Early Christian Pilgrimages
Raise your hand if you’ve been to the Holy Land or hope to go sometime soon! Israel is in a touring boom right now. Thousands of Christians every year are making their way to walk in the footsteps of the Messiah Jesus and heroes of the faith. The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry has been taking tours to Israel since the 1970s. But did you know that people have been making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for thousands of years? This week we’ll learn which early Christians made their way to the Holy Land and why.
Today we go and stay in beautiful hotels and drive on modern roads but our brothers and sisters years ago had a much harder journey—that’s dedication! This time of looking back in history will help you appreciate touring the modern land today. And hey! If you are thinking of going on a tour, why don’t you join us? There’s still room on our October tour!
Steve Conover: This is The Friends of Israel Today. I'm Steve Conover, and with me is Chris Katulka, our host and teacher. Chris, I know not too long ago, you spent some time in Europe with your wife. I'm sure you enjoyed Europe and made a lot of memories, but it might not have been something you would've considered a spiritual journey. On the other hand, I know you've led multiple trips to Israel, and having experienced both, how would you say they're different?
Chris Katulka: Yeah. Going to Europe was amazing. My wife and I were celebrating our 10th anniversary, and it was just the perfect getaway and a great traveling experience. I would recommend anybody to go to Europe for a trip.
But I've led several trips to Israel, and people often say to me, "Hey Chris, you've done this so many times. Don't you get tired of seeing these locations, the same thing over and over?" You know what? I never get tired of it, because you're not just going on a vacation when you go to Israel. This is a spiritual pilgrimage. You are deepening your relationship with God.
It's much different than any other location in the world, and that's actually what we're going to talk about today. We're actually going to talk about the history of Christian pilgrimage as Christians were making a journey, a spiritual journey to the Holy Land. That's what we're going to be talking about today.
Steve Conover: Before that, a look at the news. Recently released stats show that Israel's population has surpassed nine million people for the first time. The data reveals 74.2% of Israelis are Jewish. Three quarters of that group are native-born. The next largest group is the Arab community at 21%, and experts say by 2048, Israel Centennial, their population is estimated to be 15 million.
Chris Katulka: This is amazing. Jewish people are returning to the land of Israel. Just listen to some of these amazing statistics that come along with what you've been saying, Steve.
In 1948, there were only 800,000 people that were living in Israel at that time. 11.5 million Jews lived all around the world, but only 6% at that time in 1948 lived in Israel. Today, 71 years later, 45% of the world's Jewish community lives in Israel, and those numbers continue to grow.
This is what I believe this tells us from a biblical worldview. God's word is true, my friends. God's word promised that the Jewish people would return to the land, and this is something that we know we can fall back on. God's word is faithful.
For almost 50 years, The Friends of Israel has been leading trips to Israel showing Christians the Holy Land, walking in the footsteps of Jesus, and connecting believers with locations of all the biblical stories that we know and love.
Tourism to the Holy Land really started to pick up back in the 1970s when travelers would board commercial airliners and affordably get from the US or Europe to Israel. Tourism in Israel today is actually booming. People from all around the world to come to experience the Holy Land. In fact, tourism in Israel is one of the country's major sources of income with a record 3.6 million tourists arriving in 2017, and a 25% growth since the year before, and it contributes to 20 billion shekels to the Israeli economy. That's nearly $5 billion.
While traveling to Israel is very popular these days, I actually think it's important to look back at history, the history of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Quite honestly, going to Israel isn't like traveling to Disneyland or Europe. I actually don't even like the phrase, touring Israel, or the concept of tourism when it comes to Israel, because really, going to Israel is a pilgrimage for the Christian. That word, pilgrimage, is a perfect term. A pilgrimage is a journey for spiritual significance.
When I travel to the beach, I go to relax and I get a suntan, but when I go to Israel, it's different. There's a deepening of my understanding of God as I engage with His words and I see the biblical sites right before me. If you've ever been to Israel, you know exactly what I'm talking about. You know it's more than a tour or a vacation.
Let me just say this. You can have a very deep relationship with the Lord without ever going to Israel, but when you do go to the Holy Land, it adds a new dimension to your relationship with God. Christians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land for thousands of years.
Our earliest records come from a church historian whose name is Eusebius, and he lived in the 4th century AD. He documents one of the first pilgrims to the Holy Land. His name was Melito, and he was a bishop of Sardis who lived in the 2nd century AD. It's written that Melito, he decided to go east and he came to a place where the things that were preached and done, talking about Jesus and his ministry in the bible, he wanted to go visit these places. He wanted to do it so that he could investigate not only what was written about in the New Testament with Jesus, but also what the Hebrew canon had to say, what the Hebrew stories were all about.
