Constantinian Authenticity: Mamre

In the May of 2013, through the kindness and generosity of my friend and deacon Gregory Wright, I visited the holy places in Palestine, fulfilling a lifetime dream. I went there with Deacon Gregory not so much as a tourist, but as an historical pilgrim, following in the footsteps of fellow-believers like Egeria, a woman who visited some of the same holy places in the fourth century and who left a written record of her pilgrimage.

That is, I went there not so much to visit the current tourist sites as to discover the now covered over Byzantine sites that Egeria would have visited in the fourth century, and through them, to encounter the authentic sites of the first century. It was a lot of work, but I was not disappointed. The result of my visitation and pilgrimage was reduced to a book, entitled Following Egeria (available early March through Conciliar Press).

Thus I was all the more interested to find a book by Joan E. Taylor, in which she discourses on the authenticity (or inauthenticity) of many of the sites Deacon Gregory and I visited. Her scholarly book is entitled Christians and the Holy Places: the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press.

Given the title, one may correctly imagine that Ms. Taylor takes a rather jaundiced view of the authenticity of the holy places immortalized by the architecture of Constantine. She writes a fascinating book—and an expensive one ($141 through Amazon). I may add that I did not order the book through Amazon, but read it through a blessed inter-library loan. I owe Ms. Taylor a debt of gratitude for writing such an interesting book. Nonetheless, I disagree with many of her conclusions (making me all the more happy that I did not shell out the money for the volume), and here would like to argue for the authenticity of the Constantinian sites she dismisses as unhistorical. In doing so I have in mind the countless pilgrims who have trusted the historical sense of the Byzantine Church and who have visited these sites in innocent confidence that the Church was not deceiving them in offering these geographical locations as authentic topoi or places where the holy and Biblical events actually occurred. Ms. Taylor mentioned a number of Constantinian sites. The first was Mamre.

As any astute reader of the Old Testament knows, Mamre recalls the oak or terebinth where Abraham first met his divine and angelic visitors, recorded in Genesis 18. It is located about two kilometers south of modern Hebron. The oak (or terebinth) was a holy place from time immemorial, and its location became the site of pilgrimage not for only Jewish and Christian readers of Genesis, but also of a number of pagans who occupied Palestine in the fourth century and before. The choice of Mamre as a site for pagan, Jewish, and Christian pilgrimage is shrouded in antiquity, and witnesses to the fact that the Jews were not the only inhabitants of Palestine, especially in the first century. (Sepphoris, for example, the capital of Galilee in the time of Christ, was an entirely pagan city.) Given the Biblical significance of Mamre in Genesis, Constantine built a shrine there, after writing a letter to the local bishops urging them to supplant the pagan pilgrimages to Mamre with Christian ones. The modest church built on the site was intended to restore the sanctity of the original Biblical site.

Ms. Taylor will have none of this. For her Constantine’s supplanting the pagan shrine was simply a part of his programme to replace pagan shrines throughout his empire with Christian ones, for “he wanted to removed paganism altogether” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 91). For her the Christians before Constantine more or less ignored this site: “There is no literary or archaeological evidence which would support the notion that it was a site sacred to Christians before Constantine” (ibid, p. 91). In talking about “literary or archaeological evidence before Constantine” one must be careful, since before Constantine Christianity was an illegal religion so that not much literary evidence remains of anything Christian. The Christians before Constantine had the sense to keep their heads down and their literary mouths shut. Expecting “literary evidence” for such liturgical and devotional minutiae as which sites the Christians regarded as sacred is hardly to be expected. But we know that they could read their Bibles as well as anyone, and thus if the local Christians knew of the sacred oak of Abraham near Hebron it was unlikely that they would have ignored it. If pagans and Jews held it in high regard, why would not Christians have done the same? They would be among those who visited the sacred tree, thinking of their God who revealed Himself to Abraham in a theophany in ancient days and later became incarnate through Jesus. But in the days prior to Constantine, they wouldn’t have left any “literary or archaeological evidence” of such devotion. Why would they—or come to that, how would they? It is therefore a bit thick of Ms. Taylor to write, “Christians had little to do with the area before the fourth century” (ibid, p. 92). Why would they not have visited the area, since Jews and even pagans did? And if they did visit the site, what sort of evidence would one expect them to leave?   A carved graffiti saying, “Kilroy the Christian was here”?

Ms. Taylor’s scepticism regarding the reliability of the rank and file Christian witness is one of the defining characteristics of her long and scholarly book. She writes out of a hermeneutic of suspicion, looking with a jaundiced eye at any ancient text suggesting that rank and file Christians had any historical sense or acumen. Her work reveals her presupposition that ancient Christians were culpably naïve and willing to accept any suggestion regardless of its credibility, and it is upon this rock, I suggest that her work founders. In the case of Mamre, there is no reason to suggest that Constantine erred or was simply pushing his own unwarranted and sinister agenda in building shrines over the places where venerable tradition or the local Christians testified to its ancient significance or authenticity. Unlike Ms. Taylor, I see no reason to doubt the common sense of our Christian ancestors, or to doubt that they possessed the desire to demand the same sort of historical proof that we would demand today.

Next time: a look at Taylor’s view of Bethlehem.

3 comments:

  1. It seems much of the academic community is dominated by figures who specialize in casting doubt on the ancient stories, pilgrimMage sites and devotions that underpin the Christian Faith especially as practiced by Orthodox, Catholics and Assyrians, that is to say, without the minimalism and rationalism one finds in Protestantism.

    I recall being incensed when reading a sermon an Anglican vicar posted on his blog where he attributed the mystical experiences of St. Anthony to hallucinations due to near starvation and dared to imply St. Anthony was mentally unstable. But he is a moderate, for Im sure waiting in the wings are scholars read to deny Anthony was a historical personage as opposed to some fiction of Athanasius or a fusion of several early hermits, et cetera. At some point one has to close the book on this lunacy, literally.

    I commend your decision not to buy that book by the way. I’ve long wanted a copy of The Five Gospels so I can critique it , but refuse to pay for it; even buying it used seems like it would benefit the authors.

  2. “I suggest that her work founders. In the case of Mamre…”
    did you mean flounders?

    The common belief within the non-believing liberal circles is that the official Christian church irradicated pagan practices by absorbing them into the Christian religion. -through coersion and sometimes force. Any and all light that can be shed on this from within the Orthodox Christians community is doing us a great service. I have often wanted to respond to these assumptions in a way that can shed light on the transformation that takes place when one becomes a Christian..

    Would you elaborate more on how you arrived at your conclusion: “I see no reason to doubt the common sense of our Christian ancestors….” and in general the authenticity and significance of our sacred sites.

    1. Lina: Thank you for your comments. In the piece I did indeed mean to say that Taylor’s argument “founders”–as in a ship foundering on the rocks (in this case, the rocks of her extreme and unwarranted scepticism). Regarding the common sense of our Christian ancestors, my feeling is that most of them were people rather like us, in that they wanted to connect the sacred narratives of Scripture with the geography they could touch, and that we have no reason to conclude that they were all completely stupid and incapable of asking for substantiating evidence. Gullible people of course can be found in all generations, but it seems unwarranted to conclude that antiquity was populated with nothing but gullible people. People are people, whenever and wherever they live.

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