No, forget the obligatory trip to a movie theater or some meet-up at a coffee shop. I’m talking about the fruit. When did you taste your first date—that versatile, succulent, and vivacious treat that hundreds of millions of people in the Mediterranean and “Middle Eastern” portions of the globe cherish beyond all others while the rest of the world kind of shrugs its shoulders, summons vague memories of the wrinkly brown pod and says, “Ah, yes. The date.” When?
I stumbled upon a fairly lavish new article at SMITHSONIAN.COM detailing the history of human fondness for dates, along with a delightful delineation of the different varieties of dates that have been treasured by connoisseurs rich and poor for centuries on end. The article is well worth a read and may well spur the curious spirit’s discovery or reacquaintance with this sensuous gift of certain exotic palm trees.
As usual, I was not looking for information about dates when I happened upon the article. Quite to the contrary, I was looking for potentially recent archaeological news about the ruins of a famous Byzantine church that had been discovered some decades ago about halfway down the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the city traditionally believed to the location of Christ’s nativity.
This particular and very ancient church was called “the Kathisma,” or “Seat” and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary because, in the very middle of this large, octagonal shrine was (and remains) an enormous stone upon which the Mother of Jesus was said to have paused for a little rest while in labor as she trekked with Joseph to nearby Bethlehem.
But, as is usual when it comes to religious tradition, things ain’t quite what they seem to be or what they purport to be.
Now, this legend or story of Mary’s pitstop on the way to Bethlehem is not told in any of the canonical Gospels. Rather, it appears to have been part of a local and steadfast tradition possibly older than the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) themselves, all of which scholars understand to have been written between 70 AD (Mark) and 100 AD (John). Obviously, the sayings and traditions and persons featured in these Gospels were decades older than the “ratified” accounts describing them.
The tale of Mary’s rest at the halfway-point between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was first featured (as far as we know) in a book written around 130 AD, probably by Palestinian Christians, and while it does describe in vivid detail some obvious local folklore about the birth of Jesus, the book was not really about the Nativity of Christ—it was instead a mini-biography of Mary and her parents, and her birth, and her unique upbringing … describing the events of Mary’s remarkable life before the visit from Gabriel, the betrothal to Joseph, and their famous trek to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.
As mentioned, the book was not eventually accepted into the narrow canon of “approved” and gathered New Testament Christian documents, but this is as good a time as any to remind readers that “the Bible,” as we now know it, did not exist in any fixed form for the first three hundred years after the life of Jesus. Early Christians did not tote around big leather-bound tomes to “church” and riffle through the pages to keep-up while some windbag delivered a sermon, jumping from Deuteronomy to Ephesians. The ancient Christians used many different writings and hymns and poems and chants and antiphons and oral traditions as part of their mostly secretive liturgical services and Eucharistic rites. Literacy levels were not exactly high in those climes and those times, so different congregations used what scraps they could get their hands upon or whatever unique writings had been passed down in their particular communities.
The book about Mary’s miraculous girlhood was just as popular as any of the (at the time) scattered-around Gospel books, and just as influential upon wider Christian tradition, art, and belief. The ancients called this book, The Birth of Mary, and much later researchers dubbed it the Proto-Gospel of James because the text itself purports to have been written by James, the son of Joseph by a former wife and thus the older “step-brother” of Jesus.
Among the many unique aspects of the entire tradition that are imparted by this extremely ancient book are the traditions that Mary’s parents were named Anna and Joachim, and that they were childless until divine blessing rewarded them with a daughter who would be “praised by all the earth.” The book describes Mary’s girlhood as one of the young Jewish virgin-girls who spun the fabric to make the sacred curtains of the Jerusalem temple. Her betrothed husband, Joseph, is herein depicted as an older man with children of his own from a deceased wife, willing to marry Mary. (Of course, Joseph is beside himself with terror when Mary is discovered “with child” that was not his own.) The text further relates that Mary had to stop halfway to rest while in labor on her famous journey, and that Jesus was born just outside Bethlehem itself, in a hillside cave that served as a manger for various animals—the long-cherished Nativity scene creatures who witness the birth of Jesus and which are depicted in millions of household figurines at Christmastime are not mentioned in the canonical Gospels; the oxen and the sheep come directly from The Birth of Mary book.
