The streets of the Via
Dolorosa were never
traversed by Jesus, with or without his cross. The
roads of the Old City of Jerusalem follow the line (but
at a level some ten to fifteen feet higher) of the town built
by the Roman Emperor Hadrian after 135 AD – a
century too late for any Christian messiah.
The "stations of the cross" along
the pilgrim route – originally seven but now fourteen – are
entirely bogus and have always served a liturgical and commercial
purpose. Even the route itself, from west to east, is at
odds with current New Testament scholarship which favours
a short south-north route from the area of Herod's palace.
Five of the current "stations" are
actually within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which
offers the curious tourist and the wide-eyed believer a
rich assortment of religious memorabilia, little of which is
ancient. In the marble floor of the Catholic chapel a star marks
the very spot where Mary Magdalen received the news of the resurrection
from an angel, a medieval innovation. A "stone
of unction" near the main door, where Joseph of Arimathea
anointed the Lord's body, was introduced
by Crusaders in the 12th century. The
latest chunk of red granite arrived in 1810 but it still
gets kisses from the faithful. Even more startling, "Holy
fire" descends each Easter
into the sacred tomb, a "miracle" invented in
the 9th century and yet the
trick still delights the crowds.
Protestants may blanch at the chicanery and
sacrilege of it all but for the Catholic and Orthodox creeds
the circus is living proof of their faith and unwavering testimony
of the "historical Jesus".
Following the yellow brick road
The grid layout of the roads of Roman Aelia determines
the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem even today.
The 16th century Ottoman wall runs obliquely top
Temple Mount intrudes lower right.
The Crusader-built Church of the Holy
Sepulchre overlays part of the much larger 4th century
Constantinian church; both are contained within the precinct
of Hadrian's 2nd century temple of Venus/Aphrodite.
Opposite the Russian Hospice, the Lutheran Church
of the Redeemer sits above a corner of the ancient
Aelia, city of the Pagans,
lies under the city of the Christians and the Jews
Aelia was probably not a walled city
while the 10th legion remained in residence and its full
extent is uncertain. It is often described as a smaller
city than its predecessor but in fact it may have extended
north as far as Agrippa's third wall (Jodi Magness,
Stations 1 and 2,
which feature the drama of JC's trial, condemnation and flogging
at the praetorium, are entirely at odds with the historical evidence.
Such delights as the "Ecce Homo" arch (where
Pilate allegedly said of Jesus "behold the man", John 19.5)
and the "pavement" where Pilate's judgement seat was
said to have been (the "lithostrotos" of John 19.13),
have come back to haunt the glib assertions of Christian apologetics.
These structures, long used to buttress claims of gospel veracity,
are Hadrianic constructions.
The Praetorium was never located in the
Antonia fortress (so-named by Herod in honour of Mark Antony) which
stood by the northwest corner of Temple Mount. The Antonia was
far smaller than is often supposed. Josephus repeatedly refers
to it as "the tower Antonia" and relates that it was
originally built by the first of the high priests called Hyrcanus
for safekeeping the holy vestments (Ant. 18.4.3).
A modern archaeologist concurs:
"The four 'towers' so impressively
reconstructed in the models are also entirely without
foundation. The south-eastern 'tower' alone was
actually the entire Antonia fortress."
– P. Benoit in Jerusalem
Nonetheless, it is close to the site of the Antonia
that Christian mythology honours a pavement – the lithostrotos – where
Pilate supposedly "sat in Judgement".
"When Pilate therefore heard that saying,
he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in
a place that is called the Pavement, but in
the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the preparation of the passover,
and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold
– John 19.13,14.
The truth supports no such fantasy. Beyond the Antonia
tower was an open reservoir across which Titus
had to build a ramp to mount his battering rams:
" After seventeen days of continuous
toil the embankments were of vast size. Of the first two, that facing the
Antonia was thrown up by the fifth legion across
the pool called Struthius; the other by the twelfth
legion about twenty cubits away."
– War 5.11.4.
In 135 AD, the Struthius pool was vaulted over and
turned into a cistern by Hadrian. It is still
to be seen today in the basement of the convent Notre Dame
de Sion, which today proudly displays its Hadrianic collection.
Above the cistern, Hadrian had large flagstones laid as paving
for a market. The flagstones are visible in the convent and also
in the adjacent monastery. This east forum of Aelia was entered
through a triple arched gateway, the central arch
of which is celebrated as the arch of Christian myth. It spans
the Via Dolorosa and continues into the church/convent
where the smaller northern portal can still be seen.
The pagan emperor would have laughed his socks
All fall down
The gospels make NO mention of Jesus falling
three times (Stations 3, 7 and 9),
no meeting with his mother Mary (Station 4),
and no encounter with a woman named Veronica (Station
6). They are, in the parlance of religious chicanery, "devotional" embellishments.
more farcical is the "prison of Christ", close
by the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, where
the Lord was held for questioning. Not only is the "cell"
medieval (the claim dates from 1911!) but it competes
with another (equally bogus) "prison of Christ" within
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a third in the so-called
"house of Caiaphas" on Mount Sion!
Jesus - a repeat offender?
prison in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Not to
be taken seriously!
JC's other prison on the Via
authentic Jesus venue since 1911.
Perhaps Barabbas was
in one cell and the Son of God in the other!
JC's other prison at
the house of Caiaphas.
Station 5. The
spot where Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry JC's
cross and now a Franciscan Chapel is
as fabricated as the gospel verses which tell the silly story
(Matthew and Luke reproduce a truncated version
of Mark 15.21).
explicit identification of Simon should set
alarm bells ringing. It is the most precise in
the entire passion narrative and yet Simon is an incidental character
who figures nowhere else in the gospel story.
A father would not usually be identified
by his children yet here we have a Jew (Shimeon) linked
with one son with a very Greek name (Alexander) and
another son with a very Roman name (Rufus). Simon apparently
hails from Cyrene in far off Tunisia. Could all this "detail" have
more to do with popularising the yarn in the 2nd century pagan
world than with a genuine report from the 1st century Jewish
As it happens, Josephus mentions
the names Simon, Alexander and Rufus repeatedly and in the
closing chapter of the last book of the War he reports
a sedition among the Jews of Cyrene. It is also curious
how John's gospel actually emphasises that Jesus carried
his own cross and fails to mention Simon at all. Could the
whole "Simon of Cyrene" tale be orthodoxy's early
response to a story popularised by certain gnostics
that it was not Jesus but Simon who had been nailed
to the cross?
station that marks this dubious event was chosen in the 13th
century – no
doubt with guidance from the Holy Ghost.
Station 6. Can
it get any more authentic than this? There never was any
"Saint Veronica". The name is a
popular corruption of a hybrid Latin-Greek word "vera-icon", that
is, the "true image" (of Jesus).
As early as the
2nd century religious enthusiasm and an earnest desire to
fill in the blanks in the gospel story had already identified the
woman who had the "12-year flow of blood" in Matthew (9.20,22)
with the sister of Lazarus, or alternatively, as the daughter
of the woman of Canaan (Matthew 15.22), or as a Syrian
princess, or even as a Roman matron! The 4th century Acts
of Pilate (aka Gospel of Nicodemus) has
the character (called Bernice in this version) pleading
for Jesus' innocence before Pilate.
faith in an illiterate age almost begged for an authentic image
of the saviour and artists were more than willing to knock
up a genuine likeness, attributing the work either to an apostle
or to Jesus himself. The Church, anxious to control the racket,
introduced a badge of authenticity, complete with a story
of miraculous materialisation. In this version, the woman,
waiting on the Via Dolorosa, wiped Jesus's face with a cloth. The
act of kindness leaves an image of JC's face on the cloth, which
is transformed into a healing relic. In the west it came to be
known as "Veronica's Veil" and took an honorary place
in St. Peter's Church in Rome. It's
not unique – so perhaps Jesus
had his face wiped several times?
of "devotional images" (Veronicas and Mandylions)
has always been attributed by the religious to "demand" from
pilgrims – not to "supply" by fraudsters such
Station 7 – a second "falling
point" for Jesus, where the
Via Dolorosa intersects Khan es-Zeit. Actually,
the spot marks a major crossroad of Aelia Capitolina,
where the Cardo Maximus crossed
the Decumanus Maximus.
With no intended irony, the Franciscan chapel here preserves a
chunk of the tetrapylon that marked
Tetrapylon from Palmyra – a road crossing, Roman-style.
Station 8 - marked by a stone
in the wall of the Greek monastery of St. Haralambos. Our hero,
flogged to within an inch of his life, who has fallen twice
even after Simon is apparently
carrying his cross, at this point has the remarkable presence
of mind and ready articulation to forecast darkly the future.
of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for
For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall
say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and
the paps which never gave suck.
Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us;
and to the hills, Cover us.
For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be
done in the dry?" - Luke
These are almost the last words spoken by JC as a
mortal. But in reality, it's the sort of speech that might be delivered at
a processional halt, rather than a genuine monologue that might
have given rise to one. Did the procession
stop, one wonders, while Jesus declaimed his prophesy? Did someone
else hold his cross for a moment? And just who was taking notes?
Station 9 – Jesus falls again.
Actually, a convenient gathering point for pilgrims just before
Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Station 10 – Jesus loses his shorts.
Nothing to see here, just a commemorative spot to fit in with the
Station 11 – The nailing station.
Pause before the altar and think about pain. Gosh, aren't
you pleased someone else took the rap for your sins?
Station 12 – The Greek Orthodox
have possession of Calvary itself. The rock of Golgotha can even
be touched, through a hole in bullet-proof glass. A touchy-feely
experience not to be missed.
