History and Language – Tools for Biblical Exegesis

Why does the teacher of the Scriptures need to know history? Why should we invest the time to not just be acquainted with the languages and cultures of the biblical authors?

In the post-Protestant Reformation era, the idea of using just the Bible (sola scriptura in Latin) has become the battle cry of many independent interpreters of the Bible. There are some who believe that reading the Bible, just in translation, is sufficient preparation to know the Bible’s meaning. When pressed, they will often misquote passages of the Scriptures that indicate the Spirit of God will teach us all we need to know (1 John 2:27 is a favorite).

Unfortunately, this attitude has led to a lot of interpretational and exegetical error in the Church. There are many people who claim to be teachers of the Scriptures but who refuse to acknowledge any authority except their own intellect. They isolate the Scriptures, and in the name of revering the text they demote it to the level of their own predispositions and imagination. This can happen both intentionally and unintentionally. Often unintentionally, small misunderstandings and misinterpretations go unchecked and compound over time.

Allow me to share an example of this kind of poor interpretation. It involves the common use of the name Lucifer for the Evil One. We can trace the evolution of this idea through literature and history, and thereby illustrate how the study of history and language not only demonstrates how something like this can happen but also how situations like this should be a battle cry for more thorough, holistic approaches to the Scriptures.

Ask the average conservative Christian what the devil’s name is and they will say either Satan or Lucifer. 

The name Satan derives from the book of Job, where it is used fourteen times. The name is a transliteration of the Hebrew title HA-SATAN or “the adversary” or “the opponent”. It is not really a name as much as it is a title for anyone who opposes another person – whether it is the angel who opposes Balaam (Numbers 22:22) or Hadad the King of Edom opposing Solomon (1 Kings 11:14). All the same, the idea of a single, great opponent – THE Satan – appears to be a part of the Hebrew thinking, especially by the period after the Exile (Zechariah 3:1-2).

But what about the name Lucifer? Does that have an ancient Hebrew root? In reality, it does not. The word lucifer is Latin. It derives from lux, which means “light.” How did this come to be treated as a name for the devil or Satan? To get that answer, we have to go back to the prophet Isaiah and a prophecy he was given by God.

During the reign of the Judean king Yehoahaz b. Yotham (c 730-710 BCE), Isaiah was given a rather troubling message. This message (the Hebrew word is MASSA or “pronouncement”) was for the King of Babylon. The message, which appears in Isaiah 13-14, foretells the rise of the Babylonians and their eventual conquest of the land of Judah. At the time Isaiah gives this message, however, Babylon is one of the client kingdoms of the mighty Assyrians. They are perhaps the strongest of the client kingdoms, but they are just one of many.

To foretell the rise of Babylon, the oracle contains these lines:

How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!

You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God I will set my throne on high;
‘I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
‘I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-14, ESV)

In these very poetic lines, Isaiah depicts the King of Babylon using a specific form of the Hebrew word HELEL, which means “shining” or “bright.” This particular form includes an additional letter, and so is HEYLEL. This is the only place that this particular form of the word appears and it is coupled with a parallel phrase – BENIY-SHAHAR or “son of the dawn”.

Because of the phrase “son of the dawn” Greek-speaking Jews (or Christians, no one is entirely sure) translated this unique word HEYLEL into Greek as fos-forus or heos-foros (variant spellings of the same term), which was the name they gave to Venus when it rose in the dawn.  This is when Venus is brightest in the sky. When it appears in the late winter sky, it is ten times brighter than the next brightest object – Jupiter. Over time, of course, the magnitude of Venus fades and then it slips below the horizon and does not make an appearance in the dawn sky for another 263 days.

The appearance of Venus as this “son of the dawn” was a harbinger of the end of winter, since it appears in late February. As a result, it also meant that soon the days would get significantly longer. This is probably why the Greeks called this appearance fos-forus – the bringer of light”. (When Venus appears in the night sky, the Greeks called it hes-perus or “evening star”.

