The Name of a Gate
Our Footprints pilgrimage group takes a short ride from the Notre Dame center to the northeast corner of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Access for large vehicles anywhere near the Old City is difficult, so we disembark and walk south along the eastern city wall. We walk through the Muslim cemetery of Al-Yousafeah along an old, minor street mainly being used at this early morning hour as a service road. For a pilgrim to gain a real historical sense of a city such as Jerusalem, there is something salutary about this earthy experience of a living city, as the small vehicles haul garbage out and maintenance workmen make up most of the foot traffic. It reminds us of the difference between a tourist display or exhibit, and a living city many thousands of years old.
We enter the Muslim Quarter through Lion (in Arabic ‘Assad’) Gate, also known as Sheep Gate, and finally St. Stephen’s Gate. Why so many names? The short answer is that a lot of history happened here, and names stack up like the archeological layers themselves. But these simple, single words speak volumes about the circumstances of the people and place.
Carved figures of lions at Lion Gate through the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The walls of the Old City were rebuilt in 1541 under the direction of Suleiman (Solomon) the Magnificent. The current location of Lion Gate is essentially the same as the ancient Sheep Gate, a northern gate close to the Temple, through which animals were led for temple sacrifice. Christians also refer to this as St. Stephen’s Gate, the site where the Deacon Stephen was stoned to death, the first recorded Christian martyrdom. Bullet pockmarks in the stone are from the 1967 Six Day War, as Israeli Defense Forces entered the Old City through this gate. (Glenn Juday photo)
A Gate for Sheep
The oldest name is Sheep Gate, which apparently refers to the sheep that were brought to the Temple for sacrifice. The historical book of the Bible, 1st Kings, records the events and words of King Solomon (in Arabic ‘Sulayman’) as he dedicated the first Jerusalem Temple, probably in the mid-tenth century BC. Even at that early time the Biblical narrative includes universalist themes and promises. The key point is that the Israelites believed they were under Divine direction to offer animal sacrifice in order to restore at-one-ment with their God. In the English language, the term for the action which would bring about that restored condition became the word ‘atonement,’ and it applied to reparation for sin.
41 “ ‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of thy people Israel, comes from a far country for thy name's sake … comes and prays toward this house, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to thee … that they may know that this house which I have built is called by thy name…’ 54 Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and supplication to the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, … and blessed all the assembly of Israel … 61 ‘… Let your heart therefore be wholly true to the LORD our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments, as at this day.’ 62 Then the king, and all Israel with him, offered sacrifice before the LORD. 63 Solomon offered as peace offerings to the LORD … a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8)Obviously this was a spectacular number of animal sacrifices for what was regarded as a signal occasion. The animal sacrifices then continued at much smaller numbers on a daily basis. In this early period animal sacrifice was a ritual act that definitively renounced the worship of animal gods that the Israelites were prone to, for example in the episode of the golden calf at Mount Sinai.
The handling of this many animals, and the routine continuation of the daily animal sacrificial system, was a significant logistical challenge which required arrangements that gave the city and temple distinctive aspects of something like a stockyard. A shallow ravine to the north of the temple was dammed and permanent water pools were constructed early in the First Temple Period. Undoubtedly this was done partly to meet the human need for water, but almost certainly also to meet the water needs of animals being held immediately adjacent to the temple for sacrifice.
In 587 BC the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed the First Temple and took the Jewish people off into exile. Not long after this, the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians under the ruler Cyrus the Great. After Jews spent some decades in exile, Cyrus allowed a number of them to return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. The next year the returnees laid the foundation of the Second Temple. But Jerusalem was undefended and surrounded by a number of hostile local rulers. These petty rulers did not wish to see more of this “foreign,” formerly exiled, population of Jewish settlers come back into the area they had managed to assume control of. The local rulers were particularly unwilling to see this Jewish in-migration justified by ethnicity and an attachment to ancient history described in their sacred writings. But the local rulers did not get their way, because they were still under a Persian overlord.
The Bible picks up the story in 444 BC, the 20th year of the reign of the Persian ruler Artaxerxes, as related by Nehemiah, the king’s Jewish cupbearer (wine steward).
