Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Constantinian Authenticity: Golgotha

           This week we continue to examine the assertions of a scholar, Joan E. Taylor who in her book Christians and the Holy Places:  the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, makes the case that none of the holy sites on which Constantine built churches in the Holy Land were authentic.   Today we look at her case against the authenticity of the Constantinian Church of the Resurrection, called today “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre”.
            If the inauthenticity of the Bethlehem site can be laid at the door of mischievous pagans or stupid Christians, the inauthenticity of the Golgotha site is laid by Taylor at the door of Constantine, who seems to function as the chief villain of the piece.  For Taylor, Constantine was largely uninterested in the actual authentic sites and more interested in confiscating formerly pagan sites as part of his programme of Christianizing his empire.  Thus Constantine chose the site of a former temple to Venus to build his new complex commemorating the Cross and Resurrection, not because he believed that was the actual site but simply to commandeer the pagan temple of Venus.
            No one denies that the Church of the Resurrection was built over a former temple of Venus.  This fact is acknowledged as early as Eusebius, who wrote of the place right after it was built.  Whether or not the pagan temples were erected as a deliberate affront to the Christians (as Eusebius thought) scarcely matters.  After 135 A.D. all of Jerusalem was rebuilt and transformed into a pagan city, even changing its name from “Jerusalem” to “Aelia Capitolina”.  The desecration of sacred sites need not have been intended by the Romans as a deliberate insult to the Christians any more than to the Jews, but the Fathers were not wrong to view it as pagan desecration nonetheless.
            Taylor however suggests that the reclaiming of a pagan cult center was the sole reason for the choice of the site.  Further, she suggests that locals once knew that the original site of Golgotha and the empty tomb was “further south, towards the northern part of Mount Zion, probably under the western forum” near the current Muristan bazaar and the modern Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, but that Constantine chose the site north of this in order to demolish the pagan center and replace it with his Christian one.  To the locals who knew that this was the incorrect site Constantine offered the crosses that were found in the area as proof that his site was the correct one, and “the matter was clinched when an empty tomb was discovered and heralded as being that belonging to Christ.  Further tombs which came to light were simply cut away” (Taylor, op. cit., p 141).
            What evidence does Taylor cite for the original place of crucifixion being not under the pagan shrine but in a forum to the south?  In the late second century, Bishop Melito of Sardis preached a Paschal homily, a poetic work on Christ’s cross and resurrection.  In this poetic work, Melito contrasts the murder of Christ with usual murders to accentuate its heinousness.  Most murders are committed in the dark, away from public gaze, in hidden places.  The murder of Christ, however, was brazenly and spectacularly public.  As Melito says, “If the murder took place by night, and if he was slaughtered in a deserted place, I might have been able to keep silent.  Now in the middle of the street [Greek plateia], and in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day before the public gaze, the unjust murder of a just man has taken place” (Concerning Pascha, ch. 94).  Taylor looks at this poetry as if it were pinpoint-accurate geography, and asserts that Melito’s homily can be used as a trustworthy source to locate the place of the crucifixion on a map of Jerusalem.  According to Taylor, by using the word “street”, plateia, Melito means to locate the site in the avenue of colonnades south of the pagan temple, at the forum near the current Muristan.   
Surely this is an astonishing leap, and slender foundation on which to erect such an edifice of argument.   And it is also misses the point of the sermon:  Melito is not saying that Christ was crucified in what was later the wide plateia of the city, but in what was then the open streets of the city.  Taylor admits that Melito knew that Christ was in fact crucified outside the city gate, and not actually “in the middle of the city”.  And that is exactly the point:  Melito was speaking poetically, not historically.  Taylor wants to make Melito say that Christ was crucified in what was later the middle of the city, after another city wall was added in 135, but that is not what he Melito actually said.  When Melito said that Christ was murdered “in the middle of the day before the public gaze”, he placed the event in the past, inviting us to visit the past and to witness the outrage for ourselves.  It would overturn his entire point if he was interpreted as saying that Christ was murdered in what would later be the middle of the city and would be later be in the middle of the street.  The outrage Melito points to depends upon it occurring in the middle of the day, in the middle of the city, and in the middle of the street at the time when it happened.  The spectacular public nature of the murder is what made it outrageous.  One cannot transform his homiletic poetry into pinpoint-accurate geography of a later time as Taylor attempts to do.
