Jerusalem as Cultural Memory: Three Essays

Guy G. Stroumsa

Rounded Globe



Vincet pax et finietur bellum. Quando autem vincet pax, vincet illa civitas quae dicitur visio pacis.

Let peace win, and war end. When peace wins, indeed, it is that city, which is called vision of peace, that wins.

Augustine, Enar. in Psal., 64.4.

The three essays included in this ebook share, beyond their broad topic, both a similar purpose and a similar method. Hence, when Simon J. Cook, editor of Rounded Globe, suggested to me a possible publication online, I thought that they belonged together, and might interest an audience broader than the usual limited public of most of my scholarly publications. I should like to express my deep thanks to him for offering me the opportunity to get out for a while, even if a bit late in life, from what may appear (but only from afar) as an ivory tower.

What holds these essays together is the attempt, in each of them, to look at the object of my inquiry from different viewpoints – in particular, to see how the perspective changes from the different angles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More specifically, I have sought to study the historical transformations effected through the impact of the communities belonging to each of the three Abrahamic religions upon the other two. The dialectics of religious and cultural interchange creates what I have called “the Abrahamic eco-system.”1 It is only within this eco-system that one can fully understand the history of religions and concepts. Too often, this history has been, and still is, the mother of bigotry, prejudice, hatred, and violence. To my mind, translating the dialectics of religious interchange into cultural memory (i.e., integrating into one story all the differing and clashing visions) provides the best way out of the cycle of violence, and the transformation of reciprocal impoverishment into reciprocal enrichment.

I shall here state, in telegraphic style, some thoughts about the ways in which modes of religiosity too often ally themselves with patterns of religious intolerance and violence, and point out possible vectors of transformation. The passage from religious to cultural memory certainly reflects a complex mutation, and is difficult to achieve, in any given society. Yet, it seems to me imperative, if we want to achieve a deep uprooting of religious violence, and a sincere acceptance of the other. In culturally and religiously plural societies (as most are today), religious differences must be seen as enriching, rather than as a threat.

Since 1957, social scientists have spoken, following Leon Festinger and his associates, of “cognitive dissonance,” referring to deep shocks in the belief systems of people after events dispelled those beliefs (for instance, the coming of the Messiah). I propose to introduce the corollary concept of cognitive consonance. What happens to the belief systems of people when events suddenly, or surprisingly confirm their beliefs? The first Christian communities, for instance, like the Qumran covenanters, could retain radical, violent eschatological beliefs in check, as long as they were entpolitisiert. Although they read radical texts (such as the War Scroll or John’s Apocalypse) through a literal hermeneutics, this reading did not endanger anyone, as they were totally powerless. The real problem started with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, when they retained the same simplistic hermeneutics, while political and military power was now on their side. Hence, the direct responsibility for holy violence should not be attributed to religious texts (even when they are indeed violent) but rather to unsophisticated hermeneutics.

Paradoxically, the universal drive in religion (traditionally, unreflectively considered in a positive light) has often lead to religious intolerance and violence, more so than religious exclusivism, which has traditionally retained room for other religious identities beyond the community boundaries.

Religion belongs at once to the private and to the public sphere. In other words, there are both individual and collective aspects to religious identity. While the spectrum of the impact of religion on both the private and the public domain varies greatly, according to the nature of the religion involved and to each historical and cultural context, between internalized religion and universalized religion, no religious life can ignore either private or public life. A lack of balance between the private and the public expression of religion is bound to create tensions leading to violence.

Similarly, the dialectical interplay between religious (and ethnic) and cultural identities may lead to religious violence when the chasm between the two is too great, creating dissociation between religious and cultural identity. Open and closed modes of religiosity are found in all religious traditions. To some extent, those can be seen as reflecting centrifugal and centripetal forces. The present struggle is set, essentially, not between ‘religions,’ but between modes of religiosity within each religious tradition.

In modern societies (and the same is true in the post-modern “global village”), open religion entails embracing religious pluralism in the public sphere. Hence, traditional religious identities must undergo deep hermeneutic transformations in order to become full and active participants of their societies (rather than passive onlookers, tolerated by the other, and tolerating it, faute de mieux).

The core of these transformations is represented by the passage from religious to cultural memory. While the first is centered upon the experience of the group, the second integrates the religious memories of other groups within a given society. The transformation of religious memory into cultural memory will be the counter narrative to that breeding religious violence. In this transformation, the main enemy of open religion is its closest neighbor: closed religion. Whether open religion will be successful in its fight against closed religion is not a prediction historians can make. But we must try.

Although the first two chapters are based upon previously published articles, the text has undergone very substantive modifications.2 I wish to thank Lee Levine and Adi Ofer for giving me permission to make secondary use of these two articles. The third chapter, which was read as a George Mosse Lecture at Humboldt University in Berlin in November 2012, is published here for the first time. I have added to it only minimal notes, but many of the topics referred to are already dealt with in the first two chapters.

For many important comments and useful remarks, I am indebted to Sarah Stroumsa. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War and the forced reunification of Jerusalem, this book is dedicated, with love, to our grandsons, Yotam, Yair and Amir, inheritors of the cultural memory of Jerusalem, in the hope that they will help to create a future in which minds and hearts will become freely united for the prosperity of the city and for the common good of all the land’s inhabitants.


In his book on The Martyrs of Palestine, Eusebius reports the following conversation between the Roman Governor of Palestine and the Christian Pamphilus, in late third-century Caesarea:

“Where do you come from?”, asks the Governor.

“From Jerusalem,” answers Pamphilus.

“Where is that?”

“It lies toward the Far East and the rising sun.”

(Eusebius, Martyrs of Palestine 11. 9-12)

This exchange reveals Pamphilus’ intention to describe the heavenly Jerusalem, rather than the earthly one, as his true homeland – a characteristic Christian attitude in the pre-Constantinian period. (Incidentally, the governor was not the last person to be ignorant of the geographical location of Jerusalem. Some forty years ago, when my wife and I told a major American poet that we lived in Jerusalem, she asked: “Is it far from Israel?”).

The Heavenly Jerusalem

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem as a model of the earthly city is of course originally a Jewish idea, which owes its centrality in Christian literature to the fact that it was picked up and developed in the Book of Revelation. This writing, as well as the Letter to the Hebrews, propounded a conception of the heavenly Jerusalem as the perfect model of which the earthly Jerusalem was at best a pale reflection. In Christian thought patterns, the heavenly or New Jerusalem soon achieved autonomous status, as it were, from the earthly Jerusalem, a phenomenon which has no parallel in Jewish representations.

The noble status of Jerusalem did not only stem from it having been the home of the first Christian community, the “Mother Church.” Jerusalem had soon achieved a mythical status. In various strata of early Christian literature, for instance in some New Testament Apocryphal texts, the Mount of Olives, in particular, became the mythicized place of dialogues between the resurrected Christ and his disciples. The mount of Olives, since its mention in Zachariah 14:4 (a radically eschatological passage, and the single mention of the mount of Olives in the Hebrew Bible), had achieved eschatological importance. In Christian consciousness, it stood outside the curse on Jerusalem. The Golgotha itself was not simply the place where Jesus had been crucified. It soon became identified also with the burial place of Adam, in an adaptation of Jewish traditions about mount Moriah. Like its Jewish origin, the early Christian conception of Jerusalem as the omphalos did not only imply that it was the center of the inhabited earth, the oikoumenè (as represented in medieval maps), but also the locus of a direct connection between heaven and earth. Fifth-century Christian Jerusalem, for instance, was a place where letters could fall from heaven, offering the possibility of new divine revelations.

The singing of the praises of Urbs beata Hierusalem in medieval hymns and religious poetry refers to the heavenly city, not to its earthly figura. This dual nature of Jerusalem, and more specifically the dialectical relationship between the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem, is crucial for any understanding of medieval attitudes to the holy city.

In contradistinction with the heavenly Jerusalem, the earthly city was charged with a deep ambivalence in early Christian literature. On the topic of Jerusalem, indeed, the writings of the New Testament had left a powerful yet ambivalent impact upon the early Christian mind. In the Gospels, Jesus had predicted the destruction of the Temple. Paul’s career, moreover, symbolized the passage of the new religion from Jerusalem to Rome, from a marginal, provincial city to the Empire’s capital – in a movement that has been described as ‘elliptical’ by Henry Chadwick.3 In the first centuries, indeed, we can detect mainly a trend of de-territorialization, which denies any central importance – at least implicitly – to the earthly Jerusalem. The city of David retained in Christian consciousness a deeply ambiguous position: its inhabitants had been guilty of Deicide. The destruction of the Temple, predicted by Jesus, was soon perceived as divine punishment inflicted on the city for this crime.

An indication of the permanence of this ambivalence of Jerusalem in Christian consciousness is perhaps reflected in the fact that although there are at least five Bethlehems in the U.S.A., in Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the only other Jerusalem I could find in the atlas is located in Olutanga, a small, remote island in the South Philippines.

The Constantinian revolution brought with it the reconstruction of Jerusalem as a sacred city, its renovatio, mainly through the building of the Basilica of the Anastasis. During three centuries, until the Islamic conquest, Byzantine Jerusalem would be invested with earthly as well as heavenly glories, adorned with churches and sanctuaries; the city had become the recipient of much respect and the source of some spiritual influence. Holy Places were discovered not only in Jerusalem, but also throughout Palestine, soon transforming it into a terra sancta, a “Holy Land” during the fifth and sixth centuries.

And yet, the Temple mount remained barren until the end of the seventh century, when the Kubbet a-Sahra, the Dome of the Rock, was built. This building is the first extant architectural monument of Islamic civilization, and remains to this day the most majestic structure in Jerusalem. According to the theology first propounded in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus was both the Hight Priest and the Sacrifice. His body was the new Temple. Hence the theological central position of Constantine’s Church of the Anastasis: it was meant to replace the Temple.

As is well known, even the birth of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the Holy City in the fourth century happened upon a background of various reticences or objections on the part of some of the leading teachers of the Church.4 In a dialectical way, it is this movement back to Jerusalem which led the way to the reproductions of Jerusalem – more precisely, of its heart for Christians, the Holy Sepulcher – in various cities of western Europe throughout the middle ages. Often built by personalities, such as bishops, back from Holy Land pilgrimage, the reproductions permitted those who could not go on pilgrimage themselves to experience it without leaving home. The Holy Sepulcher, then, can be said to represent the core of the emerging ‘cultural memory’ of the Christian people. Its symbolic reproduction throughout Europe reflects the organization and institutionalization of this memory.

A Sacred Place and Its Religious Overdetermination

From the perspective of the comparative historian of religion, the real peculiarity of the Temple Mount lies in its resilience and versatility. In striking contrast to the Delphic omphalos – the navel of the earth – this axis mundi has, throughout history, symbolized more a border between clashing civilizations than the epicenter of a culture. There are other places that are sacred to more than one religious tradition.5 But no other place on earth, to my knowledge, has retained to such a degree, over the centuries, its deeply attractive power as the venue for a series of cultures transforming themselves and replacing one another.

If religious history, to a great extent, is the history of the devaluations and revalorizations of various manifestations of the sacred, then the Temple Mount can be said to model a significant portion of it. Over the last two thousand years, at least, the Temple Mount has constituted a unique pole of attraction for competing myths and rituals, both successive and juxtaposed. Moreover, the transmission of sacral power from one tradition to another has always been compounded by the interaction between those traditions and the dialectics of their own transformation.

As far as we know, the Temple Mount first owed its sacredness to Solomon’s construction of his Temple there. In other words, its holiness was acquired rather than native. What is perhaps most striking is the retention of its sacred character for the Jews even after repeated destructions. Rather than losing its sacred character, it seems to have become, more than ever before, the locus of God’s dwelling, His shekhinah – a concept that developed only in rabbinic literature, after Titus’ destruction of the Temple. As long as the Temple stood, there was no need to emphasize that it was the dwelling place of the divinity. In a sense, the emptiness of the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period reflected the aniconic nature of God in the former Temple. Indeed, to the puzzlement of pagans, the Temple of the Jews contained no statue of their God, not even in the Holy of Holies. Pagans could thus easily consider the Temple to be empty. Incidentally, the Temple’s emptiness is echoed, as it were, in the Cenotaph of the church of the Anastasis and in the empty space of a mosque, in particular that of the mihrab, the niche indicating the qibla, Mecca’s direction.

From the destruction of the Second Temple, however, the Jews were no longer the only community concerned with the Temple Mount. Between the fourth and the seventh centuries, Christian leaders sought to erase the memory of the Temple (in contradistinction to the splendor of the Basilica of the Anastasis) – to accomplish, in a sense, what the Romans called the damnation of memory (damnatio memoriae) of the barren Mount. But for the Jews, despite its barrenness, the Mount became the place that most powerfully recorded the glory that was once Jerusalem. It became what French historians call a “place of memory” (lieu de mémoire). One should perhaps rather speak of a memory of the place (mémoire du lieu). Notwithstanding the report of Dio Cassius (69.12), the Hadrianic Capitolium or temple of Zeus, which stood until the fourth century, was not built on the Temple Mount. Though there may have been some imperial statues, the holy place, in the main, stood desolate and empty, pointing – for the Jews – to a future rebuilding. In the Christian mind, too, the Temple would play a part in the future, but only in the eschatological future, when the Antichrist would establish his throne there. The eschatological dimension of Christian thought, however, paled with time, particularly after Constantine – or so it seemed. For the Jews, on the other hand, the reconstruction of the Temple was not only conceivable in theory – and of course prayed for three times daily – but was also considered achievable in practice, as showed by the events surrounding the Emperor Julian’s authorization of its reconstruction in 361.

