Riots on Mount Zion: Christians and Jews in Conflict

Some of you might remember the riots that broke out on Mt Zion last May when the Pope visited Jerusalem and held a Mass in the “Upper Room” or Cenacle, traditional site where Jesus ate his Last Supper. See the Jerusalem Post story here to refresh your memory.

Mass Cenacle

This past Sunday, which was both the Christian Pentecost and the Jewish Shavuot, similar skirmishes and arrests took place as Jewish protesters tried to prevent the Christians from worshipping in the Upper Room–which just happens to be over the so-called “Tomb of David.” I have not seen this covered in either the Jerusalem Post, HaAretz, or the Times of Israel, as of this morning, and a Google search yields only this AP wire story:

June 1, 5:54 PM EDT: JEWISH PROTESTERS TRY TO BLOCK CHRISTIAN RITUAL AT HOLY SITE

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police say they forcibly removed dozens of Jewish protesters trying to prevent a Christian ritual from taking place at a holy site revered in both religions.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri says the skirmish took place Monday at a site revered by Jews as the tomb of the biblical King David and by Christians as the site of Jesus’ Last Supper.

On Sunday, dozens of Jewish protesters also attempted to block Christian prayer there for the holiday of Pentecost.

A status-quo arrangement permits Christian prayer at the site on specific holidays. The Vatican is lobbying Israel for more access to the site, which fundamentalist Jewish Israelis oppose. The Custodia of Terra Santa, a Vatican representative in Jerusalem, said the events were “grave.”

This controversial site is unique in all the Holy Land. In a single building, the foundations of which might go back to the 1st century CE. I would say just about every one of the 3.5 million tourists–whether Christian or Jewish–visit this site. The reason is the upper floor, dating back to Crusader times, marks the traditional place of Jesus’ Last Supper, and precisely below, on the ground floor, is the traditional “Tomb of David,” also dating to Crusader times. These two communities, separated by a floor, stream in and out of their respective places. Before the Six Day War (June 1967), this area of Mt Zion was outside the Green Line and thus remained under Israeli control. It was the nearest Jews could get to the Old City from 1948–when they were all expelled–until 1967. This gave the tomb of David site an incredible significance–next to the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, which could not be accessed, as a place of prayer. Christians continued throughout this time to visit the Cenacle, or Upper Room site. I remember first going there in 1962 when I was a teenager, on my first trip to the Holy Land. I found it very moving. Here are some reflections on that trip written 50 years later with lots of links to my subsequent work in the area, “Fifty Year Ago: My First Visit to Jerusalem.”

Those of us who “Dig Mount Zion” each summer are intimately familiar with the Cenacle, as we walk past it daily from our dig site, just a few hundred yards to the east, to access the public toilets during our days in the field!

The history of the Cenacle has been a focus of my interest and research for 25 years spurred by the important article by Bargil Pixner, “The Church of the Apostles on Mount Zion,” published in Biblical Archaeology Review in May/June 1990. You can read the article here, reproduced with permission. In July 1990 I first met the author, the late great Father Bargil Pixner and we became fast friends over the years.

In now over 50 of trips to Jerusalem I have studied the various sites and their traditions and my views have settled over time. I have given particular attention to the theories of the late Bargil Pixner, whose instructive book, With Jesus in Jerusalem has become a classic. I knew Bargil well and spent many pleasant hours with him on dozens of visits to Jerusalem.  I helped him edit his influential 1997 article in BAR magazine, Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway.  Even though Bargil and I held different views on several matters, especially the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and initial burial.  I have a photo from the early 1990s taken in Jerusalem where we were discussing some of these very matters. It is of great sentimental value to me. I came to love and respect Father Pixner very deeply. Shimon Gibson and I visited the area last June, just after the rioting, to visit Pixner’s grave.  We were saddened to see the burning and vandalism at the Dormitian Abby nearby–very senseless destruction of priceless items–it reminds one of Isis or the Taliban.

Pixner.jpg

Pixner's TombstoneRD

One of my graduate students, David Clausen, who just finished his degree in May, has produced a marvelous M.A. thesis on the history and archaeology of the Cenacle that will be published early next year with McFarland (www.mcfarlandbooks.com). I think it is the best thing available on the subject. Shimon Gibson and I were readers. I will keep you all informed.

In the meantime, see some of you at Mt Zion very soon! And if you can’t join us help us–see here: Mt Zion Dig: How You Can Participate.