Discerning Fact from Fiction: Christianity’s Middle Eastern Heritage

I once owned a book series called Alice in Bibleland. It was a water-color illustrated set of 28 Bible stories, and starred a young blond girl named Alice who would sit in her window nook and read her magical Bible.[i] After opening the Bible, she would journey to the ancient, pastoral Bible-land. She met Jesus, Jonah, and baby Moses. Every time I opened the series as a little girl, my imagination was enlivened by a blond-haired Jesus walking through Jerusalem. Alongside Alice, I was transported into a fairy tale, witnessing ancient events in a land far away.

As for the real Bible-land, I—like many children— knew very little. As a Christian living in the post-9-11 era, I had a two-dimensional understanding of the true Holy Land. I conflated modern Israel with the biblical, imagined Israel I knew from my stories. My view of the Arab world was even more distorted, with familiar images of scorching deserts inhabited by barbaric nomads and zealots of a hostile, anti-Western, and anti-Christian religion. I did not know that there were Christians living in the Middle East, and was hardly aware that it was the setting of my cherished Bible stories.

I eventually visited the real Bible-land—the Palestinian West Bank and the modern state of Israel. My trips to the Holy Land have enriched my Christian experience in many ways, but it has more importantly replaced my imagined Bible-land images with the truth. By uncovering the true Middle East, I have noticed a complex diversity that many in the West are blind to. In Bethlehem, Sunday morning church is followed by a bustling market where the Christian and Muslim communities mix. Cathedrals that commemorate important Christian sites are full of pilgrims, some of which are tended by Muslims. For instance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, commemorating Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, is opened and closed each day by two Muslim families who live in Jerusalem.

Most importantly, however, going to the Holy Land helped me better understand the story of Christ, thereby strengthening my own spiritual connection to it. My trip led me to adopt two conclusions. First, the Western-Christian imagination has in many ways hijacked the Jesus story, and changed it into a distinctly Western narrative that deviates from the history and truth of the real biblical setting. Second, the geopolitics and realities of the Middle East, then and now, are crucial to grounding the Jesus story.

As a devoted Lutheran who grew up in the West, I do not deny the great contributions Western theologians have made to Christian doctrine. I also do not regret growing up with Western portrayals of Jesus. It was a portrayal that I, and many of my Christian peers, could relate to, and was especially useful for understanding biblical concepts at a young age. At the same time, the danger of this Westernization comes when imaginations and preferences downplay the role of the Middle East within Christian history. A mature understanding of Christianity and its scriptures must have a Middle Eastern reality in mind. The Bible was, after all, written about and by Middle Eastern people. More specifically, the Jesus story should be grounded in the Palestinian region, which encompasses modern Israel and the Palestinian territories, the strip of land stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.[ii]

In order to understand Christianity as a tradition rooted in the Middle East, there must be some recognition of the ways in which Western imaginations have negatively distorted that heritage. Two examples come to mind. The first is often referred to as “the tale of two tombs.” Today in East Jerusalem, two places claim to be Christ’s tomb. The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—a large Orthodox basilica that dates back 1,800 years and sits just inside Jerusalem’s old city walls. It is one of three churches Queen Helena—the mother of Emperor Constantine—had built in the Holy Land to commemorate the ascension, resurrection, and birth of Christ.[iii] It stands over the ancient historical site where the Romans crucified criminals—referred to as Golgotha, or “The Place of the Skull,” in Scripture. Inside the building is a covered tomb, which dates to the time of Christ and was new enough to fit the scriptural description of the tombs Joseph of Arimathea would have lent to Jesus.[iv] The research Queen Helena did for the early Christian church has stood as legitimate for centuries, and thousands of pilgrims visit the church each day.

However, an equally popular Christian tourist site in Israel is a place known as the Garden Tomb, which was discovered in the late 1800s during Protestant mission work in Palestine. It was identified by a military hero of the era, General Charles Gordon, as the true Golgotha.[v] The Garden Tomb is peaceful and quaint, exactly what one might imagine Joseph of Arimathea’s garden looked like on Easter morning. The site simply does not, however, have the archaeological legitimacy to back up these claims. Gabriel Barklay, writing for the Biblical Archaeology Review, concluded that Jesus was not buried at the Garden Tomb, since the burial cave “was first hewn in Iron Age II…[and] was not again used for burial purposes until the Byzantine period.”[vi]

Unfortunately, this evidence may not be enough to sway pilgrims. While reflecting on the Garden Tomb, anthropologist Glenn Bowman admits that “whether or not [pilgrims] are convinced that the Garden Tomb is the literal site…pilgrims assert that ‘it is easier to imagine Jesus here than inside that dark pile of stones they call the Holy Sepulchre.’”[vii] The very existence of this tomb, then, is a disregard for the respected history of the Sepulchre church in favor of Western-Christian imagination. It crosses the boundary between using an image for the sake of relating Christ to a different culture and erasing the truth of Christ’s own culture and history altogether.

