Jerusalem After Jesus

by Victor Hoagland, C.P.

Stones from destruction of Temple uncovered in the excavations of 1967

Relief on Arch of Titus in Rome: The seven-branch
lamp stand and other treasures from the temple at
Jerusalem are carried in triumph by Titus' legions.

Besides the gospel stories, do other sources shed light on the events of Jesus' Passion?

The city of Jerusalem itself, where Jesus' Passion took place, is a likely place to look. What makes our search difficult, however, is the almost complete devastation the city suffered in the Roman siege that leveled most of its walls and buildings during the Jewish revolt in 70 A.D.. With brutal thoroughness, the legions of the Roman general Titus destroyed the city, killing or enslaving its inhabitants. Some of the fiercest fighting took place around the traditional place of Calvary. The city was completely rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian in the late second century.

After the Roman period, Persian, Moslem, and Crusader armies swept through the Holy Land, destroying or rebuilding on the sacred sites. For almost two thousand years, the land has suffered more than its share of wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The city is hardly a place one expects to find many traces of the past. Yet traces remain.

Jerusalem Rebuilt by Hadrian

After a second Jewish revolt in 135 A.D. the Emperor Hadrian sought to obliterate all trace of the ancient city by completely rebuilding Jerusalem as a Roman city, using the plan followed by Roman builders for constructing a colony. The plan resulted in a city smaller in size than before, which can still be seen in the street-plan of present-day Jerusalem. Renaming it "Aelia Capitolina", Hadrian repopulated his new city with foreign colonists and prohibited Jews from entering the city under pain of death. Statues of Roman gods and goddesses replaced sacred Jewish sites. Little remained, at least visibly, of Jerusalem's Jewish past except the desolate foundation of the temple.

Palm Sunday Pilgrims approaching Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

The Jewish-Christian Community

Even so, there is some evidence that a small Jewish-Christian community continued to meet on Mount Sion in the southern outskirts of the city, though its activities were restricted. They cherished certain sites associated with the memory of Jesus: a cave at Bethlehem marking his birth, a cave near the summit of Mount of Olives marking his last teachings to his disciples and his ascension, and the site of his death and resurrection which they placed alongside the forum in Hadrian's new city, where the Romans had raised a statue of Venus. Their traditions, which we can categorize as pre-Constantinian (before 313 A.D.), provided the basis for later Christian identification of some key sites.


Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher
built by Constantine;
from the 6th century
mosaic map of Madaba.

Constantine's Jerusalem

The face of Jerusalem dramatically changed when the Emperor Constantine began a era of toleration and favor toward the Christian church in 313 A.D. Constantine initially built three basilicas on the ancient Christian locations pointed out by tradition: Calvary, the Mount of Olives and Bethlehem. As Christians flocked to the Holy City these locations became the principal sites of liturgical life for Jerusalem's growing Christian church, which soon influenced Christian liturgical practices and devotion throughout the world.

From the 4th to the 7th century, the Holy Land became a Christian land, a land of pilgrims, a great visual bible. Almost 500 Christian churches and shrines were built, many over places thought to commemorate incidents in the Old or New Testaments. One must recognize, however, that many sites were chosen overzealously. Scholars like St. Jerome (+ 420), who took up permanent residence near the holy places in order to study the scriptures in detail and practice the Christian life, complained about the tendency of the "monstratores", the guides, to multiply places and relics so that the multitude of eager pilgrims who craved to touch and see he places mentioned in the bible could be satisfied.

In great detail, the gospel stories acquired a concrete setting. As early as 333 A.D. an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux in Gaul was shown on the Mount of Olives "a vineyard where there is the rock where Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ and the palm-tree from which the children took branches and strewed them in Christ's path, the rock on which Christ was laid to prepare for burial."

Among the remains of Jerusalem's long history, then, are cult sites like these, still to be seen and held in veneration. They are places of prayer hallowed by a long tradition of devotion, but with only a tenuous connection to the historical site and event. For original historical value one generally looks for sites based on Pre-Constantinian traditions (before 313 B.C.) rather than on traditions from the Byzantine or medieval periods.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The present church (right) stands on the site of an earlier church constructed in 335 A.D. by the Emperor Constantine who, relying on ancient Christian traditions, built it over the tomb of Jesus. Pilgrimage to the site was so instantly popular that St.John Chrysostom (+407) remarked "The whole world runs to see a tomb that has no body."

Fire, earthquake, and numerous structural changes have damaged the present church which replaced the Constantinian church destroyed in 1009 A.D. Beneath its dome is the traditional location of the tomb of Christ. Underneath the church's smaller dome is the traditional site of Calvary.


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