From Time Immemorial? Dwellers in the Holy Land

by Robert L. Wilken

Dr. Wilken is William R. Kenan, Jr., professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 30-August 6, 1986, p. 678. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is important that Westerners be aware of the presence of Arab Christians in Israel who are a living link between ourselves and the earliest Christian churches. They are descendants of people who have lived in the land for over 1,500 years, and their perseverance over the centuries deserves our respect and support.

It is evident to any visitor to the Middle East that Christianity has a peculiar relation to the lands now inhabited by the state of Israel. Christian tourists and pilgrims, practicing an enduring form of piety, enabled by international jet travel, come from all parts of the world to visit the holy places associated with the life of Jesus.

Few realize, however, that Christianity ‘s role in Palestine is not restricted to the time of Jesus and the early church. Christianity has a long history in the land of Israel, a history of indigenous communities whose fortunes have been linked to the many conquerors -- Muslims, Crusaders, Turks and Jews -- and the many national communities -- Armenian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Syrian, Russian and French -- that have made their way to Palestine.

I thought about this history when I read From Time Immemorial, the controversial 1984 Harper & Row book by Joan Peters on the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Though a large part of the book is devoted to the history of Palestine, the reader would never learn from Peters that Palestine was once a Christian country or that there has been a continuous Christian presence there since the time of Jesus. In all the debates about Palestine, this history is largely forgotten or ignored.

From Time Immemorial was first hailed as a book that could change the entire Arab-Jewish polemic over Palestine" (New Republic), and an exuberant chorus of America’s leading intellectuals stepped forward to laud its merits. Later, however, it was denounced as misleading, unreliable and tendentious. Last winter, Jehoshua Porath, an Israeli historian, wrote in the New York Review of Books (January 16, 1986): "I am reluctant to bore the reader and myself with further examples of Mrs. Peter’s highly tendentious use -- or neglect -- of the available source material. Much more important is her misunderstanding of basic historical processes and her failure to appreciate the central importance of natural population increase as compared to migratory movements. Readers of her book should be warned not to accept its factual claims without checking their sources."

Nevertheless, the book has been a great success commercially and, judging by the credentials of her reviewers and the fervor of her advocates, many intelligent and thoughtful people have been persuaded by her views. Commentary recently published a lengthy defense of the work, assailing Peters’s critics as leftists and anti-Zionists. Whatever the value of the book’s data and the strength of its arguments, its conclusions have simply been too seductive for many readers to resist.

Peters sets out to destroy the Arab position from "time immemorial" Palestine had been continuously occupied by Arabs and therefore belongs to them by right. What is considered controversial in the book is her "new" demographic evidence that many of the Arabs who lived in Palestine when the state of Israel was established were recent immigrants, not descendants of longtime inhabitants. These Arabs, claims Peters, had come to the area to benefit from the economic opportunities resulting from the influx of Jews. Hence, many of the Arabs who were driven out or fled during and after the several wars, and who are now housed in camps on the West Bank or in Lebanon or who live in Gaza or Jordan, have no more right to the land than do the Jews who came there from Europe, America or the Arab countries.

There is a kernel of truth to this view. Arabs have immigrated to the area during the past 100 years. But the greatest growth in the Arab population has come from natural increase, as experts in demography have observed. What is even more disturbing is Peters’s deep and thoroughgoing misrepresentation of Middle Eastern history, particularly regarding the dhimmi status of Jews in Arab lands. The term refers to "protected people," the people of the book, and applies to Christians as well as to Jews. It also was applied to the Zoroastrians and Hindus. But Peters describes the dhimmi as though it was a social structure that singled out Jews for special mistreatment@@@@@

(even though her sources often say Jew and Christian) And by sprinkling the discussion with Western terms such as "ghetto," she seeks to present Jewish experience in Arab lands in the bleakest terms. This goes against our best historical understanding. Jews experienced greater security under the Muslims than in the West, and they were much more successful at integrating with the majority in Islamic lands than in Christian countries.

Besides being misleading on the demographic question and embarrassingly ignorant in her account of Jewish experience under Islam, Peters also resurrects a tired argument for land ownership based on who was there first and longest. The Jews can lay claim to the land, according to Peters, because they have lived in it continuously "from time immemorial." Since the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., 2,000 years before the Arab invasion of Palestine, there has been a Jewish presence in the land. The first Palestinian refugees, in this reading, were the Jews who were driven from the land after the war with the Romans in 70 C .E. Nevertheless some Jews remained, presumably in parts of Galilee and in Hebron, and their ranks were swelled from time to time by new arrivals from the diaspora. Some communities remained in the same places for thousands of years (p. 147) , she writes, and Jews and "Zionism" never left the holy land. Therefore they cannot be held responsible for displacing Arabs (p. 347)

Anyone, and this includes many Israelis and American Jews, who has looked closely at the history of Palestine realizes the sleight of hand in this presentation. Claims of ownership based on continuous presence in a land are fragile enough (consider the case of western Turkey, which has been inhabited by Greeks until very recently, or the fate of Native Americans) but when one is talking about Palestine they are unusually tenuous. Of course there have been Jews in the land over much of its history. But there have also been many others -- Canaanites, Philistines, Samaritans, Nabataeans, Greeks, Romans, Muslims and, for almost 2,000 years now, Christians. One might, somewhat mischievously, argue that the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem has more rights than anyone because his is the oldest continuous office in the land.

As I pondered Peters’s arguments, I kept wondering whether she had ever read the account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. One remarkable feature of biblical history is that the land given by God to Abraham’s descendants had to be won by conquest. Unlike the Egyptians and other ancient peoples, the Jews had not lived on their land "from time immemorial." According to the Bible, Abraham went up to a land that belonged to other people, the Canaanites. The Scriptures never disguise this fact. Indeed, it is not until I Samuel that the phrase "land of Israel" occurs; the original biblical name is the "land of Canaan." Even in later texts the memory of this fact persists. "It was he [the Lord] who smote many nations . . . all the kingdoms of Canaan, and gave their land as a heritage, a heritage to this people Israel" (Ps. 135:12) A somewhat analogous reference in our day would be Menachem Begin’s calling Eretz Israel "Filastin."

The Canaanites, however, are part of ancient history. A more significant distortion in Peters’s account is that she makes no place for Christians in her holy land. There is no place that one can go in Israel without finding remains of two Christian epochs in the history of the land -- the age of the Crusaders and the Byzantine era (the three centuries before the Arab conquest in 640 C.E.)

The memory of the Crusaders may be distasteful to modern Christians (though in the midst of the uncertain motives and greed there was a spark of genuine devotion), but their historical significance is beyond dispute. The Byzantine era is even more significant. For in this case Christians did not take the land by might of arms but by persuasion, and ruled not as foreign conquerors but as inhabitants and natives, harvesting the fruit of earlier centuries during which the bulk of the local population gradually adopted the new religion as its own. Under Byzantine rule, Palestine not only attained spiritual pre-eminence in the Christian world, but also reached a level of material prosperity and population density that was not surpassed until modem times. Historians have estimated that there were four or five times more people living there during the Christian era than in Canaanite or Israelite times. "The Byzantine period," writes Michael Avi-Yonah, an Israeli historian, "represents a very high point of material development attained by this country."

From the middle of the fourth century to the Arab conquest in the middle of the seventh century, the Roman province of Palestine was transformed into a Christian country with Jerusalem its glittering metropolis, a "new Jerusalem built over against the one celebrated of old," as the Christian historian Eusebius described it. Palestine became not only a place for Christians to visit as tourists or pilgrims, but a place to live. Indeed, it was the Christian inhabitants of Palestine who made the term "holy land" acceptable to Christians and gave it general currency.

In the years after the war with the Romans in 70 C .E., the term "holy land" was a kind of code word among Jews to express the messianic hope that the exiles would return to Israel and reestablish a Jewish kingdom. For this reason, Christians at first rejected the term. Tertullian and Origen. for example, argued that the "holy land" could not be the "earthly land of Judaea"; it could only refer to a "pure and good and large land that lies in a pure heaven," a land "flowing with milk and honey." On occasion the phrase was used to refer simply to the land of the Bible -- that is, to the land the Israelites returned to from Egypt -- but in all of Christian literature before the sixth century it occurs less than a dozen times, and usually as a phrase to reject. Only rarely did it refer to the present province of Palestine, and it had had no religious significance for Christians.

During this period the term "holy land" first came to be used self-consciously by Christians to refer to the new Christian country that was being built. For them, the city of Jerusalem -- the actual city, not the heavenly Jerusalem -- was the "mother of the churches," and they spoke of themselves as "inhabitants of this holy land." Indeed, they thought that dwelling in the holy land gave them unique privileges, for it was only there that one could "touch with one’s own hands each day the truth through these holy places. . . ."

Although Muslim occupation destroyed political and territorial ideas among Christians (except for the Crusaders, who revived the notion of the holy land as a territory under a Christian king) , it did not put an end to Christian life in the land. Christians survived the victory of Islam -- another forgotten chapter in the history of Palestine. They did not flee because they were not "foreigners," nor did all convert to the faith of their new masters. They learned to pray in Arabic, they translated the Scriptures into Arabic and eventually produced a whole body of historical, devotional, polemical, theological and hagiographical literature in the language of their conquerors.

I realize all this seems far removed from Joan Peters’s book and the present political situation in Israel. And my purpose in recalling the Christian history of the land of Israel is certainly not to reassert Christian territorial claims. It is important, however, that Westerners recognize the presence of Arab Christians, who are a living link between ourselves and the earliest Christian churches. They are descendants of people who have lived in the land for over 1,500 years, and their perseverance over the centuries deserves our respect and support.

If it should happen that the only Christians to survive in the land were either Westerners or the caretakers of the holy places, something precious would be lost. The relation of Christianity to the land would alter in a fundamental way. The holy places would be turned into museum pieces or archaeological curiosities, as they have been elsewhere in the ancient world, such as Turkey or Tunisia. Without the presence of living Christian communities, the testimony of the holy land can only be equivocal. Those who have gone before, the martyrs and teachers, the bishops and monks, and the faithful who lived in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, would no longer be living signs of faith, but simply a distant memory. Only people, not stones and dirt and marble, can bear an authentic and faithful witness.