea,” BAR 03:04.

d. See “Jerusalem as Mosaic,” sidebar to “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem,” BAR 24:02.

e. For more on the Byzantine city, see Jodi Magness, “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem,” BAR 24:02.

1. Dan Bahat has suggested that the map should be redated to the second half of the seventh century since it depicts the Byzantine Gate of Mercy, which he believes was constructed in 629 C.E. for the visit of Heraclius on the eve of the Muslim conquest. See Dan Bahat, “A New Suggestion for the Date of the Madaba Map,” in Eretz-Israel in the Madaba Map, ed. Gabriel Barkay and Eli Schiller (Jerusalem: Ariel, 1996), pp. 74–75 (Hebrew).

2. See Herbert Donner, The Mosaic Map of Madaba—An Introductory Guide (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1992), p. 17; Michael Avi-Yonah, The Madaba Mosaic Map (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1954).

3. On the role of the Madaba mosaic, see Donner, Mosaic Map, p. 30.

4. See P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., Ancient Inscriptions (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1996), p. 141.

5. See E.D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire AD 312–460 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 118.

6. See Paul Geyer and Otto Cuntz, eds., Itinerarium Burdigalense, in Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1965), vol. 175, pp. 1–26.

7. See John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips, 1977), pp. 47–52.

8. See Joseph Naveh, Stone and Mosaic: The Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from Ancient Synagogues (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1978) (Hebrew).

9. See Yaacov Sussmann, “An Halakhic Inscription from the Beisan Valley,” Tarbiz 43 (1974), pp. 88–158 and Tarbiz 44 (1975), pp. 193–195 (Hebrew). See also Sussmann, “The Inscription in the Synagogue at Rehob,” in Ancient Synagogues Revealed, ed. Lee I. Levine (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), pp. 146–151; and McCarter, Ancient Inscriptions, p. 138.

10. See Israel Finkelstein and Raphael Frankel, “The Northwest Corner of Eretz-Israel in the baraita deteh\ ummin,” Cathedra 27 (1983), pp. 39–46 (Hebrew); and Finkelstein, “The Shephelah of Israel” Tel Aviv 8 (1981), pp. 84–94.

11. See Sussmann, “The ‘Boundaries of Eretz-Israel,’” Tarbiz 45(1976), pp. 213–257 (Hebrew); Zeev Safrai, “Marginal Notes on the Rehob Inscription,” Zion 42 (1977), pp. 1–23, esp. 1–12 (Hebrew); and Aaron Demsky, “The Permitted Villages of Sebaste in the Rehob Mosaic,” Israel Exploration Journal 29 (1979), pp. 182–193.

12. See Joshua Schwartz, Jewish Settlement in Judaea After the Bar-Kokhba War Until the Arab Conquest (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1986), pp. 183–194 (Hebrew). Schwartz argues for the existence of a small Jewish community in Jerusalem that existed during part of the Byzantine period.

13. See Aaron Demsky, “‘From Kziv unto the River Near Amanah’ (MShebi 6:1; MH.al 4:8): A Clarification of the Northern Border of the Returnees from Egypt,” Shnaton 10 (1986–1989), pp. 71–81 (Hebrew).

14. A case in point is the listing of sites like Nahal Zered in Transjordan that Sussmann and others have taken as schematic references. This probably reflects Jewish presence around the southeastern end of the Dead Sea, as is verified by the Bar-Kokhba letters from the early second century C.E.

15. See Demsky, “Holy City and Holy Land as Viewed by Jews and Christians in the Byzantine Period: A Conceptual Approach to Sacred Space,” in Sanctity of Time and Space in Tradition and Modernity, ed. A. Houtman, Marcel J.H.M. Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 285–296, 361–368.

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