Anyhow, the story is old, old, old because Justin Martyr, an erudite Christian convert and philosopher who died in 165 AD mentions that local Judean Christians of his day would show visitors the cave in the hills where Mary gave birth on the outskirts of Bethlehem, just as described in the story of Mary’s girlhood. Third Century Christian thinkers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen also embraced the story and text. Later, in the 300s AD, when the emperors Constantine and Theodosius formally allowed Christians to come out of hiding and erect public church buildings, a church dedicated to Mary was built in the late 300s overlooking the field with the rock where she had allegedly enjoyed her little sit-down before childbirth. It was one of the earliest churches ever dedicated to Mary after Christian persecutions were lifted by the Roman Empire, and testifies to the endurance of the traditions in the little book of her girlhood.
However, this church is not where the special role of dates and the date palm tree come into play. No indeed. When the emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena (a deeply devout Christian believer) made her way to the Holy Land in the mid-300s and started building shrines to mark the major events in the lives of Christ, Mary, and the Apostles, she started a tourist boom that would not really “let-up” for 1,700 years. Helena raised churches everywhere—from the Holy Sepulcher (Christ’s tomb) to the Church of the Nativity itself, which she decided to build directly in Bethlehem, since the Gospel of Luke had, by that time, become firmly established in Christian lore, and “Luke’s” memory of alleged events specified Bethlehem proper as the scene of Christ’s birth … even though animal stables/caves would have necessarily been built in the surrounding hillsides, not in the town itself.
Mary’s little “pitstop” site remained sacred, halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but it seems that Helena wanted to put her own imperial stamp on the longstanding tradition.
And what a stamp she placed. Christian pilgrimage tourism exploded in the 300s and the early 400s as more and more citizens of the Empire converted to the “official” religion of their leaders. Tourist traffic—and, doubtless, the opportunity to make money—skyrocketed. It was probably around 440 AD that a rich woman named Ikelia decided to add a new touch to the old “Mary takes a seat” tradition between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and she financed an immense and stunning new church, only this time, the new shrine was built around the gigantic rock in the field adjacent to the old church of Mary’s “Take a Breather”. These churches became known as the Old Kathisma and the New Kathisma.
And this is what has many archaeologists stumped. Namely, if the rock was where Mary originally stopped to take a seat, why wasn’t the first church built around it?
The answer appears to rest in the traditions of another remarkable ancient text—one possibly as old as the book of The Birth of Mary. Needless to say, there had always been other traditions and texts about the various characters in the overall Christian story swirling about Jerusalem and Palestine long before Helena and Constantine came along. It’s also crucial to remember that the region suffered horrific and earth-shattering sackings on two crucial occasions: the Romans first obliterated Jerusalem in 70 AD, some thirty years after Jesus’s death. Then, in the 170s AD, they rebuilt the city as a pagan showcase, casting all Jews and Christians out into the relative wilds of Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Alexandria, and elsewhere.
There was another important text in circulation among certain Christians still surviving in and around Jerusalem after the city’s reconfiguration in the 170s AD—this one was also about Mary and her travails, but it was utterly unlike the popular and already widely distributed book of Mary’s Birth in every way. This much larger work was called The Book of Mary’s Repose, and it was concerned with the events surrounding her later life—namely, her supposed persecution at the hands of Jewish High Priests in Jerusalem, along with other Christian sectarians who followed her son, her imminent death, and the miraculous removal of her body from the world into Paradise or Heaven or some other supernatural sphere.
The Book of Mary’s Repose appears to contain some direct traditions that are at least as old as those in the Book of Mary’s Birth and canonical works like Acts and Revelation, but as “mainstream” as the Book of Mary’s Birth had become, the text dealing with her death and its aftermath was barricaded at the margins of Christian practice and tradition.
For one thing, the Book of Mary’s Repose was highly esoteric in tone. In its opening chapter, the elderly Mary is approached by a “Great Angel” who gives to her either a book of secret mysteries or else a palm frond from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and tells her she is soon going to die. Thereafter, Mary frets and becomes overwhelmed by the thought of her imminent demise, worrying about what Jewish religious authorities might do to her body after death, and worrying, too, about what might happen to her soul because, as she admits to her astonished friends and relatives, she once sinned against God by doubting his purposes.
The book also features flashbacks to the story of Mary and Joseph’s escape into Egypt and in this particular scene, the drama reaches a most unusual crescendo. Mary, with the infant Jesus in her arms, begs Joseph to stop so she can rest (Mary likes to take breathers in these stories) and maybe have a little something to eat. The three of them are skirting the desert road on the way to Egypt and Joseph suddenly berates the holy Mary like a man unhinged. He upbraids her for not guarding her virginity before their betrothal. He humiliates her for sticking him with a son who his clearly not his own. He accosts her for being the cause of his separation from his actual children back in Israel (the “brethren” of Jesus?) and, most peculiarly, begins to question his own behavior by wondering if he got drunk one night and raped Mary, thus engendering the Christ child.
When Mary continues her plea for something to eat, pointing to a nearby date-palm tree and its marvelous fruit, Joseph harangues her again, asserting that the tree is too tall to climb and she is responsible for their predicament in the first place.
The child Jesus, in response to all of this airing of grievances, suddenly pipes up and tells his mother not to worry about a thing—by his divine power, he causes the luscious date-palm tree to bend its way down to them, allowing his mother to pick freely of the fruit. Once Mary’s hunger is satisfied, Jesus commands the lonely date palm to uproot itself and fly back to Paradise—this is none other than the Tree of Life from which they have fed, exiled when Adam and Eve were ousted in primordial times. At this point, Joseph gets the better of himself and admits that he knew all along that Mary’s child was miraculous in origin and that he should have known better than to lose control as he did.
One can easily see from this scene alone why very ancient Christians who were more in the “mainstream” of the early movement might have given The Book of Mary’s Repose a rather sidelong glance. In addition to the troubles of this totally dysfunctional “Holy Family,” the text elsewhere portrays Jesus not as the actual Son of God, or Second Person of the Trinity, but as a “Great Cherub of Light”—a powerful angel who had been responsible for smiting the Egyptian firstborn in the Exodus story, and who had been sent to earth (via Mary) to impart secret prayers and other forms of saving knowledge to those who longed to escape the wrath of demonic powers after death and return to Eden/Paradise.
The conclusion of the story is just as disturbing: while the Apostles are carrying the deceased Mary on a bier to her tomb in the wilderness, a fanatical Jew egged-on by the High Priests of Jerusalem makes a mad dash toward the funeral procession and tries to tip Mary’s body onto the ground. At this juncture, an invisible angel cuts off the man’s arms, which are left dangling on the edge of Mary’s funeral plank.
After Mary is sequestered in her tomb, the Apostles (along with “newcomer” Paul) sit around outside and argue about the best ways to live a good Christian life, from their individual points of view, with Peter, John, and Andrew advocating extreme sexual abstinence and fasting, while the mere acolyte, Paul, argues that moderation in all behavior is best. Christ suddenly arrives with an army of angels and declares Paul’s moderate view to be the most sensible one, above the opinions of the “chief” Apostles.
With that, Jesus and the angels snatch Mary’s body from the tomb and transport her to Paradise, where her soul is reunited from her flesh and she is resurrected. Some of the apostles and the archangel Michael tag-along as well, and this little band of inter-dimensional tourists suddenly asks Jesus if they can have a look at what the poor souls in Hell are undergoing. They want to see the torments!
Jesus obliges them, giving them a full tour and explaining each gruesome punishment as if he were Dante. The suffering sad-sacks in Hell’s cesspits see Mary among the spectators and plead with her for her intercession, calling her “the Golden Lamp, Mother of the Apostles, and Mother of the Saved,” among other things. She cries to Jesus for lenience and, accordingly, her Son promises the hell-dwellers a few hours of relaxation every Sunday due to the “tears … of my mother.” What a guy, huh?
