“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”(Matthew 23:37 ESV)
Jesus said these words upon his last week in Jerusalem prior to His death. It pretty much sums up the theme of Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s monumentual book, Jerusalem: The Biography. I finished listening to it as an audiobook from Audible.com not too long ago. At 25 hours and 26 minutes, it is a very long listen. But as I have been doing tedious work as part of an upstairs remodeling effort, it helps to have had a set of headphones to listen to this fascinating work of history while I try to cover up my tile grout mistakes. Montefiore traces the story of Jerusalem, starting back at its Canaanite origins thousands of years ago up through the present era, stopping at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.
It has been taking me over a year to get through Jerusalem, having to take a break every now and then just to work through the emotional energy required to take in such a vast topic. Jerusalem’s name is often associated with being “The City of Peace”. But the long and tumultuous story is evidence that this sacred and holy place has been anything but peaceful.
Jerusalem: The Biography
Simon Sebag Montefiore himself is part of the story, his great-great-uncle Sir Moses Montefiore being a Jewish philanthropist associated with the Rothschilds family. This great-great uncle took a great interest in elevating the livelihood of Jews living in and around Jerusalem during the 19th-century. Although Simon Sebag Montefiore is Jewish, I get the sense that he is more ethnically than theologically Jewish, given the way he tells the narrative of Jerusalem’s history.
Montefiore gives us many remarkable stories of different events, from the rise of King David, to the Babylonian Exile, and through the time of Jesus, just for starters. Along the way we hear about the Maccabean revolt and then I got immersed in the graphic detail of the Destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jews were slaughtering other Jews, only to have thousands annihilated by the Romans.
Later came the Byzantine era with the advent of Christianity, only to be broken by the anti-Christian blasphemy of the Persian invasion. The Byzantines regained the city, only to have it conquered by Muslim Arabs first and eventually Muslim Turks, thus triggering the Crusades from Western Europe, and another unrelenting bloodbath. Do you see a trend here?
The back and forth struggle for control of the city is well documented by Montefiore. Different groups, from pagans to Jews to Christians to Muslims, all at various times claimed the city as their own, only to marginalize other contenders. Throughout history, much of the violence in Jerusalem was all done in the name of God. It is no wonder that Montefiore keeps an arm’s length distance respecting all things that hint of a deep passion for God.
Curious Anecdotal Gems
Marvelous and curious anecdotes are sprinkled along the journey. Stories about Abraham, Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Muhammad, Saladin, the German Kaiser, Disraeli, Mark Twain, and Lawrence of Arabia are told throughout.
Here is one that I found weirdly fascinating: By the 19th century, we meet Warder Cresson, the first U.S. Consul to Jerusalem in 1844. But the appointment only lasted for a week. The problem was that Cresson was what you would call a “church hopper” to the extreme. Originally raised a Quaker, Cresson did stints with various American religious groups, such as the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Seventh Day Adventists, before securing the diplomatic position from Washington to serve in Jerusalem. Within a few days after the appointment, Secretary of State John C. Calhoun figured out how bizarre Cresson really was and had Cresson’s position recalled. But Cresson was already on a steamer bound to Jerusalem. He acted on behalf of the U.S. Government for about a year before he heard of the recall!
Cresson then converted to orthodox Judaism. He returned to Pennsylvania a few years later, hoping to persuade his family to convert and come with him back to the Holy Land. Instead, his wife brought him to trial on the charge of insanity, one of the most sensational trials in America prior to the Civil War. Cresson appealed the verdict of a lower court and won his case, returning to Jerusalem to live out the rest of his life. He even entertained the famous writer Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, on his visit to Jerusalem.
Then there is the story of the American Colony. Chicagoan Horatio Spafford wrote the popular hymn “It is Well with My Soul” after losing four of his daughters on a fatal Atlantic sea voyage. In an effort to find peace, Horatio and his wife Anna, left Chicago with some members of his church and founded a Christian community in Jerusalem in 1881. The Spafford-led American Colony were extremely well respected by everyone in this divided religious community of Jews, Christians and Muslims, serving the community in the name of peace, becoming a place of refuge during times of religious conflict in the city. The American Colony eventually became a hotel in the mid-20th century.
Tagging onto that is the story of how the Turkish mayor of Jerusalem tried four different times to surrender to Edmund Allenby’s British army in World War One. The British had invaded the Ottoman Empire-controlled Holy Land as part of the joint French and British effort to weaken the Turks and essentially carve up the borders of what we now know as the Middle East (a subject of greatly renewed interest among radical Islamists in recent days in Syria and Iraq). Using a bed sheet from the American Colony as a white flag, the Jerusalem mayor and his entourage decked out in formal attire walked among British troops for hours, trying to find someone who would accept his town’s offer of surrender, at one point trying to give the offer of surrender to a British army cook.