The Romans astronomers likewise knew about this star (or planetes as the Greeks called it). They called it lucifer – “the light bringer”. No one knows whether this is a translation of the Greek or if the Romans came up with the name independently.

Around 380 CE, a bishop of Rome named Damasus I asked one of his clerics, a man named Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, to prepare a standardized Latin translation of the Bible. Hieronymus is known to us today by an anglicized version of his name – Jerome. Working first from Greek and then from Hebrew, Jerome produced what is known today as the Vulgate – the standard Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

In the Vulgate, Jerome rendered HEYLEL/heos-foros as lucifer. He also used lucifer to render a statement about Christ in 2 Peter 1:19 – where Christ is called the fos-forus. 

For Jerome, lucifer must have meant exactly  Venus when it appears in the morning sky. But Jerome lived in a troubled time. The western half of the Roman empire was crumbling. Jerome had left Italy around 373 CE and never returned. During his lifetime, the city of Rome was sacked by German invaders and within a generation, nothing would be left but fragmented petty German kingdoms.

Sometime in the early Middle Ages, the connection seems to have been made between the Greek fos-forus and Latin lucifer with the pagan Greek god fos-forus (usually spelled Phosphorus). It was an unfortunate collision of rising Christian fervor against the old pagan ideas, which included astronomy, and a translation meant to indicate a linguistic analogy. As time and distance produced medieval commentary based on perception and not on historical reality, the king of Babylon of Isaiah’s prophecy came to be seen as the Evil One himself.

Well before the 13th century CE, the word had become a name, a title, for the devil. But in that unfortunate century, an English clergyman named John Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English. He retained, and capitalized, the word Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12, while he rendered the same Latin word as dai sterre in 2 Peter 1:19. The labeling of Satan was completely integrated into the beliefs and values of medieval England (and Europe as a whole). Subsequent English translators like William Tyndale and the KJV translators used Wycliffe’s transliteration of the Vulgate in Isaiah.

So, Satan got a new name – Lucifer – with its own mythology built around it.

The use of this name as synonymous with Satan is ubiquitous in almost any western nation with a Christian past. It was easily equated with statements elsewhere in Scripture, such as Paul telling his readers that Satan disguises himself as an “angel of light” (angelos fotos) in his second letter to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 11:14) and John seeing a vision of Satan sweeping stars from the sky (Revelation 12:1-9), which was taken to be a parallel to the poetic language of Isaiah 14.


By studying the history and language, as we have, we can see that this usage of the term lucifer as a name – as if it was the Evil One’s name in eternity past – is unwarranted. The history illuminates the Scriptures and frees us from medieval misinformation.

Unfortunately, theology is subject to cultural and traditional layering. People are often not willing to alter their perceived set of truths, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is part of the burden of applying the disciplines of the humanities to theology. Many teachers of the Scriptures are vaguely aware of the historical and linguistic realities in matters like this, but they take the popular (meaning, more easily accepted) course rather than appear to be criticizing a view which has been taken to be gospel truth.

As teachers of the Scriptures, we are bound to the text – not to popular opinion, no matter how deeply rooted it is in our culture. We must use the tools of history and language (and countless others) to understand the sacred Word and to preserve it from the taints and plaque it might accumulate as humans carry it with them, often morphing original meaning as they go.

We are slaves to the text. We must strive to know it as it was written, even when it flies in the face of opinion and tradition.


The Church of the Resurrection – Links

We have filled the last three weeks looking at the Church of the Resurrection (also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). Hopefully, the story of this revered but often neglected site gives us a little bit of perspective on the difficulties faced by the Church in all its various manifestations.

  1. Constantine and the Ancient Building (330-614)
  2. The Persian Wars and the Rise of Islam (614-692)
  3. Sidebar on the Dome of the Rock (685-692)
  4. The Mad Caliph Destroys the Church (1019-1042)
  5. The Crusader Church (1042-1187)
  6. Turkish Control and the Status Quo (1187-1856)
  7. The Earthquakes and Conflicts (1853-1965)
  8. Barluzzi, Italy, World War II (1933-1947)
  9. Restoration at Last (1965-1997)

We haven’t exhausted this subject, and I might return to it at a later date.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 7

The Church of the Resurrection, part 7

At the dawn of the 20th century, a Church of the Resurrection had stood on the same site for nearly 1700 years. The building that presently occupied the site was an amalgamation of a Byzantine complex, Crusader additions, and contentious projects. The positions of the various factions inside the church had been established by a firman of 1853 and then codified into international law in the Treaty of Paris.

It is hard to understand today just how impoverished Jerusalem was under the Ottoman Turks. At the time of the 1853 firman, the city was home to less than 20,000 people. In his 1867 book Innocence Abroad, Mark Twain estimated the population at around 14,000 while the official 1851 census gave a much larger number of 25,000.

One thing was certain. The Ottomans had mismanaged the site. Everywhere, Jerusalem was falling apart. Atop of the Temple Mount, known now as the Haram al-Sharif or Sacred Place, the Dome of the Rome sat decaying on an all but abandoned overgrown platform.


The Dome of the Rock as seen in 1875

Although in slightly better condition, the Church of the Resurrection was also in a state of disrepair. The warring factions inside the Church and in the world at large had robbed the site of most of its external funding.

View of the Anastasis rotunda from the south. You can see the minaret of the Mosque of Umar to the right and the Crusader bell tower between the rotunda and the minaret.

The best thing that ever happened to Jerusalem was the decline of the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. As their central government weakened (and you might remember that the English and French had to protect them from Russia in the Crimean War), the Ottomans released their strangle hold on Mediterranean traffic. As a result, it was much easier for travelers to get to Jerusalem  – a fact that brought people like Mark Twain there.

The weakened Turks had allowed various European powers to have diplomatic access to Jerusalem, and it was under these auspices that early archaeologists began to arrive and work in the city. Men like Edward Robinson and Charles William Wilson came to the city and began to uncover all kinds of interesting things.

Academic interests paralleled another movement that focused on Israel generally and Jerusalem specifically – Zionism. European Jews, constantly the targets of pogroms and unfair laws, began to migrate to Jerusalem. At first, it was a trickle but by the 1880’s, they outnumbered both Muslims and Christians in the city. After the Ottomans lost control of the city in the wake of World War I, the trickily became a stream.

In 1931, on the brink of World War II, there were 51,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, more than half of the population. Most lived outside of the Old City, as defined by Suleiman’s walls. They built a new city, known as West Jerusalem. When the Jewish state of Israel was declared in 1948, Jerusalem was declared the capital.

Then in 1967, the Jews took over the Old City. An Israeli flag flew from the top of the Dome of the Rock before the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) handed the Haram back to the Jordanians as a religious site. In 1980, the Israeli state officially annexed all of Eastern Jerusalem, but there is still no official international recognition.

What happened to the Church of the Resurrection while all of this was going on?

The 1853 firman had been meant to be a temporary measure, but with the long, slow decline of the Ottomans, the arrangements of the Church became something of a back drawer matter. The British and French secretly met and made arrangements for the division of the Ottoman territories, and in 1917 these lands were mandated to them by the League of Nations.

The various factions inside the Church petitioned the British Mandate to update the status quo. The Protestant British, unwilling to step into a religious matter that did not pertain to them, simply restated the 1853 firman. To deal with the situation, they established an Antiquities Department which would ensure the upkeep of the holy sites of all religions, but would not have executive authority.

Mark Twain visited the Church in the late 1860’s and told about his pilgrimage in a book The Innocents Abroad. He described the Church this way:

When one stands where the Saviour was crucified, he finds it all he can do to keep it strictly before his mind that Christ was not crucified in a Catholic Church. He must remind himself every now and then that the great event transpired in the open air, and not in a gloomy, candle-lighted cell in a little corner of a vast church, up-stairs
–a small cell all bejeweled and bespangled with flashy ornamentation, in execrable taste.

Twain uses the word gloomy half a dozen times in describing the interior of the Church, and he makes it plain that he does not approve of it in the slightest. Every inch of the building was covered with some kind of memorial or relic – including the tombs of both Adam and Melchizedek. To Twain, it is a sad commentary and a sad place. It is pretty apparent from his description that the church was relatively well-maintained, even if “in execrable taste.”

Sixty years later, the Church was in terrible condition. This is how one British pilgrim described the Church’s state in 1927:

The condition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is deplorable. Probably there is no church or cathedral of any importance in the whole world that is so hopelessly shabby. (Anonymous, “The Diary of a Pilgrimage”, Church Times, August 26, 1927)

Although still revered, the Church of the Resurrection simply did not get that much attention. The disrepair of the place was known around the world. It was quite literally falling apart. There were massive cracks everywhere. The ceilings were sooted and falling in. And then, things got worse.

In the afternoon of July 11 1927, an earthquake hit Palestine. A number of holy sites were severely damaged. The first people on the site of the Church of the Resurrection, however, could not find any reason to be concerned. Although many other places were piles of rubble, the only damage the Church seemed to have seen was the caving in of the smaller dome over the katholicon.


A picture of Jerusalem after the 1927 earthquake.
The Dome of the Rock is in the background.

Various projects of renovation were presented, and in 1930 each faction inside the Church began work to repair the building. Unfortunately, they quickly discovered that the Church needed far more extensive and comprehensive repairs than any of them could handle. The delicate balance of the medieval arches required considerations beyond anything available to the people on site.

That balance, however, have been disturbed by eight centuries of progressive deterioration and the 1808 fire, not to mention twenty-three recorded earthquakes. No real consolidation or conservation had ever been carried out. Apart from the visual evidence, common sense dictated that the stability of the building was likely to be seriously compromised. (Raymond Cohen, Saving the Holy Sepulcher, p 41.)

In 1933, the great British architect and conservator William Harvey journeyed to Jerusalem to conduct a full survey of the site. His findings, published in 1935 by Oxford University Press, were beyond daunting.  On the first days of his survey, he informed the Antiquities Department that the entire structure was “structurally in imminent danger.”

Such was the in-fighting and squabbling of the various groups inside the Church that they refused to listen to Harvey even though stones were actually falling from the ceilings to smash to the ground in the midst of worshipers. The Greek Orthodox retained two experts who demonstrated the the satisfaction of the clerics that Harvey’s survey was inconclusive. The Franciscans brought in an Italian architect, Luigi Marangoni, who actively detested Harvey and simply refused to agree to any of Harvey’s reports. Whatever Harvey said, Marangoni attempted to refute.

At every turn, the conservation effort was thwarted and the Church continued to fall apart – literally, as the exterior walls slowly continued to lean outward under the weight of the roof.

Nothing would be done until 1965, thanks to a remarkable man named Vasileos Papadopoulos who, in 1957 became Patriarch of Jerusalem.

And his story will be next.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 6

The Church of the Resurrection, part 6

In 1229, the German emperor Frederick II led the Sixth Crusade to Jerusalem. He persuaded the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil to allow him to be crowned “King of Jerusalem” as part of a peace treaty, and for a brief moment, Frederick might have actually believed he ruled the city.

The reality was that Al-Kamil did not take his treaty with Frederick seriously. Not only that, but Frederick had been excommunicated by the pope so the Latin Patriarch did not even attend the crowning. As soon as Frederick was gone, Al-Kamil simply disregarded all of the stipulations of the treaty and returned to life as it had been before his arrival.

Al-Kamil’s family would have to tend to its own issues. His successor As-Salih Ayyub, fearing the soldiers of his own Kurdish relatives, turned for protection to a special slave army known as the Mamluks. The Mamluks overthrew the Ayyubids in 1250, and they took control of Jerusalem as part of their territory. They controlled the city until 1517.

In 1520, a young, intelligent and ambitious man named Suleiman became the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks. His father had united much of the Muslim world under Ottoman rule, including Jerusalem. Suleiman took the opportunity to restore Jerusalem’s significance.

