In the comments field of my Christmas post, one of our regulars, Warren, lamented his annual holiday tangles and wrangles over religion: “This year, like all others … I learned that all the holy sites in Jerusalem and around Israel are most likely bogus, and that they were all determined by Constantine’s mother. (The location of the Sepulchre, the church of the nativity, etc).”
My response to Warren follows. I’m posting it here in case the recommendations are useful for others.
There are very good reasons to believe the sites we venerate are at or near the places where the events occurred. We know — from pagan and Christian sources — that those first generations of Christians were willing to risk their lives for the memory of Christ. Can anyone seriously believe that those same people would be sloppy about keeping that memory? Remember, they lived in a culture that placed a premium on the accuracy of oral history. These particular memories would have been the most important, the most carefully passed on.
The literary sources are useful. The Gospels do concern themselves with details, topography, place names, and many of their geographic details are confirmed in non-Christian sources (Josephus, for example).
Archeologists, too, are willing to make the “positive” case for this or that site. Check out their testimony. Start with The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Also helpful is The Jerusalem Jesus Knew: An Archaeological Guide to the Gospels by John Wilkinson. I love the works of Bargil Pixner; and you might want to read Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem, co-authored with Elizabeth McNamer — but all Pixner’s books are useful. Another reliable witness is William Dever, who is hardly a conventional believer, being an ex-Christian somewhat converted to an agnostic sort of Judaism; but he makes a good case for the accuracy of the biblical record. See his Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research. If you want to extend your archeological-historical studies further back, see On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by K. A. Kitchen.
These men are respected archeologists, published by reputable houses. They’re hardly credulous, but they’re willing to grant credence to the biblical authors and the religious traditions that hallow certain ruins and parcels of land. I think only a true bigot could dismiss the traditions out of hand after considering the witness of these scholars (and many more of their colleagues).
This is not to say there’s unanimity on the veracity of every identification of every site. Of course there’s not. But we should not be so eager to cast our ancestors as idiots.
Nevertheless, site identification is not a hill I’m willing to die on as a Christian apologist. For Muslims — as for Jews in antiquity — pilgrimage is something akin to our sacraments: something essential, a divine mandate. But it’s never been that way for Christians. Here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14). For an excellent study of the Fathers’ ambivalence toward the holy sites, see Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods.