American Academy of Religion Western Region 2016 conference presentation by John R. Leech, D.Min.
Living Traditions and Dead Wood: How Tree-rings inform the value of nature in religious devotions and illuminate the perseverance of pilgrimage traditions
“Living traditions and dead wood” is about ancient wood in Palestine/Israel and the religious significance of its careful preservation, maintenance, and even propagation.
Questions this inquiry may prompt include:
- What does it say about our care for the earth and each other that we take such care of the ancient timbers of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (brought, some of them, from mountains in the Balkan provinces of the Byzantine Empire) and of the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane?
- What does it say about social justice and hope for reconciliation among peoples, that these ancient places, so long fought over, yet are preserved?
- How does that impact pilgrims and local people?
This paper draws on sources including tree-ring research, accounts in sacred writings (Hebrew Bible and New Testament), pilgrimage accounts, and personal observation, to illuminate the relationship between ecology and religion in relationship between living things and devotional practices. It uses as examples the roof timbers of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, ancient in origin and currently in renovation, and the ancient olive trees growing in the Garden of Gethsemane. The olive trees represent a living tradition indeed, a memory of sacred events passed down in the context of cultivated organisms. The timbers of the roof of the church, some being upgraded or replaced this year, include some remnants that hearken back to the sixth century of the common era, in times of Byzantine hegemony, when elaborate efforts were made to locate, harvest, and transport the best timbers in the empire to serve as supports in the sacred structure.
Tree-ring research shows us the age, variety, experience, and perseverance, of trees whether alive and growing or already dead. Evaluating timber in sacred buildings helps us understand when the lumber was cut, where, what its strength was, what kind of living it endured – including climate conditions, and possibly clues to its value and purpose to those who harvested, transported, treated, used, and preserved it. The study of living trees that have devotional or sacral associations similarly helps us understand their religious significance, meaning, and purpose. How living trees are kept, cared for, and made use of, indicate their present value and lingering historical associations. The preservation of living things as foci or loci of spiritual attention connect devotion, veneration, and living association beyond the artificial (the built environment, symbolical associations and activities) to the natural, if cultivated or lumbered, existence of these ancient living or once-living things.
This past month, on Thursday of Holy Week, many Christian worshippers remembered the Agony of Christ in the Garden – the Garden of Gethsemane, where he waited and watched with his disciples, as the Gospels relate it, and there, after prostrating himself (or kneeling) before the divine to beg release from what he felt was coming, accepted betrayal and arrest (which led to his appearance before authorities and eventual execution). This commemoration connects the present to the past, making the past, as William Faulkner put it, not even past. This anamnestic moment, bringing the past into the present, is a key part of the value of the ancient trees.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor sets the stage:
Jesus’ familiarity with the Mount of Olives stemmed from the fact that, when in the Jerusalem area, he stayed with his friends at Bethany (Luke 10:38; Mark 11:11). At pilgrimage time the population of Jerusalem tripled. The cost of lodging within the city became exorbitant and the poor had to make arrangements in the surrounding villages. Thus each day he walked over the hill to the city and returned at nightfall (Luke 21:37)… At the bottom of the slope is the garden of Gethsemane where he was arrested… (Mark 14:26-52). (Murphy-O’Connor. 139)
Having eaten the Paschal meal somewhere in the city (Luke 22:10), Jesus ‘went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden’ (John 18:1) on the Mount of Olives called Gethsemane (Mark 14:26, 32). The place was known to Judas, ‘for Jesus often met there with his disciples’ (John 18:2), perhaps to take a rest (while reflecting on the experiences of the day) before starting the climb up the steep steps en route to Bethany. Jesus knew his life to be in danger (John 11:8, 16); he suspected Judas of treachery (Mark 14:17-21)… His enemies would come from the city, but ten minutes’ fast walking would bring him to the top of the Mount of Olives with the open desert before him. Escape would be easy; he could postpone the inevitable. Only in prayer could he find the answer to the agonizing question of whether to stand or retreat. (Murphy-O’Connor. 146)
[My friend Ibrahim Gamard has pointed out that this garden narrative also appears in Islamic tradition. Its theme of submission to the divine will ("Not my will but Thine") also echoes the Genesis story of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham's moment of submission to the divine will. (Personal conversation, 18 March 2016.]
The eight existing trees are of the same genotype – that is, they have a common parent. Estimates of their age vary from 900 to over 2000 years.
The eight existing trees are of the same genotype – that is, they have a common parent. Estimates of their age vary from 900 to over 2000 years.
Historical memories on the Garden of Gethsemane and the description of the eight olive trees that are preserved in the garden have provided the first results for the characterization of these ‘‘notable trees’’. They are special trees because they are very old, probably among the oldest of the species in the world, and because they have witnessed important historical events. The natural ecosystem of the Garden of Gethsemane and the olive trees are full part of the culture and spirituality of many peoples.
Combining the results of the different analyses carried out with the present work, we could conclude that the eight olive trees of the Gethsemane Garden in Jerusalem have been propagated from a single genotype, and the differences displayed at the morphological and morphometric analyses are either due to mutations accumulated during the trees’ long standing (approximately nine centuries, Dr. Mauro Bernabei, pers. comm.) or to their position in the garden.