Suleiman envisioned Jerusalem as a place of peace for Muslims, Jews and Christians. He opened the gates of his newly walled city to all forms of Christians. When French king sent a request that all the churches that had been converted to mosques be returned to the Christians, Suleiman very diplomatically stated that Sharia law forbid this while assuring Louis that all existing Christian sites would be respected.

In 1536, Suleiman’s builders began work on new walls for Jerusalem. He ensured that all of the Christian holy sites, including the Church of the Resurrection, were inside the walls. Although his motivations are unknown, it was clear that Suleiman understood the necessity of protecting the city and its sites. When he discovered that the builders had failed to include Mount Zion, which had a number of Christian holy sites, he had them executed.

Because Suleiman was attempting to protect all religions, he had to allow all forms of Christianity access to the city. This meant that Greek Orthodox and Franciscans would have to co-exist and share the Church of the Resurrection. This was an uneasy situation. The Franciscans controlled the Church. All of the masses were said by Franciscan friars, and only the Franciscans remained in the Church year-round.

But the Franciscans were a mendicant order. Their financing and supplies came almost exclusively from western Europe. The Orthodox, on the other hand, had considerable experience dealing with the Ottoman Turks and other Muslims.

Over the next two hundred years, the Franciscans carried out a number of projects in the Church. They rebuilt the Edicule – a small building inside the Anastasis which housed the remains of the actual tomb of Jesus. They continued on as best they could, rotating teams of ten men inside the Church every three months. The doors were kept locked except during Holy Week, so these men lived lives of considerable discomfort.

They held on until 1757 when, through a carefully orchestrated coup, the Orthodox expelled them. Bribing the local kadi (judge) to support them, over a thousand Orthodox clergy and laity descended on the Church on Palm Sunday. The friars barricaded themselves inside the Church, but the mob broke through and physically hauled them from the Church. The Franciscan Custodian protested, as did the French king Louis XV, but the Orthodox had spared no expense in bribes up and down the bureaucracy.

The Franciscans were still permitted inside the Church, but they no longer controlled it. This honor passed to the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Ottoman central authority, the Sublime Porte, issued an order known as the Status Quo, which established a division of the Church among six groups: the Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox, the Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, the Coptics, and the Ethiopians. Everything, down to the number and locations of candles was established.

No end of controversy has broken out because of the Status Quo. Perhaps the most remarkable of all of these controversies erupted in 1852. The ruler of France, Napoleon III, demanded that the Latins be allowed to repair the secondary dome (or cupola) that had been built by the Crusaders back in the 1100’s. The Turks initially seemed in favor of the idea, but the Russians threatened to invade the Ottoman empire if they granted this right to the Latins. They understood that under Turkish law, if someone repairs a structure, it becomes theirs. The Porte began discussing what to do, and the impatient Russian Czar Nicholas I invaded Ottoman territories.

The French were then put in a difficult position. Together with the English, they feared that if the Russians defeated the Turks, they would be in a position to take much of Eastern Europe, so they declared war on the Russians and found themselves allies. They managed to stop the Russians, and the Status Quo was then codified into international law as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1856. The war they fought is known as the Crimean War, and among other things it gave us Florence Nightingale and the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Ironically, even as the Russians were invading Ottoman territories, the Porte had drafted a resolution that affirmed the 1757 Status Quo and denied the French request. Since the Treaty of Paris then affirmed the Porte’s decision, the war basically accomplished nothing.

During all of this, the Church itself was repeatedly damaged and patched by fires and earthquakes. In 1847, the Roman See established a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem which had been trying to foster cooperation among the competing sects.

With the Ottoman empire on the wain and the 20th century dawning, the Church of the Resurrection was crumbling.

And would continue to do so into the 21st century. But there is hope, and that will be the subject of my next post.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 5

The Church of the Resurrection, part 5

We have been looking at the history of the Church of the Resurrection from the time of its construction to the present day, and in the previous post, I wrote about the destruction of the Church by the Mad Caliph, Al-Hakim. Today, we will see how the church was transformed by the coming of the Crusaders – western Europeans who conducted “armed pilgrimage” to Jerusalem in the last years of the 11th century.

Whoever wishes to save his soul should not hesitate humbly to take up the way of the Lord, and if he lacks sufficient money, divine mercy will give him enough.

Brethren, we ought to endure much suffering for the name of Christ – misery, poverty, nakedness, persecution, want, illness, hunger, thirst, and other difficulties of this kind, just as the Lord said to His disciples: ‘You must suffer much in My name,’ and ‘Be not ashamed to confess Me before the faces of men; verily I will give you mouth and wisdom,’ and finally, ‘Great is your reward in Heaven.’

According to an anonymous contemporary, this is how Pope Urban II called the nobles of Europe to the cause of the First Crusade. The “way of the Lord” was simple – free the Christian holy lands and the Christian Roman Empire in the East from the Muslim invaders. Pray at the Church of the Resurrection, and you would receive absolution of all sins.

Urban gave this speech in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, in response to a letter written by the Byzantine Roman emperor Alexios I Comnenus. Alexios had written the letter to Robert the Count of Flanders, with the hope of Robert sending some kind of military assistance to him. Alexios was dealing with the invasion of the Muslim Seljuk Turks who had swept down into Anatolia from the east and now controlled the most  fertile areas of the empire.

Why Alexios wrote to Robert is a mystery, and why Robert chose to give the letter to Urban is equally unknown. But somehow the letter got to Urban, and he used it as the basis of a call to arms for all of Europe. Over the next four years, around 35,000 armed men would leave western Europe and trek over land first to Constantinople and then to Palestine.

Against all odds, this army found themselves outside the walls of Jerusalem in June 1099. Genoese mariners cannibalized their ships, docked at Jaffa, to construct siege engines, and on July 15, the walls were breeched and the European soldiers poured into the city. One of the crusaders, Godfrey of Bouillon rushed to the site of the Church of the Resurrection. There, on July 22, he had himself declared Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, and not “king” as his fellow Crusaders wished to style him. William of Tyre writes that Godfrey refused to wear a crown of gold in the city where Christ had worn a crown of thorns. (His brother Baldwin, who succeeded him the following year, had no problem wearing the crown of gold and was declared “King of Jerusalem.”)

The Crusaders held Jerusalem for just under a century. During that time, they made massive changes to the Church of the Resurrection.

The Crusaders’ Basilica

The Crusaders’ Church

Among the many changes, the Crusaders walled in the open courtyard, unifying the existing chapels and domed the area, creating a Katholicon or central area. They added a romanesque bell tower and created a new entrance on the southern side of the new construction. It is this facade that visitors see today.

Under one of the chapels, they found an old cistern, which they decided was the site of the finding of the True Cross and built a chapel to St. Helena (Constantine’s mother). They built elaborate spaces everywhere they could.

The Christian inhabitants of the city had been expelled by the Muslims during the siege, and the Crusaders therefore installed their own clergy in the Church, renaming it the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They established a Latin patriarch in the city as well.

(They also converted the Dome of the Rock into a church, and converted the al-Aqsa Mosque into the headquarters of the Knights Templar because they believed it was the temple of Solomon.)

Inevitably, the Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem in 1187 when the city surrendered to the armies of Saladin. Saladin negotiated a right of passage for Christians, and the Church was reopened to Christians, both Latin and Eastern, in 1192. Unfortunately, the walls of the city had gone through both the Crusader siege and Saladin’s. They were crumbling wrecks, and they were not repaired; but that was okay because the Muslims and Christians came to a sort of status quo in the city.

That is until 1244 when a group of Turkish mercenaries known as the Khwarezm passed by on their way to Egypt. The Khwarezm sacked Jerusalem, just because it was available. They did considerable damage to the Church and took most of the treasures stored inside.

The Ayyubid Sultan, Malek-Adel quickly dashed off an apologetic letter to Pope Innocent IV. In the letter, he promised the Church would be secured against such ransacking in the future. He placed control of the keys in the hands of two Muslim families, the Nuseibeh and Judeh, who would only open the doors for the proper authorities. That did not stop the Europeans from declaring the Seventh Crusade, but the Crusaders never got anywhere near Jerusalem. (The Nuseibeh still hold the keys, albeit to only one door.)

