A Visit to Jerusalem

“Of the temple and its glories ... there is very full description; but the indifference of the ancients to the picturesque, and even to topography, leaves us to construct for ourselves the Jerusalem of the gospel time.”

Everybody knows the general aspect of Jerusalem now. Ordnance surveys, societies for exploration, Sunday-school teachers, and artistic friends have brought pictures of it for those of us who live in these most remote corners; Jerusalem itself, be it remembered, being in the “middle of the world.” Indeed, such is the ease of travel now, that it is safe to take for granted, in any considerable assembly, that some one is present who has walked in the streets of Jerusalem, has seen the Jews weeping by its walls, and can describe from personal remembrance the Mosque of Omar.

This general aspect helps us in forming an idea of what it looked like eighteen hundred and fifty years ago, — of which, by misfortune, there is no description. Of the temple and its glories, as all readers know, there is very full description; but the indifference of the ancients to the picturesque, and even to topography, leaves us to construct for ourselves the Jerusalem of the gospel time. Still, the slopes of the hills are there; the olive-trees and the anemones and the cyclamens, with the rest of the spring vegetation, are there. The wood has been destroyed from the country generally by the ravages of Islam and Islam’s wars. But the neighborhood of a city as large as Jerusalem was then is never heavily wooded. The population of the city itself was then six or eight times what it is now. Such a population requires diligent farming and market gardening in the neighborhood. So that it is probable that the country around had more farm-houses and hamlets and other aspects of habitation than it has now. But, making such allowances for changes, the traveler to-day has a right to feel that he looks on much such a landscape as the traveler coming down to Jerusalem from Jericho saw in the days of Jesus Christ. A New Englander sometimes catches a bit of landscape in his own region which reminds him, if the conditions of sky and climate are right, of these rounded hills and rounded olive-trees and closer olive-orchards. I have a photograph of a piece of “hill country” near Jerusalem which may easily be mistaken for a home scene in Northern Middlesex or Southern New Hampshire. You have only to select a bit of rolling country, well covered with orchards, without New England houses, forests, evergreens, or pines, but with a fair share of stone walls, photograph it, and place the picture in your portfolio, between a view of Jaffa and one of the Dead Sea, and even an experienced pilgrim would take it up and say, “And this is somewhere near Jerusalem.”

The city was built so long ago that nobody knows when. It is on the crest line between the waters of the Dead Sea valley and those which flow into the Mediterranean. The hills on which it stands were abrupt enough to make an admirable fortress; what has been said of rounded slopes does not apply to them. Fortress it was in the days of the Jebusites, when David took it. After his time it assumed the state and importance of a capital. And this was no little state and importance when it meant a capital to which “the tribes come up three times a year.” Josephus says—in what is probably an unintentional exaggeration—that at the time of the Passover a million and a quarter people assembled in it, or in tents around it. Even if this is not true, it gives an idea of what an intelligent man thought true in times immediately after Christ’s visits to the city.

It is not so much matter of regret that we have not the physical picture of Jerusalem of that day, as we have from the Gospels and from many other writings of these times good glimpses of social order there, and of men’s habits of life. All this recent delving into the Talmud and kindred writings, which has taught something even to superficial readers, gives local color for any picture of gospel times. And all the photography in the world would never help us to any knowledge of Jerusalem as it was then, — though we had perspectives of Herod’s temple, and elevations by Herod’s architects, — unless we could make real the moral perspective and moral elevations of the city. In an admirable paper by Mr. Francis Tiffany, he compares this city, the head of ecclesiastical machinery, with such a manufacturing place as Lowell or Holyoke: “Imagine all the mills in Lowell one vast corporation temple: the bulk of the operatives in it priests and temple servants; the fabrics turned out creeds, treatises, or disputatious; the tenement owners dependent on pilgrims for their lodgers; the neighboring farmers finding the market for their wood, cattle, and oil in selling them for the sacrifices, or for the maintenance of those performing the sacrifices, — do all this, and you have a rough but palpable working idea of Jerusalem.”