What then of Eusebius’ claim that the wood of the cross was found on Golgotha, where Constantine built his church?  If the site of the crucifixion was indeed further south on the later-built plateia of the Muristan, how could Eusebius identify Golgotha and the discovery of the cross in a nearby cistern at the northern site?  Taylor answers by trying to argue that the term “Golgotha” represents not the hill on which Jesus was crucified but “an entire region…a reasonably large area…when the site [of Golgotha] was identified as lying under the temple of Venus, this idea of its being a fairly sizeable region was preserved” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 120).  Thus “Golgotha” was a large area, within which was the rock of Calvary. “It may be that the Jerusalem church, aware that Golgotha was a sizeable region, identified its center as being around the southern part of the forum” (Taylor op. cit., p. 122). 
But this is contrary to the usage of that day, which identified Golgotha with the rock of Calvary on which Jesus was crucified.  When the pilgrim from Bordeaux came to the site in 333, she wrote “On your left is the small hill Golgotha where the Lord was crucified, and about a stone’s throw from it is the vault where they laid His body and He rose again”.  Note:  Golgotha in this usage is not an “entire region” or “a sizeable region”, but a “small hill”, and the “vault” for our Lord’s burial is not on Golgotha, but “about a stone’s throw from it”.  Eusebius, who wrote as a contemporary, was also clear:  the church which Constantine built was erected at the very site at which Jesus was crucified and buried.  That Golgotha did not include the forum to the south of it, as Taylor alleges, but was north of it.
Further, according to Taylor, the Christians of Constantine’s time knew that the church did not mark the actual site of the crucifixion.  For them, the rock of Golgotha on which Constantine placed a cross commemorated the crucifixion, but did not mark its actual location:  “It was not Constantine’s intention that pilgrims should imagine that the crucifix on the rock marked the place of Christ’s death…there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Christians of the fourth century saw this rock [in the church, marking the place of the crucifixion] as anything special” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 123).  Indeed, according to Taylor they had no interest in the actual place of Christ’s death and resurrection, because His body was no longer there, but in heaven.  For them “the empty tomb was unimportant”, since the “Christians’ theology of Christ Risen went sharply against any idea that the tomb in which his body had lain should be venerated” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 137, 136).
This is lack of concern for authenticity of place is not reflected in the Fathers writing at that time.  Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), for example, preaching in the Constantinian church, makes repeated references to the events that occurred there.  Compare his Catechetical lecture 13,38-39:  “Take as an indestructible foundation the Cross and build upon it the other articles of faith…Gethsemane bears witness where the betrayal occurred…the hall of Pilate, now laid waste by the power of Him who was then crucified; this holy Golgotha which stands high above us; the sepulchre near to hand where He was laid and the stone which was laid on the door, which lies this day by the tomb.”  Cyril, as he was preaching in the Constantinian basilica, made reference to the “holy Golgotha” as the rock which “stands high above us”; he referred to Christ’s sepulchre as “near to hand” and the stone as “lying this day by the tomb”.  For him, the basilica did not simply commemorate these events which might have happened elsewhere.  Rather, Cyril knew himself to be standing in these very places.
Cyril’s sermons reveal that the Christians of his day in the fourth century did indeed care about the authenticity of the holy places.  Taylor asserts that there is no record of Christians venerating the tomb prior to the time of Constantine.  That is true, and is adequately explained by the fact that Christianity was then under constant threat by the state and that travel was expensive.  It does not mean that Christians (for example) in Gaul had no interest in the holy places, only that they had no means of getting there.  When Christianity became legalized under Constantine and they gained the means of safely getting there, they came in droves.  What changed with Constantine was not the perennial desire of the human heart to touch the holy, but the opportunities to do so.
And we have no reason to think that what was true for the mass of Christians was not also true for Constantine.  If love for Jesus made fourth century pilgrims like Egeria and bishops like Cyril of Jerusalem care about geographical authenticity, why would Constantine be mysteriously immune to such?  Why suggest that his desire to obliterate a pagan shrine in Jerusalem “trumped” the common Christian concern to find the true holy places?   It is true that as a Christian (or at least a Christian sympathizer) he would have taken some satisfaction in seeing pagan shrines replaced by Christian ones.  Yet he was still a smart politician, and knew that most of his empire was still pagan.  It would have been impolitic in the extreme to wage cultural war against the majority of his subjects, and the idea that what was uppermost in his mind was the destruction of pagan shrines does not accord with the available evidence.  In the so-called “Edict of Milan” he announced toleration not just for the Christians but for all religions, including the pagan ones, “so that each man may have a free opportunity to engage in whatever worship he has chosen, to ensure that no cult or religion may seem to have been impaired by us”.  Certainly Constantine made crystal clear his own preference for Christianity, but he did not go out of his way to enrage the pagans.  In another edict he even allowed public pagan divination to continue, for “we [i.e. Constantine] do not prohibit the ceremonies of a bygone perversion [i.e. paganism] to be conducted in the free light of day”.  It seems unlikely therefore he more motivated by a desire to stamp out pagan shrines than he was by a desire for historical accuracy.   The likelihood is that he built his Jerusalem basilica where he did because that was where the locals told him that was where the original hill and tombs stood.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Keeping Our Kids Christian

          Nothing helps foster humility like parenthood.  New furniture may come out of the box from Ikea with a set of assembly instructions for clueless people like myself, but children do not come out of their mommy with a set of instructions.  Too bad.  Because sooner rather than later, all parents pull their hair in frustration or wring their hands with worry as they struggle to raise their children and keep them happy and safe.  The unmarried and childless are often filled with wisdom and dispense confident advice about how to raise children, but actual parents soon discover that they have no real clue what they are doing.  All of us parents are winging it, even if we have to hide this embarrassing fact from our children and give them the impression that we always know what to do, and are never frightened or at a loss.  Like I said:  parenthood fosters humility.
            The world in which children are raised is a scary one, and dangerous.  It is not just a matter of teaching children to stay away from stove when mommy is cooking or not to talk to strangers.  The world is filled with more subtle perils, things which can not only take away one’s health or life, but can also take away one’s soul.  And these perils do not advertise themselves as perilous.  They are usually wrapped in bright paper and shiny bows and advertised as indescribably wonderful by the media, but they are spiritually poisonous nonetheless.  We cannot protect our children by shielding them from such dangers, locking them up in tall towers or hauling them off to live in monasteries at the age of six.  What then can we do to protect them from harm, to help them grow up to know and love Jesus with all their hearts, and to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness?  How can we keep them on the path that leads to God?

            There are, of course, no guarantees, and anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something.  We can do everything within our power and pray our little parental hearts out, only to discover at the end of it that our children possess the same free will that we do, and can still decide go their own way after all.  It is, I suspect, the most heart-breaking thing there is.  God understands this pain.  We all are His children, and we have been going our own way for some time now.  We can only do what we can do.  The question is:  what can we do?  How can we keep our kids Christian?  I suggest eight things.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Constantinian Authenticity: Bethlehem

          Last week I examined the assertions of a scholar, Joan E. Taylor, in her book Christians and the Holy Places:  the Myth ofJewish-Christian Origins, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, to the effect that none of the holy sites on which Constantine built churches in the Holy Land were authentic.  She devoted an early chapter of her book to refuting claims that Mamre was an authentic Christian site.  This was, however, simply skirmishing, and she acknowledges in the final pages of her book (p. 307) that she only dealt with Mamre first to establish the fact that Christians could talk about “restoring” a site even when they didn’t previously own it.  She was, I think, saving her real fire for the sites of Bethlehem, Golgotha, and the Mount of Olives.  We will examine the claims for authenticity in Bethlehem first.  Ms. Taylor of course does not categorically deny that Christ was born in Bethlehem.  She does leave open the possibility that He was born in Nazareth instead (p. 112).  What she denies is the authenticity of the cave purporting to be the place in Bethlehem in which Christ was born.  It will be well to set out the literary evidence for the authenticity of the cave, and then examine her case against that evidence.
            First of all comes the voice of St. Justin Martyr, writing in about 155 A.D.  In his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 78), he writes, “About the birth of the child in Bethlehem:  when Joseph could not find any lodgings in the village, he went to a nearby cave, and Mary gave birth to the child here and laid Him in a manger, and there the Arabian magi found him.  I have already quoted Isaiah’s words in which he predicted the symbol of the cave…”  Justin here refers to Isaiah’s words in the Greek Septuagint of Is. 33:16, which indeed he already quoted to Trypho in chapter 70 of his Dialogue.  The Isaiah text reads:  “This one will live in the high cave of a strong rock; bread will be given to him, and his water will be assured”.  Justin is here pointing out to Trypho that this Scripture was fulfilled in Jesus, when He was born in a cave in the strong rock.  The point here of course is not whether Justin in correct in applying the words in Is. 33:16 LXX to the birth of Christ.  The point is that Justin felt sure enough that He was in fact born in a cave to think of Christ when he read those words.  Thus in the mid-second century, it was commonly believed that Christ had been born in a cave in Bethlehem.
            The next piece of evidence is from the so-called Protoevangelium of James.  This is an apocryphal work, an imaginative reconstruction of the events preceding Christ’s birth, which was very popular in Christian circles, despite its (we now know) very limited historical value.  The author of the work seemed to know little of Palestinian geography, but that is not the point.  The point is rather that the work witnesses to what Christians of that day thought about the circumstances of Christ’s birth.  The work is hard to date with precision.  Wikipedia dates it to ca. 145 A.D., or the middle of the second century, calling attention to the fact that Origen (184-254) seemed to know of the work.  The scholarly M.R. Rhodes in his The Apocryphal New Testament said that “it is as old as second century” (p.38).  In the Protoevangelium we read, “They drew near to Bethlehem within three miles…And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to [Joseph], ‘Take me down from the donkey, for that which is within me presses me to come forth.’ And he took her down from the donkey and said to her, ‘Where shall I take you to hide your shame, for the place is desolate.’ And he found a cave there and brought her into it, and sets his sons by her, and he went forth and sought for a midwife of the Hebrews in the country of Bethlehem”.  From this text we see that it was commonly thought that Christ was born in a cave outside the town.
            The next piece of evidence is from Origen, writing around the early third century.  In his reply to the pagan critic Celsus (Against Celsus 1.51) he refers to the birth of Christ.  Here he writes, “If anyone wishes to have further proof to convince him that Jesus was born in Bethlehem besides the prophecy of Micah [Micah 5:2] and the story recorded in the Gospels by Jesus’ disciples, he may observe that in accordance with the story in the Gospel about His birth, the cave in Bethlehem is shown where He was born and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. What is shown there is famous in these parts even among people alien to the Faith, because it was in this cave that the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born.”  Origen makes the statement that the actual cave with its manger was well-known by the locals of Bethlehem, and as such was shown not just to inquiring Christians but also to non-Christians as the cave where “the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born”.  Origen had visited the Holy Land himself, and lived in the northern city of Caesarea.  He took some scholarly interest in visiting the holy places, and referred to what local guides said.  Given his words, its seems unlikely that he did not visit Bethlehem itself while he lived nearby up the coast.  As such he would have spoken with these locals himself.
A little while later, Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340), famous as first church historian, wrote his Demonstration of the Gospel, a work written to prove the truth of Christian Faith, marshalling the usual prophecies from the Old Testament.  Concerning Christ’s birth, he writes (in 3.2.47), “And moreover, the definite place of His prophesied birth is foretold by Micah, saying: ‘And you, Bethlehem, House of Ephratha, are the least that can be among the thousands of Judah.  Out of you shall come a leader, who shall feed My people Israel.  And his goings forth are from the beginning from the days of eternity.’ Now all agree that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, and a cave is shown there by the inhabitants to those who come from abroad to see it. The place of His birth then was foretold.”   A little later in the same work (7.2.14) he writes,  “And to this day the inhabitants of the place, who have received the tradition from their fathers, confirm the truth of the story by showing to those who visit Bethlehem because of its history the cave in which the Virgin bore and laid her infant.”  Later still in the same chapter he writes, “Yes, indeed, I think that it was clearly revealed here that the God of Jacob…would dwell among men, and that He would be born nowhere else but in the place at Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, in the spot that is even now pointed out, for there no one is witnessed to by all the inhabitants as having been born there in accordance with the Gospel story, no one remarkable or famous among all men, except Jesus Christ.”  Eusebius therefore testifies that the local Bethlehem inhabitants can point out the very cave in which Jesus was born.
St. Jerome wrote about this site also, and actually lived in the famous cave when he retired to Bethlehem in 386.  In his Epistle 58, he writes about how the site had previously been a pagan grove sacred to Tammuz:  “As for Bethlehem, now our most sacred place, and that of the whole world… it was overshadowed by the grove of Tammuz, that is of Adonis; and in the cave where the infant Christ had cried the lover of Venus was mourned.”  Such pagan shrines were not unusual in Palestine; we have seen that pagans also revered the sacred oak at Mamre as a pagan site.  Jerome’s words are evidence that prior to Constantine’s building over the cave, the site was a pagan grove for Tammuz/ Adonis.  (Indeed, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lecture 12.20, given in the middle of the fourth century, confirms that “a few years ago the place was woody”.)
Together these literary witnesses constitute an impressive case for the authenticity of the cave site as the place of Christ’s birth, yet Taylor attempts one by one to discredit the credibility of the ancient literary witnesses.  Regarding Justin’s witness, she opines that perhaps Justin, being from Palestine where caves functioned as stables, simply read a cave into Luke’s account of Christ’s birth in the stable, and that he was not reflecting a received tradition at all.   This is unlikely, given that the Protoevangelium, written about the same time, reflects the same tradition.  Justin is not inventing the existence of a cave and then reading it into the Isaiah text—especially since the Isaiah text does not read immediately like a Messianic prophecy.  Rather, Justin’s far-fetched application of the cave in Is. 33:16 LXX is only likely given that he already knew that the birth was in a cave and thus read Isaiah in that light. 
Taylor also suggests that Justin was ignorant of the cave’s existence, since the wooded Tammuz grove was in Bethlehem, whereas Justin locates the cave outside the town (“somewhere nearby the village, but nevertheless outside it”; Taylor, op. cit., p. 100).  But Justin does not say the cave was outside the village, but rather simply “nearby” the lodgings—note:  nearby the lodgings, not nearby the village.  Taylor is pressing Justin to find in his writings more geographical accuracy than is there.  Justin could care less about whether the cave was inside the village or outside it; his sole point was that the birth in the cave fulfilled the ancient prophecies.  Further, the boundaries of small villages like Bethlehem could easily shift, and it is precarious to base arguments on whether or not a cave was thought to be in Bethlehem or nearby it, or how far from the city a wooded area extended.  What is more certain than shifting boundaries is that the witnesses of the fourth century were more likely to know such geographical details than anyone writing now.
  In dealing with Origen’s witness, Taylor suggests that “all his words really tell us is that the pagan people of Bethlehem believed that Jesus was born there.  The probability is that the pagans arrived at this notion by an identification of Jesus with Adonis, not from any ancient tradition” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 104).  In particular, Taylor suggests a confusion of the name “Adonis” with the Syriac word “adawni” (“my lord”).  Taylor again:  “It would perhaps have been natural for a Christian visitor from Jerusalem to ask the locals about a cave where ‘my lord’, adawni was born” (p. 106). 
With respect, this presupposes a tremendous amount of stupidity, both on the part of the visiting Christians (who for some reason confined themselves to speaking Syriac or Hebrew, rather than the international language of Greek, in which the words “my lord” were not adawni, but kyrios mou) and also on the part of the locals.  Could the local Bethlehem pagans really have thought that Christians were inquiring of them where Adonis was born?  Whatever happened in small town Bethlehem when visiting Christians came asking in which cave their Founder had been born, it is supremely unlikely that the locals showed them the cave over the grove of Adonis by way of a simple mistake.  Would none of visitors have used the name “Jesus” in their inquiries?  In the words of Origen, “What is shown there is famous in these parts even among people alien to the Faith, because it was in this cave that the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born”—thus the locals knew that the visitors were looking for the cave of “the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by the Christians”—not that of Tammuz or Adonis. 
For Taylor, after the local pagans convinced the Christians, either through mistaking Adonis with Jesus or through deliberate malice, later writers like Eusebius and Jerome simply assumed its authenticity and repeated the error.   Taylor is emphatic that there was no connecting link between the locals who received the shepherds’ report of the birth and who knew of the cave’s location, and later generations.  But is this credible?  Bethlehem was a small town in the first century, and the birth of a child within one of the caves, witnessed by the local shepherds (Lk. 2:15-16) would have been long remembered by the locals—especially so since the shepherds told all the rest of the townspeople that they thought the baby born in the cave was destined to be the Messiah (Lk. 2:17-18, 11).  Given the accuracy of Luke’s reportage, it is unlikely that the small town would easily forget the shepherds’ news or the location.  Later inquirers like Luke and those who came after him would have had no trouble in such a small town tracking down the families in which those stories were preserved.  It is true that there is no evidence for widespread Christian veneration of the Bethlehem site in the early years when later immigrants to the area created a grove for Tammuz in the area.  As said in the previous post, given the Christians’ threatened and marginalized position in society and the expense of travelling, such early pilgrimage is hardly to be expected.  But that does not mean that some of the locals of Bethlehem would have forgotten where the site was. 
Ms. Taylor, it is safe to say, would not be moved by these arguments.  For her, “it is very unlikely that the accounts of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem are historical” (p. 143), so the Biblical record of locals receiving information from the shepherds would carry little weight.  For her even the fact of the crucifixion is not completely certain:  “It is almost certain,” she writes, “that the crucifixion of Jesus actually happened” (p. 143).  Almost certain?  It is difficult to respond to such extreme scepticism—certainly within the confines of a brief blog post.  We must content ourselves with assuming, for purposes of this blog, that the Biblical records give more or less reliable information.
To sum up and place in historical perspective:  if Justin and the author of the Protoevangelium writing in the mid-second century knew of the cave of the place of the birth, then the geographical tradition must predate that by at least a generation.  That places the tradition within the first century—i.e. passed on by grandfathers or great-grandfathers of the people who spoke with the shepherds.  Thus a ten year old boy learning of the news from his father in (say) 6 B.C. would be about only 42 when Christ died, and if he lived to the age of 70 he would die at 54 A.D.  If this child had a boy at the age of 20, this boy living to the age of 70 would die at 74 A.D.  Another generation brings one within the time when such information would be available to those passing it along to Justin Martyr.  It does not take a very robust faith to believe that a family receiving news from local shepherds that they had heard angels declare that the Messiah had been born in a local cave would preserve that information as part of their family lore for several generations.  It is this family lore that accounts for Justin’s information and those coming after him.  Taylor’s argument assumes that such a link was severed, and that no one was present from the local population to preserve such an astonishing bit of news.  This seems frankly incredible.  More likely by far is that the locals would have retained these local traditions—as Justin, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome assert that they did.  Taylor’s methodology of suspicion is itself not to be trusted.  My money is on the long memories of a small town, and the acumen of inquiries coming to access those memories a few generations later.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Constantinian Authenticity: Mamre

           In the May of this year, 2013, through the kindness and generosity of my friend and deacon Gregory Wright, I visited the holy places in Palestine, fulfilling a lifetime dream.  I went there with Deacon Gregory not so much as a tourist, but as an historical pilgrim, following in the footsteps of fellow-believers like Egeria, a woman who visited some of the same holy places in the fourth century and who left a written record of her pilgrimage.
            That is, I went there not so much to visit the current tourist sites as to discover the now covered over Byzantine sites that Egeria would have visited in the fourth century, and through them, to encounter the authentic sites of the first century.  It was a lot of work, but I was not disappointed.  The result of my visitation and pilgrimage was reduced to a book, entitled Following Egeria.  (Whether or not any publisher will be willing to offer this to the public remains to be seen. I’ll let you know.)
            Thus I was all the more interested to find a book by Joan E. Taylor, in which she discourses on the authenticity (or inauthenticity) of many of the sites Deacon Gregory and I visited.  Her scholarly book is entitled Christians and the Holy Places:  the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press.
