Jerusalem, Center of the Earth? 

Part Two: The Unforeseen Endgame

Jerusalem—from navel of the earth, to backwater, to religious and military trophy, to far-flung curiosity. The history of the holy city has more ups and downs than the Judean hills in which the city sits. In Part 1 we reviewed the story from the birth of Christianity to the time of Europe’s Renaissance. Always, it seems, the city was in one way or another a focus of attention. And in the main it remained a pivotal game piece in the religious and political maneuverings of a world on the edge of the Enlightenment and beyond.

Pilgrims and Puritans

With the failure of the Christian-led Crusades to repossess Jerusalem during the Middle Ages, a curtain was drawn on the city for most of Europe. The Orthodox and Catholic communities, however, continued to support their missions there, especially those related to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Some pilgrims were able to visit the Holy Land and write of their experiences, but for Europe’s countries in general, physical distance and problems at home precluded continuing interest in the area.

Jerusalem held little attraction even for the most famous of Europe’s religious reformers. Martin Luther acknowledged the city’s value as a place of pilgrimage, along with Rome and Santiago de Compostella in Spain (the supposed burial place of the apostle James). But he refused to accept the popular idea that pilgrimages could be undertaken as a means of absolution of sins. Writing in his Table Talk early in 1537, Luther offered a rejoinder to those who sought to journey to such locations: “Now, however, we can go on true pilgrimages in faith, namely, when we diligently read the psalms, prophets, gospels, etc. Rather than walk about holy places we can thus pause at our thoughts, examine our heart, and visit the real promised land and paradise of eternal life.”

Luther’s ideas about Jerusalem were apparently more in harmony with the spiritualized city described by Origen and Augustine than with Constantine’s idea, which called for physically demanding pilgrimages.

But despite the reformer’s lack of enthusiasm, Jerusalem did not disappear altogether from Protestant interest. The Puritan fathers had fixed ideas about the city and its place in prophecy. Unlike the allegorical notions of the Catholic church fathers who had gone before, however, their views were literal. And rather than focus on Jerusalem as the place of Jesus’ death and burial, the Puritans envisaged the city as the place of His prophesied return and rulership.

This prophetic scenario also foresaw a role in the Holy Land for the exiled Jewish people. As lord protector of the republican Commonwealth between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England (they had been banned for almost 400 years). But that was not the limit of his interest in them. Along with fellow Puritans of the 17th century, including the poet John Milton, Cromwell believed that the “lost” tribes of Israel were destined to return to their promised land.

The same view existed across the Atlantic, where Roger Williams, founder of the colony of Rhode Island, also believed in the prophetic necessity of the restoration of Israel. Subsequently John Adams, as second president of the United States, disclosed that he, too, wished to see “the Jews again in Judea, an independent state.”

[Isaac] Newton penned a commentary on the Old Testament book of Daniel, in which he wrote of Jerusalem and the coming of the Antichrist.

Isaac Newton, best known for his work in physics, provided insight into the eschatological mood of his day by putting his own ideas on prophecy in detailed written form. Newton penned a commentary on the Old Testament book of Daniel, in which he wrote of Jerusalem and the coming of the Antichrist, as further outlined in the book of Revelation. In keeping with his Protestant perspective, he portrayed the Antichrist as the papacy.

Thus the stage was set for a view of Jerusalem that to this very day motivates evangelical and fundamentalist groups and shapes the political outlook of Britain and the United States regarding the Middle East. The return of Jews to Israel was simply a means of fulfilling prophecy so that the world could be made ready for the return of Jesus Christ. Much of the focus was on the Temple Mount, to which Christ would return and from which the world would be ruled. Embracing a view that paralleled Constantine’s synthesis of state and church, politicians began to feel the need to be involved in doing God’s work. This attitude was to take on new force in the years ahead.

Back to Jerusalem

As the 18th century came to an end, numerous writers in England speculated that the French revolution signaled the imminent failure of the papacy—a fulfillment of the prophesied overthrow of the false prophet of Revelation. Nothing of the kind happened, of course. Instead, the demise of the French monarchy allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to come to power. His failed adventures in Egypt and Palestine at the turn of the new century created conditions that Protestant theologians and clergy seized upon. Prophecy seemed to join forces with the politicians of the age to create a new dynamic in the life of Jerusalem.

Twenty years after Napoleon’s retreat from the eastern Mediterranean, the Egyptian Mamluks wrested control of Palestine and Syria from their Ottoman Turk relatives. In an attempt to gain support, they invited European diplomats and missionaries into Damascus and Jerusalem. Diplomatic and church missions were established hand in hand. The British government, which was to play a central role in the Middle East, was the first to establish a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem (in 1838). Lord Palmerston, as prime minister of Great Britain, was supportive of his nation’s involvement in plans for the Holy Land. He wrote in 1840 to one of his ambassadors about the interest among Jews throughout Europe in returning to Palestine. His observation predated the efforts of Theodor Herzl and the Zionist movement by several decades.

