July 2003

The Holy Land of Abraham’s children

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor OP

The Holy Land is claimed by Jew, Christian and Muslim, and is the scene of dangerous conflict. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is Professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and author of The Holy Land (OUP 4th Edn 1998). Here he explains why this land is holy to three religions and how conflict arises when ‘in space that is “holy” the other has no rights’.

The land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is holy to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For two of these peoples the land is the subject of political claims. Moderate Jews and Muslims think in terms of two states side by side in peaceful coexistence, whereas extremists on both sides covet the territory of the other.

What makes this conflict different from all other territorial struggles is that it is justified by the religious concept of ‘holiness’ understood in a highly specific way. This raises the struggle above the pragmatism of politics. It brings in an absolute dimension of exclusivity.

In space that is ‘holy’ the other has no rights. By definition the other should not be there. And who says so? God! The presence of the other is thus an offence against God. Hence, it becomes an obligation to expel the intruder. Tolerance is not possible. It is a sin to permit the other to remain.

Obviously no inanimate object such as land can be holy in and of itself. It must be given that character. This forces us to ask, ‘What makes a land holy?’ An influential answer to this question has been given by the sociologist Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘It is that one has cultivated the land, died on the land, that one’s ancestors are buried in the land, that rituals have been performed in the land, that one’s deity has been encountered there in the land, that renders the land a homeland, a land for men, a holy land.’ 1

This answer is not really satisfactory. By the criteria listed Ireland is a holy land to the Irish. True as this is, we do not think of Ireland as holy in the same way as we think of Palestine as holy. Ireland may be cherished but Palestine is revered.

The value of Smith’s definition is that his listing of actions evokes the motives behind those gestures, and thus surfaces the crucial question, ‘What leads a people to think of a land as holy?’ The purpose of this article is to outline the responses of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Even though the Land was given by God (in promise) to Abraham, this did not make it holy. 2 Something had to happen to give the land the quality of sanctity. This was the installation of the Ark of the Covenant in the insignificant Jebusite city, Jerusalem, which was David’s ploy to create an effective political capital. To house the Ark, Solomon built the Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was carried into the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Then ‘when the priests came out of the Holy Place, the cloud filled the Temple of the Lord ... For the glory of the Lord filled the Temple of the Lord’ (1 Kgs 8:10). The house of God – the place of his presence – transformed Jerusalem into the city of God. And it was this that infused the land with sanctity (Josh 22:19).

This idea comes to fullest expression in Ezekiel’s dream of the restoration of Jerusalem from which he had been exiled to Babylon (1:1). As the dwelling place of God on earth, Jerusalem is ‘the centre of the nations’ (5:5). ‘The name of the city in future must be: “The Lord is there” ’ (48:35). Yahweh sham sounds like Yeru-shalem.

Radiating out from this centre is a series of concentric circles of expanding size but decreasing holiness to the limits of the areas of the twelve tribes (cf. chs 45 and 48). 3 This is the basis of the term invented by the post-exilic prophet Zechariah, ‘the holy ground’ (adamah not eretz), ‘The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy ground, and will again choose Jerusalem’ (Zech 2:16).

These prophetic dreams are dramatically crystallised in the tractate Kelim of the Mishnah,

There are ten degrees of holiness. The Land of Israel is holier than any other land ... The walled cities [of the Land of Israel] are still more holy ... Within the wall [of Jerusalem] is still more holy ... The Temple Mount is still more holy ... Within the Rampart is still more holy ... The Court of the Women is still more holy ... The Court of the Israelites is still more holy ... The Court of the Priests is still more holy ... Between the Porch and the Altar is still more holy ... The Sanctuary is still more holy ... The Holy of Holies is still more holy (1:6-9).

The importance of Jerusalem is underlined by the fact that it possesses nine of the eleven degrees of holiness. This confirms the impression given by certain prophets, e.g. Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, that the Holy Land was coextensive with the Holy City. In fact, of course, the city was seen as the source of sanctity that radiated out.