In the Book of Nehemiah, Sheep Gate was the first gate mentioned, as it was very close to the Temple. The other gates are then named moving clockwise around the walls of Jerusalem. The name Sheep Gate was continued for many more centuries. The Greek word for sheep is “probaton,” and it was a long tradition that the features nearby, such as the pool and an adjacent church, were called “probatica.” The early (1582) Douai-Rheimes English translation of the Bible continued the tradition by translating John 5:2 this way: “Now there is at Jerusalem a pond, called Probatica [sheep], which in Hebrew is named Bethsaida …”
Nehemiah Chapter 2: “1 In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Ar-ta-xerx'es, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing else but sadness of the heart.’ … 3 I said to the king, “… Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ .... 5 And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may rebuild it.’ … 8 … And the king granted me what I asked … 11 So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. … and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which had been destroyed by fire. … 17 Then I said to them [Jerusalem residents], ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ 18 ... And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their hands for the good work.” [Nehemiah Chapter 3:1] “Then Eli'ashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests and they built the Sheep Gate.”
The First Martyr
Christians often refer to this gate as St. Stephen’s Gate. Stephen was a follower of Jesus, and one of the group of seven men first anointed as deacons. “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.” (Acts 6:6). The office of deacon was an ordained ministry established in the earliest Church in Jerusalem to provide practical material support and service, such as caring for elderly widows in the community (Acts 6: 3). The Catholic Church has sustained this office ever since, as one of the three levels of ordained ministry (deacon, priest, bishop).
St. Stephen was tried by the Sanhedrin (the supreme council or court in Jerusalem) for blasphemy. Stephen’s speech in reply was famously mocked in a wildly uninformed polemic by George Bernard Shaw in his preface to the play Androcles and the Lion. Stephen was thrown out the original gate that was at or very near the modern Sheep Gate, and stoned to death. He is regarded as the first Christian martyr (“protomartyr”).
...and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, ... And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.... And cast him out of the city [ed. - here at Sheep Gate], and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit". (Acts 6: 5-8; 7: 58-59)The incident is particularly poignant because of the mention of Saul (Paul) who becomes the dominant figure in the second half of the history of earliest Christianity, as recounted in the second half of the Book of Acts: “… though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief …” (1 Timothy 1:13).
The New Walls
During the Ottoman period the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt into essentially their current form and location. One legend is that Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) had a vision that if he did not construct a wall around Jerusalem, he would be killed by lions. So, during the rule of this later-day Solomon (Suleiman) the city walls were rebuilt, and completed in 1541. As a final sign of fulfilling his responsibility, he ordered the figures of lions to be placed on the wall next to this gate, and so it became known as Lion Gate.
As we walk through the gate, pockmarks from modern military weapons are visible. During the Six-Day War of 1967, the IDF fought an encircling campaign around the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refrained from using air power and artillery in the hilly Jerusalem area, and armor proved almost useless. The Jordanian Army was professional, well trained, and had fortified positions outside the Old City. The campaign involved a number of costly, bloody infantry attacks by the IDF against bunkers, trenches, and machine gun positions. The Israelis captured the entire area around Jerusalem, but then hesitated – poised just outside Lion Gate – while the war cabinet debated whether to seize the Old City. When the order for the final assault came, ecstatic IDF soldiers rushed forward through Lion Gate almost heedless of casualties or resistance (real, but generally light).
As the assault proceeded, a big problem the IDF faced, ironically, was units getting lost. The IDF had no particular plans to take Jerusalem in June 1967, because the threat was seen as coming from the large Egyptian force on the Sinai border with Egypt. There were no military maps of the Old City of Jerusalem in the IDF, just a few tourist guides. No one in the IDF assault forces knew the area, because Jews had been excluded from the historic heart of Jerusalem for so long.
Basilica of St. Anne (Hannah)
In all our visits to pilgrimage sites the routine has become familiar. The narrative our Footprints group has heard almost everywhere goes like this: “Church X was originally used in the first century (or built in the fourth century). That earliest church was destroyed during or after the Persian invasion in the seventh century. Then a new church was built during the Crusader era and it was destroyed. Finally, the current church was built next to (or on top of) the Crusader-era ruins.” But this morning, at last, we are going to an intact Crusader-era church, one of the most intact of any such structures in the Holy Land. It is regarded by many as the childhood home of a wildly popular figure throughout the history of Christianity. And, its location is also as close to the former site of the Second Jerusalem Temple as we will get.
We pass some familiar places on the route of the Stations of the Cross. Within less than 100 meters we enter a gate into an attractive, pleasant garden. It is long-standing tradition in Jerusalem and the Holy Land that Saint Anne (Hebrew name - Hannah) and her husband Joachim were the parents of the Virgin Mary. The city of San Joaquin, Calif., was named for Joachim. Their names are also mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of James, which, while not entirely reliable in its spiritual narrative, appears to have been correct on such otherwise verifiable facts commonly known at the time. So we are going to visit the home of the grandparents of Jesus, and the childhood home of the Virgin Mary.
In Hebrew, the name of a person is more than casual. Joachim means “he whom YHWH has established or set up.” Hannah is derived first from the root word “Khen” (charm/charism) and the suffix “Ah” (the Lord). It means “charm/gifted of the Lord” or “Grace of the Lord.” The tradition is that Hannah (Anne) and Joachim were holy people who went about the tasks of their lives with a particular sense of dedication to God - St. Anne as mother, and St. Joachim as a member of the Jewish priestly class. The Catholic Church eventually established a feast day for St. Joachim and St. Anne, even though there is no specific knowledge that they were Christians.
Local tradition, which the Crusaders recorded, also held that the Virgin Mary was born in a cave dwelling near the Pools of Bethesda. At the site we are visiting, an older (5th century) Byzantine church commemorating the birthplace of Mary was burned and partially damaged during the Persian invasion of 614. It was repaired, but then nearly totally destroyed by 1010, during the time of odd behavior of the “mad caliph” Hakim. Ruins of the Byzantine structure are immediately adjacent to and partly under the current basilica.
Interior of the Basilica of St. Anne, an original church from the Crusader era, completed in the year 1138. The structure survived because after the conquest of Jerusalem by Salah ad-Din (Saladin) in 1192, it was converted into an Islamic seminary/school of Sharia Law. The basilica is an active Catholic parish today owned by the French government and operated by a religious order. The position just in front of the altar and below the smooth dome of the apse offers a superb acoustic effect. (Glenn Juday photo)
The site of the basilica, and thus the Virgin Mary’s childhood home, would have placed it literally in the shadow of the Temple. The district in the northeast corner of Jerusalem just outside the Temple walls was one of the two Essene areas in Jerusalem. If the tradition is correct, then Mary grew up in the shadow of the Temple, the daughter of particularly devout parents, one of whom was in some way part of the Temple priesthood within a district inhabited by a Jewish sect that had a strong and distinctive tradition of celibacy.
At the least, this situation would mean that the consecration of the daughter of the family as a (life-long) virgin would not be at all surprising, hardly an aberration in the Judaism of the time. An arranged marriage to an upright, established older man of the community, perhaps a widower with children (e.g. Joseph, husband of Mary), would provide the material and social support necessary for the daughter to live out this pledge. At any rate this is the tradition of the apostolic Churches of the Middle East.
It is a plausible, even likely scenario. It would account for the tinge of surprise in the response Mary gave to the angel Gabriel when she was invited to become the mother of the Messiah. Mary was already in a betrothal marriage. As such she was fully legally married to a man of the House of David, but it was before the time that she lived in his household, and yet she responds with confusion to the prophecy that she will bear the Messiah – “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” – in the sense not that she was ignorant of the physical process that would produce children within a marriage, or obviously not that she was never to marry, but that she was already pledged to a different life. In any event, the Catholic Church teaches its members definitively that Mary was special because of the fullness of favor (Greek: kecharitomene) she received and her single-minded dedication to God, that she lived her entire life as a virgin, that Anne and Joachim were holy, and that Mary’s husband Joseph was a just and upright man.
The Basilica of St. Anne was a special project of Arda, the rejected Armenian wife of Baldwin I, the first Crusader king of Jerusalem to accept the title (the first ruler refused kingship). The basilica was completed in 1138. It incorporated a few lower parts of the earlier Byzantine structure but was larger, extending further to the south. It is an outstanding example of Romanesque architecture. When the Kurdish military leader Salah ad-Din (Saladin) conquered Jerusalem in 1192, the basilica was not destroyed, essentially a unique fate for Crusader-era structures. Instead, a year later Saladin had the interior stripped, and converted the basilica into an Islamic seminary or school of Sharia Law. A five-line stone inscription in Arabic describing this event was placed above the side door at that time and remains today. For the next several centuries Christians could pay a fee if they wished to visit the site.
As time went by and Jerusalem followed a long path of decline, the building was abandoned. However, the basilica was so well built that it did not fall down in ruins, although it was severely neglected and became filled with refuse. Then in the middle of the 19th century, the Ottoman Sultan turned the place over to the French government, an ally during the Crimean War. Although the basilica experienced restoration work, most of the structure is original construction from the twelfth century. Today it is still the property of the French government, although it is very much an active Catholic parish. It is staffed by the White Fathers, a religious order named for their white robes (they specialized in work in Africa where black clerical clothing would be too hot).
Sign (in French) at the entrance to the Basilica of St. Anne and the Pools of Bethesda. The pools are a significant archeological site dating back at least to the time of the First Temple. The basilica is an active parish and is closed to commercial tourism on Sundays so that the congregation can use it for worship. (Glenn Juday photo).
Rays of Light, Doves, and Music
The plaque on the wall identifies the site as the Basilica of St. Anne and the Pools of Bethesda. The site receives heavy visitation, but is closed for tours on Sundays when the church is in use as a regular parish. As we enter the main door of the basilica, we find there are no other visitors for the moment. We encounter a three-aisle arrangement with a nave and two lower lateral aisles. The ceiling is cross-vaulted with an arcade of pointed arches supported by pillars, and a smooth hemispherical dome directly above the altar.
As we move forward toward the altar, a window on the east exposure of the dome admits intense, piercing rays of the morning sun that are outlined by lingering incense from the early Mass that has wafted up to the uppermost heights. It’s almost a visual cliché of an intensely spiritual Catholic setting, and I find myself thinking all that is missing are doves fluttering above. And then a couple of doves flutter above the altar in the space just below the dome. I am so transfixed, I simply watch as the pilgrims seat themselves in the front pews. I finally realize that simply recounting the story will sound contrived, and so I take out my camera. The doves choose that moment to roost on a distant ledge in a dim corner, but I will “capture” some with my camera in a few moments outside. Later I see the loose-woven nets placed over the doors to minimize the bird presence within the basilica.
View upward into the dome above the apse of the basilica of St. Anne. Early morning light is entering from the east window of the dome. Shafts of light are defined by the lingering remnants of incense that have wafted up to the ceiling. Doves that entered the basilica were fluttering above moments before. (Glenn Juday photo)
The lines in the rows of the basilica’s Jerusalem stone are clean and symmetrical and the joints are tight, reflecting both excellent design and craftsmanship. The interior surfaces are clear (lack major projections), and relatively unadorned. The predominant impression is one of verticality – everything is tall. The result is an exceptional acoustic effect, perhaps the finest in the Middle East. The basilica has been called “virtually a musical instrument to be played by the human voice.” As pilgrim groups come in each day, nearly always someone will assume the prime acoustic position in front of the altar and sing.
The rule in the basilica is that anyone is welcome to perform a religious song, essentially of any religion. But secular songs are not permitted, and a sign next to the prime spot forbids lectures inside the church. One of our pilgrims performs a beautiful rendition of the Salve Regina. And then one of the pilgrim priests, Father Franz, quietly comes forward and begins the Te Deum – the hymn of thanksgiving we last heard in the Solemn Reception into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – in a high tenor. The tones are exquisite – crisp, rich, and clear despite the rapid or polysyllabic Latin phrasing. It’s an exceptional experience of sound.
