BMCR 2006.05.41

Encountering the Sacred. The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity

, Encountering the sacred : the debate on Christian pilgrimage in late antiquity. The transformation of the classical heritage ; 38. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 1 online resource (1 volume).. ISBN 9780520931121. $45.00.

Table of Contents

This excellent work originated as a dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the guidance of Guy Stroumsa. The author, Bitton-Ashkelony (henceforth β was already known from her fine studies on Christian Gaza in late antiquity. In the present book she discusses the debate on pilgrimage among Christian intellectuals from the fourth through the sixth centuries CE. It is an eminently readable book with a wealth of acute observations, and it displays an impressively broad mastery of both the primary sources and the secondary literature.

After a long introduction, in the first chapter, Basil of Caesarea’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s attitudes toward pilgrimage are investigated; in the second that of Jerome; in the third that of Augustine; in the fourth that of monastic writers such as Athanasius, Evagrius Ponticus, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus; in the final chapter the topic of local versus central pilgrimage is dealt with. The book is concluded with a 30-page bibliography and with several indices. I can highlight only some of her findings.

In the introduction, B-A argues that it is a mistake to think that the debate on pilgrimage stemmed from a tension between popular and official religion; rather, “we are dealing here with the tension between local sites of pilgrimage on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other, as well as with the pervasive dilemma of earthly sacred journeying to encounter the divine versus interior journeying to an inner space” (4). The two extremes in this debate are well instanced by Gregory of Nyssa’s view of pilgrimage as an act incurring spiritual harm on the one hand and by Jerome’s view of it as part of the faith on the other. B-A also notes that there is a strong correlation between the desire of bishops and monastic leaders to enhance their local power and their attitudes toward pilgrimage to central places such as Jerusalem. As to her skepticism about the Jewish origins of a cult of tombs of saints (25-6, contra Horbury and pro Satran), she could be referred to my study, “The Tombs of the Prophets in Early Judaism” in my Japheth in the Tents of Shem. Studies on Jewish Hellenism in Antiquity, Leuven: Peeters, 2002, 119-138 (pro Horbury and contra Satran).

Ch. 1 aptly begins with a quote from Gregory of Nyssa’s Epist. 2.3: “When the Lord called the chosen ones to inherit the kingdom of heaven, he did not include the journey to Jerusalem among the good deeds.” Even so, Gregory, too, did travel to Jerusalem and says he did so kat’ euchên, which B-A takes to mean ‘for the sake of prayer’ (49), a possible translation indeed, but the much more obvious interpretation ‘in fulfillment of a vow’ should not have been ruled out. Be that as it may, the salient point is that, although Gregory expresses strong reservations about pilgrimage to Jerusalem because God does not dwell in one place on earth more than in any other, he does substitute a whole new network of holy places associated with the cult of the martyrs in Cappadocia, of which he and Basil were staunch supporters. At the same time the bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril, frustrated because the ecclesiastical status of his city remained inferior in spite of the many ‘holy places’ there, launched a bitter struggle for his see’s primacy in Palestine by promoting the idea of these holy places as a fifth gospel that could strengthen the belief of the faithful. Gregory rejects such arguments, “claiming that his faith was neither strengthened nor weakened as a result of seeing the sites associated with the life of Jesus” (61). Cyril was probably one of Gregory’s opponents, and the latter’s opposition to the bishop of Jerusalem presumably stood in the service of his own promotion of the local network of holy places in Cappadocia. So Gregory’s criticism of pilgrimage to the Holy Land had less of a theological background than a church-political one. “Thus the debate at the end of the fourth century centered not merely on the religious function of the holy places but rather on the extent to which a local leader could build on the local territory of divine grace in order to transform it into a territory of power” (64).

In the chapter on Jerome, B-A suggests that he had accompanied Paula on her pilgrimage to Palestine before he left Rome, but that is incorrect: both of them left Rome for good in 385. Jerome was an enthusiastic pilgrim, and he emphasizes that seeing the holy places enhances one’s understanding of the Holy Scriptures (that is, among other reasons, why he decided to settle in Bethlehem after his tour with Paula). Like Cyril before him, Jerome offers a systematic justification of pilgrimage to the Holy Land; he even goes so far as to state that visiting Jesus’ tomb is a religious obligation for every Christian believer. His statement that “to worship on the spot where the feet of the Lord once stood is part of the faith” (Epist. 47.2) is a daring innovation in Christian thought in his day. At the same time, he wants to shake off all suspicion that he presumed “to limit God’s omnipotence or to restrict to a narrow strip of earth Him whom the heavens cannot contain” (Epist. 58.3) and tries to justify pilgrimage to Palestine by the fact that this country has become a monastic center. Later in his life, Jerome changed his views, even to the point of contradicting his earlier positions (“an acrobatic act” according to β 91). B-A convincingly demonstrates that this has to do mainly with the new hostility toward Jerome on the part of the leading clergy in Jerusalem who had excommunicated him from the city. His conflicting views of pilgrimage reflect “not a tension between the official position of the church and popular religion but rather an idiosyncratic flexibility in espousing theological positions that arose out of personal rivalries between leaders of the various centers” (97).

The chapter on Augustine demonstrates clearly that, whereas Gregory’s reaction to pilgrimage was one of rejection and Jerome’s one of vacillation, Augustine’s was one of apathy. He hardly mentions the phenomenon at all and his interest in the land of the Bible was simply non-existent, in sharp contrast to Jerome. Not even in his correspondence with Jerome is the topic of sacred geography mentioned. B-A offers here a short but lucid discussion of Augustine’s concept of peregrinatio as the idea of spiritual pilgrimage (without any connection to actual pilgrimage to holy places). Even so, he much encouraged and furthered the cult of martyrs and their tombs (which he did regard as sacred space), and he clearly accepts as real the miracles associated with a martyr’s tomb. Augustine too, however, was not consistent in his views throughout his life, as B-A convincingly demonstrates. She portrays this Church Father “not merely as a prominent theologian who had little interest in the sacred geography of Palestine but also as a bishop deeply involved in shaping the local cult of the martyrs, which was of major pedagogical importance to him, all the while leaving aside the notion and the function of sacred space” (139).

That pilgrimage played a major role in monastic life from its beginnings around 300 is well-known. In ch. 4 B-A draws a fascinating picture of the variety of views on this phenomenon in the centuries following. Both Athanasius and Evagrius belittled the religious role of earthly sacred space, with no hint of preference of local shrines, whether of martyrs or of holy men. Theodoret, however, made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to holy men, in their monasteries (or on their pillars!) as well as in their tombs. Here B-A highlights the anxiety of famous monastic figures about the widespread trend of one-way pilgrimage to the Holy Land and their fear of the likely depletion in numbers of the monks and nuns in their monasteries.

In the final chapter B-A draws on a number of other sources to illuminate the tension between the main pilgrimage sites, such as those in Jerusalem, and local centres, such as the tombs of local or regional saints. It is clear that a marked tension characterized the relationship between these two networks. The role of the rise of the holy man (Peter Brown) in late antiquity in this connection is well highlighted. “All those blessed with charisma and gifted with parrhêsia served as a focus of divine power and delineated a new territory of grace” (187). Sacred geography and ecclesiastical power came to be inextricably entangled, and for that reason the involvement of bishops in the cults of the martyrs and their efforts to keep the corpses of holy men in their territories were but a natural outcome.

This is a delightful book from which there is much to be learned. It is encouraging to see in recent years the steady stream of high-quality scholarly works on many aspects of early Christian history from the pens of so many young Israeli scholars.