At this stage the vast majority of Jews lived outside the Holy Land, but the bonds with Jerusalem were strongly maintained by pilgrimage and the Temple tax.

After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the expulsion from Jerusalem and Judaea in AD 135 Jews looked forward to their restoration by the Messiah in their Holy Land, where they would be their own masters.

In terms of what might be called ‘physical sanctity’ the bridge between Judaism and Christianity is constituted by tombs. The interest in the tombs of holy people betrayed by Jesus’ words, ‘you build the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the graves of the righteous’ (Matt 23:29), is confirmed by a first-century AD work, The Lives of the Prophets, which opens with the words, ‘The names of the prophets, and where they are from, and where they died and how, and where they lie’. The last words are important in that they imply that the burial places of the 23 prophets mentioned were visitable. Of the tomb of Jeremiah, for example, it is said, ‘Those who are God’s faithful pray at the place to this very day, and taking the dust of the place they heal the bites of snakes’ (2:4). 4

Here we encounter a ‘holy place’ that is very different from the Temple. Its sanctity is derived, not from the presence of God, but from the remains of a holy person. Not surprisingly, therefore, the first Christian shrine was the tomb of Christ cut into the side of an abandoned quarry just outside the west wall of Jerusalem. The words of the angel in Mark 16:6 are kerygmatic and liturgical. Religious services were celebrated at the tomb of Christ. The term ‘holy place’, however, was not applied to it for a further 300 years.

Vivid memory
Once the tomb was venerated because of its association with Jesus, it was natural to look for other places with the same association. The most obvious was Bethlehem, and specifically the cave in which Jesus was born. The importance of these two sites for Christians was intensified by their inaccessibility after AD 135. Yet the memory remained vivid and they were pointed out to visitors such as Melito of Sardis and Origen in the second and third centuries. One important Jesus site remained accessible to Chritians during these centures. There is archaeological, but not written, evidence for the veneration of the room used by Jesus in the house of Peter in Capernaum.

The situation changed in the fourth century when Constantine legitimised Christianity. Eusebius of Caesarea was made responsible for the building of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and his account betrays a significant evolution in Christian vocabulary. Previously Christians had spoken of holy Church, holy Scriptures, and holy people. Eusebius is the first to predicate ‘holy’ of a place, ‘the most holy memorial of the Saviour’s resurrection, beyond all our hopes, came into view; the holy of holies, the Cave, was like our Saviour “restored to life” ... by its very existence bearing clearer testimony to the resurrection of the Saviour than any words’ (Vita Const. 3:31). 5

Once the belief that a place could be sanctified by a holy person had taken firm root, holy places proliferated. Those sites associated with Jesus, of course, ranked highest in sanctity. They were blessed places that bore witness to the incarnation. Believing that it would reinforce his teaching, Cyril of Jerusalem actively encouraged pilgrimage to the places where events in the life of the incarnate Lord had taken place. He said to his catechumens, ‘Others merely hear; we can see and touch’ (Catech. 13:22). Jerome of Bethlehem also highlighted the privilege of being ‘here’ where salvation-history happened. Their view prevailed against the ambivalence of certain contemporaries (Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa) who felt that an emphasis on ‘place’ smacked too much of paganism and Judaism. 6The Christian God was equally accessible everywhere in the world.

Since the holy places were scattered throughout Palestine, they gave a new dimension to the concept of a Holy Land. It was no longer the territory of the Twelve Tribes, but the area in which the holiest places of Christendom were found. This meant a significant increase in territorial extent. The flight of the Holy Family had sanctified Egypt. Moses and Elijah made Sinai holy. This underlines that Jewish saints were given equal importance with followers of Jesus. Hebron was a holy place because it was the burial place of the patriarchs and their wives. Mount Nebo was sanctified by the tomb of Moses, as Shechem was by the well of Jacob, and Jericho by the spring of Elisha. The list is endless.