At around the same time, Protestant Prussia sought to join with Britain in establishing a religious center in Jerusalem to counter the influence of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as that of the Coptics and the Armenians. A joint Anglo-Prussian Protestant bishopric established in 1841 by the efforts of the kaiser and the British government was ultimately to founder, but it highlights the importance placed on Jerusalem at that time. Increasingly the land of ancient Israel came to be seen in prophetic terms in a way that it had not since the first two centuries after Christ. It became an important focus not only of churches but of governments. After all, politicians were churchmen, Protestant in the main, with an electorate whose religious interests were to be heard.

So eager were the Protestant churches to be established in the city that this actually led to a reinforcing of the Catholic and Orthodox groups as well. In 1845 the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem returned to the city from Constantinople, where it had been situated for centuries. The Latin patriarchate, always a French preserve, was restored two years later. Not to be outdone, the Russian Orthodox Church soon sent a resident bishop to Jerusalem to attend to its interests. Most European powers and the United States also established consulates in the city, and a wide range of Christian churches followed suit by establishing missions and institutions. The Ottomans at that point expelled the Egyptians from Palestine, but short-lived as Egyptian control of Jerusalem may have been, the returning rulers were unable to reverse the Egyptian open policy and remove the Europeans.

Focus on the Temple

Religious interest in the Holy Land was growing quickly in Britain and America. More missions were established to convert Jews to Christianity—Protestant missions, of course. Meanwhile the Zionist movement and the return of Jews to their homeland, having started as a purely political movement in the latter part of the 19th century in Europe, found support and willing allies in the evangelical wings of Protestant churches throughout Britain and America.

Protestant groups saw not only the return of the Jews but also the rebuilding of the temple as a necessary precursor of the return of Christ. 

But interest in the area had a focal point. Protestant groups saw not only the return of the Jews but also the rebuilding of the temple as a necessary precursor of the return of Christ. A survey of relevant books written in the 19th century attests to this view. So the Protestant Christian world joined its Muslim and Jewish equivalents in focusing on what is referred to as the Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sharif. Evangelical Protestants in Europe and America created an alliance with Zionists that far surpassed interest merely in a Jewish state. The Protestants envisaged a world center in Jerusalem emphasizing the Temple Mount.

Protestant messianic expectations thus augmented the Jews’ interest in Jerusalem and in their return to the land. Although orthodox rabbinic teaching since the second century had been that such a return would be accomplished by the Messiah, not by a physical ruler, Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer mobilized religious opinion with his view of two returns. The first, he said, was to be of a small group of pioneers to prepare the land in anticipation of the Messiah. So while Jewish and Christian interest in the area had a common ultimate goal—the coming of the Messiah—it was expressed in quite different terms and language.

Typical of the level of outside interest in the area was the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund by the Archbishop of York and others in June 1865. The purposes were purportedly not religious but scientific—an attempt to understand the Holy Land through archaeology; through an understanding of manners and customs; and through topography, geology and natural history. The society employed Captains Charles Warren and Charles Wilson to survey and map the land. Interestingly, one of the first areas of focus was Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount in particular. (Warren’s plans, drawings and photographs of the area remain to this day an outstanding collection of information. Studies such as these have been very beneficial for recontextualizing the Bible for people who are two millennia removed and whose lives are so culturally different from those of biblical times.)

Another example of the interest in Jerusalem and the desire for a Protestant focal point was the establishment of the Garden Tomb as the site of Jesus’ burial. In 1874, Conrad Schick published a paper in Germany describing the tomb. It was published in English the following year and quickly became a focus of Protestant interest. Within 10 years British general Charles Gordon proclaimed the tomb to be Jesus’ official burial site, with a nearby rocky outcrop being identified as Golgotha, the place of crucifixion. Subsequent archaeology, however, has shown that the tomb had been carved some seven centuries before Christ’s time and could therefore not be the newly hewn tomb described by the Gospel writers.

Fulfilling Prophecy?

When World War I broke out in the early part of the next century, the British assigned General Edmund Allenby to the Middle East. A fellow general showed him a book published in the 1880s titled The Jew and the Passion for Israel. It had enjoyed wide readership in Britain, having been reprinted seven times before the war (and several more afterward). In the book, author George Brooks predicted on the basis of chronology that Jerusalem would be delivered from Turkish rule in 1917. The idea fascinated Allenby, who began to view his own role in the Middle East in prophetic terms.

Through a series of strategic moves, Allenby’s forces moved closer to their goal: to free Jerusalem from Ottoman rule. Even the use of air power in the battle for Jerusalem was interpreted in light of biblical prophecy. This despite the fact that the aircraft did not make any substantive contribution to the campaign other than perhaps frightening the inhabitants of the city. Their use in terms of military strategy was a disaster. The British deployed 10 aircraft, five of which crashed with the resulting loss of their crews, and all for the destruction of one cow and the wounding of one man on the Mount of Olives. Yet the British saw it as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah: “As birds flying, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it” (Isaiah 31:5, King James Version).

