Constantinian Authenticity: Eleona

As we have seen from previous posts, in her book Christians and the Holy Places: the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, Taylor argued that none of the churches which Constantine built in the Holy Land were erected on authentic sites—not the buildings in Mamre, Bethlehem, Golgotha or on the Mount of Olives. Since my trip to the Holy Land in 2013 (represented in my new book from Ancient Faith Publishing, Following Egeria), I was very interested in reading Taylor’s thoughts and attempted refutation of tradition. Here we examine her arguments about the Eleona church on the Mount of Olives.

It will be helpful to first examine the ancient claims for the authenticity of the Eleona church, which the ancients thought was built over the cave in which our Lord sat with His disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mk. 13:3), when He revealed to them the mysteries concerning the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the end of the world (recorded in Mt. 24, Mk. 13, and Lk. 21, the so-called “Olivet Discourse”).

In the early fourth century, Eusebius wrote in his Demonstration of the Gospel (6.18), these words: “Those who believe in Christ from all over the world come and congregate [in Jerusalem] to learn together the interpretation of the capture and devastation of Jerusalem, and that they may worship at the Mount of Olives, opposite the city. According to the common and received account, the feet of our Lord and Saviour truly stood upon the Mount of Olives at the cave that is shown there. On the ridge of the Mount of Olives He prayed and handed on to His disciples the mysteries of the end, and after this He made His ascension into heaven”. In his Life of Constantine (3, 43), Eusebius also writes as follows: “The emperor’s mother also raised up a stately edifice on the Mount of Olives in memory of the journey into heaven of the Saviour of all. She put up a sacred church on the ridge beside the summit of the whole Mount. Indeed a true report holds the Saviour to have initiated His disciples into secret mysteries in this very cave.”

Also we find the Acts of John, an apocryphal work written probably in the beginning of the third century. In this Gnostic work, John flees to the cave on the Mount of Olives where he has a vision of Jesus. The Acts of John is a strange work, one of a number of Gnostic texts produced by extremely heterodox communities that flourished during that time. How heterodox? The author of the work denies that Christ left footprints when He walked, since He was not truly incarnate. So: pretty heterodox, enough so that the mainline Church would have little to do with it.

Taylor fastens upon this last text, since it is earlier than the works of Eusebius and those who came after him. She takes the author of the Acts of John to be writing simple fiction out of whole cloth, with no historical reference, and she asserts that this story later became fixed in the minds of mainline (i.e. Orthodox) Christians, such as Eusebius and those living in the fourth century. For her the writer of the Acts of John imagined a cave and later Orthodox generations believed this story and imagined therefore that there must have been a genuine cave on the Mount of Olives where the Lord instructed His disciples. Thinking without justification that there must have been a cave, they fastened on one of the many caves in the Mount of Olives as the cave, and that is the cave to which Eusebius referred.   Thus the cave over which the Eleona church was built has no historical authenticity. It was simply one cave among many on the Mount of Olives, but there is no reason to think that our Lord ever was there, or that He taught in any cave on the Mount of Olives. The whole story, for Taylor, finds its origin in the unhistorical fiction of the Gnostic Acts of John which later Orthodox generations were stupid enough to regard as historical.

Once again Taylor presupposes as tremendous amount of gullibility on the part of the ancient Fathers. Even apart from this, it is extremely unlikely that Eusebius or anyone in the mainline Orthodox church in the third and fourth centuries would have given any credence to a work as weird and heretical as the Acts of John.   Taylor tries to blunt the Church’s violent opposition to such heretical groups by saying, “There was a less clearly defined dividing line between the two wings of the Church [i.e. Gnostic and Orthodox] at least among the mass of ordinary believers, than the chief theologians of the day would wish to concede’ (Taylor, op. cit., p. 147).

This is misleading in the extreme. Since the mid-second century, people such as Irenaeus drew a sharp dividing line between the mainline Church and the many Gnostic sects. Labelling the many Gnostics sects and the one great Church as “the two wings of the Church” is nonsense. In fact each of these “wings”—i.e. the single great Church and the many competing and mutually-contradictory Gnostics sects—detested each other, and had nothing to do with each other. Taylor’s rewrite of history is breathtaking. This mutual detestation between Gnostic and Orthodox makes it supremely unlikely that any text denying that the incarnate (or not-so-incarnate) Christ left footprints would be read in the Church as an authentic historical source. And anyway Eusebius does not trace the tradition regarding the cave to a single text, either Gnostic or Orthodox. He traces it to “a common and received account” which had spread to those “from all over the world”, and to “a true report”. That is, he traces it to received account from the common people of the area handed on by tradition that the Lord instructed His disciples in that cave, and it is on this basis that the Gnostic Acts of John used that bit for their story in the first place. For why else would the Gnostic author of the Acts of John thought of a cave as the site for the Olivet Discourse? For the Gospel account says nothing about a cave.   The reference to the cave in the Acts of John presupposes a prior tradition, which it used for its story, and which was preserved by later generations as “a true report” in the Orthodox Church. Making a fictitious Gnostic story the source of the cave locale presupposes not only a lacuna of popular memory, but also presupposes cosier relationship between the Gnostic sects and the mainline Church than we know existed.  There is therefore no reason so doubt Eusebius’ statement that the Eleona church was built over the same cave identified by earlier popular local witness.

As with Taylor’s mistrust of the local traditions preserved by faithful about the Mount of Olives, so her mistrust of local traditions regarding the Zion church in Jerusalem as the site of the original upper room, and the sites of Nazareth and Capernaum. In general Taylor believed that Christians before Constantine had no interest in visiting the holy places, even if they could somehow travel to Palestine. She also believes that by the time Christians did come to value holy sites in the fourth century, all local knowledge of their specific locales had been lost. As we have suggested, this is to assume that the conversion of Constantine and the opportunities presented to the Church by his conversion somehow worked a change in the hearts and emotions of all the Christians, who now for some reason wanted to find the holy places that their fathers and grandfathers had no interest in. This is quite unlikely. Far more likely is that the devotional interests of fourth century Christians would have been the same as those of their fathers and grandfathers, and that all Christians in the early centuries were interested in finding the exact places where Biblical events actually occurred if they could. Constantine’s conversion did not effect their hearts, just their opportunities.

There is also no reason to think that local people would have instantly forgotten the places where Christ lived and taught. The local church of the first century would have preserved such knowledge, and there is no reason to think that they would not have passed it along to their children and grandchildren as part of their church’s local heritage. In fact, that is just what we find when we examine the writings of the fourth century Fathers. They consistently make reference to local traditions preserved and handed on. It is really not so much of a stretch: if local people in (say) Oxford have preserved knowledge of which house C. S. Lewis lived in and which pub he frequented, why would not the locals of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Capernaum have done the same thing about the places lived in and frequented by Jesus?

Taylor’s work is flawed by her presupposition that locals did not in fact preserve this knowledge, and by her further lack of confidence that the Biblical events recorded as occurring there actually happened at all. Having presupposed this, she then takes the lack of reference to pilgrimage prior to Constantine as evidence that no one prior to Constantine even cared about the sites. But all that the lack of reference really proves is that Christians prior to Constantine were poor and under threat, and not likely to travel en masse to dangerous and foreign places. As soon as such travel became more feasible, they did travel en masse. This fourth century travel may therefore be taken as evidence of earlier desires to venerate the holy places. The Christian presence in the Holy Land was not strong there prior to Constantine. But it was unbroken, and this insured that local traditions of geographical authenticity would not be lost. They were there to build upon when Constantine came in the fourth century.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *