Suspecting the Past

Five years ago I returned from a ten-day tour of some of the major holy sites in Israel.  I was blessed to accompany members of my congregation and other folks in a small group (less than 20 of us!) as we visited Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and of course, Jerusalem.

I think I’m still in a state of overload from that trip, which seems as much dream as reality.  But I know that while I was there, there were times when my cynical and skeptical nature was in full gear.  After all, in a city like Jerusalem, that has traded hands multiple times and been knocked down and rebuilt in major sections, how confident could I be, should I be, that the places presented to us as associated with the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth actually were those places?

I find it frustrating and ironic in myself that as someone who teaches and preaches the imminent reality of the Biblical witness and the Christian faith, and who insists on grounding what we do and say in the literal and physical birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Son of Man, who regularly insists on the uniqueness of the Biblical witness and Christian faith in this regard compared to literally any other religion  – that we are grounded in historical and geographical reality – should waver in trusting 1700+ years of tradition associated with the sites of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In part, it’s because I suspect I suffer from an affliction common in our day and perhaps always – the affliction that presumes that right now, this generation (and those that come after) is the apex of human reliability and accuracy.  Everyone and everything before us is suspect to varying degrees, whether it’s my parents or the ancient Church.  Part of this is bound up in the post-modern suspicion of anything beyond personal experience and knowledge (which, frankly, is pretty much everything).  I hold belief in suspension at times because I can’t personally prove it to myself (as though I really had the inclination and motivation and time to personally validate everything).

So just because the site of the Holy Sepulchre has been venerated for 1700+ years, how can I trust all those people?  All those generations without iPhones or televisions or Wikipedia or National Geographic?  Should I trust that nearly two millenia of people got something right and kept it right when I’m not terribly concerned with remembering what I had for lunch yesterday?

In the end, I made a peace with it.  The events of Jesus’ life happened somewhere.  Any objective historian would say we have more than enough evidence of his life to  validate this claim.  If this isn’t the particular upper room then, what matters of it because there was an upper room?  And if this isn’t actually the site of Jesus’ tomb, it was a real tomb somewhere.

But perhaps I need to take the claims of history more seriously, particularly in regard to a singularly important individual like Jesus.  The guy who came back from the dead made a really big impression on a lot of people.  Should I think that they never brought people to the actual tomb to show them?  To describe what they saw there that morning, or didn’t see?  Should I expect that people who were willing to suffer dismemberment and death rather than reject the assertion that Jesus is divine and alive from the dead would be so careless as to forget where his tomb was and make some effort to mark it for future generations?

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that archaeologists and historians are declaring what people have been saying for 1700 years – there is good evidence that what sits at the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed a tomb structure that dates back at the very least to the early fourth century (when the church is rumored to have first been built, under the direction of Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena).  It doesn’t surprise me that being skeptical is no indication of actual truth, and I’m happy to have my skepticism not only proved wrong by mankind over and over again, but forgiven by the Savior who rose from that tomb to save me from my cynical skepticism.

 

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