As highlighted by both Christian and Jewish attitudes to the future of the Temple Mount, there can be no sacred place without a sacred time. While the Temple was standing, sacred times were those of sacrifices, of holy days. After its destruction, the sacred time, the temporal axis around which history was developing, became the eschatological time of its reconstruction. The barren Temple Mount, then, points to a time as well as to the building that once stood there. Or, rather, it points to two opposite moments in time, past and future – when the Temple stood, and when it will stand again – and to Israel and humankind at the beginning and end of history, the Urzeit and the Endzeit. In a sense, one can say that the sacredness of time is a projection of the sacredness of space. Between Christians and Jews, then, the Temple Mount stood at the core of a dialectical process: the one’s loss was the other’s gain. For the Jews, the reconstruction of the Temple would herald the advent of the Messiah, while for the Christians it would announce that of the Antichrist. Hence, the Temple Mount played (and plays) a role in clashing visions of the end, at the core of the competition between the two religions.

Various clashes between civilizations, focusing on the Jerusalem Temple, had occurred in the past: the Babylonians, from the East, and the Romans, from the West, had each in turn destroyed it for its reflection of a vanquished people’s identity. Later, the invaders of the seventh century C.E., for a brief but violent time the Persians, and then the Arabs, would bring back, with a vengeance, the eschatological expectations of earlier times, which the Christians had thought banished to the back of their consciousness.

Two highly different vignettes, both from Christian sources, symbolize the Christian reaction to the victorious entry of Caliph Omar into Jerusalem. The first portrays him, still dusty from the way, dismounting his horse to be invited by Patriarch Sophronius to pray in the Anastasis (today’s Holy Sepulcher). Omar allegedly replied politely but firmly in the negative. Had he accepted, he added, Muslims would have transformed the church into a mosque after his death. In the second vignette, Sophronius laments seeing Omar on the Temple Mount; for him, indeed, it is nothing less than the repudiation of the desolation announced by Christ.

By transforming the so-called Mosque of Omar into a church, baptized the Templum Solomonis, the Crusaders, at least for a while, changed the parameters of the opposition between the Mount and the Anastasis. In 1099 they could exclaim: Ad Dominicum sepulcrum, dehinc etiam ad Templum! (“Up to the tomb of the Lord, hence, up to the Temple!”). The Crusaders, indeed, are a reminder of the Christians’ ultimate inability to settle for a spiritual Temple or forget the old one of stone. But this inability could only be due to the dominating presence of the Qubbat al-Sahra – the Dome of the Rock.

In the religious history of Jerusalem and of its representations, each new historical stage has perforce reflected all the previous layers. The earliest Christian attitudes toward Jerusalem reflect contemporaneous Jewish apocalypticism, while early Islamic perceptions of Jerusalem are deeply indebted to both Jewish and Christian approaches. The various religions have not only succeeded one another in presiding over the political destinies of the city. They have also developed dialectical relationships between them. Today, as Israelis and Palestinians search (or should search) for a modus vivendi in the city, with the various Churches anxious and active in the background, the idea of the three monotheistic faiths having equal shares in the spiritual identity of the city might offer a reference point.

At the very core of this city and of Jewish and Christian eschatology stands the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif. The main intention of the preceding pages has been to reflect upon the complexity of its character, and to show how this small locus has also, throughout its history, been at the core of the interaction between three religious traditions. Their constant transformations of both themselves and each other have been played out, at some crucial turns in their history, through their competing visions of this same locus.

The Temple Mount is indeed a pivotal point, at the intersection of cultures and religions. It may also appear, alas, as a tectonic fault line in history. It sometimes seems that evil may sprout not from the North, as Jeremiah has it, but from this place at the center. The Temple Mount appears to be a Rashomon of sorts: each side and its story. I have seen the photo-montages in which a reproduction of the Temple replaces the mosques on the Mount. And I have read about a Palestinian claim (supported by “the research of Israeli archaeologists”) according to which the Jewish Temple was actually built elsewhere, not on the Haram al-Sharif.

The Mount is not only too small to allow for physical partition; one cannot even partition this small piece of holy land diachronically, allotting its past to the Jews, its future to the Christians, and its present to the Muslims: all three want to possess it throughout time. Let us only hope, then, that we are not living, as did Jews, Christians, and the first Muslims, at the end of time. Regarding the Temple Mount, like so much else, the complexity of cultural memory offers safer horizons than the simplicity of eschatological beliefs.

A Dream-Land

In The Innocents Abroad (1869), Mark Twain writes: “Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition. It is dream-land.”6 Twain certainly knew better than most pilgrims to the Holy Land how to express in powerful terms the cognitive dissonance one could experience between expectations and reality. It is as a literary pilgrim that Mark Twain came to Palestine, but of course as one with a strongly anchored Christian sensitivity. For him, who had grown up a Presbyterian, the sad state of the country clearly reflected the divine curse that befell its Jewish inhabitants as punishment for their role in the killing of Christ, for their sin of Deicide. The land once promised to them had now become a wasteland, retaining only the memory of its past glory. It had become a land for poets and artists, a land fit for dreamers only.

Mark Twain’s experience may have been striking in its expression, but it was nothing singular. It followed a long series of testimonies, in which the smallness and poverty of the Promised Land appeared as a major proof of God’s punishment inflicted upon the Jews for their refusal to recognize the Messiah sent to them. Some of the early Christian texts dealing with the Promised Land reflect the deep ambivalence of the Church Fathers toward the concept. Although the idea of the land promised to Abraham and his offspring is of course biblical, one should note that the expression ‘The Promised Land’ (more precisely, ‘the Land of Promise’), seems to appear for the first time, not in Jewish literature, but in the New Testament. It was soon picked up by the Christian writers of late antiquity, for whom the very expression referred to the past, as the Jews had now lost the land once promised to them by God.

Chapter One: The Temple Mount: Memories and Visions

Eschatological Beliefs

Moving between the even hashetiyya, the Holy of Holies, the Temple, Jerusalem, and the Holy Land, we have before us, as it were, a series of Russian dolls. All seem alike; all reflect the same sacred character. In order to understand more precisely the religious dimensions of the Temple Mount, we must also reflect upon the power encapsulated in the name of Jerusalem in religious and cultural history and memory. Originally, to be sure, it is from the Temple that Jerusalem received its sacred character. Later, however, the Holy City became emblematic of the sacred locus where the Temple had once stood, and where it would eventually be rebuilt. It would be a mistake, therefore, to limit our inquiry to the Temple Mount itself, without calling attention to Jerusalem’s metaphorical dimension in cultural memory.

The concept of cultural memory (kulturelle Gedächtnis) was developed, in particular, by art historian Aby Warburg between the two world wars. In order to be really useful, this concept should be connected to that of collective memory (mémoire collective), a term invented in the 1930s by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. Any cultural memory, indeed, belongs ipso facto to collective memory.7 The early Christian thinkers whom we call the Church Fathers launched the process through which the name of Jerusalem was transformed into a major icon of Western cultural memory. This process was directly related to what Christoph Markschies has recently called its devaluation in early Christianity.8 Cultural memory does not necessarily stand in contradistinction to religious memory, but rather to the radical intensification of religious feelings involved in eschatology.

The earliest Christian attitudes toward Jerusalem seem to have been related directly to the millenarian or chiliastic view founded upon the announcement of Jesus’ reign of a millennium (chilia etè) in Jerusalem. Although this view was not the only one available (the African bishop Cyprian never mentions Jerusalem), it seems to have been dominant. As Ernst Käsemann put it, “Apocalyptics is the mother of Christian theology.”9 In the second century, Papias and Justin Martyr espoused millenarian views of this kind. Enthusiastic expectations of a return of Christ in glory (parousia) and a restitution of things past (apokatastasis) seem to have been inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the second century. This tendency was broken only by Marcion; and Marcion’s opponents, such as Irenaeus, returned even afterwards to broaching the end of time.

Can we detect the mechanism by which such eschatological views were contested, and so ceased to prevail in the mainstream tradition? Marcion, a contemporary of Justin in the mid-second century, rejected the Old Testament (as well as major parts of the New Testament), arguing that Christianity was a religion of a new kind and possessed no Jewish roots. He seems to have been the first opponent of chiliastic ideas in early Christianity. As Stefan Heid has shown, the argument around millenarianism in the second century was directly related to the controversy between Jews and Christians.10 The Jewish wars, especially the revolt launched by Bar Kokhba in 132–35 CE, form the background to this controversy and to the debate over millenarianism and the role of Jerusalem. For most Church Fathers, the Holy Land remained the land of the Jews, and a reconstruction of the Temple meant a Jewish victory, at least from a spiritual perspective. Indeed, expectations of this kind were to be found among the various Jewish-Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, for whom the rebuilding (restitutio, apokatastasis) of the Temple was a central eschatological belief.

Marcion rejected all that, including beliefs in the eschaton and about the role of Jerusalem at the end of time. For him, such beliefs were simply irrelevant to the Christian faith. No wonder Ireneaus – for whom Marcion, along with various dualist and Gnostic thinkers, was the archenemy – insists precisely on eschatology. Deservedly called “the theologian of chiliasm,” Ireneaus is the greatest writer on eschatological Jerusalem. The last chapters of his magnum opus, Against the Heresies, are devoted to the battle between Christ and Antichrist that was to precede the reign of Christ in Jerusalem, waged up to the ruins of the Temple. Eschatology is the principal insurance against the metaphorization of Christian beliefs; it possesses an irrevocably concrete element.

It is no accident that Tertullian, the late-second and early-third-century North African Church Father, who first established the antinomy of “Athens versus Jerusalem,” eventually joined the ecstatic and prophetic Montanist movement. For the followers of Montanus, in the second half of the second century, a new prophecy, delivered to women, announced the imminent descent to earth of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Montanism, then, exhibits with particular clarity the direct connection between the role played by (heavenly or earthly) Jerusalem at the End of Time and the intensity of eschatological expectations.

The Christian idea of translatio Hierosolymae, the holy city’s travel in space, seems first to appear with Montanus, who, according to Eusebius, “gave the name of Jerusalem to Pepuza and Tymion, which are little towns in Phrygia.”11 As confirmed by Tertullian, who had inside knowledge of Montanist beliefs, this probably meant that the heavenly Jerusalem was seen as having descended upon Pepuza and Tymion. The heretical status of the Montanists in the third century, and the Christian invention of the Holy Land in the fourth century, probably forestalled the implantation of translatio Hierosolymae in Patristic literature. Nevertheless, this concept never quite disappeared. Throughout Christian history, it emerged as an expression of sectarian eschatology in such phenomena as the Hussite reconstitution of the Holy Land in fifteenth-century Bohemia, the Taborites’ Tabor, and the expectations of the New Zion sectarians in nineteenth-century Russia for the descent of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

If the new Jerusalem can descend from heaven onto Pepuza, a small town in Asia Minor, who needs the city of David anymore? Indeed, new Zions exist in various cultural surroundings. A famous case is that of the churches carved in the rock in Lâlibalâ, in Ethiopia. This new Jerusalem became a major pilgrimage destination in periods when Axum was inaccessible. Today we think mainly of Baptist churches in the southern United States or in Africa, or of the Swedenborgian churches of “the New Jerusalem.”12

The failure of early Christian apocalyptical movements, illustrated by the perception of the Montanists as heretics and the postponement to the End of Days of Christ’s Second Coming, his parousia, had direct implications for the representations of Jerusalem. Rather than earthly alternative locations, or the idea of an eschatological renovatio, it is the metaphor of a spiritual Jerusalem that was to become prevalent in the early Christian mind. This Jerusalem was the Christian’s true fatherland, and it was in heaven – from which, according to Revelations 21:2, the New Jerusalem was to descend. In this regard, the early Christian writers were following in the footsteps of Jewish apocalypticism. In IV Esdras, a Jewish text redacted at the end of the first century CE, the eschatological element is still prominent: Jerusalem would be established by God in the messianic era. The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch weakens this element by describing the heavenly Jerusalem as having been prepared by God at the origin of the world, thus pointing to the direct relationship between the origins of the world and the end of time.

The transformation of the ideal city is completed in the late second century with Clement of Alexandria, who recalls that the Stoics referred to the heavens as the true city.13 For him, as a Christian, the obvious parallel to the heavenly city of the Stoics was the heavenly Jerusalem, which he calls “my Jerusalem.” We touch here on the roots of Jerusalem’s mystical meaning. Origen takes up and develops Clement’s views on the holy city (polis): Jerusalem, whose Hebrew name (Yerushalayim) is interpreted as meaning “vision of peace” (yir’e shalom), can mean the Church, but also, in the tropological sense, the soul.14A similar allegorical interpretation appears in the writings of the fourth-century Origenist Didymus the Blind. For him, too, the significance of Jerusalem is threefold: It is at once the virtuous soul, the Church, and the heavenly city of the living God. We shall return to the “vision of peace” (visio pacis) metaphor of Jerusalem, which runs as a thread through the centuries.15 One further formative metaphor stems directly from Paul: The supernal Jerusalem, mother of the Christians, is also called eleuthera – free (Gal. 4.26).16

For Marcion and the Gnostics, the whole Jewish heritage was a stumbling block on the way to a fully emancipated Christianity. The Gnostics did not need Judaism’s traditional eschatological expectations, since they claimed to live in the redeemed time of “realized eschatology.” In their struggle against such objectors, various Church Fathers after Irenaeus were led to insist, precisely, upon the hopes of Christ’s parousia and the last, decisive battle between the forces of good and evil. But such hopes were also those of the Jews and of the Jewish-Christians, with whom the same Church Fathers were also engaged in intensive competition about the proper understanding of the Scriptures.

Thus, concerning Jerusalem, two distinct phenomena can be observed in early Christianity. The first is the distinction, made more and more clearly with time, between the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem. This distinction, which, again, is of Jewish origin, received a new impulse in early Christian writings, already with Paul. The two Jerusalems became completely disconnected, as they never had been in Jewish writings. The earthly Jerusalem remained identified, essentially, as the city of the Jews, who had killed Christ and whose Temple had been destroyed in divine punishment. This Temple would not be rebuilt. “And I saw no Temple in it” – that is, in the New Jerusalem to come down from heaven – says the visionary in the Apocalypse of John, the most topical of all early Christian eschatological texts (Rev. 21.22). The heavenly Jerusalem soon became a metaphor for the community of the saints, or the “city of God,” in Augustine’s parlance. It was invested with all the dreams and qualities attributed to Jerusalem in eschatological thought, but very little remained here of the original meaning of the name.

