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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

Archaeological discoveries unlock the meaning hidden underneath the cultural and scriptural context of the Bible

Fr. Charles K. Samson is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, and the author of what he describes as a “portable guide that blends archaeology, Scripture, early Christian history, theology, prayer,” and his own experience in the Holy Land. A challenging enterprise, to say the least.

But Fr. Samson seems to be the proper person to undertake it: he got his Bachelor’s Degree in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and a License in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, during which time he studied language, history, and archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A doctoral candidate in the Biblical Theology department of the Pontifical Gregorian University, now Fr. Samson helps lead the Holy Land Retreat and Pilgrimage of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, and provides all those interested in visiting with a Catholic Guide to the Holy Land, a book written not only for pilgrims, but also Catholics living in the region: all the proceeds from the book’s sales are to be passed along to the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala, Palestine.

Aleteia: Biblical archaeology is commonly thought of as primarily related to diggings in Israel, the Promised Land. But a closer look might reveal The Holy Land is comprised of other territories as well (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and so forth). Would you agree on differentiating the Promised Land from the Holy Land? Is that something we can find in your book? 

Fr. Samson: I would agree with such a differentiation, though indeed with some caveats. The land of ancient Canaan—aka the Promised Land, which the Romans named “Palestina”—is what God showed Moses from atop Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-3). In today’s terminology, that would mean that Moses saw all the swaths of land that belong both to the State of Israel and to the Palestinian Authority, the latter of whose land is commonly called the “West Bank” because it is located west of the banks of the Jordan River. In fact, nowadays, if one ventures to the top of Mount Nebo (which is in the country of Jordan) and looks eastward, one can see, in a truly spectacular view, the massive sweeps of land that extend from the Sea of Galilee all the way south to the Dead Sea. Such is the land of which the Lord spoke to Moses: “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes” (Deuteronomy 34:4).

Some things about this whole discussion should be pointed out. Firstly, many pilgrims identify the “Promised Land” simply with “Israel,” the latter of which they unknowingly associate with modern-day Israel. In so doing, such pilgrims unknowingly overlook the fact that, actually, parts of the land promised by God to the Hebrews consists in territories belonging to current-day Palestine. Hence, I think it best to speak, while on pilgrimage, of either the “Promised Land” or “The Land of Ancient Israel,” rather than calling all of it simply “Israel.” Secondly, moreover, a distinction between “Promised Land” and “Holy Land” indeed should be made, for the “Holy Land” in fact does extend beyond the territories of ancient Canaan, so as to include parts of what is now the country of Jordan, which is located on the eastern side of the Jordan River (hence the country’s name). That this land should be included in the denomination “Holy Land” is seen by, among other things, the fact that, as we read in the Church historian Eusebius, it is thought that the Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem fled the Holy City before Titus burned it, emigrating across the River Jordan to live in Pella, which was part of a region of the Holy Land called the “Transjordan” (because it was “across”—trans, in Latin—the Jordan River).

All the images in this slideshow have been graciously provided by Fr. Samson. 

So, to recap, here is what we should take away from this discussion: by “Promised Land,” we should understand the land of ancient Canaan/Roman “Palestina”/current-day State of Israel and Palestine Authority … these three items are more or less synonymous; by “Holy Land,” we should understand the Promised Land and nearby sections of land across the Jordan River and located in what is now the country of Jordan. Such considerations are, indeed, found in my book, which contains also accompanying maps and diagrams explaining how all of the Holy Land was laid-out at the time of Jesus, especially.

Aleteia: What would you say has been the most important finding in the last century? Maybe something related to the opening and restoration of the Holy Sepulchre? 

Fr. Samson: The most important findings of the last century are certainly the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran, and indeed the recent discoveries related to the opening and restoration of the Holy Sepulchre itself.

The Dead Sea Scrolls’ significance is both linguistic and cultural: linguistic, in the sense that they, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament that we have, reveal important perspectives for both the study of textual criticism (that is, issues ranging from what are the most “original” readings of Old Testament texts, what are some attested textual variants on individual verses, how [well] did textual traditions or trends get transmitted over the centuries) and the study of the development of the Hebrew language over time; cultural, in the sense that the content of the non-scriptural manuscripts found at Qumran, and which treat the life and beliefs of the radical sect known as the Essenes, open up real and important windows and insights into the religious and societal understandings and expectations (particularly Messianic expectations) of a significant part of the larger culture in which both Jesus lived and much of the New Testament texts were written. If anyone would like to read about the importance and impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls in biblical matters, I would recommend the works of Gaza Vermes (a Jewish historian, who has overseen also the translation of these scrolls into English) and Emmanuel Tov (a Jewish scholar who oversaw the official publication of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series) and the following Christian scholars, the majority of whom are Catholic: James VanderKam, John Bersgma, John Collins and Craig Evans, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland de Vaux.