It is an extraordinary paradox that, despite the reverence accorded to Jewish saints, the one part of the holy land that was not considered holy in any sense by the Byzantines was the great esplanade of Herod’s Temple. Its devasted state was seen as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jesus, ‘There shall not remain here one stone upon another; everything will be pulled down’ (Mark 13:2). The ruins of the Jewish Temple were the incontrovertible proof that God’s favour had passed from the Jews to the Christians. Its stones were robbed out by builders, and cucumbers were grown in the open spaces.

In 638, fresh from his victories in Persia, Omar accepted the surrender of Jerusalem from the patriarch Sophronius. The visit is enveloped in obscurity. Most of the legends date only from the fourteenth century AD. 7The core elements of the stories of the different ‘authorities’ are (a) the Rock in the centre of the Temple area was in a disgraceful condition due to Christian neglect; (b) it was cleansed by Omar; (c) who constructed a mosque on the esplanade.

Two texts from the end of the seventh century confirm the interest of Muslims in the Temple area. Both anonymous authors are obviously Christians. 8 The first is the most explicit. ‘The atheistic Saracens entered the Holy City of Christ our God, Jerusalem, with the permission of God in punishment for our negligence, which is great. Straight away they ran to the area which is called the Capitol. They forced some men to join volunteers in clearing the area and in constructing that accursed thing destined for their prayer which they call a mosque.’ The mosque was seen in the middle of the seventh century by Arculf, a bishop from Gaul.

Veneration of Jerusalem as a holy place went back to Muhammad. For two years after his flight from Mecca to Medina, he and his followers prayed facing Jerusalem. Then, suddenly, one day in the midst of the prayers ‘he received an inspiration to pray in future towards Mecca, and immediately recited the revelation recorded in the second Sura of the Quran. He then turned towards the south, and the whole congregation did likewise. The Musalla [praying place] was henceforth known as the “Mosque of the two Qiblas”.’ 9

Ibn Shihab az Zuhri (d. 742) knew many of Muhammad’s Companions, who reported that the Prophet had said, ‘Men shall journey to only three Masjids [sanctuaries], namely, al Masjid al Haram [= Mecca], my Masjid [= Medina], and the Masjid of the Holy City.’ 10 Thus, right from the beginning, in contrast to Mecca and Medina which were in practice much more important, Jerusalem was the Holy City. Its name today in Arabic is simply al-Kuds, ‘the Holy’.

In the last analysis, however, Jerusalem will become the most important of the three cities. According to Mukaddasi (AD 985), ‘Mecca and Medina have their superiority by reason of the Ka’abah and the Prophet [who is buried in Medina], but in truth on the Day of Judgement both cities will come to Jerusalem, and the excellencies of them all will then be united.’ 11

The reason for the sanctity of Jerusalem was that it contained the Holy House. Yakubi wrote in 874, ‘Solomon began to build the Holy House saying, “God ordered my father David to build him a House”.’ 12 The words translated as ‘Holy House’ are Bayt al-Maqdis. Clearly in its original Islamic usage it applied to the Jewish Temple. Very quickly, however, it is used as a common name of the city of Jerusalem. 13

There can be no doubt that Islam inherited the sanctity of the Jewish Temple. Very soon, however, this was given a specifically Islamic dimension. Perhaps under the influence of the Christian idea of sanctity as deriving from connection with a holy person, Muhammad was brought into association with the Dome of the Rock. The basis of this development is Sura 17 of the Quran which begins, ‘Blessed be He who transported His Servant by night from the Masjid al-Haram [= Mecca] to the Masjid al-Aksa [= the Furthest Sanctuary].’ 14

Disputed meaning
The meaning of this text was disputed from the beginning. 15 Was it a miraculous physical night journey? Or was it a mystical ascension? To these correspond two further questions. Is the ‘Masjid al-Aksa’ a place on earth? Or is it a place in heaven?

