Jerusalem, Center of the Earth?

Part One

Jerusalem was the birthplace of the Church: Jesus had instructed His disciples to wait in the city until they received the Holy Spirit, which was sent to them on the Day of Pentecost, some 50 days after they had witnessed the betrayal and death of their leader.

Eventually the mission which the 12 apostles undertook carried them beyond Jerusalem, but the city always served as a focal point for the early Church. They returned there for a key conference, as recorded in the book of Acts, and it was to Jerusalem that the apostle Paul traveled with famine relief collected in Asia Minor. Acts also records that Paul was in Jerusalem when he was arrested and began his journey to appeal to Caesar in Rome.

The destruction of the holy city by Roman forces in 70 C.E. brought a fundamental change, however. The Church had fled the city before its destruction, relocating to a place east of the Jordan River called Pella. After the war, Jerusalem would never be quite the same again. The temple, the focus of the Jewish religion, had been destroyed.

By this time most of the original apostles had died through martyrdom, and only the apostle John remained. In penning his Gospel account after the destruction of Jerusalem, John recounted the now seemingly prophetic words of Jesus to the woman at Jacob’s Well at Sychar (today’s West Bank town of Nablus). The true worship of God, Jesus had said, was not to be limited to an edifice such as the temple. True worship was to be “in spirit and truth” (John 4: 21–24).

That changed focus had become the teaching and practice of the Church over the decades since the death of Christ. While the temple stood, it had served as a house of prayer for all people but not as a holy place for His followers. They had no holy places—no churches, no temples, no basilicas. Instead, their faith had to be lived on a daily basis, irrespective of where they were. The body and mind of the individual were to be the holy space. The individual was now the true temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Yet Jerusalem and the temple were not completely forgotten. The apostle John spoke of a new Jerusalem in the Apocalypse, commonly referred to as the book of Revelation. That new city, he said, was with God and was to come to the earth at a future time. In writing about the New Jerusalem, John was building on prophecies given through Ezekiel, which stated that Jerusalem would ultimately be ruled by the Messiah.

Downgraded and Downtrodden

Even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, a small Jewish community continued to operate there. These Jews eagerly anticipated the time when the physical temple would be rebuilt by the Messiah. They waited, therefore, for the appearance of the Messiah. And in fact some, including a leading rabbi, Akiva (ca. 60–135), believed that he had arrived in the second century in the person of Simon Bar Kokhba, who led a fierce revolt against the Romans from 132–135 C.E. But the insurrection was defeated by Emperor Hadrian, with the result that Jews were banned from Jerusalem and the Jewish rabbis taught that the Messiah could not be a human being.

Jerusalem became a backwater of the empire. Even church historian Eusebius (264–339), who was the bishop of Caesarea less than 75 miles from Jerusalem, showed little interest in the city in his early writings.

His initial view was probably shaped by another resident of Caesarea, Origen, who had settled there in the 230s and had helped develop the library for which the city was well known throughout the ancient world. Origen’s view, fueled by his penchant for allegorical interpretation, was that Jerusalem was purely spiritual. No prophetic reference to Jerusalem or the Holy Land was to be read or understood as relating to a physical place, he said, but rather to a spiritual city and country. He rejected the idea of messianism as held by Jews and some Christians, who believed that the Messiah would return to a physical Jerusalem. For the most part, the Christian world evinced little interest in the city, while Jews weren’t even permitted to enter except on one day a year—the ninth day of the Hebrew month Ab—to remember the destruction of the temple.

The Christian world evinced little interest in the city, while Jews weren’t even permitted to enter except on one day a year. 

Eusebius, for his part, claimed that the name of the city had been almost lost in the Roman world. To back up his assertion, he recorded the case of a magistrate in Caesarea who did not know of the location of Jerusalem. It should not be surprising, however, that a magistrate, who was most likely a pagan, lacked knowledge of an insignificant town in the hinterland. Besides, it had been called Aelia Capitolina by the Romans since 130 when Hadrian had decreed to rebuild the city, sparking the Bar Kokhba revolt.

The Navel of the Earth

For both Eusebius and Jerusalem, change began with the Roman emperor Constantine, who had been a follower of Apollo before his apparent conversion to Christianity. The pagan world’s center, Delphi, was the seat of Apollo and had been considered the omphalos (or navel) of the world by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Constantine had been told by an Apollonian oracle that Christians were interfering with the oracle’s ability to foretell the future. Constantine interpreted this to signify that Christianity had replaced Delphi and its famed oracle. He decided that his new religion, now the official religion of the state, should establish a new center. The religious center would be Jerusalem, while Constantinople, to which Constantine transferred all the wealth of Delphi, would replace Rome as the administrative center. And Apollo’s statue from Delphi would grace Constantinople’s civic square.

In the meantime Eusebius, who in a flush of newfound messianic zeal had come to believe that the advent of a Christian emperor heralded the messianic age, discarded his previous views as shaped by the arguments of Origen. He now proclaimed that Constantine’s decision amounted to the building of the New Jerusalem, and he viewed the emperor’s directive to construct the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the city as a validation of this understanding.