Such unfortunate episodes notwithstanding, the keys to Jerusalem were handed to Allenby’s forces on December 9, 1917. The general himself entered the city two days later on foot (out of reverence for the city). When he was made a peer for his service to Britain, he took as his title “Viscount Allenby of Megiddo,” or Armageddon. This is the location named in Revelation as the gathering place for the final battle between Christ and the forces of this world, led by the Antichrist. Allenby’s chosen title is a further indication that he saw his role in terms of Bible prophecy.

Interestingly British prime minister David Lloyd George had promised the British populace that Jerusalem would be released from Turkish rule by Christmas 1917. Was he motivated by the same prophecy as Allenby, or was it pure political grandstanding? The former is more likely the case, as Lloyd George, like others in his cabinet, had been raised with a deep awareness of the Bible and prophecy. They viewed their involvement in Jerusalem in particular and Palestine generally as doing “the Lord’s work.”

Religiously Motivated

The 1917 Balfour Declaration gave British government support to Zionists for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Regarding that historic declaration, historian David Fromkin states in A Peace to End All Peace: “Biblical prophecy was the first and most enduring of the many motives that led Britons to want to restore the Jews to Zion.”

Biblical prophecy was the first and most enduring of the many motives that led Britons to want to restore the Jews to Zion.”

David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace

The same sentiment was evident on the other side of the Atlantic, where President Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian clergyman, expressed his delight in being able to help the Jews return to rebuild the land of ancient Israel.

In 1947, the basis for a Jewish state in Palestine was established by United Nations resolution. In the subsequent fighting between Arabs and the Jewish community in Palestine, West Jerusalem came under Jewish control, though not the Old City or the Temple Mount. They came under the control of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan until the 1967 Six Day War. But the change in possession of the city in 1967 did not diminish the view of Jerusalem as the center of the world. The Jewish focus was, as it had always been, the Temple Mount, an area also holy to Islam. And it remained the focus of evangelical attention as well. A resurgence in Protestant interest in Jerusalem is evident with the emergence of groups such as “Jews for Jesus.” Messianic Judaism—a misnamed Christian endeavor among Jews—has also developed, especially in the English-speaking world.

Among both Jewish and Christian groups, there is a continuing and growing interest in the rebuilding of a temple as a necessary precondition for the coming of the Messiah. An example of this is the Mitzpe Yericho settlement, where Jewish activists are preparing by training priests in a model of the yet-to-be-built temple. In 1997, a group known as the Temple Mount Faithful attempted to place a foundation stone for the new temple on the Temple Mount. Their efforts were blocked by the Israeli government and courts, who well appreciated the political outcome of such a move. The stone is now located, unmarked, in front of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem as a silent reminder of the common aim of some people in both countries. Each year a further attempt is made to place the stone on the Temple Mount, and each year the issue is revisited in the courts with the same result. Also ongoing are efforts to locate the exact site of the original temple to determine whether it could be rebuilt without violating the Haram’s Muslim shrines. The Islamic world watches in a state of unease, eager to defend its interests.

Helping God Help Jerusalem

What drives this multilateral fervor for Jerusalem?

Jerusalem is unique in that “most of its memories were Jewish, but . . . these Jewish memories became Christian, and Christian and Jewish memories became Muslim,” writes Oleg Grabar in “Space and Holiness in Medieval Jerusalem.”

But these memories have been augmented by a seemingly inbred desire to help God accomplish His goals. Yes, the Bible does talk about the return of Christ to the Mount of Olives and a new temple being established at Jerusalem. It also speaks of Jerusalem being the center of administration for the entire world (Isaiah 2:1–4). But it shows such events coming about as the result of nonhuman intervention. In fact, it says that people and their governments will oppose God’s intentions in the area rather than support them (Zechariah 14:2).

Scholars, no less than believers, impose their own mental map on Jerusalem, shaping it and changing it according to ideas and dreams.” 

Ora Limor of the Open University of Israel

Reviewing a 1999 book titled Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity and Islam (edited by Lee Levine), Ora Limor of the Open University of Israel concludes: “Scholars, no less than believers, impose their own mental map on Jerusalem, shaping it and changing it according to ideas and dreams. The strongest impression gained from reading this volume is: To each his or her Jerusalem.”

Limor’s summary suggests a caution. Are the “ideas and dreams” of generations of people, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, really in accord with God’s intentions for Jerusalem, or are they shaped by their own misunderstandings? Are their ideas any more sound than those of Constantine or the supporters of Bar Kokhba?

The God whom Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to worship provides a warning about involvement in Jerusalem: “See, I am about to make Jerusalem a cup of reeling for all the surrounding peoples; it will be against Judah also in the siege against Jerusalem. On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it shall grievously hurt themselves. And all the nations of the earth shall come together against it” (Zechariah 12:2–3, New Revised Standard Version).

Is it possible that people are so intent on accomplishing their view of God’s work on earth that they fail to see that they’re out of sync with His plan for Jerusalem? The city’s history is replete with people—kings and bishops and pawns alike—caught up in a game of strategy: how to maneuver the pieces into position so as to bring about their own view of God’s purpose.

Coming to see Jerusalem’s centrality from a Godly perspective remains the greater challenge.