The Augustinian typology of the two cities has its roots in Tyconius, whose Commentary on the Apocalypse referred to two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem. For Augustine, Babylon represents power and politics, while the heavenly Jerusalem – of which he sings, “Quando de illa loquor, finire nolo”17 – represents the Church, wife of Christ. Babylon refers to life in the present, in this world, Jerusalem to the future life, in which the boundaries of time will be overcome and God will be praised forever, in saecula saeculorum. The major formative influence of this typology on medieval perceptions needs no further stressing.

The second phenomenon is the weakening of eschatological beliefs, expressed in the progressive erosion, from the second to the fourth century, of the expectation of Christ’s second coming. As it became more and more difficult to maintain intensive hope of an imminent advent, the acme of the Christian message became clearly entrenched in the past. With the fading of its future, Jerusalem itself, a small, marginal city in the Empire with the forever destroyed Temple and Golgotha at its heart, was bound to lose almost all significance. Paradoxically, the less important the city of Jerusalem became, the more the name “Jerusalem” seemed to gain in evocative power. Late antique Christianity, indeed, bequeathed the overwhelming resonance of Jerusalem to European culture, eastern and western. Jerusalem was now Rome: In the words of Jerome, “Romam factam Hierosolymam.” It was also Byzantium; Constantinople is often called “the second Jerusalem,” while Moscow, later, would become “the third Jerusalem.” The whole world would eventually become Jerusalem. This is literally true in the Commentary on the Apocalypse written in the fourth century by Victorinus of Poetovio (Ptuj in present-day Slovenia): At the End of Time, Jerusalem will expand and cover the face of the earth. Similar conceptions appear in rabbinic literature as well.

In both the fourth and the sixth centuries, major architectural achievements sought to offer new, Christianized versions of the old Jewish Temple. Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea maritima, who was Constantine’s spiritual herald, described the Basilica of the Anastasis as “the new Temple,” while Justinian, upon entering the newly built Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, allegedly declared: “I have outdone you, O Solomon!”18

It is traditionally assumed that by the fourth century, the chiliastic trends so prominent in the early stages of Christianity had more or less burnt themselves out; yet they seem to reappear with renewed strength in the seventh century, with the same old scenario being played out in Jerusalem, in particular around the Temple Mount. Indeed, the seventh century, a period of dramatic religious and political transformations in the Near East, has long been recognized as a time when eschatological beliefs were particularly active in the Byzantine Empire.

The Temple Mount Islamicized

In ancient Israel, as we learn from Max Weber, a major tension revolved around the Temple and its service. The prophets’ charisma versus the priests’ routine: two radically different kinds of religious action confronted one another, one pushing for change, the other for stability. In the seventh century CE, centuries after the destruction of the Temple, the very place where it had been built, its locus, seems to have been once more at the epicenter of a prophetic movement.

At least from the conquest of Jerusalem by the Sasanians in 614 and the capture of the Holy Cross, the Christian world was rife with expectations of the Endzeit, with its traditional imagery of cosmic war between the forces of light and darkness. The Byzantines were slow in understanding the true faith of the new conquerors. For too long, they perceived the Arabs as barbarians from the desert and Muhammad as a false prophet, whose faith could be understood only in the categories of Christian theology – namely, as a heresy.19 What would eventually settle into a centuries-long, deep-seated political and religious conflict, sometimes more overt and sometimes relatively dormant, started as a “big bang,” epitomized more than anything else by the conquest of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 638 and the ensuing dramatic changes in the city’s religious topography.

In a series of important publications, distinguished Byzantinists such as Gilbert Dagron, Averil Cameron, Cyril Mango, and Vincent Deroche have done much to provide us with a clearer understanding of the complex interface between Jews and Christians in seventh-century Byzantium, in particular from the perspective of the Greek texts.20 These and other scholars have underlined the renewed importance of polemics between Jews and Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire. In particular, they have highlighted the centrality in these polemics of the Holy Land, the Holy City, and its core, the Temple Mount, as well as their direct impact on the earliest Islamic program in Jerusalem.21

The spiritual demotion of the old Israel by Verus Israel was spatially represented by the relocation of the sanctified locus from the Temple Mount, whose emptiness should have remained striking, visible to all, to the new Basilica of the Anastasis. Oleg Grabar has called this process of relocation an eislithosis,22 while Annabel Wharton refers to the “erasure” of the Jewish dimension of Jerusalem.23 The city’s Islamic conquerors, seeking to accomplish what we could call, in the Hegelian sense, an Aufhebung of both Judaism and Christianity, moved its sacred core back to the Temple Mount. For the Byzantine historiographer Theophanes, it was Omar’s devilish pretension that made him seek to emulate Solomon.24 As Andreas Kaplony argues convincingly, there is reason to believe that the early Muslim rulers intended to rebuild the Temple and even to install a kind of Temple ritual. This perception of things was also aimed at convincing the Jews that the End of Time was drawing near, and that the Caliph was the expected Messiah. In the Umayyad period, at least, the Temple Mount, not yet called Haram al-Sharif, was viewed both as the Temple rebuilt and as the mosque of Jerusalem. If some of the Jews, however, might have been tempted to place the dramatic events in an eschatological perspective, they were soon disappointed. For them, the construction of a new kind of Temple in place of the old was perceived as no less an erasure of the Jewish dimension than the Christian dislocation of the sacred. Moreover, since the Anastasis remained standing, it would retain its sacredness (albeit lessened) under the Islamic regime.

The new “clash of civilizations” between the Christian and the Islamic imperial states was nurtured in the cocoon of the Jewish-Christian clash of interpretations, which only superficially appeared essentially to reiterate, again and again, old arguments over a long-decided issue. The argumentation of these polemics, which centered upon the interpretation of biblical prophecies, revolved mainly around the image of Christ as the Messiah announced by the prophets of Israel. For the Jews, the Messiah was yet to come; for the Christians, he was to return in full glory and establish his kingdom, at long last, over all the earth. For the Chiliasts of the first centuries – most clearly exemplified, perhaps, by Irenaeus – Jerusalem, and in particular the Temple Mount, was to be the epicenter of the cosmic events that would occur at the end of time. The debate focused on the inheritance of the Holy Land and the restoration to it of the Jews. Early Christian Chiliastic expectations had very strong Jewish roots. In particular, the Antichrist is strikingly similar to the figure of the false prophet in the pre-Christian Jewish sources and was probably constructed from the latter.

For the Christians, the Messiah expected by the Jews would be the last impostor, the Antichrist. The Jews, on the other hand, believed that they were being ruled by believers in a false Messiah. Victory for one side would mean defeat for the other: in modern strategic terminology, this was a zero-sum game. The clearest expression of a Jewish vindication would be the re-establishment of the Temple. For the Christians, this was tantamount to the coming of the Antichrist, who had been envisioned, in Irenaeus’s classical version of the myth as well as in the slightly later version of Hippolytus, as establishing his throne for three and a half years in the Temple itself, until his finally defeat by Jesus Christ. In the Christian psyche, this threat did not quite belong to the ancient past. The memories of the great anxiety generated by Julian’s authorization of the Temple’s reconstruction – and by the actual start of the work, before a providential earthquake brought these efforts to naught – seem to have been a long time in dissipating. And now, with the violent conquest by the Persians and its deeply humiliating result, the exile of the Holy Cross, and then the new wave of successful invasion by the barbarian Arabs, the old questions were raised again with a new urgency. These Arabs, streaming from their southern desert and claiming to follow the lead of their prophet – who could they really be, if not the powerful arm of the Jews, sent to reclaim their pretended possessions in the Holy Land and the Holy City? Paradoxically, the great fear of the Christians had more to do with the shadow of the Jews than with the Arab invaders.

Omar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 638 was bound to rekindle both the fears of the Christians and the hopes of the Jews and bring them to new levels of intensity. The Armenian historian Sebeos, bishop of Bagratunik in the seventh century and one of our best sources, seems to indicate quite clearly that the Jews began building a structure on the Temple Mount in the first years after the conquest:

… the plot of the Jewish rebels, who, finding support from the Hagarenes for a short time, planned to [re]build the Temple of Solomon. Locating the place called Holy of Holies, they constructed [the Temple] without a pedestal, to serve as their place of prayer. But the Ishmaelites envied [the Jews], expelled them from the place, and named the same building their own place of prayer. [The Jews] built a temple for their worship elsewhere.25

Apparently, the first Al-Aqsa Mosque was built only later.

For the Christians, Muhammad, who thought of himself as both prophet and apostle, was simply an impostor, a false prophet. For the Jews, the matter seems to have been more complex. In their perception, Muhammad could have been either a prophet or a Messiah. Both these titles, indeed, had been attached to non-Israelite figures, such as Balaam, who was a prophet, and Cyrus the Great, who was called “God’s Messiah.” The Jewish sources from Arabia are scarce and difficult to interpret, but it seems that some Jews, at least, did at first see in Muhammad a messianic (or pre-messianic) figure. For the Christians, on the other hand, the concept of “Messiah” was bound to remain quite puzzling, since Christos (a literal translation into Greek of Hebrew mashiah, “anointed”) was, for them, the name of the Savior.

According to the Doctrina Jacobi, a crucial Greek document dating from the very beginning of the Islamic conquests, the Jews considered Muhammad a false prophet (pseudo-prophetes). This seems rather surprising, since the Jews viewed the “gates of prophecy” as having been closed long before that date. It may well be that the Jews were speaking of a false Messiah rather than a false prophet, and the Christians, who could not possibly have understood what such a term meant, decided that it was identical to the much more comprehensible “false prophet.”

In this context, it is interesting to note that the concept of a false Messiah (mashiah sheqer) is extremely rare in rabbinic literature, occurring, as far as I know, only in the late seventh-century Apocalypse of Zerubbabel. The Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a fundamental witness to the eschatological perception of the Islamic conquest and a text that would become, in Latin translation, a major source of medieval eschatology, also mentions a false Messiah, mashiha degala. This Degala seems to be the source of the Dajjal, the figure paralleling the Antichrist in Islamic eschatological texts.

For just one religious group, Jesus was at once Messiah and prophet: the Jewish-Christians, and particularly the Ebionites and the various groups that succeeded them. Notwithstanding the lack of scholarly consensus on this issue, I am convinced that the sources formally indicate that such groups were still in existence, at least in Palestine, in the seventh century (and beyond). In this respect, the “Jewish-Christian” formulations and Docetic conceptions in the Qur’an, according to which Jesus was not really crucified and only appeared (Greek dokein) to suffer, deserve fresh consideration.

Almost thirty years ago, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, in their thought-provoking and very influential Hagarism, showed the extent to which earliest Islam must be understood as a product of Jewish messianic preaching in a gentile environment.26 In recent years, the important epigraphic studies of Christian Robin have transformed our perception of the Jewish element in the background of Muhammad’s preaching. Although Robin suggests that his findings weaken the need for appeal to Jewish ideas imported from Palestine, as proposed by Cook and Crone,27 it seems that the cross-fertilization of Jewish and Christian beliefs, the centrality of the Holy Land and in particular of the Temple Mount, and the eschatological expectations of both Jews and Christians should be perceived as the true prelude to Islam.

Chapter Two: Spiritual Jerusalems

In a sense, both the reproductions of Jerusalem and the idea of a heavenly Jerusalem represent two different metaphorizations of Jerusalem, which run parallel to the Church understanding of itself as verus Israel: If the name “Israel” refers to believers in Christ, this entails the expropriation of its earlier owners from their identity. If the true Jerusalem is located in heaven or elsewhere upon earth, the old city upon the hills of Judea has lost its unique significance. The de-sacralization of the Judean space, however, can also be seen as the reverse side of the sacralization of the European soil: Jerusalem is now, not only elsewhere, to use Oleg Grabar’s term, but everywhere. There is, then, another side to the radical metaphorization of Jerusalem: the multiple senses and references of the name also reflect the spiritual conquest of a whole continent by the faith born in Judea.

In the following chapter, I shall focus upon the connections between two strikingly different phenomena, the reproductions of the Holy Sepulchre and the metaphor of the heavenly Jerusalem. Both reflect central aspects of the metaphorization of Jerusalem in medieval consciousness, or what the French call l’imaginaire médiéval. To be sure, both phenomena have been often and well studied. Oddly enough, however, they seem never to have been approached together in their possible relationships. This is precisely what will be attempted here. I shall first refer to the intriguing phenomenon of the duplication of the sacred places, the medieval translatio of Jerusalem to various European cities. I shall then recall the idea of a new, or heavenly Jerusalem, and the spiritual metaphors of Jerusalem, which are so prominent in Christian spiritual and mystical literature since the Patristic period. Prima facie, these two ways of “uprooting” Jerusalem do not seem to be connected to one another; one reflects an “overdose,” as it were, of the spatial, earthly dimension of Jerusalem while the other represents its very negation. I shall argue that both phenomena dialectically complement one another, functioning like a pendulum of sorts in medieval thought patterns. In other words, the way to the heavenly Jerusalem does not pass as much through the earthly Jerusalem as through the multiple Jerusalems disseminated throughout Western Europe. It should be noted here that these phenomena have no real counterpart in Byzantium, for complex reasons that reflect the vast difference between Eastern and Western Christendom. In particular, the status of Constantinople as the new Jerusalem has no equivalent in the West. Since the fourth century, Rome came in a sense to be considered as a nova Hierusalem. The church Santa Croce in Gerusalemme was built as early as the second half of the fifth century. The Hierosolymitan influence was not only architectural, but also liturgical, especially during the Pascal period. But when Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410, Augustine could explain the collapse of the Empire’s capital, precisely, by recalling its pagan past and opposing it in radical fashion to the Civitas Dei, another name for the heavenly Jerusalem. Nor has, of course, the Crusaders’ Iter Hierosolymae a Byzantine equivalent. In a sense, then, the following chapter is an investigation into the mythopoeic power of Jerusalem in European religious imagination.

