A frank guide to holy sites

Religion: A Dominican friar and biblical scholar sets the record straight on the stops on next week's tour of the Holy Land by Pope John Paul II.

March 16, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Of the stops on Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to the Holy Land next week, the traditional site of the Last Supper is likely the wrong place, the Mount of the Beatitudes is a "complete fake" and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a dark, cramped disappointment. As for Nazareth, it's best just to skip it altogether.

And this isn't the opinion of some jaded atheist. It's the conviction of a Dominican friar and biblical scholar who has studied, worshiped and marveled at Christian shrines here for 36 years.

The experience has made Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, 64, a scholar-in-residence at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique et Archeologique. He is an expert on how tradition, blind faith and religious jealousy trample historical fact and peaceful worship, and he doesn't hesitate to set the record straight.

Long a favorite guide for European and American diplomats, Murphy-O'Connor has lately been a sought-after source for journalists preparing for the pope's visit and will give expert commentary to an international audience watching the pope's visit on Sky Television.

The belief that Jerusalem's tucked-away Cenacle, where Pope John Paul will say a private Mass, holds the site of Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples is, according to Murphy-O'Connor, "unreliable" and based on assumption.

On the dispute between Jordan and Israel over which bank of the Jordan River is the place where Jesus was baptized, he sides firmly with the Hashemites. The pope, more diplomatic, will visit both sites.

Murphy-O'Connor's published guide to the Holy Land gives a miserly paragraph to the Mount of Beatitudes, where the pope will celebrate Mass before the biggest crowd of his trip, including tens of thousands of young people.

"The Mount of Beatitudes is a complete fake. I mean that was just made up," he says. Its value lies in the view it offers of the Sea of Galilee and the sites where Jesus really worked and lived.

The Sermon on the Mount was neither an actual sermon, Murphy-O'Connor says, nor was it delivered on a single hilltop.

"Every scholar knows that the Sermon on the Mount -- of which the Beatitudes are the opening part -- was put together from bits and pieces of speeches given in all types of different circumstances. That's a creation of Matthew," Murphy-O'Connor says. Luke uses some of the same lines, "but there it's the Sermon on the Plain."

As for the "great crowds" that Matthew describes following Jesus, this is "complete propaganda," says Murphy-O'Connor. Jesus' message drew little support in his work as an itinerant preacher walking from village to village in Galilee, and none at all in Jerusalem. His immense fame and following came later.

Murphy-O'Connor reserves his most withering comments for Jesus' boyhood home of Nazareth. Dominating the city center is the Basilica of the Annunciation, commemorating an angel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the son of God.

"I recommend that people not go there," Murphy-O'Connor says. "The church is awful. I think it's triumphalist, and it tries to be a church and a museum at the same time, which I don't think works."

Mary was probably in Bethlehem at the time of the Annunciation, he believes; the holy family moved to Nazareth when Jesus was young. "Scholars say the angel is literary fiction."

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is probably the place where Christ was crucified and buried, says Murphy-O'Connor. Yet for all that, its atmosphere is "very unchristian."

He writes: "One looks for luminous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness."

That final observation is thanks to the six rival Christian sects occupying the site.

Murphy-O'Connor is not a cynic. Historical accuracy may be important, he says, but it's not all that matters.

"A place is important because it was visited by thousands of pilgrims. No place is holy in itself. Places are made holy by veneration," he says. Whether correct historically or not, religious sites become shrines over time because word gets around that they are places where prayer works, where pilgrims feel close to God.

And he has nothing but admiration for the pilgrims who, over the centuries, have made the arduous journey here to retrace what they believed were Christ's footsteps. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, he says, "you came at the risk of your life; there was a 2-to-1 chance you wouldn't get home alive."

Murphy-O'Connor joyfully describes the sites he cherishes, such as Jerusalem's Crusader-era Church of St. Anne's, "the loveliest church in the city," or the ruins of the home of St. Peter in Capernaum, where he says Jesus lived while preaching in the Galilee.

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