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Post Info TOPIC: Hiding pagan places: David Keys reports on research which casts doubt on the authenticity of several Christian holy site


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Hiding pagan places: David Keys reports on research which casts doubt on the authenticity of several Christian holy site

History: Hiding pagan places: David Keys reports on research which casts doubt on the authenticity of several Christian holy sites

CHRISTIANITY'S most sacred places - said by the Church to be the site of the birth and death of Christ - were built as part of a ruthless campaign against paganism, and have no real connection with the events they purport to commemorate, according to new research by an ecclesiastical historian.

The establishment of Christian sacred sites in the Holy Land was a 4th century phenomenon which occurred 300 years after the death of Christ, says an authority on the history of the early Church, Dr Joan Taylor.

In a new study of Christian sites in the Holy Land, Christians and the Holy Places, published by Oxford University Press, Dr Taylor states that the famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built primarily to replace a pagan shrine dedicated to the god of agriculture Tammuz-Adonis. She also says the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to mark the site of Christ's crucifixion and burial, replaced a temple of the goddess of sex and fertility, Venus.

Neither of these sites had been venerated by Christians before the 4th century, her research has revealed, and both sites were seized from the pagans in the reign of the pro-Christian 4th century Roman emperor Constantine.

'These sacred sites were established as part of a Roman imperial policy which sought to destroy non-Christian religion in the land of the Bible and develop a focus for Christian piety there', says Dr Taylor, a fellow in Religious Studies at Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand.

'The 4th century Church systematically appropriated pagan shrines and other non-Christian religious sites, in order to create Christian holy places', she says. 'This marks out the region as a Holy Land - a zone of spiritual significance.

'This contrasts with the situation prior to the 4th century, for in the 1st to 3rd centuries Christians had rejected the idea that earthly sites could be sacred, deeming it to be a pagan notion', she says.

Some scholarly early Christians had travelled to what is now Israel out of historical interest, but they were not pilgrims spurred on by any feeling that the area had any intrinsic sanctity. 'It was the then emperor Constantine who injected the pagan concept of sacred shrines into Christianity', says Dr Taylor.

At the site now occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Constantine personally ordered the tearing down of the Temple of Venus and proceeded to erect a church in honour of the Holy Cross - his personal battle emblem.

Most early literary evidence suggests that the real site of the crucifixion was 200 metres south of this church. Today's 'Rock of Calvary' was actually a rocky outcrop where a statue of Venus had stood within the pagan temple.

The place's association with the crucifixion stems from a dream by Constantine's mother Helena in which the site of the temple of Venus was revealed as being where Christ died. Inspired by the dream, a Roman 'archaeological' excavation is said to have then 'found' the true cross. Another important pagan site taken over by Christians, purporting to mark the location of a major Christian holy event, was the Temple of Aphrodite at Ein Karim near Jerusalem. It was demolished to make way for a church dedicated to the birth of St John the Baptist.

Christians and the Holy Places by Joan E Taylor, published by Oxford University Press at pounds 45.



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The origins of Christian holy places in Palestine and the beginnings of Christian pilgrimage to these sites have seemed obscure. From a detailed examination of the literature and archaeology pertaining to specific sites and the region in general, the present author finds no evidence that Christians of any kind venerated 'holy places' before the fourth century. It appears that scholarly Christians had visited certain Biblical sites out of historical and exegetical concerns, but that these sites were not considered holy, or the visitors as 'pilgrims'. Instead, the origins of Christian pilgrimage and holy places rest with the emperor Constantine, who established four basilicas in Palestine c. 325-30 and provided two imperial matrons, Helena and Eutropia, as examples of a new kind of pious pilgrim. Pilgrimage to intrinsically sacred shrines had been a pagan practice, which was grafted on to Christianity. Many Jewish, Samaritan, and pagan sites were thereafter appropriated by the church and turned into Christian holy places. This process helped to destroy the widespread paganism of Palestine and mark the country as a 'holy land'. Very few sites are genuine, the most important being the cave (not Garden) of Gethsemane, in which Jesus was probably arrested.



Readership: Scholars and students of archaeology, ancient history, and the history of Christianity and Judaism; historians of early Christian art.