Translatio Hierosolymae

As we saw in Chapter I, the idea of a Christian translatio Hierosolymae, which would be recurrent over the centuries, occurred for the first time with Montanus, in the second century. It should be pointed out that the idea of translatio from the Holy Land to Europe was not limited to the Holy Sepulcher and to Jerusalem. In the last decade of the thirteenth century, for instance, the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary was transposed from Nazareth to Tersatz in Dalmatia, and from there to Loreto, near Ancona.28

Since Carolingian times, the symbolic transference of shrines from the Holy Land could bring considerable prestige and charisma to spiritual and political centers in the West. The clearest and earliest example, perhaps, is Aachen, Aix-la-Chapelle, where the political stakes were particularly high. Charlemagne wished Aachen to be perceived in the sequence of Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople. The Libri Carolini call the city sedes davidica and New Jerusalem. The translatio here directly reflects the political claim of Charlemagne to be Constantine’s, and ultimately Solomon’s successor. Moreover, in his competition with the Byzantine emperor, he had succeeded in being granted by Harun al-Rashid a kind of protectorate of the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, being given for instance the right to build xenodocheia for western pilgrims. Eusebius had specified that the dome of the Anastasis should “make conspicuous an object of veneration to all,” the Holy Sepulcher. So the rotunda church of Aachen, Charlemagne’s Capella Palatina, was perceived in typological association with the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Let us also mention, among others, the case of Orléans, where a crucifix was seen weeping on the eve of the year 1000. Within the context of the changing religiosity at the turn of the millennium, such a prodigy was thought by some to foretell “far greater matters, some kind of translatio Hierosolymae, in which Orléans would play the role of the New Jerusalem.”29

The most sustained effort to concretize such a translatio was the actual building of a city according to the ideal plan of Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem was often represented as urbs quadrata – but also as a circle – and the sacral topography of the city could be perceived as a mental map, a mandala of sorts, reminding one of Christianity’s central belief, and offering an immediate object for meditation. A clear example is that of Constance, mentioned by Christoph Auffarth in his study of the significance of Jerusalem in the realized eschatology in the wake of the Crusades. Aufffarth points out that such mental maps also became mental timetables, as loci of pilgrimages.30

From the early ninth to the early twelfth century, at least nineteen churches built in Western Europe were meant to be copies of the Holy Sepulcher, imitating its main characteristics. The first such constructions were built on a smaller scale than the original. So, for instance, Saint Maurice of Constance, built between 934 and 976, after Saint Michael of Fulda, built already in 820 as a copy of the Anastasis Konrad, the Bishop of Constance, had gone on pilgrimage to the holy city. In his Vita (dating from 1123), mention is made of the reconstruction of the Holy Sepulcher with wonderful goldsmith work, mirabili aurificis opere. The church in Paderborn, built between 1033 and 1036, is the first to be built “ad mensuras ejusdem ecclesie et sancti Sepulchri.” The oldest such church, however, seems to be the Narbonne Holy Sepulcher, built in white Pyrennean marble in the fifth century. In Eichstätt, Walbrun built around 1160 the first real reproduction of the tomb in Jerusalem, complete with antechamber. The examples of similar churches in the twelfth century are numerous, from Northampton and Cambridge to Augsburg. Moreover, there exist ten round churches built by the Templars and the Hospitaliers, as well as the Pisan baptistery. These churches, which evoke the Holy Sepulcher, express a devotion to the first shrine of Christendom.

I shall focus here on one striking example of a new Zion in Europe. The Chiesa di Santo Stefano in Bologna, also called Sancta Jherusalem Bononiensis, is one of the earliest and certainly the most famous of the many similar churches in Western Europe. Santo Stefano rotonda was conceived as a reproduction of the church of the Anastasis, but was also meant to refer, at the same time, to Hierusalem coelestis, and to Santa Maria Rotonda in Rome, i.e., the Pantheon. According to traditions, Petronius, bishop of Bologna circa 431-450, back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, had a replica of the Holy Sepulcher built in his city and consecrated to Saint Stephen, protomartyr. This reproduction is, in a sense, an eidolon of Jerusalem, a portable Jerusalem, as it were, whose function was to remind one of the great and original shrines, the omphalos. The iconography of Petronius, Bologna’s patron saint, represents him as holding the city in his hands. Bologna itself is thus represented as forma orbis, similar, in a way, to Jerusalem. The first witness of the name of Jerusalem granted to the Petronian Church in Bologna, it would seem, is a document by Charlemagne, dated from 887, and confirming to Wibodus, bishop of Parma, the acquisition of various churches in Bologna, including that of “Sanctum Stefanum qui dicitur sancta Hierusalem.” The earliest mention of a Hierusalem in Europe would seem to go back to a document dated from 716, where mention is made of the church “Sancti Andree, ubi est baptisterium, una cum ecclesia Sancte Hierusalem.”

The numerous scholars who have studied the impressive compound, its architecture and its history, agree that it is quite distinct from the many other round churches, imitations, or copies of the rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher (or, rather, copies of an idealized Holy Sepulcher). The church as it exists nowadays seems to have been erected upon the ruins of an earlier, Roman building, which may date from Saint Petronius’ time. As is well-known, Constantine X Monomachos had rebuilt in 1048 the Church of the Anastasis, which had been destroyed by the Caliph Al-Hakim in 1008. The Crusaders, in their turn, launched extensive rebuilding activities at the Holy Sepulcher, from 1099 to 1161. The plan of S. Stefano relies on the arrangement that existed in Jerusalem prior to the Crusaders’ extensive rebuilding of the Holy Sepulcher. The Bologna church, thus, remains to this day the only concrete testimony to the original form of the Anastasis, after the radical changes that intervened in the eleventh century in the Jerusalem sanctuary itself. This original form was known accurately, since plans of the Holy Sepulcher, similar to that drawn by the seventh century pilgrim Arculf, had been brought back to Europe by the Crusaders.

But the church did not stand by itself. It would seem that originally, Sancta Hierusalem consisted in a reproduction, created on the east of Bologna, of the various holy places in Jerusalem. Already in the tenth century, mention is made of San Giovanni in Monte Oliveti, and also of a church of S Tecla, built as a similitudo of the valley of Josaphat, whose identification with the Cedron valley is attested already in Eusebius’s Onomasticon. This Valle di Giosafat is located between the Oliveti and Sancta Hierusalem, corresponding, in other words, to the topography of Jerusalem. To be sure, the claim that the distances between the different loci reproduce precisely those between their models in Jerusalem is not quite accurate. The distance between S. Giovanni in Monte Oliveti and S. Stefano varies by almost one kilometer from the distance between the Anastasis and the Mount of Olives. A field of Aceldama and a pool of Siloam are also mentioned in the sources, although their location remains undetermined. The whole complex, then, was created as a “theme park” of sorts, the first Euro Disney, which offered a reproduction of Jerusalem, its hills and its valleys, and permitted a short escapade to the mythical Holy Land without the vagaries of the voyage. This was a new Jerusalem, neither a faithful reproduction of the earthly Jerusalem nor a completely mythical one. Actually, neither ‘reproduction’ nor ‘myth’ quite fit the nature of this reconstructed Jerusalem, no more than they fit the maps of Jerusalem drawn by pilgrims and travelers throughout the centuries. Its most obvious character, rather, lies in what can be called the actualization of the Holy City.

The church of Saint Stephen itself was not originally possessed of a precise symbolism of the Holy Sepulcher. This was added later, by the Benedictine monks who rebuilt the original church in the Middle Ages. It stands to reason to postulate the first crusade as offering the impulse for the reconstruction of Sancta Hierusalem. We know of the great enthusiasm generated by the first Crusade among the Bolognese. With the first crusaders coming back from the liberated holy city, the times were ripe for a new symbolism, more powerful and more complex than the earlier tradition, itself inherited from the late antique pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

The Nuova Gerusalemme, however, was meant to be more than just a souvenir copy of the holy city. It had obvious liturgical dimensions, referred to in our sources. In the twelfth century, we know of processions from S. Stefano to S. Giovanni in Monte, organized by the returning Crusaders. In the Middle Ages, S. Stefano was also the site of Easter week ceremonies, and of an adoratio crucis copied on the cult of the Holy Cross from Jerusalem. In its twelfth century form, S. Stefano offered a clear and specific link to Jerusalem and to its holy sites. Through its architectural and liturgical copying, it gave the citizens of Bologna a visible connection to Jerusalem, both the holy city and the heavenly vision.

The liturgical dimensions of the memoriae of Jerusalem permitted the performance of the sacred drama of Christ’s Passion. Here too, the developments reflect a deep ambivalence. In the mid-thirteenth century, Urban IV established the Corpus Christi feast also in order to express his own interest in the Holy Sepulcher. Already in ninth-century Carolingian France, one can observe various liturgical connections with Jerusalem, such as processions of palms. In Bologna, we can recall the imitation of the Holy Cross, kept at a special locus called Golgotha, in Santa Croce. This may have been the setting for an adoratio crucis, similar to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross described by Egeria on Holy Thursday, when the relic of the True Cross was presented to the faithful to be kissed.31 In the tenth century, tropes of the visitatio sepulchri were chanted in places such as Saint Gallen or Limoges. Altogether, Christian liturgy recognizes a direct relationship between the spatial and the temporal dimensions of cultic behavior. It might be worth noting that the liturgy commemorating different events, such as the Annunciation or the Birth of Jesus, which are usually celebrated once a year, can be celebrated at any time on the spot itself.32

One should also understand in the same context the development of the Passion mystery plays: Jerusalem is everywhere; the reconstitution of its central shrine performs a role similar to the re-enactment of the events it recalls. Plays of visitation to the Holy Sepulcher were common in Western Europe. There is no doubt that the dissemination of such churches reflects the new interest in the earthly Jerusalem activated by the crusades. The movement of building of these churches, moreover, came to a halt with the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin. No wonder, then, if there is no similar phenomenon in Byzantium. The question remains, however, of the extent to which the cult in these churches strengthened or weakened the believers’ bonds to the holy city. The Holy Sepulcher venerated in Western Europe was no longer localized in Jerusalem, and the Passion of Jesus Christ, the via crucis, could be re-enacted everywhere.

The idea of the via dolorosa itself is a medieval invention of the Franciscans, imported to Jerusalem from Europe. So was the rite of the Deposition, which reached Jerusalem only in the sixteenth century. In a sense, therefore, it is the very recovery of Jerusalem in medieval Christendom that brought, in a dialectical way, to its Aufhebung, and to the transformation of religious memory. Paradoxically, then, the memoriae of Jerusalem played a role in limiting the significance of the actual Holy City in Christian religious consciousness.33

In “Calvaries of Convenience,” a chapter of his recent Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama focuses on mounts transformed into symbolic Golgothas in the Middle Ages.34 Schama begins his analysis with Monte Verna, the Piedmontese mount chosen in 1224 by Saint Francis as an alternative Calvary, where he received the stigmata; “And this, God willed, should manifestly appear on Mount Verna because there the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was to be renewed through love and pity in the soul of Saint Francis.” In the following centuries, the Franciscans would go on converting mountains into inspirational theatres. Schama mentions the case of the Franciscan Friar Bernardino Caimi, who, having seen the real Mount Zion while acting as patriarch of the Holy Land, determined in 1486 to create on monte Verna a more readily available version. On the mount, various chapels were built, called by names such as “Nazareth” or “Bethlehem,” and adorned with tableaux from the “parallel lives” of Jesus and Francis. At these chapels, the pilgrim would pause for prayer and contemplation during his (or her) ascent. Monte Verna, therefore, was not only transformed into a new Golgotha, but into a new, symbolic Holy Land – a fact which emphasizes the abstractization (or spiritualization) of the idea of the Holy Land in the Middle Ages.35

The piety which encouraged the development of the via dolorosa went against the grain of the Iter Sancti Sepulchri and Crusaders. It is moved by their love of the heavenly city that pilgrims and Crusaders came to the earthly Jerusalem: “Terrestram celestis amore Jerusalem cum aliis currens.” As pointed out by Bernard McGinn, we cannot recapture the power evoked by the name “Jerusalem” at the time of the first crusades if we ignore the full range of meaning of the name. In the piety of the Crusaders, engaged in a mixture of holy war and pilgrimage, there was also room for concordia, the peace of the hearts necessary on a pilgrimage of penance.

This kind of piety, however, did not go unchallenged. The growth of a new, local religiosity in Western Europe tended to belittle or even ignore the significance of – or the need for – holy land pilgrimages. One can also follow in the Middle Ages a trend of opposition to the Crusades. After their final failure, moreover, the Reconquista of the earthly Jerusalem had made place, as we have seen, for a radical spiritualization of the Iter Sancti Sepulchri.

Mystical Jerusalems

We have seen in Chapter One how the failure of the early Christian apocalyptical movements paved the way to the development of the mystical meaning of Jerusalem. Moreover, as noted in the Introduction, the Augustinian typology of the two cities finds its roots in Tyconius, whose Commentary on the Apocalypse referred to two civitates, Babylon versus Jerusalem. It is impossible here to offer even a brief overview of Augustine’s perception of the spiritual Jerusalem, whose praise he sings: “Quando de illa loquor, finire nolo.” For him the heavenly Jerusalem represents the Church, wife of Christ, while Babylon represents power and politics. In his de Civitate Dei, the civitas dei is also called “Jerusalem.” It is needless to insist upon the major formative influence of this typology on medieval perceptions. Augustine’s most interesting developments on Jerusalem, perhaps, occur in his Enarrationes in Psalmos. Jerusalem is mainly opposed to Babylon, as in Revelation (and also to Sinai, as in Galatians). While Babylon refers to present life, in this world, Jerusalem alludes to future life. Then will the boundaries of time be overcome, and God will be praised forever, in saecula saeculorum. In his comments on Psalm 64.2, for instance, Augustine begins by referring to the etymologies of Babylon and Jerusalem.36 The one means “confusio,” (Heb. bilbul) and the other “visio pacis” (Heb. yr’e shalom). The major problem facing the relationships between these two opposite entities is the fact of their inextricable mixture throughout history: “Permixtae sunt... usque in finem saeculi.” Jerusalem represents the love of God, while Babylon signifies the love of the world: “Duas istas civitates faciunt duo amores: Ierusalem facit amor Dei; Babyloniam facit amor saeculi.” Hence the criterion for anyone to recognize his own identity: ask yourself what you love, and you’ll know where you belong. Such an understanding of Jerusalem, then, denies any localisation of that city: Jerusalem is everywhere, or more precisely in the hearts of those who love God.

The full-fledged spiritual interpretation of Jerusalem, with multiple levels of meaning, is found first in John Cassian, in the fifth century. For him, Jerusalem can be understood as referring to the human soul: “Si Hierusalem aut Sion animam hominis uelimus accipere secundum illud: lauda Hierusalem dominum: lauda deum tuum Sion.” Jerusalem, he goes on, can be understood in four ways, according to the four senses of Scriptures. According to history (secundum historiam), it is the city of the Jews, the earthly Jerusalem. According to allegory (secundum allegoriam), it represents the Church and Christ. According to anagogy (secundum anagogem), it is “that city of God which is the mother of us all.” Finally, Jerusalem is identical to the human soul when understood according to tropology (secundum tropologiam). Jerusalem hence becomes the most privileged symbol. In nuce, this name includes all the Old Testament, the city of God, the mystery of the “Virgo singularis,” the total presentation of Christian mystery.

Throughout the Middle Ages, these various senses of Jerusalem will appear among different writers, from the Venerable Bede and Rabban Maur up to Nicolas of Lyra, for whom Jerusalem is the best example illustrating the fourfold sense of Scripture. Such conceptions of the spiritual meaning of Jerusalem should be understood in the tradition of its fourfold meaning stemming from Cassian. Thus, for instance, in Nicolas of Lyra, or in Hugh of Fouilloy’s De claustro animae, a whole treatise in forty-three chapters on the four senses of Jerusalem: historical, ethical, anagogical and mystical.

Cassian’s Collationes were one of the most influential books in the formative period of monastic spirituality. No wonder, then, if Jerusalem is one of the preferred symbols of contemplative life in medieval literature. More precisely, it would seem that the use of Jerusalem in medieval Christian spiritual and mystical literature stands at the intersection between two traditions, that of Cassian and that of Augustine. It is the combination between these two traditions which permits the emergence and development of Jerusalem as the natural symbol of the contemplation of the divine glory shared by angels and those leading the monastic vita angelica.

The most obvious author for the medieval spiritual meaning of Jerusalem, however, remains Bernard of Clairvaux. The following quotation is representative of his understanding of Jerusalem:

You have two from heaven, both Jesus the Bridegroom and the Bride Jerusalem... When the holy Emmanuel brought to earth the teaching of heavenly discipline, when the visible image and beautiful appearance of that heavenly Jerusalem which is our mother became known as revealed to us in and through Christ.37

For Bernard, the monastery itself is a training camp for the heavenly Jerusalem. He intends to model the Church according to the figure of the heavenly Jerusalem. In a famous letter from about 1129 to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, which has become the locus classicus of the new religious sensitivity, Bernard identifies in so many words Clairvaux with the heavenly Jerusalem. Bernard was referring to Philip, a monk from England who, on his way to Jerusalem, had made a stop in Clairvaux. Bernard convinced him that his monastery was the new and true Jerusalem, and that there was no need for him to continue on his exhausting voyage. His conception of spiritual pilgrimage is developed in his writing “on conversion.” The monastery was not only conceived as a paradeisos, but also as a New Jerusalem, the heavenly city of peace, already in the Patristic tradition. For Bernard, then, the cloister of Clairvaux is a Jerusalem in anticipation. The monk dwells in Jerusalem: this name refers to those who in this world lead the religious life: by a virtuous and orderly life, they seek to imitate the way of life of the Jerusalem above.38

In the second half of the twelfth century, the school of Saint Victor provides other instances of a similar conception of Jerusalem. Explaining the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Richard of Saint Victor sees not only Christ in the Samaritan, and fallen man in the traveler attacked by the thieves (both interpretations going back to Patristic literature), but also argues that the city of Jerusalem, which the traveler left, represents contemplation while Jericho symbolizes fallen man’s misery; the descent from Jerusalem to Jericho itself represents sin.39

Dom Jean Leclercq, the great scholar of medieval monastic spirituality, has edited an anonymous sermon, probably written in the eleventh century by a disciple of Jean of Fécamp.40 This text, written with a profound enthusiasm, makes generous use of quotations from the Psalms, and appears to reflect widely shared images. It begins by praising the frequent mention of Jerusalem as a spiritual exercise of great value.41 I wish to call attention here to the direct link between the representation of a place (even if a metaphorical, ideal one) and religious meditation, or, as the text has it, exercise. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, continues the same tradition, when he emphasizes the need to imagine a place in order to meditate on the mysteries of Christ’s earthly life. This trend in Ignatian spirituality clearly reflects medieval patterns of thought, especially since the Crusades.

The couple of opposite entities, Jerusalem/Babylon did not remain limited to Latin and ecclesiastical literature. Its important influence upon European culture is reflected by its presence in the earliest strata of vernacular Italian literature of the duecento. Such texts may reflect Joachimite influence. Giacomino of Verona, for instance, writes, in Veronese.42 Similar perceptions of Jerusalem are found in the Libro delle tre Scritture of the poet Bonsevin de la Riva, one of Dante’s precursors. 43

In something that can be described as a pendulum movement in the longue durée, the image of a golden Jerusalem, indeed, was to cross the centuries (and religious boundaries) as well as the continents. From the song “Urbs beata Ierusalem, dicta pacis visio,” known to have been written for Vespers in the eighth century, a straight-line leads to the Victorian hymns on “Jerusalem the Golden,” and from these to the Hebrew song of Naomi Shemer, which was to become one of the main symbolic and cultural expressions of Israeli triumphalism in 1967.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Richard of Saint Victor, Joachim of Fiore and Giacomino of Verona have been brought here as examples of the understanding of Jerusalem as a symbol of spiritual life. Throughout the Middle Ages, and up to the early modern period, the heavenly Jerusalem represents for this trend of thought the ultimate goal of the pilgrim on his way to spiritual vision. The total transformation of the symbol, with the complete disappearance of any reference to the earthly Jerusalem, will be accomplished in spiritual writings such as those of Bonaventure in the thirteenth century, who speaks of Saint Francis, in his insatiable thirst for peace, as a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem, which the soul reaches when it enters into itself.44 At the dawn of modern times, the Spanish mystics continue this trend. Bernardino of Laredo, for instance, publishes in 1535 his Ascent to Mount Sion. The work’s historical importance stems from Teresa of Avila’s predilection for it. The ascent to Mount Sion has now become totally metaphorical:

So that the ascent of Mount Zion is the same as the ascent to Jerusalem... And this temporal Jerusalem denotes for us the eternal and sovereign city for which God created us and to which we shall not go unless we ascend from the knowledge of ourselves to the following of Christ.45

The message has undergone a radical spiritualization, the earthly Jerusalem has disappeared from sight, and the whole pilgrimage to the holy city is a pure trip of the soul:

The fire of the Lord is in Zion, since contemplative souls possess it in this life, and finally are perfected in Jerusalem, since such souls as these, who here begin to love, and persevere in love, grow in love continually as they proceed along the road of this exile, then are led... into the Jerusalem which is above, where in that fire which had its beginning in this exile of ours burns without intermission...46

In the late Middle Ages, we can follow the development of new, radical beliefs in a kind of pilgrimage. This can be described as interior and quite atopic, a pilgrimage accomplished not in space, with no need of dangerous and expensive travel to a foreign land, not even in a conveniently miniaturized space at home, but within the soul itself. The traditional images of Holy Land pilgrimage are reinterpreted metaphorically, and the earthly pilgrims are a figure of our march toward the spiritual Jerusalem. Such an idea is found for instance in the sermons of Bernardino of Siena, probably the most influential spiritual force in Italy of the first half of the fifteenth century. Toward the end of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is also reflected in the words of the country priest, for whom Canterbury must be for everybody the Holy Land, since earthly pilgrimages are but the image of our spiritual march toward Jerusalem.

I have dealt briefly above with two different phenomena: the imaginary visit of Holy Land shrines at their local replicas, and the tradition of a heavenly Jerusalem, up to the development of spiritual pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the later Middle Ages. I have argued that these two phenomena are related to one another. Various “spiritual pilgrimages,” which began to be printed as soon as the first half of the fifteenth century, were meant as spiritual guides for those who could not afford the expenses of the pilgrimage itself or were unwilling to suffer its vagaries. In a sense, Christian spirituality was thus rediscovering themes already found in late antique Patristic spiritual and monastic literature. The Christian was defined anew as homo viator.

Such patterns of thought reflect, in a sense, a return to some fundamental Augustinian attitudes. No wonder, then, if in the fifteenth century Nicolas of Cues would be able “to transpose these themes of spiritual experience to the level of philosophical and theological reflection, and to elaborate a mystical synthesis.”47 For him, it is not only man who can be defined as viator. Rather, it is the whole life of the Church on earth which should be understood as a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

We can perhaps describe schematically the dialectical evolution of pilgrimage ideas in the following way: The Holy Places gave birth to the development of pilgrimage in early Christianity; at a later stage, translations of these Holy Places brought them to European cities; finally, the pilgrimage to the local replica of the Holy Place was transformed into a spiritual pilgrimage.

Apocalyptic spirituality permits the actualization and vivification of perceptions often muted or neutralized in main-stream Christian tradition. The great Calabrian visionary from the twelfth century, Joachim de Fiore, is said to have experienced a conversion to interior life precisely during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land which he accomplished as a young man. He was to make great use of the name of Jerusalem in his Liber Figurarum. The most puzzling pair of figures in this book is perhaps the antithesis of Jerusalem/Ecclesia and Babylon/Rome. Note that the Roman Church, for Joachim, is always Jerusalem, never Rome. While Babylon is the realm of the devil, the heavenly kingdom of God is symbolized by Jerusalem. The theme of the figures is the pilgrimage of the faithful people of God. “The sons of Jerusalem are pilgrims sojourning in the midst of Babylon...” The Liber Concordiae... starts from the concept of the earthly pilgrimage and throughout makes much use of the figures of pilgrimage and journeying. At the end of history, there will be a third apotheosis of Jerusalem, after the reign of David in the earthly Jerusalem and the pontificate of Pope Silvester in Rome.

In his Eternal Gospel, Joachim goes into a detailed description of the heavenly Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21, seeing a precise symbolism in its various components, such as the different precious stones from which it is built. He insists on the fact that in the heavenly Jerusalem, there is no Temple built by men, since the Father and the Son are themselves the only Temple of the Spirit.

In the fourth century, Eusebius and Jerome had pointed out the traditional etymology of Jerusalem, Yerushalaim, as refering to a vision of peace, visio pacis in Jerome’s words. This interpretation was picked up by Augustine and Isidore of Sevilla. Through their intermediary, this traditional etymology had become prominent in medieval texts. The last avatar of the perception of the earthly Jerusalem, in the later Middle Ages and at the time of the Renaissance, reflects a new dimension given to the mystical visio pacis. From a purely spiritual vision, it also becomes the best metaphor of an eschatological dream of peace upon earth between religions and civilizations.

In his De pace fidei, Nicolas Cusanus dreams of a religious concordat agreed upon in heaven, i.e., in the only rational region, by wise Christians, Jews and Moslems. Given full powers, they then met in Jerusalem, the common religious center, in order to receive in the name of all the single faith, and they establish upon it perpetual peace, “in order that in this peace, the Creator of all things be glorified in all saecula. Amen.”48

The development of ethnological curiosity, also vis-à-vis “Turcs” (i.e., Muslims) and Jews, together with the sorrow generated by religious strife throughout Europe, encouraged a renewal of utopian thought. Jerusalem provided here a ready-made symbol, understood by all. Tomaso Campanella, another visionary from Calabria (this time a Dominican), dreamed at the beginning of the seventeenth century of a new kind of recuperatio Terrae Sanctae, which would be the utmost expression of the renovatio seaculi: “The Church was born in Jerusalem, and it is to Jerusalem that it will return, after having conquered the whole world.” The former presence of the Crusaders in Jerusalem is perceived by Campanella as a step toward the instauration in that city of the messianic kingdom: Jerusalem, indeed, is the Holy City, where Jews, Christians and Muslims can become united in communion.

A similar mixture between mysticism and politics linked to Jerusalem is found also in the thought of the sixteenth-century Jesuit Guillaume Postel, an Orientalist who became the first holder of the Chair of Hebrew at the Collège de France, and one of the great “illuminés” of the Renaissance. For Postel, Jerusalem, true mother of the universe, is the figura of the building of the third Temple, a Temple to serve the whole earth and permit the spiritual rebirth of humankind in the final kingdom of Jesus Christ and the restitution of all things, the apokatastasis pantôn dear to the Stoics and to Origen.49

One could go on for a long time quoting Postel’s lucubrations on messianic Jerusalem, for him both a political and spiritual entity. His naiveté and messianic patterns of thought reflect a recurrent trend in religious modern attitudes, with which we are unfortunately too familiar. We are here far away from another early modern reinterpretation of Jerusalem, in Pico della Mirandola’s De dignitate hominis, where the heavenly Jerusalem is the goal of a spiritual flight kindled by the Socratic delirium described in Plato’s Phaedrus, a flight which takes the mystical philosopher far from this world ruled by Satan.

In this chapter, I have sought to focus on medieval mental representations of Jerusalem, and to suggest some main lines of their development and transformation processes. As we have seen, these processes are dialectical in the sense that they fuel one another. The heavenly or spiritual Jerusalem stands at the basis of holy land pilgrimages and crusades, while pilgrimages to the earthly city, in their turn, permit the development of “New Jerusalems” throughout Europe. Eventually, it is such memoriae of Jerusalem that permit a constant passage between earthly and heavenly Jerusalem in the “imaginaire médiéval.” The spiritualization of Jerusalem and its “multiplications” are two sides of the Christian “uprooting” of Jerusalem, and reflect a fundamental ambivalence in Christian attitudes to the Holy City. In the religious history of Europe, Jerusalem is no longer located “toward the Far East,” as it had been for the Palestinian martyr Pamphilus. Jerusalem is both in heaven and at home.50

Chapter Three: Avatars of the Promised Land

This third chapter will seek to understand some of the contexts in which the concept of the land promised by God to Abraham for his offspring emerged, was crystallized and developed since antiquity, among Jews, Christians and Muslims, all calling themselves the true heirs of Abraham. I shall also deal with some implications of the idea of a Promised Land in modern times, with the return of the Jews to Palestine, after almost twenty centuries of exile and wander.

The Biblical Promise to Abraham

In a number of cultures and religions, from all continents, one finds the conception of a sacred area, of a holy land. The biblical idea of a land promised, or rather, more precisely, conditionally promised by a divinity to a people, however, does not seem to have parallels in other literatures, certainly not in those of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. I obviously cannot offer here a detailed analysis of the biblical idea of the Promised Land, an idea well studied by biblical scholarship.51 The origins of the idea of the Promised Land obviously go back to Abraham’s saga in the book of Genesis. The story is best told by the biblical text itself, so allow me to quote a few passages:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:1-3)

Further on, we read:

Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the Oak of Moreh. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said: ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ (Gen 12: 6-7)

Note that the text makes no mention of a ‘promise’ – (havtaha); the word, or rather the idea from the same root, will appear in Hebrew only in rabbinic texts in relation to the land. Who is Abram’s offspring? The answer is given a few chapters later:

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘as for me, this is my covenant (beriti) with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations (ve-hayyita le-av hamon goyyim). No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you…. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’ (Gen 17:3-8)

One must point out that in this passage at least, Abraham’s offspring is not one people, but rather ‘a multitude of nations.’ Moreover, God does not ‘promise’ him, but swears to him, when Abram has become the old Abraham:

The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore (nishba’) to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land…’ (Gen 24:7)

Later on, the text is a bit more specific about Abraham’s offspring who shall inherit the land, although the broader context of the blessing to all nations of the earth remains explicit:

The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you. Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for you and your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath (shevu’a; LXX orkos) that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands, and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.’ (Gen 26:2-5)

A similar oath is made to Isaac (Gen 26: 1-5), to Jacob (Gen 28: 1-5; 35: 11-12) and to the Israelites (Ex. 6: 4). Moreover, the divine oath about the land is part of the covenant made by God with Abram:

On that day the Lord made a covenant (berit) with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…’ (Gen 15:18)

Covenant means contract. Abraham, the man who bargained with God about the number of Righteous needed in order to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, could obviously entertain the idea of a contractual relationship with God. The divine oath, then, was not simply a promise (and one should assume as a matter of course that God keeps His promises). Rather, it was part of a covenant on the part of God. Do ut des: divine promise was made in exchange for keeping God’s commandments, for following His path. This covenant was broken, time and again, as the Israelites sinned, deviating from the ethical and religious divine demands: being chosen by God entails more duties than rights. God punished them through exile from their land, returning them to it after they repented. The exile of the people for their sins, and their return to it as God remembers His covenant with the Patriarchs, appears already in Leviticus 26: 38-42. The land thus eventually became endowed with an eschatological dimension, and the divine oath about Israel’s land became one of restoration. In other words, the return to Israel’s land epitomized in the reconstruction of the destroyed Temple at the core of Jerusalem became identified with the messianic expectation at the Endzeit. The coming of the messiah, which for some rabbis will be characterized by the end of foreign rule upon Israel, is also represented by Israel’s return to its land.

The land promised to Abraham’s offspring receives an eschatological dimension in some Prophetic texts; by that time, it is clear for Amos, for instance, that it refers to Israel:

I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again by plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God. (Amos 9:13-15)

Consequently, the return of Israel to its land, in accomplishment of the divine promise, became an obvious expectation since the Babylonian exile. To sum up, the biblical texts retain a double aspect of God’s oath. Abrahams’ offspring refers both to Israel and to ‘a multitude of nations.’ In a sense, using a contemporary formula, we could say that on the Promised Land, the biblical texts ‘think globally and act locally.’

The ‘promise (epaggelia) to Abraham,’ as a phrase, is first mentioned by Paul, for instance in Romans 4: 13, where Paul insists that this promise would be accomplished through his faith rather than through the commandments of the Torah. It is in the New Testament that the phrase ‘Promised Land,’ more precisely ‘Land of Promise,’ (gè tès epaggelias; which the Vulgate translates as terra repromissionis) appears for the first time:

By faith he [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised (eis gèn tès epaggelias), as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. (Heb 11: 9)

A Christian Holy Land

It should be emphasized, then, that while the Jews never doubted that the Land of Israel had been given to them by God, the locution ‘Promised Land’ is a Christian rather than a Jewish invention. From the earliest Christian writers on, however, it is clear that the land had been promised to Abraham’s true offspring, i.e., not to the sons of Abraham according to the flesh, but rather to those, Jews and Gentiles alike, who had recognized in Jesus the expected Messiah of Israel. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, in the second century, did expect dramatic events at the end of times to happen in the Holy Land, more precisely in Jerusalem, locus of the eschatological war between Christ returned in glory and the Antichrist. But intense eschatological imagination died quite soon among most Christian thinkers, for whom the Promised Land was not Palestine, now and forever a cursed land. For Tertullian, ‘Promised Land’ meant, rather, the flesh of Christ, or the Eucharistic bread: sharing in the sacraments meant for him participation to the benefits of the new Promised Land.52 For the Epistle of Barnabas, the land where milk and honey flow is the Church, and God lives there as in his holy Temple.53 For the early Christian writers, what the Promised Land is remains less important than what it is not: it is not Palestine. Such a disappearance of the Promised Land fits the self-identification of the Christians as the new, true Israel, and as a people unlike all others: They did not have in common a country, a language, or any mores characteristic of a people, as the Epistle to Diognetes insists, in the second century. If the new Israel is a people only metaphorically, it has no need for a land of its own.

The most radical reinterpretation of the Promised Land is arguably that of Origen, who writes in the first half of the third century. Origen takes his inspiration from Philo’s allegorical language and thought patterns. Following Plato’s conception of a pure land in heaven,54 Philo developed the idea of a pure land of the intelligible virtues, a heavenly land parallel to the earthly one55 Philo’s spiritualizing, Platonic interpretation suited Origen quite well. In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen identifies the Promised Land with Jesus.56 As is well known, Joshua is called Iesous in the Septuagint. This made him an obvious typos, or sacramentum of Jesus. Jesus, who is also called by Origen autobasileia, is identified with the Promised Land. Although God’s gift of the land was immediate, Joshua fights an endless fight in order to enter the Promised Land. In his Homilies on Numbers, Origen identifies paradise, from which Adam had been expelled, with the true and happy land, the land of the living, located in heaven, rather than upon this earth of toiling.57 The idea of the Promised Land as unattainable is clearly rooted in postlapsarian conceptions of paradise.

In his Contra Celsum, Origen further develops this pure land from Plato’s Phaedon, and notes that Celsus failed to see that Plato himself was borrowing from his predecessor Moses.58 Indeed, God had promised to Moses’ people a pure earth “where milk and honey flow,” on the condition that they live in accordance with His laws. Hence “the good land was not, as some think, the earthly land of Judea, which indeed lies in the earth which was cursed from the beginning by the words of Adam’s transgression…” Note that while Origen argues for the same relocation of the Promised Land from Judea to a heavenly abode, Israel’s land was not for him cursed by the Jewish rejection of Jesus but had rather been cursed, like all the earth, since the original sin. In any case, Judea and Jerusalem are shown to be a symbolical shadow of the pure land, which is good and large and lies in a pure heaven, and has found a meaning absent from the Jewish ‘mythological’ interpretations.

Similar conceptions of the Promised Land will appear again in later authors. Let me mention here only the fourth-century Origenist Eusebius of Caesarea. For him, the Land of Promise is the ‘heavenly land,’ a land that the soul sees from afar. It is identical with the ‘land of the living’ (Psalm 27: 13).59 Such a dualistic conception of a heavenly world of models for the lower realities is not only Platonic. It exists also in Hebrew hermeneutical literature from late antiquity, such as the midrashim about the Heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalaim shel ma’ala (literally, ‘the Jerusalem of above’), typos, model, of the earthly one. Yet, as far as I know, one cannot find in rabbinic literature a heavenly land of Israel similar to the heavenly Jerusalem and parallel to the heavenly Promised Land of the Church Fathers.

Saint Jerome, writing in 413 from Bethlehem to Dardanus, the Prefect of Gaul, points out that the exiguous dimensions of the land and the manifest poverty of its soil clearly showed that what the Jews called their land could not be the promised one.60 The Jews, in any case, had to share this small, miserable land with other peoples. This cannot be the ‘promised land’ (terra repromissionis) mentioned in the Bible. The enormity of the Jews’ crime, their guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus, explains their present sufferings and the fact that they have lost, forever, political power in their own land, which will remain barren – and their Temple a ruin – until the end of times. Just as the new Rome is not the old one, Israel has lost the right to bear its own name. For, Jerome goes on, it is only Jesus who had sanctified the land, and it is to the Christians, not to the Jews, that it has been promised.

Jerome reflects here the traditional Patristic understanding of the concept of ‘promised land,’ which does not refer to earthly Palestine, but rather to a spiritual entity, be it a heavenly land, the mystical body of Christ, or the community of the saints. The main difference between the Jewish and the Christian patterns of thought is not, as is too often perceived, Christian allegory versus Jewish literalism, but rather a different balance between allegory and literalism: for the late antique rabbis, in contradistinction to the Church Fathers, allegorical conceptions live side by side with literal hermeneutics, never erase them.

The Jewish eschatological expectation of messianic restoration was of course impossible for Christian thinkers; for them the messiah has already come. Hence, the expectation of a future restoration of Israel on its land remained mainly a Jewish one, a promise that God could not fail to keep, but also a promise of an eschatological return to the Urzeit, when redeemed life on a redeemed earth would be similar to that in Paradise. Such a vision of paradise at the Endzeit, traditional in Jewish and Christian literature, is reflected, for instance, in the Testament of Levi (17: 2-11), where the Messiah will open the doors of paradise and will feed the saints with the fruit of the tree of life. What the Jews expected to happen only at the end of history the Christians could experience hic et nunc, in a world redeemed by faith. This faith permitted them to transcend this earthly world and reach a level of spiritual realities, up to the new world of the pure, heavenly Land of Promise. In a sense, the coming of Christ entailed the asymptotic character of the Promised Land, while for the Jews the asymptotic character of the Messiah entailed the concrete presence of Israel’s land.

The Christian paradigm entailed the obliteration of history. After Christ’s coming, history had lost its most serious sense, Heilsgeschichte. At any given moment, under any conditions of oppression, one could, through faith, join the new Chosen People and seek to enter the true Promised Land, which represented a society from which sin, rather than exploitation, had disappeared. For the Christians, this land remains forever promised, never quite here, even after Christ’s coming.61 For the Jews, it is for the Messiah that one keeps waiting forever; but the land promised by God, the land conquered, the land lost, is also the land to be concretely regained, one day or another. In both cases, one moves between utopia and uchronia: the pure land is nowhere; it belongs to another, golden age. It is always set far away: in illo tempore, in illo loco.

For approximately nineteen centuries, the Jewish vision of the Promised Land remained a dream, more or less neutralized in enclave societies that could hardly afford radical crises with the surrounding, more or less tolerating society. From time to time, however, a wave of messianic exaltation would ignite a fire of activism, which usually petered out fast. These attempts were almost always connected with the expectation of an immediate return to Israel’s land and of the reconstruction of the Temple. In an important sense, the very concrete character of the Jewish dream protected it from being transformed into a series of attempts to give a present and concrete meaning to the idea of the Promised Land.

Holy Land as Metaphor: The Book of Mormon

In the Christian world, conversely, the Promised Land could not remain only an abstract idea about a heavenly reality. Time and again, we witness attempts to realize the Promised Land hic et nunc. One such famous attempt is that of the Pilgrim Fathers, who, fleeing religious persecution in the Old World, sought to reach a new Promised Land and to establish there a society where they could freely practice their version of Christianity. The identification with Israel had been rendered possible thanks to the Reform, its translations of the Hebrew Bible, and the new, private familiarity with the biblical text. The metaphorical identification of the immigrants as Israelites, and of the new world as Israel’s land, commonplace in the seventeenth century, had a major impact on the formation of American identity, as the many biblical toponyms in the USA remind us. As is well known, American literature too, with both Church hymns and Negro Spirituals at its core, is replete with identification with the places and landscapes of Israel’s land. In an obvious sense, America is, in American consciousness, the new Promised Land.