He's one of our earliest ones, Melito of Sardis. The next recorded pilgrim is Alexander of Cappadocious, who went to the Holy Land, "In consequence," he wrote this down, "In consequence of a vow for the sake of information in regards to its places," talking about the biblical sites. Alexander of Cappadocious was a 3rd century bishop who would later actually move to Jerusalem.
Dr. William Krewson writes in his book, Jerome and the Jews, what both Melito and Alexander have in common is the devotion for knowledge about the places they read and study in God's word, the devotion, if you heard that word. It's not a knowledge that puffs up, but a knowledge that's connected with devotion to the Lord, to know him more.
That same Christian historian, Eusebius, who lived in Caesarea, a port city in Israel, said this: "Believers in Christ all congregate from all parts of the world in Jerusalem so that they may learn about the city being taken and devastated as the prophets foretold and that they may worship at the Mount of Olives opposite to the city."
When Eusebius is writing this, he's actually trying to say Christians are going to see the Jerusalem that's written about in the Bible, that they want to travel from far parts of the world to see Jerusalem and what happened to Jerusalem, as was predicted by Jesus, and to worship Jesus on the Mount of Olives.
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land actually became increasingly more popular as men like Jerome ... These are Christian men who lived back in the early parts of the church ... He was a Christian who actually moved from Rome to Bethlehem, and he strongly would encourage those living in the west to come abroad and to visit the Holy Land.
But everything kind of changes in the 4th century AD. This is when the Roman emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity, and he legalized Christianity. Before Constantine's conversion, only religions that existed before Rome were legal. So Christianity was considered illegal, but Judaism, since it was around before Rome's establishment, was okay. It was considered legal. Constantine, however, he legalizes Christianity around 313 AD, eventually banning Pagan worship in Rome.
Only about a decade after his conversion ... Listen to this ... He commissions his mother, Helena. She makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to locate sacred spaces and establish churches there. Helena journeys to the Holy Land and located various areas of Jesus' ministry, including his birth in Bethlehem, and she built a church there called The Church of the Nativity. It actually still stands there. She located the place of Jesus' ascension on the Mount of Olives. That church was called The Church of the Ascension. It was actually destroyed, though, by the Persians in the 7th century. And finally, she located the place of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, and that church is called The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Now, she didn't just point her finger and say, "Put a church there." According to Dr. Hunt, who's a specialist in early Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Helena located these spots based on historical routes, by preexisting traditions of the location and key moments in Scriptural records, which means the places they planted churches had already been marked by history as a very important site in Christianity.
So we can't just throw away where Helena located sites in Bethlehem or in Jerusalem. A lot of scholars believe this was based on accurate, historical accounts, not just Helena going to Jerusalem and pointing her finger. Helena's construction of these churches really changed the dynamic of pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
That same church historian, Eusebius, he actually creates a travel guide that listed biblical sites for pilgrims to visit, creating an ancient ... Think about this ... an ancient travel itinerary for pilgrims to follow. This document was called The Onomasticon, and it listed all the various places through biblical history.
The Onomasticon was actually translated into Latin for western travelers, and during this renaissance of travel to the Holy Land, pilgrims started to document their personal travels. Think about this. As Christians are traveling from all around the world to the Holy Land and they're given this itinerary that they can travel, they're starting to journal the importance of these sites, what they mean personally, as well.
For several years, I led our Friends of Israel young adult ministry trip to Israel to minister to Israelis through the volunteer project that we have at a hospital, and these young adults, I used to love watching them. They'd wake up so early in the morning. They were so intentional about their trip to Israel. It was a pilgrimage for them. This was, for some of them, the very first time they would ever see the biblical sites.
And I can remember seeing some of my young pilgrims, if you will, waking up early in the morning while they were in Israel journaling about their experiences they had serving the Israeli people and the impact the biblical sites had on their lives as they were reading the bible stories right where they happened.
This journaling tradition isn't a new fad. I want to show you, it actually has been going on for thousands of years. The earliest personal journal that we have that comes from a pilgrim from Bordeaux in Gaul, and he detailed his journey to the Holy Land in about 333 AD. We don't know his name, but we have his records. He didn't add anything personal about how it impacted his life, but he paints a picture of the places he and other pilgrims traveled to visit.
However, a woman named Egeria from Spain, she traveled from Spain to Egypt and then Egypt to the Holy Land, and in her diary, she documents her visits to both Jewish and Christian places. And the story goes that Egeria was one of Jesus' followers who simply wanted to visit his Holy Land.
She records her experience traveling to both Jewish and Christian biblical sites, and when she would begin writing ... I love this ... She would always open the journal with, "Dear ladies." She did this because she was writing back to her ladies group, really, in Spain, to let them all know about her pilgrimage and how it was impacting her life.
And what's interesting is that while she was documenting her time there, she was really documenting her worship experience in the Holy Land, as it connected to the church calendar at that time.
And she's such an early pilgrim to the Holy Land that the church didn't even formally recognize December 25th as the day of Christ's birth yet, and we have that in record because she leaves it out as a time of worship when she's over there journaling. It's not recorded there, and we know that the church formally recognized December 25th around 460 AD, so she's writing even before that.
And so, this really fascinates me. Friends, early on in church history, Christians were leaving behind everything they knew and they cherished to embark on a pilgrimage, to experience Christ and to know him more in his homeland, as Egeria said.
And bear in mind that Egeria and the pilgrim from Bordeaux of Gaul and Alexander of Cappadocious and Melito of Sardis and even Helena, they made a journey that was much more dangerous and time-consuming and radical, if you will. They didn't have travel agents. They didn't have commercial airlines with comfortable, quick travel.
And whether you've been to Israel once, twice, or 20 times, or if you plan to go to Israel for the first time to visit the Holy Land, you fall within a heritage of people, a lineage, a tradition of people who want to experience and know Jesus more by visiting his homeland.
And I know from personal experiences, traveling to the Holy Land never gets old. Touching down in Israel and breathing in that Middle East, Mediterranean air, the feeling the cool breeze of the mountains of Judea floating in the Dead Sea, walking on the Sea of Galilee ... I'm just kidding. But all of it, it's real and it gives a new dimension to one's relationship with the Lord.
And when we return, I want to talk about an ancient map in light of this pilgrimage, this ancient journey that's been going on for thousands of years. I want to talk about an ancient map that was found that shows a picture of Jerusalem. There's a lot of historical and theological significance to this ancient mosaic map, so be sure to stick around.
Steve Conover: For more than 40 years, The Friends of Israel has been hosting pilgrimages to the land of the Bible. As we mentioned before, going to Israel is life-changing.
Chris Katulka: Remember what I said earlier. The Friends of Israel has been leading pilgrimages to Israel since the 1970s when it was just starting to grow in the Christian community to get on a commercial airliner and to go over. For a very long time, for several decades, The Friends of Israel has been leading these tours, and we've been able to build relationships with Israelis that help broaden a Christian's understanding of not only biblical Israel, but also modern Israel. That's why I think going with The Friends of Israel is so unique because you get a great perspective of the past, the present, and the future.
Steve, if I remember correctly, you're going to be going on an FOI up to Jerusalem tour soon, right?
Steve Conover: That's true, Chris. I'll be on the upcoming up to Jerusalem tour, and I would love for our radio listeners to join my wife and me this October. There are a few spots still available, and you can find out more about the October tour and other upcoming dates and details at FOIRadio.org.
Chris Katulka: Welcome back, everyone. We're talking about early Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. And in the last segment, we mentioned how traveling to Israel is not like traveling for vacation. Traveling to Israel is a pilgrimage. It's a spiritual journey. And traveling to the Holy Land isn't a recent phenomenon. It's gotten easier to travel to Israel with modern travel, but Christians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land for more than a millennia. It's been going on for a very, very long time.
In 1884, during the construction of a Greek orthodox church up on top of an older ancient church in Madaba, Jordan, an ancient mosaic map was uncovered from the 6th century AD. And this mosaic map depicts what the Holy Land actually looked like in that time period. It depicts the area from Lebanon in the north all the way to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west all the way to the eastern desert.
It gives you a perfect picture of the whole area of the Holy Land, and certain scholars actually believe that the Madaba map served to facilitate pilgrims who were traveling to the Holy Land. Remember, in the 6th century AD, there was no Google Maps at that time. The Madaba map was a great general overview of the Holy Land for the pilgrim.
But one of the largest parts of the map that kind of actually zooms in on the picture of the Holy Land is actually the city of Jerusalem. The mosaic map shows a number of significant structures in the Old City. The Damascus Gate, you can see that marked out in the mosaic map. The Lions Gate is there. The Golden Gate is there. The Zion Gate is there. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is there. The New Church of Theotokos is there. The Tower of David and even the Cardo is present.
The recognizable depiction of this urban topography makes the mosaic a key source on Jerusalem during the 6th century AD. This is a very important picture of what it looked like to travel to Israel circa 500 AD. And so this is so important, especially to archeologists, in understanding the map and what Jerusalem looked like.
But what's interesting about this map is just how much the church changed the topography of Jerusalem. In antiquity, the centerpiece of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount. If you go to Jerusalem today, you can't escape the Temple Mount. It's always staring right at you. It's the place where Solomon's temple stood. It's the place where Herod's temple stood.
However, think about this. In the Madaba map, the Temple Mount was relegated to a very small-looking gate. There's no priority given to the large platform that spans 36 acres. Instead, the church transfers the importance away from the Temple Mount and focuses the attention of the pilgrim toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where history says Jesus died, was buried and resurrected.
