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‘A Catholic Guide to the Holy Land’: An interview with a biblical archaeologist


Lica Ostaleri | CC

Daniel Esparza - published on 03/14/18

Aleteia: Are there any antecedents to your own Catholic Guidebook to the Holy Land? I imagine you drew some inspiration from classic sources. There are countless pilgrimage stories in European literature, dating from Late Antiquity, the medieval periods and early modern era alike. Any favorites? 

Fr. Samson: Yes, there are antecedents to my own contribution to the admittedly small field of specifically Catholic resources for pilgrims to the Holy Land. The paucity of material, in fact, was one of the factors that inspired me to write my book. Throughout my book, I rely on the contributions of three principal books that treat pilgrimage-material to the Holy Land, which sources I mention, and evaluate, in Come and See’s introductory section called: “How to Use This Guide.” Firstly, I use Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (OP)’s book entitled The Holy Land for the majority of the archaeological information contained within my own book. His work truly is top of the line when it comes to history and archaeology. However, he is very, very skeptical of the plausibility of attributing a great many of the biblical stories to the sites that Christian tradition (even early, 4th-century tradition) has identified as the proper location for the historical transpiring of said stories. Moreover, his presentation—beyond containing far too much and too technical discussion on archaeological information for the average pilgrim—often dismisses the tradition’s belief and praxis, and actually, I think, is often undermined by the archaeological information that, I believe, supports the very traditions that he ridicules. For this reason, I sought to “plunder” (Ex 12:35-36) from his work the veritably astute archaeological information, though interpreting it to reach conclusions at times diametrically opposed to his own, thanks to the contribution and perspective of the second principal source for my own material. Hence, secondly, I make wide use of Bargil Pixner (OSB)’s The Paths of the Messiah, a book which, though cumbersome to carry and caught up a bit in rogue and eccentric—conspiracy, really—theories about the influence of the Essenes sect on early Christianity and the New Testament, is far and away the most fruitful, spiritually and intellectually, guidebook that I have found. An archaeologist himself—he found the actual city of Bethsaida, and discovered the Essene Gate in Jerusalem that the Roman historian Flavius Josephus mentioned in his histories, but which nobody had yet found—Pixner is also a believer and a lover of the history of the practice of the faith in the Holy Land. For that reason, he cites often the history of Eusebius so as to collate early traditions, and also the observations of the pilgrim Egeria who took a careful journal of all that she saw (especially liturgical practices) and all that she heard (especially local devotional traditions) while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the late 4th century. Pixner also cites the observations of the Pilgrim of Piacenza and the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who went, respectively, to the land of Ancient Israel in the late 6th century and the early-mid 4th century. Pixner loved the land and prayed with the land, and I found his presentation informative and edifying. Thirdly, lastly, I made use of John Kilgallen (SJ)’s A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land to help provide further spiritual perspective on the sites that I cover. Though his spiritualizing interpretations of New Testament texts are a bit protracted, some of his insights really helped me to pray well at the holy sites, and so I incorporated some of them into my own book.

Aleteia: The history of Christianity is related, from its very beginnings, to pilgrimages. It is almost as if they are, somehow, consubstantial (pun intended). We know that from the travels of Lady Egeria, for example. Would you say pilgrimages are on the rise or in decline, compared to other ages? Political and military turmoil in the Middle East has certainly affected the industry of religious tourism, it seems. How does that affect Christianity? 

Fr. Samson: I would say that pilgrimages are on the rise, in fact, in regards to other ages. A recent story in the Jerusalem Post says that over 3.5 million tourists went to Israel this past year of 2017—500,000 more than the previous year—and that the amount of Christmas-time pilgrims increased by over 20 percent. Granted, this figure pertains to Jewish pilgrims, as well, but we still can point to it as an indicator of the increasing popularity of pilgrimage to the Holy Land nowadays. To be sure, political and military turmoil has affected the industry of religious tourism—if not by the numbers, then at least in, perhaps, making particular pilgrimages feel a little more tense and uncertain in their dynamic. However, to be honest, I have always felt safe while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Not once have I felt threatened or uncomfortable for my safety. In fact, I feel safer in Israel, and Palestine, than I do in many of the major European cities that have been rocked by terrorist attacks. Tourism is such a valued part of Israel’s economy and Palestine’s economy that many measures are taken to protect tourists from danger and to make their travels and visits enjoyable and rewarding; moreover, the experience of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christian, and especially Catholic, faith at the various shrines is a huge source of spiritual comfort and practical assistance, not to mention the help received at those sacred places by the religious communities—in particular the Franciscans—who run them. Now is a good time to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land—and hopefully my book can help thereon!

Aleteia: What can the reader of the Catholic Guidebook to the Holy Landexpect to find in your book? History? Inspiring stories? Technical details? All of the above? 

Fr. Samson: The readers of my guidebook can expect to find a holistic, and clear, presentation of major Catholic pilgrimage sites that will help them both to learn things about their faith by learning about each holy place, and to come to a deeper and more personal appreciation of, and love for, the devotional history of our faith. The information that I provide for each site is broken up into four categories: Scriptural Background (so, what happened here, in the Old and New Testaments), Archaeological History (so, what is the history here of the practice of the faith—including especially buildings and churches), Theological Issues Raised (so, what does this site and its biblical events have to teach us about the truths of our faith, and even what truths does this site teach us), Points of Reflection (so, how does the reality and history of this place help us to pray, in an informed way), and further resources for personal consultation about items brought up for each site. In this way, I have tried to present a well-rounded guide that would cover various points of interest, with the larger aim, of course, of facilitating a fresh encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, and his Mother Mary, so as to foster a fortified faith. There’s a reason why St. Jerome referred to the Holy Land as the “Fifth Gospel”—the land, itself, has so much to teach us about Jesus and about who we are as Catholic-Christians. I, a teacher and Scripture scholar, but above all a priest of Jesus Christ, felt called to facilitate in that learning process and in that encounter with the crucified and risen Lord, whom I have, myself, come to know and love much better, much more deeply, through my experiences in the Holy Land. I want to help others to do the same, and so I wrote this book—which I pray be of benefit to Catholic pilgrims to the Holy Land.

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