As Jesus Christ sees Jerusalem, on his first visit there, after his baptism, it is a city of about one hundred and twenty thousand people, which would not exist but for the temple service and those whom the temple calls there. But as the temple and the temple service do call, three times a year, so large a multitude of visitors that they are counted more than a million by intelligent men, a prosperous city of one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants exists there. Herod’s erection of the magnificent temple has called together artisans who are still at work upon it. In the Saviour’s time a special prosperity, caused more by such expenditures than by any other causes we know of, has added a new suburb to the old city, which has grown up outside its walls. This “Jerusalem new town” takes the name of Bezetha. The Romans have assumed the direct government of the place, having deposed Archelaus, the last native ruler, for very good reasons, and in all the visits which Jesus Christ makes to the city in his manhood Pontius Pilate is the procurator. As all the world knows, Pilate is personally present in Jerusalem on the occasion of the last of these visits. He has a legion of Roman soldiers, more or less, with which to keep his whole province in order. He has an official residence in Jerusalem. But it seems as if he and all the Roman governors preferred in general to live at Cesarea. This was a purely Roman city, rather more than fifty miles away, where they were on the sea-board and in comparatively easy communication with Rome. At Jerusalem all their surroundings were foreign, not to say hostile. While the Roman commander was governor in name, an aristocracy of priests maintained with inflexible severity the traditions of old times. And a republican general in New Orleans in the heat of the war, or in Charleston the week after its capture by the Union forces, was not in more unsympathetic surroundings than was Pilate, with his cohorts around him, in Jerusalem.

But the Jewish people is not all of one type. Nor are Jews in Jerusalem here all of one type. Take the throng of work-people, who have been at work—they and their fathers—for forty-six years building up the temple: they are very different people from Levites and priests, — from officials, whether at the top or bottom, who carry on the machinery of daily service in this temple and its courts. And either set is different from Jews of Galilee, — country cousins, indeed, — who come in upon them at either of the festivals for which Jerusalem and its magnificence exist. The difference between a Parisian and his visitor from Normandy or Gascony, or the difference between a Londoner and his visitor from Lancashire or Yorkshire, have often been made the themes of comedies, — very funny, and relished, perhaps, by all parties. In neither case is the difference wider than the difference between the Jew of Jerusalem and the olive dresser or fisherman from Galilee.

Yet Jerusalem was glad to have the multitude of such rural visitors as those whom the festival of Passover brought them every year in the spring-time. In our own day there is still just a hint of that arrival, because the pathetic associations with Good Friday and Easter so often bring the Christian pilgrims of to-day to Jerusalem, at the end of March or in the beginning of April. And the travelers who are there at just that season, and at no other, do not echo the frequent complaint of the desolation of the country around the city. That is the period of the short spring-time of Palestine. The ground is green for a few short weeks, and glowing with the brilliancy of spring flowers, which make a living carpet of the sward. The heat of sudden summer dries up such vegetation only too soon, and these same hills are then white, arid, and desolate.

The season was in old times so much more forward than ours is that there was no hardship in tent-life for a few days, even in March or April; and when hundreds of thousands of Jews—called together partly for festival enjoyment, partly by religious obligation—met for a week, meaning to render daily service at the temple, there was no shelter for them in house or shed, and they were forced to spread the tents which they had brought with them all over the neighboring hills. Jesus is not the only visitor to the city who, when the nightfall comes, goes out from its gates to spend the night with friends who live outside the walls.

It is impossible for us to think of Jesus of Nazareth as coming to Jerusalem, at what we call the first Passover, with little or no external consideration. But, in truth, there are as yet no twelve apostles; there is no crowd shouting “Hosanna!” A few personal friends who love and who wonder, — these at most are all. There is no record saying who they were. But as all the disciples as yet spoken of who had shown any sort of interest in him were but five, we naturally imagine that the disciples who were then with him in Jerusalem were a part of that number, — of whom we know the names of Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. The fifth is perhaps John the Evangelist, from whose Gospel we have the names of the other four. It is without any state, among officials who know as little of him as of any other traveler from Nazareth or from Capernaum, that Jesus enters the temple courts, as hundreds of thousands of others do.

All that he ever says or does in Jerusalem from this moment until his death bears such a stamp of what may be called intensity, or dignity, or even severity, so distinct from the simplicity or spontaneous light-heartedness of Galilee and his life there, that the few critics who bring any tenderness of feeling with them to their estimate of his life try some explanation of it. Thus M. Renan says that the scorn with which the city Jews regarded the Galileans always pained Jesus; also, that the “dryness” of Nature herself—brooks without water, and dry and stony soil—would add to his displeasure. Most of all, he says—and here every one will agree with him—that the utter worldliness of the temple service, where men who ought to have been the spiritual leaders of a nation were fairly at work on the most carnal things in the most brutal fashion, disgusted him. In his constant vein of humor, M. Renan says that the sextons in the temple evinced that irreverence which seems to be the besetting danger of sextons in all communions in all times. As for study of the word of God, — that was perhaps worse than chaffering over the price of a dove, or cutting out from the sacrifice the share for the dinner of a priest’s family. Here Jesus comes down, from his lovely mountains and his sympathetic friends: comes this time from his vision of an open heaven and the soaring dove; from desert communion with himself, from all temptations of hell, and all good angels of heaven; comes to the head-quarters of the faith of Israel and her life, to proclaim a present God, — God here and God now. He will enlist the leaders of Israel in the proclamation of these glad tidings; and he finds that the best scholarship of a Jewish doctor is the weakest splitting of hairs. And this splitting of hairs has bred the most preposterous conceit. The whole is as destitute of moral elevation as are the tricks of a medicine-man among the Apaches. These are the men of learning. And the men of religion, the officers of worship, are squabbling about the price of this sheep or that ox, or are scolding this or that worshiper because he does not hurry up his beasts fast enough to the butcher. here is reason enough for any depression in the young Nazarene’s spirits or any severity in his language, without our inquiring whether there were more or less water in the beds of the brooks, or more or less soil on the stones of the orchards. And this depression of spirits and this severity of language are to be borne in mind as we read his ejaculation when he enters the great court-yard which surrounds the temple: —

“Take these things hence. Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.”

With the natural feeling that they looked on him then as we do now, we imagine this scene, and the artists represent it, as if the whole throng in these temple courts—where, in their eighteen acres, hundreds of thousands of people were sacrificing, were buying and selling, or were staring—all were hushed in astonishment, and witnessed the act of indignation as if it were indeed a token of divine wrath thundered from heaven against these tradesmen. But this is, again, to transfer the impression which centuries have been receiving regarding Jesus of Nazareth, to the everyday people around him when he came in as a stranger. The more natural conception of the scene at this feast—as something like it took place at another Passover—is to suppose that he chose to assert his prophetic character in some visible, concrete act, which might stand like the old prophetic symbols. These hucksters who had found their way inside the gates knew they did not belong there. They recognized his divine wrath, and they felt, as every one always felt, the power of his person. It needed no personal violence on them or theirs. When he bade them go, they went; he needed his scourge of small cords only as a sign of authority. This, too, it is important to observe: that he was not yet in the position of a reformer who is overthrowing sacrifice or offering. He commands thus far the respect and even the gratitude of the purists among his own people. They, if they dared, would have turned out these traders before. And now that one appears who certainly speaks as if he has authority, even if he wear the costume and speak with the accent of the hill country, they are not sorry that he says what he says and does what he does. The more pharisaic a man was, the more sure he would be to say, “This was a nuisance; and what the young man does should have been done before.” Wholly outside Scripture, in authorities which are quite full regarding the tone of feeling of the time, we have evidence that there would be thus much sympathy with his indignation.

One of the senators, as we should say, is the person to show this sympathy in history; that is, it is one of the seventy men in highest official position in the country. And when he introduces himself to this young protestant from Galilee, the contrast between them is as if a member of the House of Lords—say one of the Bench of Bishops—should be attracted in the streets of London to-day by some audacious protest of a countryman of the “Salvation Army” against the greed or cant of London, and should hunt up the young man’s address, and should drive down in his carriage to talk to him. It is like it, only to-day the bishop and the hedge-row preacher would both be remembering the time when the Master of both was the hedge-row preacher who received the call.

The importance of the occasion, to any one unfolding the successive steps of Christ’s plan, is that here was the only faint flicker of success which attended any of these visits to Jerusalem. Jesus went there because it was his duty to go. He had to give these men their chance. He gave them the refusal of the apostleship of the world. All prophecy said that Israel was to be redeemed. He sees that she is to be redeemed. He sees how, and he sees that now is the time. “God is here,” is the word of redemption. Why should not Israel’s leaders utter it? Why should not her leaders lead? Why should they not take up this gospel, “God is here, God is now”? Why not? He will try. So he goes to Jerusalem, walks into the temple court, and avows by a visible sign his authority. And in reply there comes this ruler, who says, “Master, you have come from God. Nobody can show these signs which we have seen you show in the temple, unless God be with him.” In that civil speech is the first flicker of success of the visit to Jerusalem.1

When the preacher from the hill country replies to the courteous senator he shows native authority by signs more imposing. There is perfect courtesy on his side. But there is no shadow of deference to that self-satisfaction, so often bred by book-learning, and which, in that case at least, was so constant an attribute of the governing power. Jesus is young, and this man must be twice his age. Jesus is a carpenter; this man is a ruler. Jesus has been in no school of the prophets; this man has the learning of the schools. Jesus is a Nazarene; this man has all the elegance of the nobility. And yet Jesus speaks to him exactly as he would speak to fishermen by the Sea of Galilee. There is that grave severity which belongs always to his life in Jerusalem. But nothing else is changed. It is in the even tone of an elder brother speaking to a younger. There is perfect kindness, and readiness to explain. There is transparent simplicity, and yet conscious dignity.