The most striking reinterpretation of the biblical Promised Land, however, is probably the one made by Joseph Smith in the revelations contained in the Book of Mormon, which he published in 1830. In a sense, the entire Mormon project represents a radicalization of the vision of the Pilgrim Fathers of America as the new Promised Land. This radical hermeneutics lies at the very heart of the Book of Mormon’s mythopoiesis, and cannot fail to remind one of Apocryphal texts such as the Book of Enoch or the Book of Jubilees. It represents a phenomenon of re-mythologizing unique in the history of Christianity, reinventing the history of the new Israel within the literary framework of a new Old Testament, as it were, including Hebrew-sounding names. Mormon millenarianism invents a new, concrete Land of Promise through a dramatic relocation of the Promised Land of old. This represents a radical reinterpretation not only of the Biblical promise, but also of Christian hermeneutics and self-perception as verus Israel. No wonder, then, that, at least until very recently, American Churches could not usually consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS Church, the official name of the Mormon Church, as Christian. In a sense, the Book of Mormon forges a new religion within the Abrahamic movement. Let me quote, for instance, the opening sentences of the First Book of Nephi, the first of the texts composing the Book of Mormon:

An account of Lehi, his wife Sariah and his four sons, being called (beginning at the eldest) Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi. The Lord warns Lehi to depart out of the land of Jerusalem, because he prophetieth unto the people concerning their inequity and they seek to destroy his life. He taketh three days journey into the wilderness with his family. Nephi takes his brethren and returneth to Jerusalem after the records of the Jews. The account of their sufferings. They take the daughters of Ishmael to wife. They take their families and depart into the wilderness. The course of their travels. They come to a large water. Nephis’s brethren… cross the large waters into the promised land, and so forth.62

The Book of Mormon tells the story of the Nephites, a Jewish family that leaves Jerusalem ahead of the Babylonian conquest and makes its way to America. Thanks to the angel Moroni, the last of the great race of the Nephites, Joseph Smith discovers the golden plates and prophecy is restored. In this case, we witness a different kind of relocation from the one that obtains in early Christian thought. Here, the Land of Israel is not moved to heaven, but to another location upon the earth.

The Qur’anic translatio terrae sanctae

The curious mechanism at work in Mormon mythopoiesis seems somewhat similar to that which can be observed in the Qur’an. When the Qur’an refers to the Holy Land (al-ard al-muqaddasah), it is clear that what is meant is the Land of Israel:

After this We told the children of Israel: ‘Dwell in the land (askunu al-ard). When the promise of reckoning (wa’d al-ahira) comes, we shall bring you together from a motley crowd. (Qur’an 17: 104, transl. Ahmad Ali)

The promise refers here to the eschatological times.

Similarly, Moses says:

Enter then, my people, the Holy Land (udhulu l-arda al-muqaddasa) that God has ordained (kataba, lit. written) for you, and do not turn back, or you will suffer. (Qur’an 5: 21)

Side by side with the traditional identification of the Holy Land, the Qur’anic way of translating the divine promise is not, like the Christian way, to move the Promised Land to heaven, but rather to locate it elsewhere upon the earth. We may speak of an horizontal rather than of a vertical relocation. The way to do it, as we know, is to move Abraham, or Ibrahim, himself from Palestine to Mecca, where he builds the Ka’ba together with his son Ishmael. In a sense, then, one can perceive Arabia as the new Holy Land, where the holy places of Islam, are located. The sanctity of Jerusalem (which is also referred to as ‘ula al-qiblatain, the first of the two qiblas, or directions of prayer) never disappears, although the expression clearly indicates that its status has now been demoted, that it has fallen from its earlier primacy. The status of Jerusalem, however, is never ambiguous in Islam in the way it is in Christianity. Jerusalem cannot be perceived in Islam as the city whose inhabitants killed Christ, committing Deicide, as the Muslim Jesus (‘Isa) is a prophet, not a divine figure; and also because he was not really crucified, according to the Docetic view of the Qur’an. Al Quds, i.e., the Holy (city), is the Islamic name of Jerusalem. It retains an echo of its Jewish status as axis mundi, as it is the locus par excellence of the connection between heaven and earth, a connection represented by Muhammad’s isra,’ his night journey to “the farthest mosque” (al-masjad al-aqsa), traditionally identified with the Temple Mount (al-haram al-sharif) and then his mi’raj, or ascension to heaven on the steed Al-Buraq (see Qur’an 17, Al-Isra’).

In the Crusaders’ Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, a new genre emerged and grew in Arabic literature: fada’il al-Quds, ‘the praises of Jerusalem,’ which encouraged an Islamic Zionism of sorts, dreaming of the liberation of the Holy City – and of its hinterland – from the hands of the infidels. Mutatis mutandis, the success of modern political Zionism, and the military victories of Israel, have similarly strengthened and activated contemporary Palestinian nationalism. The great difficulty which Arabs – and Muslims – have in understanding the inner drive of Zionism is deeply rooted in Islamic perceptions: for the Qur’an, both Jews and Christians are religious communities (sing. millah) identified by their holy book of prophecies. Such a symmetrical perception of Jews and Christians entails that the former cannot, any more than the latter, be perceived through ethnic lenses, and understood to be a people.

The Jewish Dream-Land

By definition, a land promised is not present here and now, and remains distant, asymptotic, absent. It is either expected in the eschatological Endzeit, or else it is spiritual, heavenly, by nature, and therefore cannot be seen and touched, but can only be dreamed of, imagined. This dream-land, as Mark Twain had called it, represents the presence of an absence. We have mentioned some of the ways in which the Promised Land has been relocated, by both Christians and Muslims, as they offered their own interpretations of the Abrahamic covenant, in different ethnic cultural and political milieus.

For the Jews, the very core of their land was the Temple in the heart of Jerusalem, a real omphalos connecting heaven and earth. Naturally, this Temple was God’s house, but it is only after its destruction that discussions about God’s abode, His shekhina (from shakhan, dwell), can be found in Jewish literature. Just as the land is called promised only as long as this promise has not been kept, or has even been revoked, it is the Temple’s absence that requires serious thinking about the mode and locus of God’s presence in this world.

As Heine famously pointed out, the only homeland of the Jews remained for too many centuries a portable one, the Bible.63 The Jews have always called their land Eretz-Israel, Israel’s land. They did pray, three times daily, for the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but this goal remained more often than not an asymptotic one, too far away for the great majority of Jews, those from the lands of Islam as well as those from all corners of Europe, to become a concrete plan of action. ‘Dormant’ expectations, however, do wake up under certain conditions, and can become activated at some points in history.

Judah Halevi’s celebrated Hebrew poem chanting the love of Zion from the anguish of exile, written in the twelfth century, may be considered as the quintessential expression of this love as the Jews felt it, in all corners of the Diaspora, throughout the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the modern times.

My heart is in the East, while I remain at the edge of the West,

Then how can I taste what I eat, how can I enjoy it?

How can I fulfill my vows and my pledges

While Zion is in the domain of Edom,

And I am in the bonds of Arabia?

It would be easy for me to leave behind

All the good things of Spain;

It would be glorious to see the dust of the ruined Shrine.64

Eschatological visions remain in permanent danger of being taken too seriously, of being realized. It does not really matter whether one deals with the expectation of the Messiah, of Christ’s warring with Antichrist, or of the final war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. I shall mention here only the two most famous instances of such burst of eschatological expectation. In late antiquity, the Christians certainly took seriously the Jewish hopes to rebuild the Temple, and the failed attempt to do so in 361, with the blessing of Emperor Julian, seems to have been traumatic for Christian consciousness, and left deep traces for some generations. In 1666, the eschatological expectations raised by the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi brought many Jews, in a number of European communities, to plan immigration to the Holy Land. The Sabbatean fiasco, whose roots go back to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, remained profoundly traumatic for a long time in Jewish consciousness, and played a significant role in the strong opposition to modern Zionism among European orthodox rabbis.

Cognitive Consonance

In a famous book published in 1956, the American social psychologist Leon Festinger and two colleagues analyzed what happens when prophecy fails.65 They studied the psychological reactions of people who were convinced of the imminent coming of the end of the world, when the expected event did not occur. The phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ was coined in order to describe the hiatus between facts and expectations, and the subsequent change of expectations. In our present context, one may ask the correlate question that, oddly enough, does not seem to be often asked: What happens when prophecy succeeds? More precisely, what are the consequences, both psychological and sociological, when the expectation of the return and settlement in the Promised Land is eventually realized? In order to describe such a socio-psychological situation, I propose to speak of “cognitive consonance.” No less than cognitive dissonance, cognitive consonance may have a dramatic impact, just as the echo can sometimes provoke an avalanche in the mountains.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, many European Jews realized, to quote Isaiah Berlin’s dictum, that they had “enjoyed too much history, and too little geography” (although few would have used this verb). The radicalization of modern, secular anti-Semitism, and its horrific consequences, coupled with the growth of nationalism throughout Europe, brought a number of Jewish intellectuals, in the footsteps of Moses Hess and Theodor Herzl, to propose the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Side by side with this activation of the Jewish dream of a return to the ancestral land, other solutions to the Jewish question were offered, for instance the identification of another territory for the future Jewish state, such as Uganda or Argentina. It comes as no surprise that such proposals never went very far, as the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe never showed any real interest in establishing a Jewish state elsewhere than in Palestine. Moreover, the socialist movement Bund, in Eastern Europe, proposed collective and personal autonomy, rather than a national territory, in order to solve the ‘Jewish question.’

‘Territorialist’ Zionists and Bundists were far from being the only opponents to a return en masse to Zion. Indeed, most Jews, all over Europe, and beyond, both in traditional communities and in the modern, big cities, expressed overtly or covertly a deep ambivalence toward the Zionist idea, from a number of highly different perspectives. In their great majority, orthodox rabbis were staunch opponents of Zionism, as any attempt at transforming existing realities was felt as a threat to tradition. The leaders of the Reform movement, from Germany to the United States, were against Zionism, as they considered the Jews to be members of the ‘Mosaic faith’ rather than a people. Liberals, too, rejected any self-perception that could cast a shadow on their claim to being good citizens of their various countries. All in all, then, the idea of a national rebirth of the Jewish nation in its ancestral land remained for a long time shrouded in ambivalence among the Jews.

In its more radical form, Zionism claimed that only within a national framework of their own could the Jews survive, and that the diasporas were condemned to eventual disintegration and disappearance. It is one of the striking paradoxes of Zionism that the establishment and flourishing of the state of Israel has done much to strengthen the identity and self-respect of Jewish communities all over the world. Another paradox of the modern transformation of the Promised Land is that it has encouraged and fueled a new sense of identity among the Palestinians and their struggle for a state of their own. A third paradox of contemporary realities in the Promised Land is the growth and radicalization of Christian Zionism, in particular among American Fundamentalists of the Christian political right. The return of the Jews to the Promised Land seems to have erased the traditional Christian ‘curse’ of the land. For these Fundamentalists, the wars fought by the contemporary Jews are a sign that the eschatological war of Gog and Magog and the Second Coming of Jesus-Christ are near. For them, supporting the radical Jewish religious right in Israel is a means to the eventual conversion of the Jews. For most ‘main stream’ Christian Churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, the old curse on the land of the Jews seems also to have recently disappeared, with the strong erosion of the traditional perception of the Jews as Christ killers. At the same time, if the Jews are no longer accused of Deicide, they are not perceived, either, as the people chosen by God. Again, without a Chosen People, there can be no Promised Land.

What is perhaps of even greater significance is the deep impact of transformations within one Abrahamic religion upon the other Abrahamic communities. In order to assess the dialectical, constantly evolving relationship religion and politics, it is essential to recognize that we are not dealing with autarkical religions but with what I propose to call the Abrahamic eco-system. One cannot properly understand Judaism, Christianity or Islam – and, hence, one cannot properly understand the transformations of the Promised Land today – without thinking these religious traditions together. The complex hermeneutics developed in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages by the competing communities perceiving themselves to be the true heirs of Abraham still remain with us. Things are now infinitely more complex, however, as religions function today, to a great extent, in a secular world, or, more precisely, in an imperfectly secularizing world.

If the land has lost its promise, then, has it become a land like all lands? A land like all lands, for a people like all peoples? In their Jewish identity, the Zionists have remained torn between the hope of a secular future and the memory of a religious past. Through the political return to Eretz-Israel, they intended to achieve a normalization of the Jewish people. In their adoption of Hebrew, they planned to transform a holy tongue into a secular language. But there is no easy recipe for such an alchemical transformation, especially when all the sources written in that language are sacred, or at least belong to a literature that remains religious in essence.

The Hebrew poet T. Carmi, who had grown up in New York City, was once asked about his feelings when discovering, as an adult, Israel’s landscapes. He answered that he was mostly fascinated by the infinite variety of the linguistic landscapes of the renewed Hebrew tongue. Renewed, not reborn, as the language had never died, for throughout the centuries it had become a scholars’ language. But the holy tongue remained the strongest link to the holy land, and also the simplest way of communication between Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Kafka never reached the promised land, as did his friend Max Brod, but he left us the moving notebooks on which he applied himself to the study of modern Hebrew. The secularization of Hebrew is still an ongoing process, and perhaps it is an essentially unending one. Hebrew remains, to a great extent, the language of the Torah, spoken in the land of the Hebrews. Can one still speak of the divine promise of old being filled when most contemporary Jews do not accept the very premises of this promise? Or rather, should we speak of a promise only half kept, as the Temple remains destroyed? A promise half-believed, or a promise half-kept: the ambivalence, in both the land and the language of old, is perhaps too deeply anchored to be ever totally overcome.


The historian, even the historian of religion, is no prophet, and the future remains beyond her or his purview. But it is clear to me that the decision to return to the once promised and twice lost land was also a conscious decision to play by the rules in the game of modern nations, to root history into geography, to move beyond utopia. This decision also entailed giving up on the divine promises of old, while at the same time rediscovering both the accents of archaic Hebrew and the landscapes of the Bible. The very success of modern political Zionism has encouraged many Jews, and many Christians, to perceive this dramatic event in the framework of the accomplishment of Biblical prophecies. Here lies the fundamental antinomy of Zionism, a modern national movement that cannot give up on a serious flirt with both sacred geography and religious history. Zionism sought to secularize Jewish identity, while its very success highlighted the limits of this secularization.

Is it possible to conceive the modern political return to the land independently from the restorationist patterns of religious language? While this path has been trodden for a few generations, it seems to have reached a dead end. Simplistic and brutal, religious fundamentalism, in its Jewish, Christian or Muslim garb, has struck us as a nemesis. The Promised Land is simply too embedded in religious conceptions and language for us to be able to ignore them. The only way, then, seems to be that of what Hegel would have called an Aufhebung of religious language. In other words, I propose transforming eschatological beliefs into cultural memory – kulturelle Gedächtnis, a concept invented by Aby Warburg, and developed by Jan Assmann.66 Cultural memory strikes me as a way – perhaps not the only one – of permitting a continuity of cultural identity without the snares of religious fundamentalism. Cultural memory does not perforce entail a weakening of traditional thought patterns. It broadens, rather, the conceptions of old, taking into account, in education and culture, those developed in the past in other religious communities. In that respect, the verses of Genesis 17 on the divine covenant with Abraham and the peoples stemming from him may be recalled. For a pan-Abrahamic hermeneutics, the land is promised to all children of Abraham, Muslims and Christians as well as Jews – but the promise, as we have seen, is only one part of the deal. They may stay as long as they behave. The transformation of conflicting religious identities into a common cultural memory may strike one as a dream – a dream that may be the only hope for this over-determined, dreamland of old.

1. See Guy G. Stroumsa, The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016) and “Three Rings or Three Impostors? The Comparative Approach to the Abrahamic Religions and its Origins,” in A. Silverstein, G. G. Stroumsa, eds., and M. Blidstein, assoc. ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 56-70.

2. See “Mystical Jerusalems,” in L.I. Levine, ed., Jerusalem: its Sanctity and Centrality in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York, Jerusalem: Continuum and Magnes, 1998), 349-370, as well as “Christian Memories and Visions of Jerusalem in Jewish and Islamic Context,” in Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Zeev Kedar, eds., Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade (Jerusalem, Austin: Ben Zvi Institute and University of Texas Press, 2009), 321-333 and 404-405.

3. H. Chadwick, “The Circle and the Ellipse: Rival Concepts of Authority in the Early Church,” first chapter of his History and Thought of the Early Church (London: Variorum, 1982).

4. See E.D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, AD 312-460 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984).

5. One of the most obvious instances of a place sacred to more than one religious tradition is that of the Babri Mosque, built at the birthplace of the god Rama in Ayodhya, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and destroyed in 1992 during an eruption of violence launched by Hindu fundamentalists.

6. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869), 608.

7. On these concepts, see in particular Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und poltische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (Munich, 1992).

8. Christoph Markschies, “Die Bedeutung Jerusalems für die Christen,” (still unpublished; I thank Prof. Markschies for making this rich text available to me).

9. See the discussion of Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (Oxford, 1982).

10. Stefan Heid, Chiliasmus und Antichrist-Mythos: Eine frühchristliche Kontroverse um das Heilige Land, Hereditas 6 (Bonn, 1993).

11. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 5.18.2; Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, 1926–32) II, 486–87.

12. For the meaning of “the heavenly Jerusalem” in the thought of Emmanuel Swedenborg, see, for example, his The True Christian Religion, §782. The Book of Mormon offers another self-understanding of a modern religious movement issuing out of Protestant Christianity as “the New Jerusalem.”

13. Strom 172.2ff.

14. Hom in Ier 9, on Jer 11.2; Com. in Ioh 10.18: “It is Jesus, God’s logos, which enters into the soul, called Jerusalem.” See also the triple allegorical interpretation of Jerusalem by the fourth-century Origenist Didymos the Blind, in his Commentary on Zacharias, quoted by Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale: Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture, I.2 (Paris, 1959), 645.

15. Medieval references in De Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, 646.

16. “Caelestis Hierusalem, quae est mater libertatis, chorus libertatis”: this is a leitmotif of mediaeval Latin Christian literature. See for instance Godefroy of Saint Victor, Glossa in Ex., 20.2, quoted by De Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, 646.

17. “When I start speaking of her, I can’t stop.” Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 93.24.

18. Similarly, the Disputatio Gregentii, a text from the mid-seventh century, states that the church of the Anastasis is the new Temple, while the Temple Mount itself remains razed. This seems to reflect the renewed fear of the Christians that the Jews may rebuild their Temple, perhaps through the medium of the Saracens.

19. See for instance John of Damascus, De Haeresibus, 101.

20. See, for instance, Gilbert Dagron and Vincent Deroche, “Juifs et Chrétiens dans l’Orient du VIIe siècle,” Travaux et Mémoires 11 (Paris, 1991), 17–274 ; Cyril Mango, “The Temple Mount, AD 614–638,” in Bayt al-Maqdis: ‘Abd al-Malik’s Jerusalem, ed. Julian Raby and Jeremy Johns (Oxford, 1992), 1–16; Vincent Deroche, “Polémique anti-judaïque et emergence de l’Islam (7e–8e s.),” Revue des Etudes Byzantines 57 (1999), 141–61; Averil Cameron, “The Trophies of Damascus: the Church, the Temple and Sacred Space,” in Le Temple, Lieu de conflit, Cahiers du CEPOA, 7 (Leuven, 1998), 203–12.

21. See for instance Günter Stemberger, “Jerusalem in the Early Seventh Century: Hopes and Aspirations of Christians and Jews,” in Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, ed. Lee I. Levine (New York, 1999), 260–70. See further Guy G. Stroumsa, “False Prophet, False Messiah and the Religious Scene in Seventh-Century Jerusalem,” in Redemption and Resistance in the Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity: Essays in Honor of William Horbury, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and James Carlton-Paget (London and New York, 2007), 278–89.

22. Oleg Grabar, “Space and Holiness in Medieval Jerusalem,” in Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. Lee I. Levine (New York, 1999), 275–86 (= Islamic Studies 40 [2001], 681–92).

23. Annabel Wharton, “Erasure: Eliminating the Space of Late Ancient Judaism,” in From Dura to Sepphoris: Studies in Jewish Art and Society in Late Antiquity, ed. Lee I. Levine and Zeev Weiss (Portsmouth, RI, 2000), 195–213.

24. See Carl De Boor, Theophanis Chronographia (Leipzig, 1883), and Cyril Mango and Roger Scott, transl. and com., The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284–813 (Oxford, 1997).

25. Sebeos’ History, trans. Robert Bedrosian (New York, 1985), Ch. 31.

26. Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge, 1977).

27. See, for instance, Christian Robin, “Le judaïsme de Himyar,” Arabia 1 (2003), 97–172.

28. For a contemporary puzzling similar phenomenon, see the recent exact reconstitution of the house of the late Rabbi Menahem Schneersohn, the Lubawitscher Rebbe, from Brooklyn to Lod in Israel.

29. R. Landes, Relics, Apocalypse and the Deceits of History, 304.

30. C. Auffarth, “Himmlisches und irdisches Jerusalem: ein religionswissenschaftlicher Versuch zur ‘Kreuzzugseschatologie’,” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 1, 2 (1993), 104. The main thrust of Auffarth’s learned study is to insist on the importance of the medieval ‘realized eschatology’ and of the image of Jerusalem in the genesis of the Crusades.

31. The ritual of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14, had been initiated in Constantinople in 614, and the rite became popularized elsewhere in the seventh century. This appears clearly, for instance, from Leontius of Neapolis’ Life of Symeon the Fool.

32. I should like to thank to Laurence Vianès, for calling my attention to this fact.

33. For a wonderful description of the ways in which memory could use mental images (in a different period), see J. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin, 1984).

34. S. Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Knopf, 1995), 436-442.

35. For phenomenological parallels, consider Rocamadour, which to this day pilgrims climb on their knees, or, further away, the Buddhist temple at Borobudur. Schama deals at some length with the case of the Mont Valérien near Paris. Referring to its disaffectation in “martyrized Europe” at the end of the Second World War, he oddly enough forgets the last transformation of the Mont Valérien. The fortress built there in the nineteenth century had become during the war an execution ground for hostages and resistance fighters caught by the Wehrmacht. It hence received, as it were, a new legitimation as Calvary, becoming after the war a place of annual pilgrimage by the chief of state (p. 444).

36. A similar conception of the heavenly Jerusalem as delivering us from the confusion and slavery of the present life is found in Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica IV.

37. “Et, si vultis scire, Clara Vallis est. Ipsa est Ierusalem, ea quae in coelis est, tota mentis devotione, et conversationis imitatione, et cognatione quadam spiritus sociata.” SSC 27.7. This text is discussed by B. McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroads, 1994), 178-9.

38. Puto enim hoc loco prophetam Ierusalem nomine designasse illos, qui in hoc saeculo vitam ducunt religiosam, mores supernae illius Ierusalem conversatione honesta et ordinata pro viribus imitantes; et non veluti hi, qui de Babylone sunt... Mea autem, qui videor monachus et Ierosolymita, peccata certe occulta sunt. Sermon 55.2, PL 183,1045c-d. To be sure, this was not a new trend; as is well known, opposition to Holy Land pilgrimages began in the fourth century, together with the development of pilgrimages. The classical example is that of Gregory of Nyssa, who had himself visited the Holy Land on ecclesiastical business, and who argued in one of his letters (Letter 2) that Cappadocia was as good a place as Palestine for leading a spiritual life.

39. Liber exceptionum 12.5.

40. J. Leclercq, “Une élévation sur les gloires de Jérusalem,” Recherches de Sciences Religieuses 40 (1951-52), 326-334.

41. Ciuitatis et regis Hierusalem frequens recordatio dulcis est nobis consolatio, religiosae exercitationis grata occasio, onerosae sarcinae nostrae necessaria subleuatio.

42. Ierusalem celeste questa terra s’apella

cità de l’alto Deu nova, preclara e bella

dond e Cristo segno...

... contraria de quella ke per nomo se clama,

cità de gran pressura Babilonia la magna

un la qual Lucifer…

G. Contini, ed., Poeti del duecento, I (Milan, Naples: Rcciardi, 1960), 625.

43. ...quella cità soprana si è pur d’or lucente

Le plaze delectevre le mure resplendante

...Oi De, splendor purissimo in la cità celesta...

...Oi De, com pò godher lo just in paradisò...

G. Contini, ed., Le opere volgari di Bonsevin de la Riva (Roma: la Società, 1961), 154.

44. Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey to God, transl. E. Cousins (Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 51, 90.

45. E.A. Peers, The Ascent to Mount Sion (New York: Harper, 1951), 66. See the edition of the Subida by J.B. Gomis, Misticos Franciscanos Espanoles, vol. II (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1948).

46. Ibid., 70/71.

47. E. Delaruelle, “Le pèlerinage intérieur au XVe siècle,” in his La piété populaire au moyen-âge (Turin: Bottega d’Erasmo, 1975), 558.

48. Nicolas Cusanus, De pace fidei, XIX. With the dawn of modern times, such “interfaith dialogues,” as they are now called, or rather “polylogues,” became more common. The most famous example of the genre, perhaps, is Jean Bodin’s Heptahemeres.

49. Ceste unité unique, et du tout differente de toutes celles qui ont esté, ou sont, ou jamais seront au monde inferieur, est la personele Jerusalem, de laquelle David escript: Yerusalaim sehubeerah lah yiheddow, Jerusalem cujus associatio aut participatio pro ipsa fit una cum eo. Nos pieds sont establis en tes portes, o Jerusalem. Jerusalem qui es edifiée comme une cité, mais non pas une cité, ains une personne, de laquelle l’accompaignement est pour elle avec un luy, qui en est le chef. Or est il du tout certein et necessaire qu’entre toutes et sur toutes les congregations, polices, estats ou eglises du monde, il y en aye une tele qu’elle soit du tout excellente et differente de tout aultre... car oultre l’estre un corps mystique ou civil et politique, elle est personele et vive union come chascune aultre mere ou vierge ou femme du monde... C’est donc la finale victoire d’une seule et unike colombe et espouse…

G. Postel, Le thrésor des prophéties de l’univers, ed. F. Secret (Archives internationales d’histoire des idées 27; La Haye: Nijhoff, 1969, 157-159. On Venice as the New Jerusalem (and the New Rome) for Guillaume Postel, see M. Leathers Kuntz, “The Myth of Venice in the Thought of Guillaume Postel,” in J. Hankins et al., eds, Supplementum Festivum: Studies in Honor of P.O. Kristeller (Binghamton, N.Y.: 1987), 503-523, esp. 512: “Esse vero Jerusalem translatam Venetias ab sacrorum inviolabilitatem patet.”

50. I wish to express my thanks to Jean Robert Armogathe for his judicious comments on a draft of this chapter.

51. See in particular Moshe Weinfeld, The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

52. Tertullian, De carnis resurrectione 26.

53. Ep. Barnabas, 6: 13-16.

54. Plato, Phaedon 109b-c, referring to the Elysian Fields in Odyssey IV. 563-565.

55. Philo, Confus. 81; Quaest. Gen. IV. 178.

56. Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 18. 23.

57. Origen, Homilies on Numbers, 16.5.

58. Origen, Contra Celsum, VII. 28-29.

59. Eusebius on Isaiah 33: 17.

60. Jerome, Letter 129 to Dardanus. (in J. Labourt, ed., Saint Jerome, Lettres, VII (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1961), 154-166. This letter was written after 413.

61. See the analysis of Daniélou, 469, who insists that for the Christians, the central importance of Christ’s coming entails new thought patterns.

62. I quote according to the edition published by Pacific Publishing Studio, 2010. On this text and its impact in history, see Paul C. Gutjahr, The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012).

63. H. Heine, “Geständnisse,” in Werke XV (Hamburg: Hoffmann and Campe, 1982), 44.

64. I quote the translation of T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (Harmondsworth, New York: Penguin, 1981), 347.

65. L. Festinger, Harry W. Rieken, Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

66. See Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).

About the Author

Guy G. Stroumsa is Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, and Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

His recent publications include:

The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations of Late Antiquity (Chicago, 2009; paperback 2012)

A New Science: the Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, Mass., 2010)

The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2015; paperback 2017)

The Scriptural Universe of Early Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017)

He is the co-editor, with Adam Silverstein, of The Oxford Handbook of the Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2015; paperback 2018).

Religions d’Abraham: Histoires croisées (Geneva, 2017)


© Guy Stroumsa, 2017, with the exception of Chapter Two: © Continuum and Magnes, 1998 and Chapter One: Ben Zvi Institute and University of Texas Press, 200.

Cover image: The World in a Cloverleaf by Heinrich Bünting (1581)

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