Pilgrimage in Early Christian Jordan and Biblical Turkey

Pilgrimage in Early Christian Jordan

by Burton MacDonald

Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow, 2010, 252 pp.
$29.95 (paperback)

Biblical Turkey

by Mark Wilson

Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2010, 395 pp.
$39.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

Biblical Turkey and Christian Jordan are not terms in common currency. Yet these two guidebooks convincingly demonstrate that their titles are entirely justified. The adjectives also hint that these guides are selective. MacDonald does not treat all Christian pilgrimage sites in Jordan, but only those that have a Biblical basis and have been excavated. Wilson casts his net more widely and covers all Turkish cities, regions, provinces and natural features mentioned in any document from the Old Testament through the New Testament to the Apostolic Fathers.

Both authors display a rather relaxed attitude to the application of their own criteria. Wilson, for example, includes Hattusha (Bogazköy), the capital of the Hittite empire 1650–1200 B.C., because Abraham met Hittites in Hebron, and Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, was a Hittite. If this appears rather tenuous, the mere mention of Pontus and Bithynia in 1 Peter 1:1 permits him to assume that all the ancient cities on the south coast of the Black Sea as far west as Byzantium, and even the Celtic cities in Northern Galatia, were “Peter’s Communities.” The lack of even the most remote link with the Bible is easily dealt with by his use of a box category called “Sidetrips.” Thus Ç atalhöyük is included because it is only 37 miles from Iconium. The benefit of this sleight of hand is that Wilson deals in some depth with virtually all the important archaeological sites in Turkey. MacDonald is much more restrained. Nonetheless, he includes sites like Gadara/ Umm Qays, Machaerus and Umm er-Rasas, which he candidly admits were never places of pilgrimage, but which should be of interest to Christians today.

Glossy paper in both books guarantees perfect reproduction of informative color photographs. While these whet the reader’s appetite, they are not really helpful for the tour of a site. The visitor needs a detailed but uncluttered map that he can follow from A to B. In this respect MacDonald deserves the higher praise. Excellent site maps are complemented by plans of every important building discussed. Moreover, he tells the reader exactly how to get to every site and indicates the amount of time that should be allowed. No one who reads him will try to get to remote Jebel Haroun without extremely careful planning.

Very little of this practicality appears in Wilson. The best parallel to his approach is Pausanias’s Description of Greece (c. 180 A.D.), which introduced visitors to the places worth seeing by outlining their history (Wilson does this very well) and left it up to local guides (exegetai) to provide detailed information and practical guidance on the site. Thus site maps taken without change from other publications are never tied to the explanatory text. Sometimes they span two pages, which means that the center part is unusable.

Both authors are to be praised for their reader friendly citation of sources. MacDonald quotes in full the Gospel texts and/or the reports of early pilgrims in his discussion of each site. In Wilson this is paralleled by an adroit use of boxes to give voice to an ancient author associated with the site, or an important inscription.

Their use of sources is another matter. Both exhibit a tendency to take them at face value, when in many cases they cry out for critical evaluation. In this respect, Wilson is much less satisfactory than MacDonald, who makes few errors. MacDonald’s most important is his acceptance of the reality of “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28), even though his (highly accurate) summary of the archaeological history reveals no hint of first-century occupation. Wilson, for his part, appears to be unaware of recent studies on the Acts of the Apostles. In consequence, he overestimates its historical value with the result that the dates he ascribes to first-century events are highly suspect. On the contrary, the bibliographies that he appends to virtually all sites are selective but up-to-date.

A guidebook must be serviceable. I wonder how the ink on these stiff pages will respond to heated hands, and I would be surprised if the spines lasted very long.



Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is professor of New Testament at the École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem and the author of many books including The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford, 1998), Paul: His Story (Oxford: 2004), and Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford, 2009).

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