Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Holy City as a Scriptural Fantasy

Jerusalem is over 3,800 years old. The name appears in Egyptian execration texts, bowls or figurines with the names of enemies to be smashed in rites of sympathetic magic by priests concerned with protecting Egypt from encroachments from its northeastern borders. At just about the same time, which archeologists refer to as the Middle Bronze Age, we have evidence of monumental fortifications and a tower near the only source of perennial water that was the reason why someone built this city in the first place, on a narrow ridge, surrounded on three sides by steep valleys, in the southern central hill country of what the Egyptians called “the land of the retenu,” what the Bible calls the Land of Canaan, what since Roman times has been known as Palaestina or Palestine, and what Muslims, Jews, and Christians refer to as the Holy Land.

Uru-shalimum or Urusalim, meaning “Founded by Salem” or the evening star, is neither one of the world’s most ancient cities, such as Jericho (which goes back about 10,000 years), nor one that served as administrative center of a great empire, such as Babylon, Nineveh, Persepolis, or Rome; in fact it was repeatedly conquered or subjugated by competing civilizations, either because it was on their path to more desirable prizes or because its residents refused to pay tribute. It was twice completely destroyed, once by the Chaldeans or neo-Babylonians, and once by the Romans. In its place, the Romans built a military colony, which they called Aelia Capitolina, in honor of Hadrian. This should have been the end of Jerusalem. In the event, it was not Jewish irredentism but a curious turn within Roman civilization itself that led to the revival or, one might say, to the resurrection of the city in the 4th century CE.

I have been working on the history of Jerusalem as a symbol of the western Scriptural monotheisms. No city has been more thoroughly excavated and probably no city has attracted more attention from pilgrims, tourists, and scholars. Few other places stimulate similar competing popular sentiments. The question I am trying to answer is why we—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—care about the city the way we do. The answer, I believe, has to do with Scripture. Without Scripture, the Christian movement would have attached no significance to an erstwhile Jewish royal or temple city; without Christian attention to the complex meanings of the city in Scripture, Jerusalem would not have been excavated by Empress Helena; without Constantine and his successors and their attention to the symbolic value of Jerusalem, Umayyad Caliph Abd Al Malik would not have chosen this mainstay of Christian Orthodoxy as the location of the first monumental building in the long and thenceforth distinguished history of Islamic architecture; without the scripturally motivated desire for reconquest stoked by Urban II, Jerusalem would not have been taken by the half-starving, half-frenzied Frankish knights in the bloodbath of the First Crusade; without the model of the Crusading Franks as their enemy and Jerusalem as their prize, the much divided Sunnis of Syria would not have united behind a jihad for the Holy City, accomplished by Salah-al-din; Suleiman the Magnificent, the new King Solomon, rebuilt the walls of Al Quds and invited Jews to settle in his realm because he, too, saw himself as the prince of peace and the manifestation of a scriptural order; without their Protestant Biblicism, the British would not have made Jerusalem the administrative capital of mandatory Palestine, drawn up along scriptural boundaries; and without its eschatological undertones, Israel’s capture of the Old City of Jerusalem and the “Temple Mount” in 1967 would not have turned into the ticking clock of an endtime scenario popularized by Jewish mystics and their Evangelical allies alike.

Scripture depicts what archeology tells us was a modest Iron Age hill fortress as the glorious capital of a “united kingdom” under David and Solomon; it is this kind of fantasy that has made Jerusalem the stumbling block for the nations that it is today. To be sure, Scripture is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for Jerusalem to rank centrally in the political design of communities, nations, and empires. Things are not that simple. What a Scripture is, how Scripture and politics interact, and how Jerusalem played into Jewish, Christian and Muslim imagination across the ages cannot be stated in a few words.

What is immediately clear however is that it may be necessary to understand the role of Scripture not only in the making of traditional attitudes toward the Holy City but of the role these attitudes, or fantasies, in the making of the modern political conflict.

What is astounding to those of us who came of age in the 1970s in an environment where it was taken for granted that religion was merely the vestige of the reactionary capitalism of the conservative 1950s, is that religion has returned to the front and center of national and international conflict across the globe. There is a growing realization that we must get used to the staying power of religious commitments. I venture to say that our liberal teachers failed to prepare us for this fundamentalist resurgence. We must therefore try to figure out ourselves, what gives religion this staying power and how to deal with the onslaught of the political theologies of the day.

When the Romans destroyed the Herodian temple of Jerusalem and eventually banished the Jews from living in its vicinity, they underestimated the power of memory and of a type of religion based on a major institution of memory that was both detached from city and temple and yet preserved the memory of city and temple across time and space. This institution is Scripture. It is the Jerusalem of Scripture, of the biblical writings preserved, studied, annotated, interpreted, and perpetuated by Jewish and Christian groups, that allowed the memory of the earlier Jerusalem not only to remain alive but to grow into the focus of intense apocalyptic expectations: Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the belief that Jerusalem is to be the location where the creator-god is to end the rule of injustice and establish a final dispensation, the reign of God on earth, accompanied by the resurrection of the dead, the punishment of the wicked, and the reward of the righteous. In this Scriptural fantasy, Jerusalem is the symbolic center of the earth, the location of divine rather than merely human judgment. This alone suffices to explain that any political compromise, any pluralistic and inclusive arrangement, and any sharing of souvereignty over the Holy City goes against the grain of the increasingly uncompromising fundamentalist factions among all three religious communities.

Seduced by Scripture, the Roman Empire itself was too weak to stem the tide of this powerful belief and in fact enhanced it by lending it the power and representation of the state. The transformation of Rome into Byzantion signifies the beginning of a political world dominated by Scriptural fantasies in which Jerusalem figures prominently as a kind of “exhibit A,” providing tangible evidence of divine providence.

Jerusalem would long since have been forgotten had it not been resurrected by the Roman Empire, which was the first in a succession of major political powers to utilize the remnants of a more ancient Jerusalem to create a shrine, a center of pilgrimage and worship, and a symbolic center of the earth that Rome itself no longer plausibly provided for the citizens of an empire largely centered in the east. If we understand this moment, when this earlier Jerusalem was excavated, if we understand the powers released by this resurrection of ancient Jerusalem, then, I believe, we understand what is going on in the Middle East today, where excavation of the biblical past has been the tool du jour for those staking a claim to legitimate ownership and justified rule.

Scripture provides the basis for shared assumptions that provide mechanisms of both inclusion and exclusion. Scripture provides sources of history grounded in divine volition and prophetic revelation. For moderns, Scripture provides a strong counter-model to nature as the ground of equality; it is used to establish and sharpen communal and national differences. In a post-secular world, which has seen a decline of classically modern political ideologies and utopias, Scripture has reemerged as a source of identity and orientation. Let me call this phenomenon the “re-religionization” (Moshe Zimmermann) of theo-politics by means of Scriptural fantasies.

My goal is to tell the story of this city in a way that does not already presuppose the valuations drawn from its Scriptural configurations. As historians, we aim to retrieve the openness of every historical moment. This is an elusive, fragile goal, because we always already presuppose the historical sources that were shaped by its outcome. Thus, any study focusing on Jerusalem is configured by the focus on Jerusalem that we inherit from our Scriptural traditions. Even the most seemingly neutral study of the ancient world of the southern Levant is therefore always fraught with predispositions, partisanships, distortions, polemics, and apolegetics.

My goal is not that of biblical history or archeology. Rather I am interested in identifying and understanding our received narratives for what they are, namely, imperatives formulated for the present or future of their authors in light of their historical experience. This implies partisanship rather than objectivity and interest rather than disinterest (the elusive goal of the modern historiographer). While this is true of every history based on existing historiography, in this case we are also dealing with the canonical or sacred history of the scriptural traditions (texts, interpretations, institutions) that received this ancient body of texts in a particular manner, formed in light of particular historical experiences and present interests that are in many way discontinuous with those of its predecessors and hence employ well-honed strategies (such as figurative interpretation; paraphrastic renarration; augmentation; etc.) that serve the goal of obfuscating difference.

Jerusalem’s late ancient resurrection and refashioning into a commemorative shrine to the truth of divine providence reveals something about how, and why, the symbols of monotheism work, and why they exert such a lasting influence on a large segment of the world’s population.

When I set out to write a book on Jerusalem, I did not anticipate the degree to which my work was to consist in deconstruction or, to use a less odious term, deflation.

I realized only gradually that the goal of my work is to engage the tacit assumptions and unquestioned presuppositions that guide not just policy makers but every ordinary Christian, Jew, and Muslim, and that make it so difficult for all of us to think afresh the question of the future of the Holy City.

Tacit assumptions work in the most extraordinary ways. This is true whether they’re consciously exploited or simply exert their influence as shared assumptions around which political and religious consensus crystallizes.

I approach the Holy City as a secularist, a skeptic, and a scholar of religion. As a secularist, I look at the religious attitudes people bring to the city of Jerusalem and I ask myself, why is it these people care about it the way they do. The object of my study, therefore, is not the city as such but the attitudes people bring to it and that make it what it is—to them. As a skeptic, I proceed from the assumption that we have no knowledge of essences, of things in themselves, such as God, for example. What we can have knowledge of must be the object of possible experience, as Kant might say. As a scholar of religion, I look at religious attitudes, and make them the subject of my study, trying if not to explain, then at least to understand what they are, where they come from, and, if possible, how they work.

There is an obvious utility to this approach in the case of a hotly contested site as Jerusalem, where religious and national sentiments are mixed in many ways and where disentangling the religious from the secular may be very much in order. In this context I find it extremely difficult to swallow really just one attitude, and that is the attitude of deference many well-meaning secularists and confessing unbelievers bring to the religious attitudes of others. Unbelievers often don’t consider themselves competent to judge believers. This is particularly dangerous in divided societies, and modern societies are generally divided rather than homogeneous in this respect, that is societies are divided between secular and religious, unbelievers and believers, but generally the argument of the believers is louder and more vigorous and presented with the tone of conviction, and hence commonly carries the day. As someone subscribing to the agenda of the Enlightenment I tend to believe that it matters to strengthen the voice of reason, i.e., the voice of skepticism, caution, moderation, and compromise. In this sense, I am not objective. I take a stand, in the classroom and in my writing on Jerusalem, in favor of reasonable compromise. The purpose of my entire teaching and writing on religion is to find a way of identifying the causes and the uses of radical belief, a belief I find equally dangerous among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is the self-righteousness and smugness of belief that bothers me, and, in the case of Jerusalem it is the political exploitation of belief that bothers me.

Does this approach lend itself to a resolution of the modern political conflict?
Radical solutions, such as flattening Jerusalem or banishing Scripture may be desirable but they may not be attainable. But we may be able to at least deflate some of the common assumptions by which religious claims acquire a degree of plausibility that can be exploited to evoke spontaneous assent even among basically secular or religiously moderate people. In other words, my hope is that by retelling the story of Jerusalem, I will make believers into skeptics, or at least sufficiently rattle the unacknowledged presuppositions of the moderates so as to persuade them that it might be alright to withhold one’s assent to the schemes of one’s more radical peers.


  1. I found your blog this morning, and I plan to add a link to my blogroll despite it not being foreign service related. I am an archaeologist who served in Jerusalem as a Foreign Service Officer, so your blog appeals to me on several levels.