"Her arguments are always well-constructed and generally persuasive. This book is must reading for all who study and teach early church history or the archaeology of the New Testament." - William H. Stiebing, American Historical Review

"...this well-structured, erudite, and often stimulating study is an important contribution to the study of the history of Christian aspirations for, and interest in, the Holy Land in late antiquity." - Oded Irshai, Journal of Roman Studies

"Taylor has written an important book. This study is a valuable and welcome contribution to our knowledge about the origin and evolution of the Christian holy places in Palestine. Besides that, Taylor has irrefutably proven that a Jewish-Christian origin of the holy places is a myth and a scholarly invention." - Jan Willem Drijvers, Vigilae Christianae

"...this is a substantial contribution to Holy Land studies and...the onus is now on anyone who wishes to disagree with the author's case." - Stephen W. Need, Theology

"Taylor makes a generally compelling case, combining careful literary analysis with coherent summaries of the complex archaelogical data." - John S. Kloppenberg, Toronto Journal of Theology

"Taylor examines the evidence and the interpretations offered site by site, with relentless rigour. Her conclusion...seems firmly established, and, to the present reviewer, incontrovertible...Her book is a model of historical enquiry , careful, thorough and judiciously critical, into problems where archaeological material has a crucial part to play in interpreting scraps of literary, often legendary, information." - R. A. Markus



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Professor Joan Taylor

Professor Joan TaylorProfessor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism

Acting Deputy Head of Department and Departmental Education Lead (autumn 2014)

Tel +44 (0)20 7848 2335
Adress:  Department of Theology & Religious Studies, King's College London
Room 3.22, Virginia Woolf Building, 
22 Kingsway 



After a BA degree at Auckland University, New Zealand, Joan completed post-graduate studies at the University of Otago, majoring in New Testament, and then went to the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (Kenyon Institute) as Annual Scholar in 1986. She undertook a PhD in early Christian archaeology at New College, Edinburgh University, and was appointed in 1992 to a position of lecturer (subsequently senior lecturer) at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, in the departments of both Religious Studies and History. In 1995 she won an Irene Levi-Sala Award in Israel’s archaeology, for the book version of her PhD thesis, Christians and the Holy Places (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993, rev. 2003). In 1996-7 she was Visiting Lecturer and Research Associate in Women’s Studies in New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, a position she held in association with a Fulbright Award. She has received various other awards and fellowships, and has also been Honorary Research Fellow in the Departments of History and Jewish Studies at University College London. She has taught at King’s College London since 2009.

Research interests and PhD supervision

  • The New Testament and other early Christian texts within their wider social, historical and cultural contexts, with a special interest in archaeological evidence.
  • The historical figures of Jesus of Nazareth, John the Baptist, Judas Iscariot, Paul, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, and other New Testament persons, both in terms of the ancient evidence and how they have been constructed over time, including in modern literature and film.
  • Second Temple Judaism, particularly the Jewish legal schools (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, ‘Zealots’) and popular religious movements.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls and the archaeology of Qumran.
  • Alexandrian Judaism, Philo of Alexandria, and the ‘Therapeutae’
  • Women and gender within early Judaism and Christianity, especially regarding women in leadership roles.
  • Jewish-Christianity and early Christian constructions of history and orthodoxy.
  • Comparative Graeco-Roman religion and philosophy: literary, epigraphical and archaeological evidence.
  • The archaeology and history of Christian holy places and travel to Palestine over the centuries, with special interest in the sites of Golgotha, Gethsemane, Eleona, Nazareth, Capernaum and Bethlehem, as well as historical geography.
  • Reception exegesis: using creative artefacts to reflect on texts and history.

Joan’s contextualising approach is multi-disciplinary; she works in literature, language, history and archaeology. Joan has written numerous books and articles in her fields of interest.

For more details, please see her full research profile.

Selected publications

  • ‘Imagining Judean Priestly Dress: the Berne Josephus and Judea Capta Coinage,’ in Carly Daniel-Hughes, Alicia Batten and Kristi Upson-Saia (eds), Dressing Jews and Christians in Antiquity (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 195-213.
  • ‘Missing Magdala and the Name of Mary ‘Magdalene’’, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 145/3 (2014), 205-223. 
  • (editor and contributor), The Body in Biblical, Christian and Jewish Texts (London: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2013). 
  • *The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 
  • with Federico Adinolfi, ‘John the Baptist and Jesus the Baptist: A Narrative Critical Approach,’ Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10 (2012), 247–284. 
For a complete list of publications, please see Joan's full research profile.


Undergraduate modules

  • 4AAT1006 New Testament: Gospels and Letters 
  • 6AAT3101 Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • 6AAT3201 Jesus in Context: The Study of the Historical Jesus

Postgraduate modules

  • 7AATC230 Passion: History, Text & Representation 
  • 7AATC232 The Bible & Archaeology
  • 7AATC233 The Gospels

Expertise and public engagement

Recent media appearances


  • In June 2014 Joan organised the successful TRS conference Jesus and Brian.

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