Most remarkable of all, there is the demand of complete allegiance to the cause. All or nothing! With two or three personal followers, he has come to see whether doctors and priests care to take hold with him. And in the first interview he claims the whole from them. He does not want any honorary members, though they come from the aristocracy; any members to be named on the lists, but who do not expect to be called on for duty. He wants no irregular troops, — here to-day and there to-morrow. He asks for all or nothing. “If you wish to take hold with me, you must become as a little child. You must be born again. If you do not become as a little child, if you are not born again, why, you will not see the kingdom of God; far less will you ever stand within its portals.”

Well, most people could tell us what reply those men would make to such a statement as that. Indeed, it was comparatively easy for fishermen by the Sea of Galilee to give up their past and take lot with the Nazarene carpenter; certainly much easier than for this gentlemanly Nicodemus, of whom the world has said and thought hard things because he hesitated. He had worked his way quite up the ladder. He had succeeded where so many had failed. He had burned midnight oil over these books of Rabbinical puzzles which we call “fol-de-rol.” He had waited in antechambers till the time at last had come when he might make others wait there. He had waited obsequious till it was his turn to make others wait. For him, then, this was very hard doctrine, which said that he must give all this up and be born over again. And it is no wonder that he hesitates. “Do you really mean, my young friend, that our Jewish state, preserved by miracle for so many hundreds of years, is to give up all the prestige of age and discipline? Do you really suppose that I, who am talking with you, shall give up my position and my weight in this community to take my chances with a carpenter from Galilee? Do you really suppose that I, who have become what you see me by and after the toil of thirty years, am to lay down all that I have learned and all that I have gained, to begin at the beginning, as this handsome young fisher boy you have brought along with you seems to do?”

That is a free translation, into more words, of the ejaculation of his surprise, “We be born again?”

And Jesus Christ told him that that was just what he did mean. If any man supposed that senatorial rank helped him into the kingdom of heaven, he was mistaken. If he supposed length of years helped him, he was mistaken. If he supposed Rabbinical learning helped him, he was mistaken. The pure in heart see God. A little child, new born, because of his purity, may see God. And if senator, or gray-haired man, or learned doctor wants to see him, he must try the same means. He must become as a little child. He must be born again.

Nicodemus went away. And, after a little, Jesus of Nazareth went back to Galilee. That is the end of his first effort in the mission which opened for him at the river Jordan.

As the world counts failure and success, it was absolute failure.

NOTE. I understand very well that this is not the place for critical discussion of the value of the authorities used in the narrative I have given. But as a considerable section of critics, whose opinion is important, regard the Fourth Gospel as valuable for its moral instructions, but not as the historical statement of facts made by an eye-witness, it is but fair that, though with the utmost brevity, I should recognize that opinion of theirs, and state the ground which I take, even in papers as familiar as these are. I have no intention of going into the delicate historical argument, recently handled so admirably by Professor Abbot. I have simply to say what I believe would be admitted readily in the case of any biography, not of such transcendent importance. We have four authorities which have been recognized as authorities till the present generation. Of three of them it is admitted on all hands that their origin is as early as the century in which Christ died, — that they were written while men lived who saw him. Of the fourth, the Gospel of John, it is admitted on all hands that it was written later than these three. The question raised has been whether it were written by the disciple John, who was a young man when Jesus was thirty years old, — written in his extreme old age, as the church has always held, — or whether it were written as late as the year 150, in which case it is not the narrative of an eye-witness. That question I do not discuss. But I do say that some such narrative is necessary for the intelligible reading of the other three Gospels. If we had only those three Gospels, we should know that before the time they speak of Jesus had visited Jerusalem often, — “How often would I have gathered thy children!” — and that Jerusalem would not receive him. We should know that the authorities in the temple knew him, and hated him. Of the reason why and of the detail of those earlier visits we should know nothing; for the first three Gospels begin with Galilee and its successes. To readers seeking just that information, the fourth Gospel supplies it; and whether it were written by the hand of the aged John, or by people who wrote or collected what he had said or written, it supplies the gap just as well. With such an authority in any other biography men would be satisfied. Such is just a hint of the reason which makes a critic as fearless as M. Renan say of the Gospel that, while it does not show “how Jesus spoke,” it is “superior to the other three Gospels in all that touches the order of facts.” He urges this at length in the appendix to the Vie de Jésus, in the thirteenth and subsequent editions.

  1. Here is one instance, out of thousands, where the Revised Version makes sense, where before was little or none. Nicodemus’s words are, “No man can do these signs, unless God be with him.” What are the signs? We look back, and see that they are the visible protests which the new prophet had made in the temple. But when the old version read, “No man can do these miracles,” we looked back for “miracle,” and there was no miracle. Sign there was, and sign very intelligible.