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Jerusalem is arguably Christianity's most important city, during the time of the New Testament all the way up to today. Though control of the city has changed hands many times, its main role has been as the capital of Israel and the site of the Jewish temple, and indeed, Jerusalem plays an important role in the Old Testament history of Israel's founding and growth (Armstrong, 2005, p. 194). However, it serves a crucial role in the New Testament as well, where it is mentioned over one-hundred forty times, not only in the context of the literal city visited by Jesus and his disciples, but also in the form of New Jerusalem, the new city created by God in Revelations (Morton, 2002, p. 769). By examining the importance of Jerusalem to Jesus' life as well as the state of the city today, one is able to better understand how the historical and social issues Jesus dealt with during his life and travels reverberate well into the twenty-first century.
The Gospels differ slightly on how many times Jesus actually visited Jerusalem, with Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agreeing that he visited the city at least once, for Passover, after which he was crucified outside the city gates, while John includes three visits to Jerusalem during Jesus' ministry (Harris, 1998, p. 149). However, these accounts do not actually contradict each other, because it seems as if John has simply split the story of Jesus' time in Jerusalem into three distinct parts rather than one complete narrative; for example, John suggests that Jesus' cleansing of the temple happened during a different visit than his triumphal entry, but regardless of this minor distinction, the Gospels all agree on the general events which occurred while Jesus was in Jerusalem as an adult. However, there are also other times where Jesus visited Jerusalem that are not included in all of the Gospels, such as his visits as a child, or when the devil takes him there in order to tempt him.
For example, the Gospel of Luke includes two stories from Jesus' life not present in the other Gospels, and they describe visits to Jerusalem, first when he practically a newborn, and later when he is twelve years old. Luke 2:22-40 describes how Jesus' parents took him to Jerusalem after his birth in order to fulfill the requirements of Mosaic law, and while being presented at the Temple two different people identify Jesus as the Messiah. Two verses later, Jesus returns to the Temple when he is twelve years old, and his parents accidentally leave him there. When they return, he is speaking with the teachers and elders, and they are impressed with his knowledge. Finally, Matthew and Luke record that during his time fasting in the desert, the devil appears to Jesus and tempts him. For the second of these temptations, the devil somehow takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple, and tells him to jump off, safe in the knowledge that angels will save him (Walker, 1996, p. 61). The Gospels are unclear how the two traveled there, but it is important to note that this counts as one of Jesus' visits to Jerusalem, because it fits in with a recurring theme regarding the city that can only be understood if one takes into account all of Jesus' travels there.
At first glance one might be surprised that Jesus does not visit Jerusalem, the capital, more often, considering that his goal was to spread his message as far as possible. However, when considering what actually happens when he does visit Jerusalem, his limited travels there make sense. In short, in the New Testament Jerusalem is essentially the center of worldly corruption, and it serves as a symbol of everything that Jesus has come to change. Thus, when he visits as a child, he educates the teachers and elders in an attempt to guide them. When he returns as an adult, however, the city, and particularly the Temple, has only degraded further, to the point that the Temple itself is filled with merchants and moneylenders who Jesus forcefully casts out (Paton, 1908, p. 140). In a sense, during Jesus' life the city of Jerusalem has been corrupted and rotted due to the overwhelming influence of legalistic and bureaucratic religious leaders, who were more interested in financial transactions and property than the spiritual health of the city and its people. Finally, to really drive home the point that Jerusalem represents the corruption and degradation of world, Jesus' final visit ends with a sham trial and execution. Understanding this also explains the importance of New Jerusalem in Revelations, because the earthly city of Jerusalem, despite being the historical home of Israel and Christianity, is still far too corrupted to serve as any kind of genuine center for God's reign on Earth.
Understanding the literal and symbolic role the city of Jerusalem plays in the New Testament also allows one to appreciate the continuing tumult facing the city today. Although much of the city has been destroyed and rebuilt over its nearly 6,000-year history, portions of the "Old City" remain to this day, and it is here that some of the same problems faced by Jesus during his lifetime continue to produce suffering for countless people. While the Temple Mount was always important to Judaism (and Christianity) due to the fact that the Temple was located there, following the founding of Islam it became an important Muslim site as well, and in the subsequent centuries wars have been waged over control of it. This conflict over a piece of land serves to demonstrate how Jerusalem, despite its reputation as a Holy City, is actually anything but, and in fact continues to serve as a symbol of the corruption and pettiness that Jesus confronted during his own life.
Of course, this is not to suggest that the city has not grown in terms of population or economy, because as the nation of Israel has gradually established itself as a regional and global power, the city has seen some of the benefits. For example, while the Old City remains the heart of Jerusalem, the city has expanded well beyond these walls, and its population had swelled to almost 750,000 people. However, it has not seen nearly as much development as cities like Tel Aviv, largely due to building codes that attempt to retain the character of the city. Ultimately, even the city's expansion and economic success must be considered bittersweet at best, because this expansion has ultimately served to heighten tensions and further entrench the financial and political powers who benefit from it.
Although now there exists a kind of tense stalemate over the fate of the Temple Mount due to Israel and Palestine's competing claims to it, the fact remains that the Temple Mount, and indeed all of Jerusalem, is suffering from precisely the same kind of myopic concern with the control of finance and property that so disgusted Jesus when he visited the Temple himself. This is not to diminish the emotional importance that both Judaism and Islam imbue the city with, but rather to acknowledge that this almost fanatical concern with "holy sites" has actually had the effect of making them anything but. Instead of serving as a site of communion, education, and spiritual edification, the conflict over control of the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem as a whole has had the effect of dragging the city down to the level of political and financial deal-making, all at the expense of the people who actually live in and around it.
Rather than being "holy" in the sense of separate and special, in many ways Jerusalem serves as a symbol of humanities worst impulse, all played out against the backdrop of Biblical history. Of course, this is actually in line with how Jerusalem is characterized in the New Testament, and furthermore, serves to demonstrate the continued importance of New Jerusalem as described in Revelations, which implicitly argues that the city will never escape from this cycle of greed and power until Jesus' return. In this way, one actually can draw a direct line between the historical events of Jesus' life, the predictions and prophesies of Revelation, and the current state of the world today by using the spiritual health of Jerusalem as a guide.
Examining Jerusalem in the New Testament as well as the city as it exists today reveals a number of interesting things, not only about the historical development city as such, but also its role in Jesus' ministry and the symbolic position it continues to hold to this day. Although Jerusalem is frequently viewed (by Christians and non-Christians alike) as holy city, in the New Testament it is actually characterized as quite the opposite. Far from being a site of religious devotion and spiritual edification, it is characterized as a greedy, self-interested hub of political and economic power, run by a religious elite who was more interested in securing their own status than…[continue]
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