Recent Archaeological Finds in Jerusalem Related to the Early Church

By Boadt, Lawrence | The Catholic World, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Recent Archaeological Finds in Jerusalem Related to the Early Church


Boadt, Lawrence, The Catholic World


The Bible As History

The Bible contains a very large collection of books, some 72 in Roman Catholic editions, which range across a wide spectrum of literature: some are historical narratives, some poetry, some liturgical works, some laws, plus a few doomsday writings which we usually call "apocalyptic." In the New Testament two original forms appear: gospels and instructive letters. Together all these books tell a "story" of Israel and the first Christian community, because they reveal not only the historical periods which make up their own past, but also their thoughts, reflections, reactions to tragedy as well as success, and of course, their hopes and vision of reality. For the believer, the biblical text is the first and primary source for discovering who these ancestors of our faith really were. But, as other articles in this issue describe so clearly, there will always remain a gap between what we can understand from the Scriptures themselves and what we can learn from the historical facts of the past.

From the beginning, Christians were very interested in the historical evidences of their faith. It was very important to identify with actual apostles or to trace the line of bishops back to a specific event. Clement, usually held to be the third bishop of Rome, wrote to the Greek Christians in Corinth, about 96 A.D., and based his right to speak to them on the claim that he represented the church rounded by the apostles Peter and Paul. St. Luke, composing his Gospel and Acts of the Apostles a decade earlier, noted right at the start of both volumes that he searched out the events about Jesus' ministry as they were known (Lk 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-2).

The Urge to Pilgrimage

There is also evidence that pilgrims sought out the physical locations of biblical stories from very early times. The basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, for instance, is built over a cave which served as a house, and which is revered as the home of the Holy Family. On the walls of the cave and surrounding remains are etched various graffiti praising Mary and the Holy Family that must date back to visitors in the second century. We also know the famous story of how Queen Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, visited the Holy Land on a state visit about 325 to search out and identify the holiest places of the Gospels. When satisfied that she had found them, she built large basilicas at Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Mount of Olives (at the place of the ascension), and in Jerusalem over the site of Jesus' tomb. A few years later, about 333, an anonymous woman pilgrim of Bordeaux left a diary of her travels to the holy places, as did a pilgrim from Spain named Egeria, shortly after 400 A.D. Egeria herself records that the reason she visited the sacred places was to confirm her own faith in the truth of the Gospels by personal contact with the places where God had acted in human affairs.

This spirit has been a dynamic force in Christianity in all centuries. Much of the impetus of the crusades, and perhaps the violence that accompanied them, was motivated by desire to make the holy sites open to pilgrims. All of this stems from the fact that Judaism and Christianity are religious faiths rooted in specific historical moments that are remembered solemnly in our worship. Without a firm conviction in this historical event behind our proclamations of the Exodus from Egypt or the death and resurrection of Jesus, we would have little reason for confidence in the way our religions exist and theft most fundamental teachings.

Archaeology in Jerusalem

In recent years the growth of the city of Jerusalem and its suburbs, especially in the western and northern Jewish areas of the city, has required an almost ceaseless number of archaeological rescue missions--i.e., rushed examinations and quick excavations of sites that have been uncovered as roads were expanded or repaired, or new building projects dug down for their foundations to be laid. …

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