Next, Jesus takes Mary to meet a number of heavenly figures, including the Almighty Father, and instructs angels to trundle out a throne for himself and a smaller one for his mother. They sit down in heaven, the tag-along Apostles are sent back to earth, and the story comes to end, Amen!
Though there can be little doubt that certain segments of literate, early Christians made use of this text as a central story in their teaching and worship, the mainstream bishops steered fairly clear of it, probably as flummoxed as I am by its wild and wooly contents. That the story is extremely ancient cannot be denied: its depiction of a hysterical Joseph, Christ as a “Great Angel,” the return of the Tree of Life to Eden, the creation of human beings with the help of angelic powers, the palpable fear of what ultimate fate awaits Christian bodies, an uncertainty about Paul’s status as an official “Apostle,” the theme of Mary’s death and alleged persecution of Christians in Jerusalem (with allusion to the destruction of the city)—all these things point to a hodgepodge of concerns and ideas pertinent to the late 100s and early 200s, with a few motifs and memories from the First Century likely buried in the strata.
Certainly, there are strong possibilities that the original matrix of this story dealt more simply with old traditions about Mary’s final years in Jerusalem, with conflicts that we know to have existed between Jesus-adherents and Jewish authorities, the sudden novelty of Paul’s appearance and influence, the siege of the city, some question about the location of Mary’s physical remains, etc., but it is quite apparent that, if this is the case, some group or groups of far more imaginative and adventurous Christian minds got hold of the bare bones of the tale and souped-it-up.
That some traditions contained in this weird story had wider significance beyond the text itself is likewise impossible to deny, for by the late 300s we see that there seems to have been a general if vague consensus of Christian belief (at least in Palestine and a number of major Mediterranean cities) that Mary had experienced some element of persecution toward the end of her life and that her body had been removed from the world to some undetermined location, with some Palestinian Christians even celebrating Mary’s “assumption” three times a year at crucial agricultural intervals, much like the pagans had celebrated their goddesses at similar intervals. Even if mainstream Christian authorities were not committing themselves to any specific textual source to validate the belief, the belief was already old by the time Ikelia built her “New Kathisma” church around the massive rock in 450 AD.
The significance of the great rock, however, may have had more to do with traditions about Mary’s hunger for both dates and water while they were pausing to rest with the discombobulated Joseph on the trip to Egypt. Indeed, the Book of Mary’s Repose mentions not only the date palm that miraculously fed the Mother of Jesus, but also a flowing spring at the same location—a spring which presumably quenched her thirst as she munched on dates. Later pilgrims mention the “between-Jerusalem-and-Bethlehem-rock” as being the source of a freshwater spring and a pilgrimage destination, which would comport with the erection of a great church around the rock, commemorating a flight to (or from) Egypt and its “take a seat” tradition to go with the equally old “journey to give birth in the manger” pitstop tradition and the nearby “Old Kathisma” church honoring that.
Christian pilgrims have never wasted the chance to mark a good holy place, no matter how dubious or faded the history. It is little wonder, then, that the Kathisma mosaics uncovered by the Antiquities Authority in Palestine feature a a date palm tree of exceeding splendor:
Below is a look at the foundations of this Mary Church built in 450 AD, including the remnants of the great rock (and probably former freshwater spring) right in the very center, where the virgin and her consternated husband may have stopped to rest from all the insanity.
Ah, the wonders of internet rabbit holes: I look for news about something specific to my field of knowledge, get sidetracked by an article about something completely unrelated (the deliciousness of dates), and ultimately wheel back around to discover that the two disparate subjects are, in fact, related.
As for my first DATE—it came in the form of a delicious “date shake” made by a Greek restaurateur in my old alma mater-town of St. Augustine, Florida. Far, far, far from Jerusalem and Mary’s pitstop in the midst of childbirth and/or grumpy hubbies. Merry Christmas, all.
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