The Mount of Olives overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. Prophets would come up from the desert and crest the Mount of Olives before walking into the Jerusalem. The view is spectacular - but for prophets and pundits, there is no better place to cast a vision than from the Mount of Olives, and no better time than during Easter - especially this Easter, sandwiched between the release of the latest Gnostic Gospel, The Book of Judas, and the worldwide launch of The Da Vinci Code. Both pose an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a mystery: was the real message of Jesus co-opted when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire? Our pilgrimage to answer that question sheds more light on the human condition than on the religious one.
"Who do you think you are? A superstar? Well right you are!" - John Lennon, Instant Karma.
We begin our own journey down from the Mount of Olives in the capable guidance of Suzanne Pomeranz, an American from the Bible Belt who was raised in the Southern evangelical culture, emigrated to Israel, and has fallen in love with Jewish history and religion. She now spends much of her time in the Muslim areas, where most of the early Christian history lies - a religious trifecta worthy of the Old City.
The Mount used to be full of olive trees, and must have made quite a nice hideout for outcasts, outlaws and messiahs. Today the Mount seems mostly composed of dusty paths and religious monuments, including a very large Jewish graveyard - all on the Muslim side of Jerusalem. Where are the olive trees? When the future emperor Titus and his legions crested the Mount in 70 AD on their own pilgrimage - to suppress the Jewish revolt - they tore down the trees to give no avenue of escape for the zealots trapped in the Old City below. The city was taken and sacked, and trashed again 60 years later when Hadrian suppressed the second revolt. The Second Temple was razed, and left in rubble, leading to Apocalyptic scripture that the one of the signs of the Second Coming will be the rebuilding of the Temple. The anger of Titus may have been accentuated by the belief of Nero that this new Jewish sect called Christianity had started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. Fires broke out across the Empire on that day, which was the anniversary of an earlier Great Fire - a bit too much of a coincidence. The suppression of Christianity lasted another three centuries, and the Temple Mount remained in ruins.
When you read that Apocalyptic literature today, and especially the Book of Revelation, you wonder whether it is based on screeds circulated around 64 AD in a form of code, to coordinate those fires. Are all the fairly popular writings on the Second Coming, the Rapture and the Final Days actually misinterpretations of code designed to create the Second Coming back in 64 AD? Another riddle inside the mystery of the True Message of Christ.
When Emperor Constantine lifted the suppression of Christianity, his mother, Helena, already a devoted Christian, went to the Old City to look for the True Cross. She claims to have found it, along with many other indicia of the truth of the stories in the Gospels - stories then already 300 years old. A basilica was put on most of those spots, including at the top of the Mount of Olives, where now stands the Chapel of the Ascension, where Jesus was reported to have been when He ascended to Heaven after the Resurrection. The Chapel is one of several Ecumenical (all denomination) churches on the Mount, but in almost every case an additional church or two stand nearby - in this case the Russian Orthodox Tower of the Ascension, where Mary watched Jesus ascend to heaven. With the plethora of churches, have a first hint of the human condition that our journey will unveil.
From the basilica remnants, we briskly head down to the path down to the Garden of Gethsemane, trying to keep ahead of the tourist buses. We take a quick stop at the InterContinental hotel overlooking the Old City - a one-time favorite with an aging but still attractive style. This hotel and most of the surrounding area was built in the 1950s, and has a bit of a utilitarian Bauhaus feel. This hotel has seven dramatic arches facing the Old City, but rather than stylized they are stark white cement. We went in for some water, and found the place eerily empty and frayed for a one-time five star hotel. Apparently years ago Palestinian negotiators took it over, and the Western diplomats left for other hotels. We roused up some staff, got our bottled water, and rushed out to beat the mobs of oncoming tourists.
Below the hotel is a nice overlook above the Old City, and we paused for the first of several photo ops. A local entrepreneur with a Tourist Donkey came by. For a few shekels we got some nice pictures. Jesus rode into the city on Palm Sunday on a white donkey, consciously fulfilling a prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). As we left and went down the path, another nice photo op waited: looking back up, as the mobs of tourists arrived, behind the overlook were several power poles that looked like crosses on the hill. Many of the tourists were already looking a bit crucified in the heat.
Halfway down is the Dominus Flevit church, with remains of another Byzantine basilica still visible in the tile on the floor. After being kissed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken to this spot to begin the punishments of the Passion. The church frames a marvelous view of the Dome of the Rock and the Old City, and is surrounding by a few olive trees. A worthy place to sit in the shade and contemplate that day almost 2000 years ago, and the increasing religiosity of our age.
Nietzsche proclaimed that God Is Dead in 1882, and made predictions that it would result in terrible wars in the 20th Century (he was right), and a decline in values in the 21st Century (we shall see). As the fear of God's Punishment wanes, the fervor of religious politics increases. The true Y2K moment - the bimillennium celebration of the Passion - will be upon us during Holy Week in 2033. (While the birth date of Jesus is still disputed, stronger evidence places the Passion as April 1, 33 AD). Will we see an even larger movement towards fundamentalism as we approach that moment? Is this in the True Message of Jesus? As Garry Wills writes in his new book, What Jesus Meant, one of the clearest messages is that Jesus was not about politics. His reign was not of this world, as he told Pilate. He did not hang out just with the decent people, as the Religious Right is wont to do, but also with the outcasts of society. "As ye treat the least, so shall ye be judged." Nor did he lead an army, or opine on issues of the day, or field a slate of candidates. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."
As we leave the Dominus Flevit, we approach the Garden of Gethsemane. We step around a sad looking Tourist Camel near the entrance. which seems wholly out of place. Not doing much business, either. Next to the camel is another Ecumenical church, the Church of All Nations, and we wander in to see a somewhat dated interior, attempting to artistically show that night in the olive trees so many years ago. This church is built on a Crusader church, which was build on the original Byzantine basilica. And yet, as previously, one church is not enough. Nearby is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. Also nearby is yet another church, surrounded by a private olive grove. Thanks to our tour guide, Suzanne, we were let inside to get a feel for what the Garden looked like back then.
We enter the Old City, and proceed down the Via Dolarosa. At the end of our journey is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands over the spot of crucifixion of Good Friday, and the resurrection on Easter. The Church itself is a bit creepy - an architectural mess assembled by the Crusaders from the ruins of prior basilicas. In a sub-basement lies the remains of Queen Helena's original basilica, built on top of Hadrian's Temple of Aphrodite. In a little locked vault at the very bottom lies what may be the remains of that True Cross found by Helena in 325 AD. A bit amazing to think it still exists, let alone is the original. We asked, what does it look like? The answer: a toothpick. Where is the rest of it? Over the years, pilgrims would take a little bit back home with them, until almost nothing remains. How that toothpick survived is also a mystery, as the story goes that the Crusaders in Jerusalem took the little sliver with them for luck when out campaigning against Muslims. Their luck failed, but somehow the sliver survived.
Have we answered the mystery? Did the True Message get stolen and changed into something quite different by the Romans? We can certainly conclude that whatever the True Message was, it is not in The Da Vinci Code. A recent copyright case highlighted that the book is based on an earlier non-fiction book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which itself is partly based on a mysterious Frenchman's revelations of the Priory of Sion in the 1950s. That Frenchman has been exposed as a fraud, and his Priory of Sion tales debunked. What has benefited from the DVC is the reputation of Mary Magdelene, whom the Catholic Church painted as a prostitute, and is still often called the Whore of Jesus. No evidence for that, one of many examples of the crust and barnacles that get attached to the Ship of State over two millennia.
Nor is it likely in the Gnostic Gospels. They add a flavor to the message, but often verge on esoteric and fanciful. One can comb the Gnostic writings and pull out selected Gospels or passages, but this is likely more in fulfillment of current biases than God's message. This combing is indeed what the early church did. The canonical gospels were pretty well settled before the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine to unify Christian teaching, and stop the squabbling and political strife it caused in the Empire. Christianity was still a persecuted sect when the message was solidified. This is not to say the Romans, like the Catholic Church, didn't do great damage as a Christian Empire - 50 years after Constantine's conversion, the Emperor burned the pagan books in the Great Library of Alexandria, an incalculable loss of knowledge, and the Dark Ages were accelerated. The Gnostic Gospels can help us ameliorate the Statist views that have been added to the True Message, and return back to a focus on inner salvation, which seems more of what Jesus was about than enforcing Family Values, promulgating Faith-Based Policies, or pursuing various types of Inquisitions that simply squelch the inalienable right of freedom of thought.
Garry Wills may be closer. His Jesus would be hanging out with today's outcasts: gays, illegal immigrants, homeless; but he wouldn't be marching in Gay Pride parades, and walking on Washington for illegals. His mission was profoundly non-political.
What we did learn was a terrible insight into the human condition. What really happened to the True Cross? It is not too hard to imagine wealthy and self-satisfied pilgrims coming to see it, and slipping a few denarii to the Priest in charge to snip off just a bit of it. Over several hundred years of pilgrims, not much was left. In one of our other journeys to Jerusalem, we relearned the First Commandment: God is God, and You're Not. So easy to violate. Never mind the other millions of pilgrims - we are special enough to deserve that small piece of the Cross, or clever enough to bribe our way to it. Until it is gone.