So the map is so detailed about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that it actually shows the façade and the gateway to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It shows where the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is. It shows the inner courtyard of the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher. It highlights even the baptistry and various buildings around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Friends, this map shows that the church at that time had no regard whatsoever for the Jewishness of the Bible. That's what it's showing us. This ancient map not only shows the history of Jerusalem from the 6th century AD. It also shows the depressing theology the church had that was pushing that God was through with Israel and the Jewish people.
When you journey to Israel today, however, especially with The Friends of Israel, friends, you see that God isn't through with Israel, that God is doing something unique. He's doing some marvelous, something miraculous with Israel and the Jewish people. Traveling to Israel is such an amazing experience, and I encourage any Christian who loves the Lord, who loves his word, to make the spiritual pilgrimage, the spiritual journey to Israel, to see that God is not through with his chosen people.
Steve Conover: Now, Apples of Gold, a dramatic reading from the life and ministry of Holocaust survivor, Zvi Kalisher.
Mike Kellogg: Recently I was waiting for the bus for Jerusalem when two young men asked me for directions to a synagogue, which I gladly gave them. One replied, "We want to pray, but we have already been to that synagogue, and it is locked up tight."
I asked, "If every synagogue were locked, would you not pray?"
They looked strangely at me. And then one asked, "How can you pray without a minyan?" A minyan is 10 people required to conduct a Jewish worship service.
I responded, "God is not looking to see if you pray in a synagogue. He looks at your heart. If you pray to Him from your heart, your prayer will be heard in heaven."
As we were talking, more people joined the conversation. Some of the men belonged to the synagogue that was locked, and because they know me, one asked, "Why are you trying to brainwash these young men?"
I said, "My duty is to bring them closer to God not according to the old traditions, but according to Zechariah chapter one, verse three. 'Return to me,' says the Lord of host, 'And I will turn to you.' Zechariah also refers to your old traditions. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached, saying, 'Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'Turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds. But they did not hear nor heed me,' says the Lord."
It was like a small miracle to be able to give them facts from the bible. It was also a small miracle the bus was late, giving me more time to share the truth with them.
Eventually, the two young men said they wanted to repent and they asked me to take them to the rabbi. I said, "If you really want to repent, you do not need a rabbi. Go before the Lord and open your hearts before Him. Then you will know you are saved from your sins. God is pleased when you come before Him and say, 'Lord, save me.' You can say, just as King David did in Psalm 25:1–2, 'To you, oh Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, I trust in you. Let me not be ashamed.'"
I read the remainder of Psalm 25, along with some other passages, including Jeremiah 31:33. "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days," says the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."
As soon as I spoke the word covenant, some of the older men said to the young men, "You must fear him. He is speaking from the New Testament, the book those Christians believe." I told them how blind they were, as I showed them I had read from the prophet Jeremiah. All were surprised. This was the first time most of them had seen that the Jewish prophets spoke about the New Covenant.
I then showed them some Old Testament passages that clearly speak of the Lord Jesus. I pray I will have more opportunities to meet with them, especially the two young men and tell them how they can truly repent by putting their faith and trust in the Messiah.
Steve Conover: Thank you for joining us today. We rely on the support of our listeners to keep this program on the air, so as we close, let me ask you to consider going to FOIRadio.org and supporting us with a donation.
Chris Katulka is our host and teacher. Tom Gallione produced today's program. It was co-written by Sarah Fern. Apples of Gold was voiced by Mike Kellogg. Jeremy Strong composed our theme, and I'm Steve Conover, executive producer.
The Friends of Israel Today is a production of The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. We are a worldwide Christian ministry communicating biblical truth about Israel and the Messiah while fostering solidarity with the Jewish people.
Up to Jerusalem Tours
Join us for our Up to Jerusalem tour this October! For more than 40 years The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry has been hosting tours to Israel. This life-changing time will leave you in love with the land and Jewish people while giving you a deeper knowledge and view into Scriptures and our Messiah!
Apples of Gold: “Return to Me,” says the Lord
Two young men asked Zvi for directions to a synagogue while he was waiting at the bus stop. They were bewildered that the last synagogue they went to was closed. The men were looking for a group of men to pray so that “God could hear them.” As Zvi explained what Scriptures say about men praying directly to God, a crowd approached. Hear how God used Zvi to share the truth of God’s Word.
Zvi’s story is available in Elwood McQuaid’s book, “Zvi: The Miraculous Story of Triumph over the Holocaust,” available at our online store.
More stories from Zvi are also available in his book, “The Best of Zvi,” available at our online store.
As a faith-based ministry we cannot do this without the faithful giving from partners like you! Right now, if you partner with us with a gift of $25 or more we will send as our thanks the newly redesigned and updated It Is No Dream by Dr. Elwood McQuaid!
Please call 1-800-345-8461 and mention the promo code “DREAM.”
*Offer ends 5/31/19
The Friends of Israel Today and Apples of Gold theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong.