The Bible Answers Short Questions From Our Readers
Plain Truth Staff
"I will have the opportunity to visit Jerusalem this summer. There are many sites there where Christ was supposedly born, lived, and died. How valid are these sites? How were they discovered?" G. A., Seattle, Washington
Very few of the many famous "Christian shrines" in Jerusalem are accurate, or even resemble the Biblical record of Christ's life and death! The first shrines were not established until 295 years after Christ died! And they were established by an 80-year-old woman who had never seen Jerusalem before, had never read the Bible, and who hurriedly chose these "sacred sites" in the last year of her life as atonement for a life of utter paganism! That woman was Helena (247-327 A.D.), the mother of Constantine the Great. She was born of peasant stock, the daughter of a tavern keeper, but she managed to become the concubine of a Roman noble, Constantinius, in 274 A.D.) and she bore him a child out of wedlock — Constantine the Great! Many classical writers, including Eusebius, refer to her in Latin as "concubinatus" throughout her life. When Constantinius became emperor in 292, he put away Helena, hoping to erase all records of this youthful sin of his. He succeeded until his death in 306, when Constantine succeeded his father as emperor, and restored his peasant mother to fame. He stamped coins in her honor and renamed cities to her glory. Not until 326, during the last year of her life, did Helena begin to take an interest in Christianity at all. That year she became a professing Christian and set out for Jerusalem. This background of Helena and Constantine is necessary if we are to understand the TRUE motivations behind the choice of these so-called "sacred shrines." Their choice was NOT made on painstaking study of the Bible, diligent archaeological research, or even Jewish-Christian tradition of the day, but on weird visions, threats and torture, arbitrary personal opinion, and, in one case, based on her physical health. Here are five of the most famous shrines she discovered: The "Grotto of Nativity" in Bethlehem, supposedly the birthplace of Christ, was a CAVE 20 feet under the earth level when Helena "discovered" it in 326 A.D. It remains a cave to this day. Helena was "told in a night vision," according to the historian Socrates (not to be confused with the Greek philosopher) writing in 430 A.D., that this was Christ's birthplace. The Bible refers to the proper site as a manger (Luke 2:7, 16), not by any imagination a cave! The "Place of the Cross" was Helena's choice for the site of the death of Jesus. The Biblical site of "Golgotha... the place of the skull" (Mark 15:22) may be clearly seen today outside the old walled city near the Damascus Gate (John 19:20). But Helena had not read the Biblical account for the facts. The "Church of the Ascension" on the Mount of Olives is the most ludicrous of all the shrines in Jerusalem. One classical writer, Sulpicious Severes, said that Helena found "the footsteps of Christ" there! A more believable record is a legend that she, being 80, was so tired after climbing halfway up the Mount of Olives, that she could not ascend to the top. Thus the "Church of the Ascension" stands at the halfway mark of the Mount of Olives to this day! Christ is supposed to have ascended to heaven from the side of a hill — just because elderly Helena wasn't in physical condition to make it to the top! Helena also "discovered" what thousands believe to be the true cross on which Christ was crucified. The Bible says Christ was crucified "on a tree" (I Peter 2:23). The original Greek from which the word "cross" is translated is stauros, meaning a stake or tree trunk. But Helena didn't know these Biblical facts. "Tradition" spoke of a cross, so she was only in the market for a cross. She thought she could find the original cross among all the wooded debris of Jerusalem. According to Eusebius, she demanded that the local Rabbis tell where the cross was. They refused, but finally consented after she, supposedly a newly born Christian, threatened to bum them, alive if they did not tell. After eight days of confinement and forced starvation, the Rabbis led her to where the crosses of wood were buried. They dug up three, and she claimed to have found the "right one" by touching each to a cadaver, The "right one," she said, caused the cadaver to come back to life. She pronounced that one to be THE cross, and sent the nails back to her son Constantine for his crown. This description is obviously exaggerated, but shows that Helena was by no stretch of the imagination "proving all things" (I Thess. 5:21), "trying the spirits" (I John 4:1), or "rightly dividing the Word of truth" (II Tim. 2:15). She died a few months after this trip to Jerusalem, but was later proclaimed a saint, due to her deathbed pilgrimage and "discovery" of the holy shrines. (For further information on the life of Helena, see Smith and Wace's Dictionary of Christian Biogaphy, Volume II, article "Helena (2)".) Other sites were added later, with similar abandon! "Monks supplied sacred places as fast as pilgrims demanded" (Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Land During the 19th Century). By careful study and observation, some sites in Jerusalem can be fairly accurately determined, such as Golgotha, the garden tomb, and the Mount of Olives. But God never intended people to adore physical sites, or set up shrines there! The Bible does NOT stress the geographical, but the spiritual purpose of Christ's birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. If God wanted us to revere these sites, He would have told us to do so, and He would have been careful to give us the exact locations. As such, the Bible contains only small hints few and far between. God knew long ago that man would adore physical graves if given a chance. That's why God sent Michael the archangel to keep Moses' body away from Satan (Jude 9; Deut. 34:6)! Satan wanted to divert the Israelites from worshiping God by having them worship their revered physical leader, Moses. Israelites disrespected Moses while he lived, but nearly worshiped his memory afterward, as some Jews still do today. That's why God instructed that Moses' grave be hid, "and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day" (Deut. 34:6). In the not-too-distant future, Jesus Christ is going to return and (if He chooses) make it abundantly clear where He was born, and where He lived and worked, but these sites will not become shrines. Instead, Jesus Christ will destroy the dark caves, corners, and crevices of Jerusalem. In place of today's decrepit Old Jerusalem, He will build a bright, clean, open-air, magnificent and elegant TEMPLE where His servants will worship Him "in Spirit and in Truth" (John 4:24). God haste that day!