The Hebrew Bible (called the 'Old Testament' by Christians) is a wide-ranging collection of books written over many centuries. Some of these books offer a narrative of Israel's pre-history (pre 1,000 BCE), including recounting certain stories where God promises 'The Promised Land' to the people of Israel.
The Hebrew Bible (called the 'Old Testament' by Christians) is a wide-ranging collection of books written over many centuries.
However, we need to recognise that the date of writing for these biblical texts is often many centuries after the period they are speaking about, and so the stories they tell inevitably reflect the concerns of the people they were written for. Many of the 'pre-history' books were actually written down during or shortly after the time of the Babylonian exile (597-538 BCE).
One of Israel's concerns during this turbulent post-exilic time, particularly in the light of the threats they had faced from surrounding nations such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, was to firmly establish their right to their land; and so the stories they told and wrote down often emphasised God's ancient promises to them of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel re-told these ancient stories to confidently assert their divinely-sanctioned ownership of their land, doing so in the face of threats to that ownership from the Greeks and the Romans.
A key symbol of their ownership of the land was the Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile, and renovated just before the time of Jesus by Herod the Great. So when the Romans decided to crush the Jewish nation following a rebellion in 70 CE (some thirty-five years after the time of Jesus), they did so by destroying the temple.
A key symbol of their ownership of the land was the Temple in Jerusalem
At this point, the balance of power within first century Judaism shifted from the Temple system to the local synagogue. The emphasis on Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage diminished after the destruction of the temple.
There were already a large number of diaspora Jewish communities scattered throughout the cities of the Roman Empire, and they enjoyed certain exemptions under Roman law meaning they could continue to worship the Jewish God, rather than the Roman gods; but they also faced localised and sporadic persecution.
The New Testament reflects the tensions of this period, with Paul's letters being written in the mid-50s, and the gospels between about 65-90 CE.
These Christian scriptures, as they became, speak of an emerging belief that the 'people of God' is no longer confined to the ethnic nation of Israel, but rather also includes anyone who follows Jesus whatever their ethnicity. So Christianity moved from the world of Judaism, into forming its own communities of worship.
As Jewish and Christian communities across the empire faced waves of persecution from various Roman Emperors or local governors, the land of Israel itself continued as a Jewish nation but with heavy Roman control. The temple was never rebuilt and the temple mount was abandoned.
In the fourth century the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion
In the fourth century the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, and renewed attention was paid to the land of Israel, with Christian pilgrimage sites being established at places associated with the life of Jesus, and Christian churches were built.
The rise of Islam in the 7th - 8th Centuries CE brought further change to the land of Israel, as the Muslim conquests included the land of Israel/Palestine which from this point on became a majority Muslim area. This period saw the building of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the former site of the Jewish Temple.
The Christian crusades by Europeans attempted to recapture the 'Holy Land' from the Muslims and establish it as a Christian country. These wars were ultimately unsuccessful, but they fuelled both anti-Muslim prejudice and also Antisemitism (hatred of, or discrimination against Jews), with European Jewish communities often facing persecution or expulsion.
The weakening of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th Century, and the politics around the alliances of the First World War in the early 20th Century, led to the 'British Mandate for Palestine', whereby Britain controlled the region from 1918-1948. One of the founding principles of the British Mandate was what is called the 'Balfour Declaration' of 1917, which declared that the land of Palestine should be established as 'a national home for Jewish people', but that in doing so 'nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status of Jews in any other country.' This desire to create a Jewish homeland was in part a response to the centuries of European antisemitic persecution that Jewish people had faced.
The founding of Israel as a nation state involved the displacement of many Palestinians
The holocaust against Jewish people under the Nazis, in which 6 million Jews were murdered, gave added impetus to this move for a Jewish homeland, and in 1948 the state of Israel was established. Many Jews and Christians saw this as the fulfilment of God's desire for the people of Israel, in fulfilment of God's promises in scripture.
The founding of Israel as a nation state involved the displacement of many Palestinians, and led to the establishment of refugee camps by the United Nations. Many Palestinians still live in these camps in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon. More than a million people living in Gaza are refugees, where there are eight recognised Palestinian refugee camps.
The establishment of Israel as a state has always involved negotiations about where the border should be between it and a Palestinian land. The Six-Day War of 1967 came after a period of heightened tension between Israel, Palestine, and their neighbours, and the conflict included Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israeli territory expanded as a result of the conflict to include both the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Old City of Jerusalem.
The 'Two State Solution' (a nation of Jewish people, and a nation of Palestinian people) is one proposed solution to the conflict
The 'Two State Solution' (a nation of Jewish people, and a nation of Palestinian people) is one proposed solution to the conflict, and the pre-1967 border (the ‘Green Line’) is the most-often cited demarcation line between the two proposed nations. However, the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land beyond the Green Line, and the route of the West Bank Barrier (‘The Wall’), have led many to question whether this is achievable.
Some Christians (often called ‘Christian Zionists’) believe that the establishment of the State of Israel is not only in fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament, but also will lead to the return of Christ to the earth. This view originated in the late nineteenth century, and is tied to a specific reading of scriptures known as dispensationalism. Other Christians emphasise the innate humanity of those on both sides of the conflict as people created ‘in the image of God’, and advocate for a future where both Israel and the Palestinian people can live in peace. For some this involves volunteering to visit areas of particular conflict between Israel and Palestine, to offer an international presence that de-escalates tension. For others it involves visiting conflicted parts of the Holy Land to see the situation first-hand and then advocate for peace.
‘Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26.52)
In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, one of his disciples took out his sword and wounded a slave who served the High Priest. Jesus not only healed the slave, but also said to his disciple: ‘Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26.52). Christians need to pray for peace, and to be active in peacemaking. The vast majority of Christians who live in the Holy Land are Palestinian, and many of them are active in working for peace and reconciliation, offering nonviolent resistance to oppression, and doing so in the name of Christ. They, alongside Christians across the world in other conflict situations, are a living embodiment of Jesus’ injunction in the sermon on the mount: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matthew 5.9).