Station 13 – The small altar next
to Calvary marks the "taking down from the cross". Complete with
a life-sized model of Joseph of Arimathea and a large bag of herbs. No,
only kidding about that bit.
Station 14 – We
are now on the threshold of the tomb itself. It's claimed that
the small altar in the "Chapel of
the Angel" contains a piece of the stone that
was miraculously rolled away by angels. Even more miraculous was
that the stone only appeared in the 16th century. And it gets better
my God – Holy Fire
2007 – Armenian Christians
battle it out with Greek Orthodox. (Church
of the Nativity, Nazareth).
As regular as
clockwork, the Descent of the Holy Fire. Divine
powers clearly favour the Greek Orthodox over all others.
Easter Saturday, in a darkened church, lighted
tapers are set aflame by the Holy
Spirit and are passed
out by the Patriarch of Jerusalem from the
Chapel of the Angel.
Like the Olympic torch – which
doubtless inspired the original idea – the fire
is taken in relays to churches across the Greek world. The
miracle has absolutely nothing to do with hidden lamps, cigarette
lighters, or candles coated in white phosphorus
(self-igniting in air), dipped in a urine-based solution
(which delays the ignition), and priestly fraudsters. Certainly
Even the Muslim Abbasids welcomed the revenue
stream that flowed from the gullible infidel. When the Latin Crusaders took Jerusalem in
1099 the Holy Fire stopped. Two years later, Baldwin I, desperate
for the income from pilgrims, invited the Greeks back
– and the Holy Fire started again. Rather
proves just how genuine is the miracle!
In a remarkable demonstration of Heaven's awesome
indifference to human suffering, at the ceremony of Easter
1834, fainting witnesses fell to their deaths from the gallery,
prompting a panic in which hundreds of the faithful were
trampled to death. They must have been sinners, right?
Bloodshed in the most holy shrine in Christendom
is not a rarity. In 1901 a dispute over sweeping the front
steps of the church led to a battle between Catholics and
Orthodox that left at least eight dead (Clark, p84).
The Via Dolorosa – A Sacred Topography
"The Via Dolorosa is defined by faith,
not by history"
– Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land,
The Way of Sorrow has
nothing to do with "Jesus of Nazareth" but everything to do with
organised religion. Its historical value is illustrative of the
complex story of a belligerent Christianity, not the pathetic
torment and death of a godman.
The commemorative pageant began no earlier than the
4th century, after the faith became the official and obligatory
religion of the Roman Empire. The original holy walk had no "devotional
halts" and went from the Mount of Olives southwest via Mount
Sion before entering the city. But by the Middle Ages Christendom
was divided by schism, triggered less by theological and doctrinal
subtleties than by crass power struggles and rivalry for converts
in central Europe and the Balkans. The rancour and hostility between
the Roman and Greek churches led each to scramble for the more
impressive array of icons, relics and sanctuaries. In the
less-than-Holy Land, opposing Christian groups established
rival routes to Calvary, each route acquiring sacred stops along
the way to add to their appeal and holiness. The Latins were even
divided among themselves:
"The basis of the conflict was simple: one group
possessed churches on the western hill, the other on the eastern."
– Murphy-O'Connor, p26.
savagery of the sack of Jerusalem in 1099, followed a century later
by the treacherous plunder of Orthodox Constantinople
by Catholic Crusaders in 1204, left an indelible
bitterness. The present route, fixed only in the 19th century,
is a compromise between historic foes and rival marketeers of hocus-pocus,
united only by a common desire to keep the show on the road and
the customers coming back for more.
Holy Sepulchre – Catholic candles on the left, Armenian
candles on the right, Greek Orthodox candles in the centre,
holy baloney everywhere.
Laugh or Cry
An informed Christian
would doubtless argue that the Via Dolorosa and its
way stations are no longer understood as historically
accurate, that they are symbolic and representational of an
unrecoverable but undeniable truth. To those of faith, it scarcely
matters how many times, or precisely where, Jesus fell, or
exactly at what point on the road to Calvary Mary witnessed
her son's torment.
It's obvious, isn't it, he would have
fallen, and she could not have stayed away?
Unfortunately, the certitude of their "core" faith
is an exercise in myopia and self-deception, an unwillingness
to recognize that the pious frauds, piled one upon another, go
all the way down to the bottom. Their entire belief system is "symbolic
and representational", of a phantom god born of a virgin,
of a resurrection that never was, of a man who never lived.
Robert Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City (Paternoster,
H. J. Richards, Pilgrim to the Holy Land (McCrimmons,1985)
Shimon Gibson, Joan Taylor, Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Palestine
Exploration Fund, 1994)
Joan Taylor, Christians and Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins (Clarendon,
Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Sutton, 1999)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (Oxford, 1986)
Victoria Clark, Holy Fire (Macmillan, 2005)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 1997)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2007
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no
material herein is sold for profit.