The construction or reconstruction of many Catholic churches and other structures in Jerusalem, often placed on the site of previous ruins as we have seen, was particularly active during the first half of the twelfth century. This was the same period as the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The High Middle Ages in Europe were a time of real accomplishment in several fields of technology – architecture being among the most prominent. Because of the great numbers of these large structures, usually cathedrals, being built, experimentation and refinements of technique were constant. The enthusiasm for building cathedrals caused significant advancements in architectural design, stone handling, use of timbers in construction, stained glass art and technology, and not least of all - acoustics. In Europe these became the largest roofed structures built to that time.
The knowledge pool of skilled designers, construction supervisors, and craftsmen was limited and so very likely shared between Europe and the Kingdom of Jerusalem - as it was called then. Since architectural drawings and plans did not exist, specific and exact knowledge had to be transmitted in the minds of the skilled workers or their apprentices moving from job site to site. The dates for this cross-diffusion are quite compatible here. For example, the (first) period of the construction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris began in 1163, only 25 years after the completion of the Basilica of St. Anne here in Jerusalem. Whatever limitations of European societies that can be identified during those times, it would be a major misconception of history to portray them as lacking accomplishment. Architectural skill of the highest order, for example, was in plentiful evidence.
Making a Royal Match
Our Footprints group moves to the south aisle and takes a flight of steps down to the crypt and a grotto said to be the Mary’s birthplace. It is another of the cave (or semi-cave overhang type) dwellings we have seen elsewhere from the time. Only part of the original cave surface, bright rusty red with iron oxide, remains. An icon of the child Mary with Anne and Joachim is on the wall. The icon contains the familiar monogram “ΜΡ ΘΥ” – in which MP are the Greek letters for MU and RHO, an abbreviation for “mater” (mother), and “ΘΥ” are the Greek letters THETA and UPSILON, an abbreviation for “Theou” (of God). The formal term for this belief is “Theotokos,” or “God bearer” which applied to Mary by the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Chamber under the Basilica of St. Anne believed to be the home of the St. Anne and St. Joachim, parents of the Virgin Mary, and her childhood home. A remnant of the cave dwelling, bright rusty red with iron oxide, can be seen in the center. (Glenn Juday photo)
What kind of a match did the parents of Mary make for her? Given her position (literally) in the heart of Jerusalem, how did she later end up in a tiny Galilean residence? Why didn’t she get a match at a high level? Actually, she did.
In the Gospel of Matthew the angel calls Mary’s husband Joseph, “son of David” (Mt 1:20), confirming his descent from the royal line of King David. As he entered into the marriage to Mary, his adoption of Jesus conferred the legal status of inheritance. The rules of kingly accession to the throne occasionally could depart from the norm. For example, even though David was not his father Jesse’s first son in birth-order, he was anointed as firstborn (head or lead) and because of that inherited the honor of his father’s house as King of Israel. He was promised a house (dynasty) that would rule forever.
“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom...I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me...Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12–16)But a few centuries after David established this dynasty, events challenged its survival. The Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom (Judea), leveled its capitol Jerusalem, and carried off its citizenry to exile in 586 BC. When the Babylonian conquerors blinded the last king (Zedekiah) and executed his sons (2 Kings 25:7; Jeremiah 39:7) as successors of David, they assumed that they had finally destroyed the Judean line of royal descent. It did appear that the royal line of David had come to an end. But there were rumors.
The rumors were that a shoot (in Hebrew “netzer’) would sprout from the fallen tree of Jesse (David’s father) and a branch would arise (Isaiah 11:1). In essence the underground (and dangerous) belief was that the murders committed by the Babylonian conquerors had not been quite complete, and that God’s promise that the Davidic throne would last forever might yet be fulfilled. It is known that a clandestine family line whose members believed that they were offspring of David kept alive the consciousness of that identity during the first and second centuries BC. They believed that ultimately it was their destiny to provide a royal heir who would resume legitimate dominion. This (understandably) secretive clan was identified by the semi-cryptic (to outsiders) name Netzoreans or Natzoreans – the ‘branch’ family of David.
They kept contacts with Jerusalem (by marriage, among other means). But the Nazoreans chose an out-of-the-way location in Galilee for their family seat, a place so small it was on the margin between a village and simply the dwellings of an extended set of relatives. The name applied to the place had no connection to the deep history of the land, and unlike nearly any other inhabited place in the Holy Land it was not mentioned in the Bible. Instead it was simply named after the family line (Netzorean) of royal Davidic origin – Nazareth – or, if you will, branch-town. The place name Nazereth was even the diminutive form of the word – “little branch.”
But while the place did not count for anything, the Netzoreans or Nazoreans thought of themselves as special. At the time it would have been logical to look to them to provide the long awaited messianic leadership. “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:23). But the view from outside of the clan may not have been as confident, particularly as the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee dragged on, and as the Edomite usurper Herod and his degenerate clan became more entrenched on the throne. What were the people to think?
“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ ” (ESV John 1: 45-49).One gets a sense of all these themes in what is called the Canticle of Mary or the Magnificat, from the Latin first word of the first line (Magnificat: anima mea Dominum). In the tradition of the eastern Church, this was one of the first Christian songs, which in an oral culture was the means of preserving an important “document.” A number of great composers have set the Magnificat to music, including Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, Bruckner, and Rachmaninoff.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,All the elements of Mary’s personality as recorded in Christian scriptures, and the context of her times and circumstances are there: a deep and humble dedication to divine will, a messianic and ecstatic anticipation, a sense of impending revolutionary upending of established but non-legitimate power, proud Israelite and Jewish identity, and long-hidden fidelity to a divine promise with the obvious belief that it was about to be vindicated.
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever. (Luke 1: 46-55)
In the English-speaking world of today, it is common to speak of “Jesus of Nazareth,” with the implicit assumption that the modifying phrase conveys geographical information exclusively. But from the perspective of the people, places, and circumstances of the time, the geographical component to the term Nazareth may well have been secondary. Instead, the term Nazarene applied particularly to lineage, status, and destiny. This deeper historical view provides insight into another incident in Jericho in which a stranger, hearing only that a Nazarene (or Nazorean) was passing by, immediately made the association with the royal line of David:
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind beggar was sitting beside the road. When he heard the noise of a crowd going past, he asked what was happening. They told him that Jesus the Nazarene was going by. So he began shouting, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ‘Be quiet!’ the people in front yelled at him. But he only shouted louder, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ (NLT Luke 18: 35-39).At the end of Jesus’ life the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate decided to make the same association - of Nazarene status with having royal Davidic lineage, even if he intended to send a mocking/warning message against troublemaking from any other members of the clan. He ordered a titulus (public notice or declaration) to be placed on the cross above the prisoner he was about to execute, with the words in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew/Aramaic, the latter possibly in Hebrew letters in the Syraic dialect (John 19:19-20):
Latin: “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum”
“Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews (Judeans)”
Greek transliteration: Iesous ho Nazoraios ho Basileus ton Ioudaion.
To this day, all Latin Rite Catholic churches and chapels are required to have a crucifix (a cross with the corpus or body of Jesus attached) in place at the altar during Mass, and virtually all such crucifixes include the Latin letters of abbreviation of this titulus – INRI. These words were, at the same time a political/criminal charge, a simple matter of self-identification for any Nazorean, and of course, ever since then a claim that arouses passions much like it did at the time.
In one of the very few episodes that records the actions of Mary in Christian scriptures, the mother of Jesus is described as being there at the cross (John 19:25), where she would have seen the written charge against her son and watched as the sentence was carried out. The aftermath was imagined by Michelangelo Buonarroti and depicted in his Pietà, which is generally regarded as one of the greatest sculptures in history.
The thoughts going through the mind of a quiet, devout Jewish woman who probably started life here in the shadow of the Temple, living among a clan of royal expectation, can only be imagined. It must have been as if a sword had pierced her heart.
Previous posts in this series:
- SNRAS professor shares Holy Land pilgrimage
- On to Nazareth
- Holy Land tour marches on
- Holy Land: Cana to Mt. Tabor
- Holy Land: One pilgrim, one suitcase
- Holy Land: Jerusalem
- Holy Land: Tourism, security, and religion
- Holy Land: The Fifth Gospel
- Holy Land: Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross, and the Israel Museum
- Holy Land: Down from Jerusalem to Jericho