This New Jerusalem, the new center or omphalos of the earth, was to be distinct from everything that Jerusalem had been before. Constantine envisioned Christianity as a universal religion that would supplant both paganism and Judaism. The new basilica was therefore to be built on the site of a pagan temple that had been erected on the orders of Hadrian but that was now to be purged of its past. All the soil and accumulations of two centuries were to be removed from the site and the underlying bedrock used as the foundation of the new building, the location of which the emperor declared to be Golgotha, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, based on his mother’s assertion to that effect.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, and his mother-in-law, Eutropia, made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Helena’s was unlike any later pilgrimage in that it really was no less than an imperial state visit in which the power of the emperor was clearly on display for all to see, with Helena acting as a regent for her son. Such a tour was an opportunity for the emperor, or in this case his dowager mother, to declare to the inhabitants of the empire how life should be seen from the emperor’s perspective. It was the chance for an emperor to shape his empire. Previous imperial tours had resulted in public works and pagan temples being built. Helena’s did likewise, except that for her, the locating of venues for all principal events surrounding the life of Christ became the order of the day. Such sites became locations for the building of churches and shrines, so that Jerusalem came to be a city of churches, chief among them the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The use of a pagan site for a basilica was a complete departure from Judaism and the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures, which still focused attention on the Temple Mount. That, however, according to the developing Roman church, was the Old Jerusalem. Like the decrees from the Council of Nicea, which forbade Christians from reckoning Easter according to the date of the annual Passover and established a new means of calculating important dates, Constantine’s aim in Jerusalem was to create a new concept of sacred places. And so the church, by the power of the emperor, can be said to have assumed control over both sacred time and space within the empire.

Constantine’s aim in Jerusalem was to create a new concept of sacred places. 

One result of this new approach to Jerusalem was that Roman Christianity now felt a sense of power over Jews, which they exercised by continuing the earlier pagan ban on Jews entering Jerusalem. However, Christianity still owed something to its Jewish antecedents. After all, the church itself had arisen from among the Jewish people. In addition, the New Testament spoke of a heavenly temple, the description of which had formed the basis of the temple destroyed some 250 years earlier. This, Constantine felt, should also influence the design of the new basilica.

What was more, the location of the pagan temple was such that it would be possible to establish a direct line of sight from inside the new basilica across the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, the point of Jesus Christ’s departure and of his prophesied return. (It should be noted that the present layout of the Holy Sepulcher is not that of the original building. Numerous earthquakes and wars over the centuries have led to considerable rebuilding.) In this way, the thinking went, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could emulate the past relationship between the Holy Place in the temple and the Mount of Olives: the high priest at the temple could be signaled from the Mount of Olives that the scapegoat had been destroyed in the wilderness and that the sin offerings had been burned outside the city on the Day of Atonement. As Constantine saw it, the priesthood in this new building would take the place of the high priest in the Jewish temple; they would now be the priesthood of God.

Old and New Emphases

A basis for thinking of Jerusalem as the center or focal point of the world had been established centuries before the time of Constantine. The prophet Ezekiel had spoken of Israel, and by extension Jerusalem, as “the center of the earth” (Ezekiel 38:12, New American Standard Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and others) at a future time under the rule of the Messiah. In the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures, this was translated as omphalos. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote in Greek, referred to Jerusalem in the same manner (Wars of the Jews 3.3.5).

Further, Jewish thinking propounded that the Temple Mount was the first part of God’s creation as well as the site of Adam’s creation. Such notions were complemented by Christian ideas that Adam had also been buried at Golgotha and hence lay interred beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Several centuries later, when Muslims laid claim to Jerusalem, they adopted similar ideas as to the importance of Jerusalem in the order of creation as part of their own justification for the religious significance of the site.

This new emphasis on Jerusalem, combined with the imperial visits of Helena and Eutropia, reignited the practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which had in the meantime become known again by its traditional name. It was a new Jerusalem and therefore seemed worthy of consideration by the Christian world.

But all did not go quite as the Christian community might have wished. Later in the fourth century, a new emperor came to the throne. He is known to history as Julian the Apostate, so called because he wished to turn the Roman Empire back to its pagan roots.

[Julian the Apostate] did see the city as useful in fulfilling one aspect of his own imperial scheme. 

As might be expected, his views of Jerusalem were entirely different from Constantine’s, though he did see the city as useful in fulfilling one aspect of his own imperial scheme. Though Julian had no great interest in the Jews per se, he understood that the Jewish religion was based on a temple in which sacrifices were to be offered. He wished to see pagan sacrifices to the emperor reinstated, and he saw the Jews and their temple as a useful vehicle to that end, though of course he did not disclose this view publicly. To the consternation of the Christian world, Jews were accordingly granted permission to reenter and live in the city and to rebuild the temple, with imperial assistance, for the purpose of reestablishing a sacrificial system.

