The Holy Land is the setting for almost all of the Bible. Being in the Holy Land, then, is to be immersed in Scripture. GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER explains the Fifth Gospel.
The Holy Land, scene of most great events in the Bible, is sometimes referred to as the “Fifth Gospel”. It is a most evocative term, with the obvious caveat that one does not need to know this supplementary gospel to know, understand,love and live the other four.
Jesus the Redeemer and his apostles, and before them the prophets and kings of the Old Testament, walked on the soil of the Holy Land, breathed its air, ate its fruits. When the visitor to the Sea of Galilee – which is not a sea but a fairly compact lake – takes the opportunity to eat the tilapia zilli (or St Peter’s) fish, they are eating what Jesus ate, and what in his famous miracle he multiplied to feed the multitudes.
A Palestinian girl sells postcards to pilgrims in Cana, site of Jesus’ first public miracle. The appearance of local Palestinians in the Holy Land gives us an idea how Jesus and his family and disciples might have looked. Maybe the Blessed Virgin looked like this girl as a child. (Photos: Günther Simmermacher)
The Fifth Gospel is a wonderful guide to what we read in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in the Acts, and in the Old Testament. Knowing the context in which the events in the gospels took place brings them alive in a very special way.
As we look in the faces of the local Palestinians, we can in our mind cast the characters in the gospels. The old man drinking his Turkish coffee in Nazareth could be Joseph. The young teenage girl hawking souvenirs in Cana could be Mary. The group of thirtysomethings who animatedly discuss the latest news in Bethlehem could be the disciples. And Jesus? Well, he certainly was not the northern European fellow with blow-dried blond hair of some depictions! When the gospels report about Jesus coming to the town of Capernaum, they do not give us much information about the place. The Fifth Gospel – being in the Holy Land or reading about it – fills in the gaps.
Capernaum was a fishing town of some wealth, thanks to its location on the strategically important Via Maris trade route, which stretched from Egypt to Damascus. Capernaum and other towns in the vicinity, such as Magdala, made brisk trade in exporting fish products to the rest of the Roman Empire.
So, the Fifth Gospel teaches us that when Jesus invited Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen to join him, he wasn’t picking up some chancers from the boondocks, but selected quite successful business people in what was an important town in Galilee.
In Capernaum, as in many places in the Holy Land, we can make a physical connection with Jesus. Archaeologists have found what they are certain is Peter’s house. This is not the stuff of gullible pious legend, but the fruit of serious academic inquest.
The remains of a fourth-century synagogue in Capernaum built on the black basalt foundations of the synagogue in which Jesus most probably preached and healed (Jn 6:30-59).
The same archaeologists have also identified the first-century foundation of what probably was Capernaum’s only synagogue. In both places we can locate the historical, physical Jesus.
The Fifth Gospel also communicates how small the area of Jesus’ ministry really was. Most of it took place in an area that is smaller than northern Johannesburg.
Occasionally Jesus and his disciples would move further away. One such key excursion was to a place called Caesarea Philippi, along the Golan Heights in the north of Israel, about 40km from the Sea of Galilee.
There Jesus revealed to the disciples his mission. He asked them who the public thought he was – the public was hopelessly off the mark – and then he asked: ‘But you, who do you say I am?’ Peter got it right: ‘The Christ of God’ (Lk 9:18-27).
What the gospels don’t tell us, perhaps because the original audience knew it, is that at Caesarea Philippi there was a huge pagan temple dedicated to the god Pan. In fact, Jesus might have known the place as Caesarea Paneas, which is how the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius referred to it.
When we know about the temple to Pan at Caesarea Philippi, the setting of Jesus’ big revelation assumes a new symbolism. Pan, god of nature and of shepherds, is now obsolete, because there is a greater shepherd who by rising again will show himself to be the Master of all nature.
The symbolism doesn’t end there: Paneas is also the region of the two largest springs of the Jordan, the Banias and Dan springs. So it is at the springs of the life-giving river, the one in which he was baptised by his cousin John, that Jesus reveals his mission as the spring of the new life.
When we read about the pregnant Mary and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or about Jesus going from Galilee to Jerusalem, the gospels tell us very little about the conditions, distance and terrain.
The Fifth Gospel reveals that such journeys must have been unpleasant and dangerous. The terrain is mainly desert – not sandy like the Sahara, but rocky and mountainous. Because it was so desolate, it was brimming with bandits, especially during the pilgrimage seasons, when Jews were required to come to the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, he refers to a specific route: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is wilderness territory.
The wilderness in which Jesus spent 40 days and nights after his baptism. Jesus and the apostles traversed this kind of terrain when travelling to Jerusalem.
The day before he was murdered on April 4, 1968, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr “read” from the Fifth Gospel in his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech:
“I remember when Mrs King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife: ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass’. And, you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
Seeing the actual terrain deepened Dr King’s understanding of the parable which he already knew so well.
Knowing the Fifth Gospel is particularly helpful in making sense of the narratives set in Jerusalem. Unlike Galilee, Jesus would not recognise Jerusalem today, though he would know some structures that have been preserved intact from his time, such as the Tomb of Hezekiah at the foot of the Mount of Olives, to the east of the OId City.
He might not care to remember a flight of steps on Mount Zion, to the south of the OId City, which still exists. But there is no doubt that Jesus walked on these actual steps, which are adjacent to the church of St Peter in Gallicantu, which stands on what might have been the palace of the high priest Josephus Caiaphas.
Jesus would have taken these steps on his way to and from the Last Supper and on other visits to Mount Zion. And he would have been led up these steps in captivity, after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the foot of the Mount of OIives. Of course, Our Lady and the apostles would have walked on these same steps.
And that is the tantalising beauty of the Fifth Gospel: finding that physical connection with Jesus, with Mary, with the apostles. Seeing the house where Peter lived, the place where Mary drew water in Nazareth’s only well, the waters of the lake on which so much happened, or touching the place where Jesus was crucified – not as randomly appointed sites of irrational piety, but as places which historical and archaeological inquest confirms as almost definitely accurate.
The historical accuracy of many other places in the Holy Land remains subject to examination, and a few are doubtless randomly chosen. But even that does not matter much, because a pilgrimage is firstly a journey of faith.
Pilgrims pray on the Rock of the Agony in the church of All Nations, on which Jesus is said to have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest.
Next to the Garden of Gethsemane – in Jesus’ time an expansive olive grove, but now a small garden with a few olive trees that have regenerated over 2300 years – is the church of All Nations, a striking structure built from 1919-24. Inside the church, below the altar, is the white Rock of the Agony that is reputed to be the stone on which Jesus sat as he prayed the desperate plea to be spared his dreadful fate.
It is not important whether this is the actual rock. Even it isn’t, Our Lord bared his soul, with all its human fear, on a rock like it at a nearby spot. More than in any other place in the Holy Land – or, perhaps, anywhere in the world – it is here that Christians connect with their own torments and fears, and those of loved ones.
In places like the church of All Nations, the Fifth Gospel becomes an inextricable part of the pilgrim’s faith life, in ways even the four traditional gospels do not.
Günther Simmermacher’s book The Holy Land Trek is expected to be published in October 2012.