The discoveries made regarding the opening of the tomb of Jesus are the other incredibly important find of the last century. The “Edicule”—the technical term for the small structure that stands within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over what has been long-believed to be the spot in which Jesus was buried and rose from the dead—was becoming not long ago very structurally unsound due to the passing of time and also some earthquakes, and was even in danger of collapsing. However, due to unfortunate factors and difficult ecumenical dynamics, the religious communities that occupy the church could not agree on who would be responsible, and even trusted, for its refurbishing. The King of Jordan then stepped in and pledged to finance the Edicule’s restoration (it should be pointed out that all of the land of ancient Israel, now divided among the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, used to belong to the country of Jordan, which lost that land in the post World War II warring with the now-State of Israel), and the work was recently concluded. The tomb looks great now! All the soot has been cleared off of its exterior, and the entire structure has been reinforced with supports. One thing that they discovered, though, while undertaking all of the renovations, was something quite remarkable under the altar in the innermost part of the Edicule. They found two slabs of marble therein: one dating to the 12th century (and, so, which was placed there by the Crusaders), and one underneath it dating to the 4th century (and, so, which was placed there by Constantine, the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity and built for Christians various churches throughout the Roman Empire). The Greek archaeologists and technicians undertaking this research lifted up the lower, 4th-century slab and beheld underneath it a mass of bedrock—on which, they concluded, the body of Jesus was lain when he, having been just crucified, was laid in a new tomb not far away from Mount Calvary (see John 19). This is a fantastic find, both in itself and in the fact that it shows that the early Christian witness with regards to where certain events in the life of Jesus transpired should be trusted way, way more than most critical, skeptical scholars give credence.

Aleteia: How can biblical archaeology change our understanding of biblical texts? Does it provide hermeneutical keys to unlock some “contextual” meanings in the text? 

Fr. Samson: Biblical archaeology certainly does provide concrete context that helps to explain the biblical text in a fresh, and, so, very enlightening, way. I will offer one example, which regards the calling of Matthew (Mt 9:9-13). Not long ago, the water level of the Sea of Galilee receded a significant distance, and there was uncovered at Capernaum a long, and fairly wide, bench-like structure. Scholars have identified it as a customs booth, where there was likely collected, there on the sea shore, a fishing-tax on all catches made by fishermen in those waters. Such a discovery casts a new light on the drama contained in the account of the calling of Matthew, whom Jesus invited to follow Him while Matthew was sitting at his customs booth in Capernaum. Let’s think about this for a second. We all know that tax collectors were despised by most Jews not only because they worked for Rome (and, so, were visible reminders to the Jews of their societal submission to a foreign—and, so, unclean—people and power) in collecting from their fellow Jews (which con-nationality served as salt in the wound) monies that contributed to the Empire, but also because they were known to be money-cheats who would bump up the official taxable amount so as to skim off of the top of the increased taxes a little bit of extra income for themselves. Now, when we combine this societal background-baggage of tax-collectors with the archaeological discovery of the fishing-tax booth at Capernaum, we can appreciate a little bit more the drama of the scene—specifically, among other things, we are given a fresh and new window into the reaction that Jesus’ action of calling Matthew at his fishing-tax booth must have stirred up within the hearts of Jesus’ other disciples. Place yourself in the minds and hearts of the 11 disciples, who were all, of course, fishermen: not only is Jesus’ calling of a tax collector to be a close disciple of his shocking enough, but even more shocking is the fact that Jesus was calling, to join his chosen and intimate band of disciples, the very man who personally ripped off all of those who were already Jesus’ disciples, who had to pay taxes to pre-conversion Matthew on all of their past catches of fish. Wow! We can imagine that not only the Pharisees were indignant at the choice on Jesus’ part (Mt 9:11), but perhaps also some of the apostles were rubbed a bit the wrong way by Jesus’ calling of Matthew, the fishing-tax collector. How hard it must have been, for the disciples, to avoid offending against charity in their hearts either by anger (Mt 5:21-26) or judgment (Lk 6:27-37) towards their newly-made fellow disciple, who was formerly very much seen as and considered to be a personal enemy!

In this way, we can see that Jesus’ act of calling Matthew was not intended to have transformative, conversional effect in Matthew’s heart only; it was also intended to expand the hearts of his disciples, whom he not long ago exhorted and commanded to “love your enemies,” not just “those who love you” (something “the tax collectors do”), and so strive to be “perfect, as [their] Heavenly Father is perfect”) (Mt 5:43-48). The mercy of Jesus in choosing and calling Matthew—a theme commented-upon by St. Bede the Venerable, and which Pope Francis chose for his own papal motto: miserando atque eligendo—was, we see in light of this newly-found archaeological context to the passage of Matthew 9:9-13, not only intended to transform the former tax collector’s heart, but also the hearts of Jesus’ other disciples. This latter insight, though it indeed could be found (in a general way, by recourse to the widespread disdain of tax collectors by in large) in the passage, itself, of Matthew’s calling, is fortified by being personalized through consideration of this passage in the light of the archaeological discovery at Capernum of the fishermen-tax booth. In this way, archaeology can be seen to change our understanding of biblical texts by providing hermeneutical keys that unlock meaning hidden underneath the cultural and scriptural context of a given passage of the Bible.

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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