By John F. Fink
In the year 135, the Roman Emperor Hadrian conquered Jerusalem for the second time (the first was in the year 70) and thought he put an end to it for all time by making it a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. He built a large temple to the goddess Venus over the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, thus inadvertently preserving the site.
Well before that time, though, the Christian Church in the Holy Land was in Caesarea Maritime, the city built by King Herod the Great along the Mediterranean Sea. The bishop of Caesarea was the chief prelate of Palestine, although Aelia Capitolina retained its bishop.
That’s pretty much the way it stayed until Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324 and shifted the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. When he called the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, a year lat-er, Bishop Macanus attended from Jerusalem, as the city was named again.
In 326 Constantine ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the Roman temple to Venus was. His mother, Helena, lived in the Holy Land for three years and built churches. During excavations under the temple to Venus, the tomb of Christ as well as the cross on which he died were discovered.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completed in 335 and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was dedicated in 339.
By this time, Christians in Europe were interested in traveling to the Holy Land to visit the sites made holy by Christ’s life. In 333 and 334 a person known only as the “Bordeaux Pilgrim” visited and kept a diary of his travels, the first such journal of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In 349 or 350, St. Cyril was elected bishop of Jerusalem. He led efforts to make Jerusa-lem a place of pilgrimage and he campaigned for recognition of the Church in Jerusalem as the primary Church in Palestine. This inflamed a controversy between the Churches in Jerusalem and Caesarea, especially since the bishops of Caesarea were Arians who taught that the Second Person of the Trinity was created by the Father, which meant that he was not equal to the Fa-ther.
The controversy went on for a number of years, until 378 in fact. In 357, a council of Arian bishops order Cyril to defend himself against charges of insubordination. When Cyril refused to attend, the council condemned him and drove him out of Jerusalem—his first of what would end up being 16 years of exile during his 35 years as a bishop.
Eventually, the orthodox Catholic Church prevailed and Cyril attended the second ecu-menical council, in Constantinople, in 381. He died in 386. He was eventually declared a Doc-tor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1883.
Another Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome, moved to the Holy Land in 384. He chose to live in a cave beside the cave where Jesus was born in Bethlehem, under the Church of the Na-tivity. That’s where he finished translating the Bible into Latin. He and a woman named Paula built a monastery for men, and houses for three communities of women, near the church.
In 451 the Council of Chalcedon elevated the Church in Jerusalem to the rank of a patri-archate, along with those in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. Juvenal became the first Patriarch of Jerusalem.
As part of the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Land prospered during the reign of Emperor Justinian. However, he ran afoul of the Catholic Church in many ways because he considered himself head of the Church as well as the State.
In 614, the Persians conquered Jerusalem as part of the final phase of the Byzantine-Sassanid Wars. The Persian general Shahrbaraz laid siege to the city for 21 days before the vic-tory. Thousands of Christians were killed and Palestine was added to the Persian Empire.
After the siege, Shahrbaraz captured the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. In 630 Emperor Haraclius invaded Persia and recovered the cross, returning it to Jerusalem.
That brings us to the time of the founding of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Spain. The Muslim Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem in 639.