Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Why James Martin’s Middle East pilgrimage matters

A light beam in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. - Image courtesy of Neil Howard (
A light beam in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. - Image courtesy of Neil Howard (

A light beam in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. – Image courtesy of Neil Howard (

I’m typing these words from Beirut, Lebanon after spending the day at refugee tent settlements about 10 minutes from the Syrian border. My trip has me pondering the importance of the Middle East for my faith and its history. The Rev. James Martin knows how I feel.

A Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America magazine, Martin also recently visited this region, which he documents in a fascinating new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Martin brings his journey through the Holy Land to life by moving beyond mere to stories to telling us what it taught him about a Jesus who can often seem distant. Here, we discuss what he learned about Christ while traveling through the cradle of Christianity.

RNS: You begin the story of your trek through the Holy Land to rediscover Jesus with the classic question Christ asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” How do you answer that question?

JM: For me, Jesus is everything! But to answer more directly, Jesus is the fully human, fully divine Son of God. That’s why one of the goals of the book is to underline the importance of both his humanity and divinity. The same person who walked the dusty landscape of first-century Palestine also rose from the dead. To put it in more theological terms, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. Otherwise, the Resurrection is meaningless.

Moreover, Jesus is always fully human and fully divine. Whenever I give talks on the book, I like to invite people to think of him as human at times when he “seems” more divine, and divine when he “seems” more human. So I say: He’s divine when he’s sawing a piece of wood in the carpentry workshop. And he’s human when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead. That usually shakes people up!

Image courtesy of HarperOne

Image courtesy of HarperOne

RNS: You say, “Jesus’ humanity is a stumbling block for many people, including a few Christians.” What do you mean?

JM: Many of us have a hard time with a Jesus who shows what you might call “difficult” emotions, especially anger and frustration. One example is his interaction with the “Syrophoenician woman,” who in the Gospel of Mark asks Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus responds by saying something that New Testament scholars note was “highly insulting” at the time: “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In my book, I offer explanations of why he might have been harsh—he was testing her faith, or he initially wasn’t expecting to deal with someone who wasn’t Jewish, and so on.

Any way you look at it, it’s a sharp remark, at odds with the Jesus most of us expect to meet in the Gospels. So we have to grapple with his real humanity, as it is presented in the Gospels. Otherwise we’re missing an important side of him.

RNS: You note that there are some variations in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. What do you make of this?

JM: The Gospels were written by four different authors–or editors, if you prefer–for four different communities at different times, so there are bound to be differences. Matthew and Luke include stories of Jesus’s birth, but there are discrepancies even between those two accounts. Frankly, these variations don’t bother me all that much. [tweetable]Catholics don’t read the Bible literally. And, frankly, you can’t read it that way.[/tweetable]

RNS: Many assume that Jesus was widely admired, but you note that “he is rejected by almost everyone.” Why is this important for Christians to understand?

JM: Of course, we all know that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This marked his ultimate rejection by the world. But it’s important to remember that, much earlier in his public ministry, he was rejected by those in his hometown of Nazareth. Remember that in the synagogue at Nazareth, which was probably an outdoor gathering, Jesus preaches to those with whom he’s lived for the last 30 years, and they take such “offense” at what he says that they try to toss him off a nearby cliff. Later on, his family travels from Nazareth to Capernaum, apparently in an attempt to bring him home, or to dissuade him from his ministry of preaching and healing, which is being called “crazy.” Yet Jesus continues to preach. To follow his vocation. It’s a reminder: [tweetable]It’s important to follow God’s call, even if those closest to us reject us.[/tweetable]

RNS: You discuss the famous story of Jesus “cleansing” the temple. What is the significance of this story and how have some misunderstood it?

JM: It’s an important passage for a number of reasons, and not simply because it shows Jesus’s disgust with the merchants at the Temple. It also precipitates, at least in part, his execution. Once again, it shows Jesus displaying a very human emotion: anger.

Notice this: [tweetable]Jesus is never angry on behalf of himself. Rather he is angered by the way that someone else is treated.[/tweetable] It is a righteous anger, not a selfish anger. In this case, it’s not “You’re offending me,” but “You’re offending the Father.” It’s a good reminder to all of us who get angry and then say, “Jesus got angry too!” That’s true, but our anger is usually out of wounded pride, not in defense of the other, or of God.

RNS: This book chronicles your trek through the Holy Land. If Jesus were here today, what do you think he would have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? 

JM: First off, I’m not an expert in that field. Jesus always sided with the marginalized, but you could say that both sides feel marginalized in this case. The Israelis feel marginalized and under siege within the larger Middle East, and the Palestinians feel marginalized within Israel. Jesus also assiduously avoided getting pulled into political questions—as when he was asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.

The best response to this question may be Pope Francis’s response, who cast his lot with everyone during his recent trip: he prayed at the Wall in Bethlehem that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, and he prayed at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism. So the Pope, like Jesus, was siding with everyone. Jesus, in the end, sides with humanity.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • A reasonable discussion, but I would add a few amendments to Father Martin’s remarks. As to variations in the Gospel accounts, whether reporting Christ’s birth, or other events, such variations reflect different perspectives or points of view. Though Father Martin did not refer to such variations as discrepancies, many hostile critics do without sufficient evidence to prove their point. As to the literalness of the Bible, clearly much of the text must be taken literally otherwise we have placed our faith entirely on a series of metaphors; rather shaky ground. Father Martin himself would argue on behalf of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and other miraculous events reported in the text. Literalness or non-literalness is determined through proper exegesis and the hermenuetical method.

  • @Diogenes,

    “Literalness or non-literalness is determined through proper exegesis and the hermeneutical method.”

    Nonsense. There is no such thing as ‘proper exegesis’!
    The reader decides by himself
    what is ‘literal’ and what is ‘metaphor’.

    The next step is to understand that the Bible has NO AUTHORITY
    if we are its editors.

  • If as James rightly says the gospels don’t have much historical reliability about Jesus’ birth, how can we be so sure about the nature of his resurrection?

    In St Paul, the resurrection is of a spiritual body, in St Mark we only hear of the resurrection from a man / angel, in Luke and Matthew, people see a figure who they then later realize is Jesus. Yes, at one point, Jesus makes it clear he is not just a spiritual vision – when he eats the broiled fish – but does that not seem to anyone else to be an interpolation put in to distinguish the orthodox position (Jesus was resurrected physically) from the Gnostic position (Jesus was resurrected spiritually)?

    The physical resurrection seems to me a bizarre, even ludicrous, belief. Who wants their body to exist for all eternity? And the passages in the Gospels that support it seem to be to have been written for polemical reasons, and not to be historically reliable. Thats not to say I don’t believe in the afterlife – I do. But one does not have to believe in the physical resurrection of the body to believe in a spiritual resurrection.

  • “If as James rightly says the gospels don’t have much historical reliability about Jesus’ birth, how can we be so sure about the nature of his resurrection? ”

    You don’t. That is why its called faith. There is no objectively credible or historically reliable reason for anyone to accept a story about resurrection of anybody. It is strictly a function of your belief.

  • ” As to the literalness of the Bible, clearly much of the text must be taken literally otherwise we have placed our faith entirely on a series of metaphors”

    Because metaphors have no cultural value. Jesus never spoke in terms of parable, ever.

    If you can’t accept talking reptiles, people living inside of mammoth fish for days, or a family of sheep herders building a ship bigger and in faster time than the shipwright teams of Athens millennia later, the Bible has no value whatsoever. 🙂

  • If the “Literal interpretation” is dangerous
    what does that say about the Literature?

    “I have come to bring FIRE…I am so constrained!” – JESUS (Luke 12:49-51)
    “I am impatient to bring…DIVISION.” – JESUS (Luke 12:49-51)

    “Hate your parents…hate your life” – JESUS (Luke 14:26)

  • Father Martin did in fact use the term discrepancies, which I believe I still answered adequately (Ask the eyewitnesses to a shooting what they saw). He did not say anything about historical reliability, nor is Father Martin the final authority on such matters. Further, I did not state that the bible never used metaphors, but that there is a legitimate scholastic literary process for separating metaphor from literalness, which Max reflexively dismissed as ‘nonsense’ though there are many thousands of accredited academics who have devoted their professional lives to developing said discipline. Religious belief does indeed rest on faith, but it is not Soren Kierkegaarde’s ‘Leap of Faith,’ it is a faith based on the combination of considered rational reflection on the evidence and the metaphysical experience of the believer which can never be explained to the unbeliever; but when believers meet unawares and exchange pleasantries, there is a knowing glance between them, illustrating a mystical knowledge unavailable to the skeptic.

  • Lets be brutally honest here. There is no authoritative scholarly interpretations of the Bible that demand to be taken as objectively binding. There are some that people accept over others. But there is no compelling arguments to be made which demand to be taken seriously outside of one’s personal beliefs. Claiming otherwise is the delusion fundamentalists engage in as a way to inflate their self importance. They feel comfort in the idea that they are the only ones “following it correctly”. Nothing more.

    What separates metaphor from literal will always depend on the end result of the point being made. Usually what happens is as more sections of alleged historical/factual content get shown to be false they become metaphoric. Genesis Chapter 1 was considered literally until it was objectively ridiculous to do so in light of new knowledge.

    To claim religious belief owes anything to rational reflection is to spin pleasing self-congratulatory fictions. Belief is done in the absence of rational thought. It cannot be explained to the unbeliever precisely because of its lack of rationality.