Although the New Testament includes only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the land where Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead has sometimes been called “the fifth Gospel.” God uniquely entered human history in a definite place and at a specific time. Within 40 years after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the Romans ruled Palestine even more tightly. The land’s first Christian shrines were very modest.
These became more elaborate in the fourth century, thanks to the interest and zeal of St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. After Christianity became a legal religion, she visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem and built basilicas there. Late in the same century, the pilgrim Egeria left an account about churches and liturgies in the Holy Land. Muslim control after the seventh century made Christian pilgrimages more difficult. These increased in popularity in the 19th century, thanks in small part to the ministry of the Franciscans, welcoming Christians at several shrines and developing new ones linked to the life of Jesus and of the early Christian community.
Whoever has visited the Holy Land can never read the Bible as she or he once did. In 2014, this column will feature Holy Land shrines cared for by the Order of Friars Minor.