Instead, the Latin presence in Church fell to the Order of St. Francis of the Franciscans. In 1335, the Franciscans took up a position in the Chapel of the Apparition inside the Church. Just seven years later, Pope Clement VI made them the Custodia Terrae Sanctae or Custodians of the Holy Land. They joined the Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Syrians, and Ethiopians in the care of the Church.

Over the next five hundred years, these groups would compete for control of the Church, with the Sultans granting almost annual rulings on which group was responsible for what. The Franciscans held custody of the interior until 1757.

And that is the subject of yet another day.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 4

The Church of the Resurrection, part 4

This is part 4 of a series of posts on the history of the Church of the Resurrection. In a previous part, we saw how the Church was badly damaged during the brief period when the Sassanids controlled the city (614-622 CE) and then the period of relative peace after the Muslims took the city in 637 CE. After a brief diversion to consider the Dome of the Rock, we are back on track.

Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tariqu al-Hakim became the Fatimid caliph when he was only eleven years old. His father died in 996, probably of complications from gall stones, and Al-Hakim inherited the throne. He was an erratic person, to put it simply.

According to the Crusader historian William of Tyre, Al-Hakim’s mother was a Melkite Christian.  According to the Muslim chronicler al-Musabbihi, he was healed by the help of a Christian sage. Either way, Christians played an important role in Al-Hakim coming to power. Some people might have felt gratitude to the followers of Jesus for this, but to Al-Hakim (at least according to William of Tyre), this was a mark of shame. He despised Christians.

In 1004, Al-Hakim made it illegal to observe the Christian feasts of Epiphany and Easter. The following year, he banned the use of wine (along with all other alcoholic beverages), making it illegal to observe the eucharist. But this was nothing compared to what came next.

Pilgrims who went to the Church of the Resurrection during the early period of Muslim rule (637-1009) reported that during the Easter Vigil, there was some kind of illuminated miracle known as the Descent of the Holy Fire. According to tradition, when the church was in darkness during Holy Saturday, a blue light would emerge from Christ’s tomb under the Anastasis. It would eventually form a column of light, from which worshipers would light candles from the fire.

Al-Hakim took great exception to this miracle. To him, it was leading people away from Allah. In 1009, against the recommendations of his advisors, Al-Hakim ordered that the Church of the Resurrection be completely dismantled. Yahya of Antioch, a Christian doctor who was alive at the time, wrote, “They seized all the furnishings they found in the church and completely destroyed it, leaving only those things whose destruction would have been too difficult. They also destroyed Calvary and the church of St. Constantine and all that was located within its confines, and they tried to destroy the sacred remains.”

The only parts of the Church to survive the destruction were the walls of one side of the Anastasis. The rest of the Church was broken down and, according to Yahya, even the rock of Calvary was destroyed.

In the years that followed, Al-Hakim would make forced converts of many Christians. Then, almost abruptly he reversed his policies. He allowed Christians and Jews to return to their faiths and even to rebuild their churches. The Druze began to revere him as something supernatural. Some chroniclers think Al-Hakim began to see himself as an incarnation of Allah, which might have contributed to his tolerance of Christians.

Then in 1021, he went for a walk and simply never returned. Some believe he was killed, and others believe he just walked away. For whatever reason, at age 36 the Mad Caliph disappeared and his son Ali Az-Zahir became Caliph. Az-Zahir immediately set about appeasing the enraged Byzantine Christians, opening negotiations with them to rebuild the Church of the Resurrection.

It was not until the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos that a rebuilding campaign got under way in 1043. The patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus, led the rebuilding project which consumed tremendous amounts of money but only managed to clear the rubble of the previous buildings and rebuild the Anastasis. The basilica was not rebuilt. Instead, several chapels were built around the site. The Christians consolidated their holy sites into several chapels, spread over a large, paved area.

Just half a century later, the emperor Alexios I Comnenus would send a letter to a Norman noble, Robert of Flanders that would launch the First Crusade and transform the fate (and architecture) of the Church of the Resurrection forever.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 3

The Church of the Resurrection, part 3

The previous post made a passing reference to the building of the Dome of the Rock which still sits on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The construction of this shrine and the remaking of the Temple Mount as a Muslim holy site is significant enough that we should consider it before continuing the story of the Church of the Resurrection.

Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan became the fifth Umayyad Caliph in 685 CE.  He is considered by some to be one of the greatest rulers of the Muslim world because he provided the Muslim world with a single, unified currency, won a series of wars against the Byzantine Romans, and made Arabic the state language of all Islamic lands.

Despite all of the successes of his reign, Al-Malik’s caliphate did not have a very good beginning. After the death of the first Caliph Muawiyah in 680 CE, the Muslim world descended into five years of chaos known as the Second Fitna. His father Marwan I was one of several claimants to the caliphate who received at least some support among the Arab tribes, but when he died in 685 CE, Al-Malik inherited the caliphate.

Al-Malik had to unify Islam, which was a hefty task. When he assumed the caliphate, a rival caliph (Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr) had the support of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The holy city of Mecca would not come under his control until after a seven-month siege in 692 CE. Thus it was that Al-Malik found himself involved in massive construction projects in Jerusalem.

To Islam, Jerusalem is Al-Aqsa – the far away place. Atop Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount), Muhammed was said to have ascended to heaven during his “Night Journey.” A generation before, Caliph Umar had constructed a small prayer house on the proposed site, and it was here that Al-Malik was headed.

The city was largely unchanged from the days when the Christians had surrendered it to Caliph Umar, and its central feature was the Church of the Resurrection – about half a mile from Al-Aqsa.

What did Al-Malik think of this great Christian shrine dominating the holiest city he ruled. For Al-Malik, the Church of the Resurrection had to be contested by a Muslim shrine of even grander scope. According to the 10th century Muslim geographer Al-Maqdisi:

Caliph Abd al-Malik, seeing the greatness of the martyrium of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its magnificence, was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of Muslims and hence erected above the Rock the dome which is now seen there.

In Jerusalem, as in the world, the Muslim monument must overshadow the Jewish and Christian sites. For Al-Malik, far from Mecca, this was a necessity for the continued expansion of his faith.

To rival the Anastasis, he began construction of a dome of similar but slightly larger proportions. In essence, Al-Malik’s engineers copied and improved upon Constantine’s Anastasis rotunda. Everything about the dome, called Qubbat as-Sakrha in Arabic, was meant to rival the Christian church.

  • While the Anastasis rises above the rock of Jesus’ tomb, this new dome would rise above the Foundation Stone. This stone, part of the bedrock, was revered by Jews and Muslims – albeit for very different reasons.
  • If the Anastasis commemorated Christ’s resurrection, the new Dome commemorated both the creation of the world and its final judgment.
  • The Anastasihad Golgotha in its courtyard. The new Dome would have a smaller dome – Qubbat al-Silsila – where the righteous and wicked would be divided in the end times.
  • Near the Anastasis was the Martyrium – Constantine’s great basilica. Across the open courtyard of the Al-Aqsa was a new mosque which would dwarf the basilica.

In every way, the new complex was bigger and better than the Christian site to its west.

Al-Malik did not live to see the completion of his Al-Aqsa complex. He died in 705 and the finishing touches were added by his son Al-Walid. It did not really matter, however, because in 692 Mecca fell and with it fell all of Al-Malik’s rivals. The Second Fitna was over, and he spent the last thirteen years of his caliphate focused on other matters.

Jerusalem and its new shrines were not considered terribly significant once Mecca and the Qaaba were in Umayyad hands. Still, the Church of the Resurrection was no longer the most prominent site in Jerusalem, and the similarities between the two structures were not lost on pilgrims who journeyed there.

Just one last historical curiosity. In 746 and again in 1033, both the mosque and the dome were damaged by earthquakes which seem to have had no effect on the Church of the Resurrection. Isn’t that interesting?

Next time, we look at the “Mad Caliph” and the actions that ultimately led to the Crusades.