In the eighth century, Muhammad’s biographer, Ibn Ishaq, opted for a real journey culminating in the Holy House in Jerusalem, but this was disputed, as the traditionalists Bukari and Tabari confirm. The doubt persisted a century later when Yakubi (AD 874) hesitantly wrote of the Dome of the Rock, ‘this rock, of which it is reported that upon it the Apostle of God set his foot when he ascended into heaven’. 16

Inevitably popular piety preferred the concrete, and the version that became widely accepted among Muslims can be synthesised as follows. One night in 620, Muhammad, on his winged steed al-Burak [Lightning], was escorted by the angel Gabriel from Mecca, via Sinai and Bethlehem, to Jerusalem. In the vicinity of the Rock he prayed with his predecessors in the prophetic office – Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc. 17 – and then ascended through the heavens on a ladder of light to the throne of Allah. There he was instructed that he and his followers were to pray five times a day. The audience over, Muhammed descended to the Rock, and returned to Mecca on Burak before dawn. 18

For Islam, sanctity is reserved to Jerusalem. Holiness is never predicated of Hebron, which is simply ‘the Sanctuary of Abraham’, or of any other place.

None of the Muslim geographers that I have read speak of a ‘holy land’. The closest I have come is the statement of Muawiya I (661-80), the first Umayyad caliph, who received the oath of allegiance in Bayt al-Maqdis. He said from the pulpit, ‘The area between the two walls of this mosque is dearer to God than the rest of the earth.’ On which Abdul Aziz Duri comments, ‘He even extended this sanctity to Syria and called it “the Land of the Resurrection”.’ 19

In sum, therefore, the sanctity of the city and the land for Judaism is due to the indwelling of God in the Temple. For Christianity it is due to the association of specific places with Jesus and his followers. For Islam it is due to the presence of God’s Holy House which was reverenced and visited by Muhammad. Notes
1. Map is Not Territory , p.101, cited by Robert L. Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian history and thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) p.248.
2. In fact nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we find the expressions ‘the holy land’or ‘land of holiness’
(Wilken, Land, p.265 note 41).
3. Wilken, Land , p.12.
4. C. Torrey, The Lives of the Prophets (SBLMS 1; Philadelphia, 1946).
5. John Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land (2nd edn; Jerusalem: Ariel, 1981) p.165.
6. For details see Peter Walker, Holy City, Holy Places? Christian attitudes to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the fourth century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).
7. Guy Le Strange, Palestine under the Moslems: a description of Syria and the Holy Land from AD 650 to 1500 (London: Watt, 1890), p.149.
8. Bernard Flusin, ‘L’esplanade du Temple à l’arrivée des Arabes d’après deux récits byzantines,’in Bayt al-Maqdis Abd al-Malik’s Jerusalem . (Oxford Studies in Islamic Art 9; ed. J. Raby and J. Johns; Oxford: OUP, 1992), pp.17-31.
9. K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture (London : Penguin, 1958), pp.4-5.
10. Le Strange, Palestine , p.116.
11. Le Strange, Palestine , p.85.
12. A.-S. Marmardji OP, Textes geographiques arabes sur la Palestine (EBib; Paris: Gabalda, 1951), p.210.
13. Le Strange, Palestine , p.83.
14. Adapted from N. J. Dawood, The Koran (London: Penguin, 1956), p.233.
15. There is a highly condensed summary in Regis Blachere, Le Coran (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1966), p.305 note 1.
16. Le Strange, Palestine , p.116.
17. A list of such prophets is given in Sura 4:161-63.
18. Le Strange, Palestine , p.89, and in the most recent Islamic Wakf Administration guidebook al-Aqsa Mosque.
19. In K.J. Asali (ed.), Jerusalem in History (London: Scorpion, 1989), p.109.

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