            Given the title, one may correctly imagine that Ms. Taylor takes a rather jaundiced view of the authenticity of the holy places immortalized by the architecture of Constantine.  She writes a fascinating book—and an expensive one ($152.00 through Amazon).  I may add that I did not order the book through Amazon, but read it through a blessed inter-library loan.  I owe Ms. Taylor a debt of gratitude for writing such an interesting book.  Nonetheless, I emphatically disagree with many of her conclusions (making me all the more happy that I did not shell out $152 for the volume), and would like to argue with my worthy and more scholarly opponent in this blog. This is perhaps a little unfair, since she is unlikely to read this, and so will not have the opportunity to answer and refute my words.  But I feel compelled to do so, as one giving voice to and defending Constantine and the countless pilgrims since his day who have trusted the historical sense of the Byzantine Church and who have visited these sites in innocent confidence that the Church was not deceiving them in offering these geographical locations as authentic topoi or places where the holy and Biblical events actually occurred.  Ms. Taylor mentioned a number of Constantinian sites.  The first was Mamre.
            As any astute reader of the Old Testament knows, Mamre recalls the oak or terebinth where Abraham first met his divine and angelic visitors, recorded in Genesis 18.  It is located about two kilometers south of modern Hebron.  The oak (or terebinth) was a holy place from time immemorial, and its location became the site of pilgrimage not for only Jewish and Christian readers of Genesis, but also of a number of pagans who occupied Palestine in the fourth century and before.  The choice of Mamre as a site for pagan, Jewish, and Christian pilgrimage is shrouded in antiquity, and witnesses to the fact that the Jews were not the only inhabitants of Palestine, especially in the first century.  (Sepphoris, for example, the capital of Galilee in the time of Christ, was an entirely pagan city.)  Given the Biblical significance of Mamre in Genesis, Constantine built a shrine there, after writing a letter to the local bishops urging them to supplant the pagan pilgrimages to Mamre with Christian ones.  The modest church built on the site was intended to restore the sanctity of the original Biblical site.
            Ms. Taylor will have none of this.  For her Constantine’s supplanting the pagan shrine was simply a part of his programme to replace pagan shrines throughout his empire with Christian ones, for “he wanted to removed paganism altogether” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 91).  For her the Christians before Constantine more or less ignored this site:  “There is no literary or archaeological evidence which would support the notion that it was a site sacred to Christians before Constantine” (ibid, p. 91).  In talking about “literary or archaeological evidence before Constantine” one must be careful, since before Constantine Christianity was an illegal religion so that not much literary evidence remains of anything Christian.  The Christians before Constantine had the sense to keep their heads down and their literary mouths shut.  Expecting “literary evidence” for such liturgical and devotional minutiae as which sites the Christians  regarded as sacred is hardly to be expected.  But we know that they could read their Bibles as well as anyone, and thus if the local Christians knew of the sacred oak of Abraham near Hebron it was unlikely that they would have ignored it.  If pagans and Jews held it in high regard, why would not Christians have done the same?  They would be among those who visited the sacred tree, thinking of their God who revealed Himself to Abraham in a theophany in ancient days and later became incarnate through Jesus.  But in the days prior to Constantine, they wouldn’t have left any “literary or archaeological evidence” of such devotion.  Why would they—or come to that, how would they?  It is therefore a bit thick of Ms. Taylor to write, “Christians had little to do with the area before the fourth century” (ibid, p. 92).  Why would they not have visited the area, since Jews and even pagans did?  And if they did visit the site, what sort of evidence would one expect them to leave?   A carved graffiti saying, “Kilroy the Christian was here?”
            Ms. Taylor’s scepticism regarding the reliability of the rank and file Christian witness is one of the defining characteristics of her long and scholarly book.  She writes out of a hermeneutic of suspicion, looking with a jaundiced eye at any ancient text suggesting that rank and file Christians had any historical sense or acumen.  Her work reveals her presupposition that ancient Christians were culpably naïve and willing to accept any suggestion regardless of its credibility, and it is upon this rock, I suggest that her work founders.  In the case of Mamre, there is no reason to suggest that Constantine erred or was simply pushing his own unwarranted and sinister agenda in building shrines over the places where venerable tradition or the local Christians testified to its ancient significance or authenticity.  Unlike Ms. Taylor, I see no reason to doubt the common sense of our Christian ancestors, or to doubt that they possessed the desire to demand the same sort of historical proof that we would demand today.