Julian did not live long enough to bring his plan to fruition, however. He was killed in the East later in the year. To the delight of the Christian community, his successor, Jovian, claimed Christianity as his religion; to the chagrin of the Jewish community, the building of the temple was stopped. Jews were once again forbidden to enter the city except on the ninth of Ab. This outcome reinforced the teaching that only the Messiah, not men—even emperors—could rebuild the temple.

The Christian New Jerusalem was safe for the present, resuming its place as the center of the world.

More Changes

By the end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was divided, with the East retaining Constantinople as capital and the West looking once again to Rome. Both recognized the pope as religious head, but increasingly, differences of opinion sprang up.

One such controversy centered on Jerusalem. Rome’s fall to the forces of Alaric I in 410, leading to Augustine’s celebrated work, The City of God, changed opinions once again about the necessity of New Jerusalem on earth. The Western empire, where Augustine was influential, downplayed Jerusalem’s importance as a physical place, but the city continued to be venerated in the East. Successive emperors of Byzantium therefore ensured that Jerusalem became a thoroughly Christian city in the Byzantine tradition. Religious edifices dominated the city, and monks and clerics became the principal inhabitants.

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, however, Jerusalem was engulfed in yet another religious movement that shook the world. Exhausted by its wars with Persia, during which Jerusalem was razed and over 60,000 Christian inhabitants were killed, the effete Byzantine Empire allowed a political vacuum to develop in the Holy Land, which Islam quickly filled. Driven by the claims of Muhammad’s night visit to Jerusalem, the forces of the caliph Omar, a successor to Muhammad, encircled and took the city in 637/38.

The Muslim view of Jerusalem was very different from the Christian view. Like that of Judaism, it focused on the Temple Mount—the site of temples built by Solomon and Herod—though for reasons of its own. As such it promoted the “old” Jerusalem at the expense of the “new.” The disdainful Christian view of the Temple Mount as a Jewish holy place, which had resulted in it being used as a dump site, created the first of many animosities between Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem.

The Muslim view of Jerusalem was very different from the Christian view. Like that of Judaism, it focused on the Temple Mount. 

Toward the end of the seventh century, plans were under way to build what we now know as the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic edifice to challenge the beauty of Christian buildings in Jerusalem. The rock over which the Dome was built quickly acquired the same status as the tomb known as the Holy Sepulcher. With Muslims in control of the city, this Islamic shrine was now to be viewed as the center of the earth.

Though the omphalos had shifted less than a mile, the consequences were to be earthshaking.

Holy War, Unholy Peace

During the next four centuries, an uneasy relationship existed between the two religious entities in Jerusalem. Disputes arose over the size of domes on religious buildings: Christian buildings were not to be larger or more elaborate than those of the Muslims. At one point the Muslims actually demolished the entire Church of the Holy Sepulcher, destroying the rock outcrop and cave that had been known as Golgotha and the tomb of Christ.

Jerusalem reflected the situation in the empire as a whole, with Muslim control encroaching even into Anatolia (present-day Turkey). In desperation, the emperor appealed to the pope for help to keep the Muslim “infidels” away from Constantinople.

Rome responded, but not in the way the emperor had hoped. Pope Urban’s concern was for Jerusalem rather than Constantinople, possibly as a means of reuniting the church following the schism in the church in 1054. Muslim control of Jerusalem and the perceived influence they had over Christian holy places was too great for Europe to ignore. Summoning the nobles of Europe, the pope called for the first of several crusades to free the holy places, even though in reality the holy places were seldom challenged by the Muslim presence.

The Crusades led to the fall of Jerusalem to European forces and the eradication of Muslim life there. A period of almost a hundred years of European control of the city followed. Rather than focusing on the site of the Holy Sepulcher and other traditional Christian holy sites, however, the Crusaders focused on the Temple Mount and turned the Dome of the Rock into a Christian shrine, mistakenly assuming it to be a remnant of Herod’s temple.

Eventually the Crusaders did rebuild the previously destroyed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the city took on a Romanesque architectural air. But European religious zeal could not compensate for the long lines of communication to and from Europe, nor for the power and energy of the Muslim empire. So the Crusaders were driven back from their New Jerusalem. Christian communities remaining in the city settled down to endure the long night of Muslim rule.

The control of Jerusalem by the Muslim Ottoman empire over the following centuries coincided with changes in Europe. The Renaissance created an entirely new view of the world, shaped by rationalism rather than spirituality. Western Europe once again lost interest in Jerusalem as a spiritual center. It became a curiosity to Europeans, a place replete with antiquities with which to furnish museums and satisfy an interest in natural history and the growing field of anthropology.

But the 19th century brought the Middle East to Europe’s attention once more, this time from a geopolitical perspective. And in tandem with that interest developed a renewed religious interest in Jerusalem as the center of the world. Details of that interest and the consequences for us today will be covered in the next issue.