Christianity and the Middle East: Christians Face the Year 2000 in Different Ways

By Strickert, Fred | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Christianity and the Middle East: Christians Face the Year 2000 in Different Ways


Strickert, Fred, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


CHRISTIANITY AND THE MIDDLE EAST: Christians Face the Year 2000 in Different Ways

There is something intriguing about the fact that it is now 1999 AD. Calendars say something about who we are.

In the Jewish calendar, we have reached the year 5759, calculated from the traditional time of creation. In the Muslim calendar it is the year 1419, calculated from the migration of Muhammad to Medina. So it is only natural that Christians are calculating the years from the birth of Jesus Christ. Thus the current year 1999 AD. The turn of the calendar page signals the beginning of the countdown to the turn of the millennium.

Of course, historians would be quick to point out that human calculations are fallible, including our Gregorian Calendar. In reality, the sixth-century Dionysius Exiguus, who is responsible for the BC/AD designations, miscalculated the year of Jesus' birth, since King Herod of the Gospel infancy accounts actually died in 4 BC. Thus they figure Jesus' birth somewhere between 10 BC and 6 BC. In all likelihood, then, the 2000th anniversary of this birth passed without much fanfare earlier in the present decade.

Theologians would caution that those who place a lot of stock in the "magic" of the year 2000 may thus be disappointed. The designation AD for Anno Domini ("in the year of our Lord") is a reminder that God is the Lord of history and that time is not something to be manipulated.

Greek scholars will note that the Greek New Testament uses two distinct words for time: chronos and kairos.

To be sure, the Gospel writers were concerned with chronos, the regular calculation of time into measurable units of years, days, and weeks. They do speak of Jesus' birth occurring "in the days of Caesar Augustus."

Yet the earliest Christian writer, Paul, described the birth of Jesus as occurring "in the fullness of time." The term used here is not Chronos, but kairos, pointing to a decisive moment -- a significant opportunity for change and new directions.

Thus it is not inappropriate that various Christian groups are focusing their attention on the Middle East for the year 2000.

BETHLEHEM 2000

The Bethlehem community is engaging in a facelift for the birth city of Jesus in anticipation of four and a half million visitors next year. The Bethlehem 2000 Project has been established with the support of the Palestinian Authority to commemorate a 16-month celebration beginning on Christmas 1999 and culminating at Easter 2001.

While the year 1992 might have been a more accurate time for this celebration, it is to be remembered that Bethlehem was still under Israeli occupation and in the midst of the intifada. Thus the symbolic value of the year 2000 provides a kairos moment.

The tourist industry in Bethlehem has been preparing for this influx of visitors with new and renovated hotels, training courses for tour guides, and a major renovation of Manger Square.

The large open area adjacent to Justinian's Nativity Basilica has been used most recently as a parking lot for tour buses, resulting in a less than ideal aesthetic scene with bus fumes, traffic congestion, and hustling crowds of people. Under the current $12 million remodeling plan the square is being turned into a plaza with trees and water fountains. Since most visitors approach from the north, buildings on that end of the square are being razed to be replaced by a tourist center and museum. Most notable is the disappearance of the old police station, one last symbolic reminder of the days of occupation.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERY IN BETHLEHEM

This construction activity has led to a recent serendipitous discovery. Remains of a public building connected with the ancient church complex were found underneath the police station.

The excavation, under the direction of Hamdan Taha of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, has revealed a mosaic, two cisterns and two water tunnels. One cistern held a collection of Byzantine plates and five or six lamps. …

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