Another egregious example of Western imagination overtaking the truth of history is in the popularized image of Jesus as white, with long flowing brown hair and beard. There is a legitimate argument that Jesus’ ethnicity does not matter, since he has been depicted by artists as other ethnicities, such as Asian, Latino, and African. This is a good way to make Jesus relatable to all believers. At the same time, the fact that the white Jesus is assumed and rigorously defended in popular Western culture reveals the extent to which this cultural practice has distorted Christ. When a forensic scientist used skulls from the Palestine of Jesus’ time to recreate his face, the outcome was something few Western Christians are likely to recognize as Jesus Christ.[viii] As Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb noted in the introduction to his book Faith in the Face of Empire, “Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew. If he were to travel through Western countries today, he would be ‘randomly’ pulled aside and his person and papers would be checked.”[ix]

While the white Jesus started as an innocent cultural practice, it soon became entangled with a popular style of thought in the West called “orientalism.” One of Edward Said’s definitions of orientalism is a school of thought “based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident.’”[x] Essentially, those in the Middle East and the Far East are irreconcilably different from those in the West. They do not think the same way—a concept that often leads to harmful stereotypes. The stereotype of barbaric, violent Arabs is one of them. From the beginnings of orientalism, the West has been pitted in an ideological battle against the East, and part of this was an ideological battle between Christianity and Islam. In earlier periods, Christian scholars, such as Dante, felt the need to delegitimize Mohammed and his followers, and the white Jesus became a symbol that stood in defiance to Mohammed.[xi] To those European Christians, Jesus is painted to look like them because he is like them. Mohammed is the East’s poor attempt at recreating what they had already achieved with Jesus. Today, that practice is seen through offensive cartoons and the vilification of Arabs in Hollywood. It is blind to the fact that, were Jesus and Mohammed to walk the earth together today, both of them would be treated equally by the TSA.

Throughout the 19th century, certain parts of Western-Christian orientalism expanded to include Judaism, particularly as the state of Israel was created. Despite Christianity’s complicated relationship with Judaism and anti-Semitism, modern Western Christianity has shown a remarkable degree of solidarity with the Jewish tradition. The popularization of the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition” shows the extent of this olive branch, and implies that there is an Abrahamic tradition which binds Jews and Christians together. The Judeo-Christian construct is an example of what Mitri Raheb identifies as “imperial theology,” the concept that a certain people has a divine right to a particular land.[xii] It parallels manifest destiny, and it is not exclusive to one culture or religion. It has especially existed in historic Palestine through centuries of occupation, from the Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire.

Modern Jewish and Christian Zionism is only the latest of these theories that apply manifest destiny to Israel, and is used “implicitly against the Palestinian people and within the context of the clash of civilization against Islam.”[xiii] Thus, for the sake of justifying Zionism, Arabs have become scapegoats. Islam is synonymous with terrorism while Israel is lauded as America’s greatest ally in the Middle East. Each year, Christian Zionists from Europe, the United States, and Asia gather in Jerusalem for the Tabernacle March; an annual parade to support the state of Israel in its struggle to complete biblical prophecy.[xiv] The sect of Christianity that feeds off this imperial theology believes that the Jewish people have a divine right to the Holy Land regardless of the cost. Unfortunately, this popular movement is harmful to Christianity in the Middle East today, ignores the history of the Middle East, and finds little grounding in Scripture.

Christian Zionism is steadfast in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and often cites Genesis 15:18 and 17:8 to support their beliefs: “To your descendants I give this land…the whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” Many Christian Zionists use this verse to show that the future borders of Israel must spread to the land of Canaan. They also advocate the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on Temple Mount, and therefore the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque which have stood as Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem since 690. This is, they believe, pre-ordained by God and excuses any action against Arabs—Christians included— performed by Israel.[xv]

Because modern adherents to imperial theology believe that God chose the Israeli government and endorsed all their actions, they ignore the human rights violations and terrorist attacks that are perpetrated against Christians in Palestine and Israel. In one instance, former President Jimmy Carter described a meeting he had with a Palestinian-Christian priest who suffered when the Israeli government began building a wall through his monastery’s land— effectively separating the congregation from their place of worship.[xvi] In another, a radical Jewish arson in 2015 burned the Church of the Multiplication on the Sea of Galilee, a typical event within a growing trend of church bombings, burnings, and vandalism over the past three years.[xvii] To add insult to injury, daily life for all Palestinians is unimaginably difficult to begin with.[xviii] By enforcing the narrative that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a Jewish-Muslim conflict, the West inadvertently adds to the cultural animosity against Muslims and ignores the complex relationship between politics and religion in the conflict.

On the contrary, reading the Jesus story from a Middle Eastern perspective sheds this conflict in a different light. By grounding Scripture in historical reality, there are clear parallels between first century Palestine and Palestine today. Mitri Raheb describes a particular instance waiting in line to cross the modern checkpoint from Bethlehem into East Jerusalem. The Bethlehem of today is surrounded on three sides by the Israeli separation wall, which, in the Bethlehem segment as well as various others around major Palestinian cities, is thick concrete and stands 32 feet high. Palestinians wishing to worship, work, visit family, or seek medical attention in Jerusalem must pass a congested checkpoint. They must obtain the proper permits (someone with a medical emergency, for instance, will not be permitted with a business permit), and queue outside the checkpoint for hours. It is common in this environment to hear loud cries of “Wenak ya Allah?”, meaning “Where are you, God?”[xix]

“Where are you, God?”, Raheb goes on to write, is a question that echoes throughout the Bible—through the exiles, returns, and laments of the ancient tribes of Israel, to the Roman occupation that was active when Jesus was born. Jesus was, in fact, the answer to that question. He arrived in Bethlehem, in a situation very similar to that of Bethlehem today. When Jesus was born, ancient Palestine was under Roman occupation. Today, the Palestinian territories are by international law under Israeli occupation, since their territory “has been seized by a state during armed conflict and is not part of that state’s sovereign territory.”[xx]

Of course, scrutinizing the actions of the Israeli government is not equivalent to criticizing the Jewish people as a whole. Vast historical anti-Semitism and moral injustices against the Jewish people are undeniable, which means that developing a posture of respect and maintaining Jewish right to sovereignty is still extremely important today. However, the many organizations that criticize the actions of Israeli governments throughout history suggest that the Israeli government has participated in many questionable practices. For instance, the Israeli Human Rights NGO, B’Tselem, points out that

Israel’s actions on the ground indicate that it apparently considers the West Bank part of its own sovereign territory: seizing lands, using natural resources and establishing permanent communities. Israel also evades its legal obligations to safeguard and uphold the human rights of Palestinian residents.[xxi]

There are interesting parallels between the current Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Roman occupation of ancient Palestine. The Roman Empire practiced actions that are common during political occupation; they utilized the resources of their subjects for the success of the occupation, built settlements on occupied land, levied taxes, and destroyed sacred buildings.[xxii] In fact, Jesus was born after his parents were forced to leave Nazareth due to a government-mandated census.[xxiii] It did not matter that Mary was a pregnant teenager and unfit to travel. Furthermore, Jesus’ family did not return to Nazareth right away; they spent two years in Bethlehem and then had to flee to Egypt because the Romans tried to massacre all the young boys in the area.[xxiv] Similarly, many children today are born in an occupied Bethlehem, and many of those children are born into one of two refugee camps within the little town. Because of wars and terrorism, thousands of children in the Middle East have been forced to flee their homes, just like Jesus and his family did thousands of years ago.

It was under this context of absolute pain, devastation, and hopelessness that God made himself present on earth. It was not in a triumphant glory that the ancient Jews and modern Christian Zionists imagined. It was in a setting as mundane as a shepherd’s cave, in a town occupied by a powerful military, and in a place that has been both holy and ravaged by war for most of human history. The Palestine of today is still, in many ways, the Palestine of Jesus’ time.

And this is why the West—Western Christians especially—must pay attention, because within a setting that is eerily similar to the one Jesus lived in is a reaction inspired by Christ’s own reaction. Mitri Raheb, for instance, founded the ecumenical organization called the “Diyar Consortium” in the West Bank. “Diyar” is the Arabic plural for home, and so he has established a number of homes for Palestinians to live a flourishing life through engagement with their own culture.[xxv]

A lesson often taught in Sunday school explains that the ancient Jews anticipated the coming Messiah for a long time. They thought he would be a big war hero, who would dismantle the oppressive Roman Empire and set up a new empire just for them. Their ideas of the Messiah blinded them to Jesus when he came. Jesus did not come to dismantle the occupiers in the way the Jews had expected; instead, he came to offer an alternative. The alternative was community in God and everlasting life; it was transcendence over occupation.[xxvi] Jesus posed neither a political nor a military threat to the Romans, yet his rhetoric was still dangerous enough to merit crucifixion.

The Diyar Consortium is not alone in its attempt to emulate that transcendence. A Palestinian-Christian organization called “Musalaha” (for the Arabic word meaning reconciliation) brings Israeli and Palestinian children together to facilitate friendship and understanding.[xxvii] While Syrian and Iraqi-Christians have struggled for survival against the Islamic State and have become refugees scattered throughout the world, they have held onto Christ. The film Victory in Christ, made by a Palestinian-Christian filmmaker, Elias Nawawieh, follows the stories of Iraqi-Christian refugees in Jordan, who recite Romans 8:31 as their stronghold through suffering. “If he is with us, who can be against us?” they cry out, knowing that God’s presence is in their midst.[xxviii]

All of these things do not mean that Western Christians need to burn children’s books or destroy centuries of Christian artwork. However, Christians do have the responsibility to draw a distinction between the imagined Bible-land and the true Holy Land that has housed Christianity for 2,000 years. This means turning away from imperial theology, and respecting the history and reality of Christians in the Middle East today. It means rejecting violent religious radicalism as it plagues all cultures and religions, and respecting Islam as part of a shared Abrahamic tradition alongside Christianity and Judaism. Christians do not need to erase centuries of tradition rooted in the West, but must recognize the East as a foundational part of its tradition, history, and future.

 

 

i. Alice Joyce Davidson, Alice in Bibleland (Nashville: C.R. Gibson Co, 1987).
ii. Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 55-56.
iii. Yaniv Belhassen, Kellee Caton, William P. Stewart, “The Search for Authenticity in the Pilgrim Experience,” Annals of Tourism Research 35, no. 3 (July 2008): 680.
iv. See Matthew 27: 59-60.
v. Gabriel Barkay, “The Garden Tomb: Was Jesus Buried Here?” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, no. 2 (Mar/Apr 1986): 40-53, 56-57.
vi. Barkay, 56.
vii. Glenn Bowman, “Christian ideology and the image of a holy land,” in Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, ed. John Eade, Michael J. Sallnow (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 117.
viii. Mike Fillon, “The Real Face of Jesus,” Popular Mechanics, 23 January 2015, <http:// www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/ a234/1282186/>.
ix. Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2014), 9.
x. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 2.
xi. Said, 68-70.
xii. Raheb, 67-69.
xiii. Raheb, 69.

xiv. Daniel K. Eisenbud, “Thousands of Christian Zionists flock to Jerusalem’s annual Tabernacle March,” The Jerusalem Post, 1 October 2015, <http:// www.jpost.com/Christian-News/Thousands-of- Christian-Zionists-flock-to-Jerusalems-annual- Tabernacle-March-419696>.
xv. Steven Sizer, “Christian Zionism: Justifying Apartheid in the Name of God,” Churchman 115, no. 2 (2001): 147-171.
xvi. Carter, 194.
xvii. Andrew Lawler, “Jewish Extremists Attacks Rattle Christians in the Holy Land,” National Geographic, 24 December 2015, <http://news. nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151224- israel-jewish-terrorism-arson-christian-church-multiplication/>.
xviii. Peter Beaumont, “Gaza Could Soon Become Uninhabitable, a UN Report Predicts,” The Guardian, 29 August 2016, <https://www. theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/gaza-becoming-uninhabitable-as-society-can-no-longer-support-itself-report>.
xix. Raheb, 72.
xx. “Israeli Occupation is Here to Stay,” B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, accessed 13 June 2016, <http://www.btselem.org/publications/47_year_ long_temporary_occupation/summary>.
xxi. “Israeli Occupation is Here to Stay.”
xxii. Raheb 59-63, 103.
xxiii. See Luke 2:1-5.
xxiv. See Matthew 2:1-18.
xxv. “Who We Are/About Bright Stars,” Bright Stars of Bethlehem, accessed 13 June 2016, <http:// brightstarsbethlehem.org/who-we-are/about-bright-stars#>.
xxvi. Raheb, 107-109.
xxvii. “Who We Are/About Musalaha,” Musalaha, accessed 29 August, 2016, <https://www.musalaha. org/who-we-are/>.
xxviii. Elias Nawawieh, Greg Williams, Victory in Christ, Documentary, directed by Greg Williams (2015; Jerusalem: Kings School of Media, 2015.), Online.

Sharidan Russell ’18 is from Polson, Montana. She is a double major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic Language & Literature.

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