A Storyline With Some Problems
Montefiore is not without his stumbling blocks. Early on, he erroneously states that Emperor Constantine “tried to impose his solution: that Jesus was divine and human” (p. 153) in calling the Council of Nicea. This wrongly implies that Constantine sought to control and resolve the crisis concerning the early church’s understanding of Christ as either human or divine or somehow both in a purely autocratic, political power-play fashion. To say that Constantine “imposed” his solution is highly misleading, and something I would expect to find in Dan Brown and not a work of serious history.
With respect to the story of Jesus and other parts of the Bible, sometimes Montefiore follows the Biblical narrative. Sometimes he does not. It really is not very clear what historical method he is using. This haphazard approach raises a number of yellow flags in my mind.
Most egregiously, he puts in a section heading stating “Paul of Tarsus: The Creator of Christianity” (p. 122). When I inspected the endnotes, I could easily tell why Montefiore makes these completely one-sided canards. As a source he uses the radically critical and dismissive writings of A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, thus he completely ignores theologically orthodox and conservative scholarship to create his narrative. In doing so, the impartiality of Montefiore’s scholarship is held in doubt.
But the most annoying aspect of the work is the occasional bawdy comment appearing now and then throughout the text. His point is to show that the sacred history of Jerusalem was not always so sacred. However,I do not think he needed to spice up the narrative as he did so often with such pithy sexual language to make his point. I got it more than enough times.
Despite these problems, there is a caveat to keep in mind regarding Montefiore. To his credit, Montefiore early on in the book acknowledges that Jerusalem’s history from a critical perspective is really hard to get at. Often, the story is a combination of fact and legend which can be difficult to discern in such a religiously charged and yet contradictory context. So you have to hold onto some of Montefiore’s narrative in a rather loose fashion, by the author’s own admission.
Christian Reflections on Jerusalem
My own listening to the book was colored by the fact that I visited Jerusalem in 1994. When going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was supposedly crucified, it was distressing to learn that multiple different Christian groups; including Franciscans, Greeks, and Armenians, just to name a few, have been unable to manage the building on their own. For centuries, a Muslim family has been charged with maintaining the key to the church in an effort to keep the peace. The various Christian groups there were unable to take care of the key themselves due to relentless and even violent internal squabbles. Furthermore, the roof of the church continues to leak since no one can agree on who will be responsible to fix the roof.
Sad. Terribly sad.
I can see why some people, like John Piper, see no need to go and visit the Holy Land. It is sufficient to know that Jesus dwells in the heart of the believer. You do not need to go to Jerusalem to find Jesus. I am afraid that if you are thinking about going to Jerusalem on some sort of pilgrimage to have some deeper, transformative experience of God, you should think twice about buying your plane ticket. I lot of people across the ages have gone to Jerusalem with great spiritual expectations only to have them dashed by the infamous mental illness commonly called the “Jerusalem syndrome.”
Nevertheless, the city of Jerusalem looms large in the story of the Bible. Some regard a trip to the Holy Land, with Jerusalem as the climax, as a way of reading a “Fifth Gospel,” as Saint Jerome put it, alongside the four canonical gospels we have in the Bible. Taking in the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of this incredible city gives you insights into the Bible that you would never get otherwise. I would love to go back again to visit Jerusalem (but just for a visit… mind you!). Reading Jerusalem, A Biography these past few months brought back many vivid memories. However, as a Christian, while I appreciate the diversity and sheer breadth of Montefiore’s approach, keeping you spellbound with his remarkable storytelling style, the author’s inability to grasp the full import of the New Testament’s vision of Jerusalem kept an otherwise fascinating and enjoyable book from being a truly great one. Maybe someday, someone will take after the lead set by Montefiore and write a more definitive account of Jerusalem.
The story of Jerusalem needs to be told. Some Christians emphasize the literal, material aspect of the city, particularly regarding how the city fits into different understandings of Bible prophecy. Other Christians emphasize the metaphorical or spiritual meaning of a city that directs the worshipper of God to look towards heaven. Everyone is drawn into the mystery of what is Jerusalem.
The city serves as reminder that we live in a world of vast contradiction: peace and violence, sacred and profane, hope and despair. Going through Montefiore’s massive study of Jerusalem’s history really brought the story alive, despite having to hold my nose at certain points in reading Montefiore, just as I did during my visit to the city twenty years ago. Positively, to walk the streets that Jesus walked, as well as reading about it, served as a reminder that the Christian faith is rooted in history. But in that history is plenty of evidence that Jesus had much to be distressed over when He entered this captivating and yet frustrating city. Thankfully, the story of Jesus does not end in death. It ends in resurrection. May that hope of new life come to Jerusalem as well.
We would all do well to pray for Jerusalem as Jesus did.