ARCHAEOLOGY IN PALESTINE – Former Australian ambassador speaks

(Link to Friends of Bethlehem on Facebook)

By Peter Manning

The former Australian Ambassador to Israel and Palestine, Dr Ross Burns, gave a speech last Wednesday in the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, to a sell-out crowd about a dozen important archaeological treasures in Palestine’s West Bank area.

Dr Burns has a doctorate in archaeology from Macquarie University and, quite apart from his diplomatic career, has a had a lifelong interest in archaeology and Middle Eastern history. His famous travel guide, “Monuments of Syria”, is the best-selling guide to Syria, translated into many languages.

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Dr Burns speaking at Nicholson Museum (Photo courtesy of Peter Manning)


The top of Dr Burns’ list was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (12).

Here were his observations about Bethlehem:

The first church on the site over the network of caverns was built under Constantine but did not survive the Samaritan revolt of 529 ACE (1). It was rebuilt in a magnificent style by Justinian (r 527–65) who employed the most expensive monolith columns in giallo antico (a rare form of marble) for the double colonnades defining the basilica plan on each side.

In 612, the Sassanids/Persians invaded Palestine (1, 2) but spared the church from their campaign of destruction due to the beauty of its mosaics. In the 630s when the Caliph Umar visited this among other sites holy to Christianity he declared that Muslims could pray in the church as individuals (i.e. not with a prayer leader) in order to preserve it as a Christian place of prayer. It is from this tradition that even today Muslim religious leaders join the Palestinian Christian community for Midnight Mass.

Much has happened to the building since then but some scraps of the original rich mosaic decoration survive (1, 2).

Almost certainly, the site enjoys no historical link with Jesus but provided a convenient first step in the ‘Christianisation’ of the Palestinian landscape.  This was begun early in the careers of Christ’s disciples who, anxious to appeal to an initially mainly Jewish audience, were anxious to prove that his birth met the requirements of Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) messianic literature as taking place in Bethlehem, not Galilee where the family originated. The belief connecting Jesus to the tradition of Jewish prophecy, was well implanted in Christian circles by the second century. It then became necessary to find a suitable location for the event.

The early Christian writer, St Jerome, noted that the basilica was built over a series of caves that in the era of Hadrian (c 135 AD) had been used for the cult of the pagan figure, Adonis. Given the striking associations between Adonis as the giver of life and fertility through regeneration and the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, the associations were not entirely incompatible.

It is possible, of course, that Hadrian deliberately introduced the Adonis association in order to wipe out the Christians association of the site with Jesus’ birth. Using similar logic, Hadrian certainly sought to obliterate the association of Golgotha with the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial in Jerusalem/Aelia Capitolina (1) by building a massive Temple of Venus on the site.

There is, however, a reasonable amount of evidence linking Golgotha to the events of Jesus’ death whereas the story of the birth in Bethlehem, and its actual location, is much more problematic.

Dr Burns went on to describe 11 other sites on the West Bank. In his concluding remarks he reflected on the ways in which different faiths had to live together over the last two millenia in a small patch of land rich in religious history:

I hope that helps to show a little of the variety of sites in Palestine and the way in which virtually all represent a layering of religious and historical affiliations.

One more lesson from archaeology in the Holy Land: scientific archaeology always fails to prove what you want it to.  The Israelis, amid great protest, dug the southern extremities outside the Herodian Temple platform (1). And what did they find? A massive Islamic complex of six sizeable palaces meant to implant the Umayyad presence in Syria/Palestine.

We’ve seen [four burial places attributed to Prophets described in the Hebrew Bible] (1); three first order saints’ shrines, four of the extraordinary projects of Herod the Great, a Justinianic church, one of the most important of the early Christian monasteries, a couple of Crusader ruins, a bathhouse built by an early Islamic libertine, and a Samaritan Temple that became a Byzantine fortress (1).

I hope you’ve found this quick tour of a fascinatingly complicated archaeological scene sufficiently interesting to warrant a visit sometime.

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