(Petrucelli et al., C. R. Biologies 337 (2014) 311–317.)
References in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark indicate that the beginning of the drama of Jesus’ passion took place in the olive grove at Gethsemane, where an oil press was located. That it was a working orchard, not a pleasure garden, may highlight the identification of Jesus with the common people of his time. The disciples and he sought shelter in a place that was humble, out of the way, at the edge of town.
By the third century of the Common Era, the garden was among the customary sites for remembering the passion of Christ. Eusebius of Caesarea mentions it in the Onomasticon (295 AD), as does the 4th century pilgrim Egeria – who observed: “On Maundy Thursday the faithful meet at Gethsemane.” (Holloway). Medieval and late-medieval sources, such as the 15th century Dominican friar Felix Fabri, follow. By the 17th century the grove and surrounding shrines were in the custody of the Order of Friars Minor. (Petrucelli)
A typical prayer offered in the presence of the olive trees is:
Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection
of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world.
Grant that by faith in the One
who suffered such anguish and who died upon the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory. Amen.
(From a contemporary pilgrimage worship booklet, collected on-site January 2015.)
To be present to living things that may have witnessed the events of the Passion of Christ is a blessing sought by many pilgrims, especially in Holy Week. “Each year on the evening of Holy Thursday the Franciscan community joins together with all the faithful who come to Jerusalem for Easter ‘to watch and pray’ for an hour along with Jesus.” (http://www.gethsemane-en.custodia.org/default.asp?id=5666 March 23, 2016)
The careful preservation, tending – and perhaps propagation from earlier individuals – of the grove show the importance of the place of the passion to a stream of believers and pilgrims that connects the recounted events of the Gospel organically to the present day.
The long lines awaiting entrance into the sub-basement area of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to touch the place where Jesus was born (or his birth is commemorated), is a similar observance … and the whole church, dating back to the time of Constantine I, is a reminder of the importance of the Birth of Christ to this strain of monotheistic religion.
The first church was dedicated on 31 May 339…. According to Eutychus of Alexandria, after the Samaritan uprising of ad 529, ‘The Emperor Justinian ordered his envoy to pull down the church of Bethlehem, which was a small one, and to build it again of such splendor, size, and beauty than none even in the Holy City should surpass it.’ … This building has remained in use until the present day… In an extraordinary display of tolerance the Franks and Byzantines cooperated in the restoration of the church between 1165 and 1169… Despite an earthquake in 1834, and a fire in 1869 which destroyed the furnishings of the cave, the church survives; its dignity, though battered, is not tarnished. (Murphy-O’Connor. 232, 233, 234.)
During my own pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 2015, in the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as I entered I looked up – at scaffolding. The ceiling beams were covered – as renovations were in progress. And I asked myself: have tree-ring researchers been at work here, to determine the age and provenance of the wood in the ceiling? Yes.
Charlotte Pearson and Katie Hirschboeck of the Tree-Ring research laboratory at the University of Arizona, along with Dan Miles from Oxford Dendrochronological Laboratory, have been kind enough to give me guidance in understanding their work. Charlotte provided me with research on the garden and the church in the Holy Land, and with Katie gave me a tour of the laboratory on the Tucson campus. From them I learned something of the techniques that provide information not only about the dating of a piece of wood but its provenance and its, if you will, life story. These include radiocarbon dating and examining the record preserved in the annual growth rings of some trees.
The trees that are represented in the ceiling beams of the church of the Nativity begin with native cedar that was harvested for the construction of the ‘new’ building in the 6th-7th century (replacing Constantine’s 4th century original structure). “The oldest wood within the Church are the lintels used to construct its trabeated timber framework. They are all cedar … dated by radiocarbon analysis to the year 605, with a confidence limit of ± 60 years (95.4%).” (Bernabei, Journal of Cultural Heritage 13 (2012) e54–e60)
In later years other woods were used. In these cases, tree-ring research techniques yielded information on the dating and provenance of the timbers. The importance of the structure is highlighted by the trouble taken in its renovations; for example, in transporting European larch lumber from high in the Eastern Alps across the Mediterranean and up to Jerusalem – in the 15th century. (As a southwestern parallel, builders of the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon, during the time period 850 to 1140, drew timber from two sources, each about fifty miles from the site; the Chacoans developed the second source after the first was exhausted and the pace of construction stepped up.) Oak was the most recently added of the materials in the Nativity ceiling, during a mid-19th century effort in later Ottoman times.
That renovation work was done in Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman times provides an indication of the care and custodianship of several faith groups, all respecting the value – and perhaps the numinous quality – of these ancient shrines. One living trees, the other dead wood, both sacred sites represent living traditions of piety and vicarious participation in the presence of the in-breaking divine in actual ordinary existence.
Holy sites, such as these, that have been both fought over and cared for by numerous groups, are places where the foibles and the generosities of human experience can show themselves. The key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, is held in trust by a Muslim family, and the duty of opening the door each morning belongs to another. Take it how you will, is it a sign of human propensity to conflict, or does it not show the irenical impulse to find a way forward? “The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate; those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery in order to pray here.” (Murphy-O’Connor. 49)
Holy sites also remind us of the interplay between the material and the numinous. In these spaces human beings have sought a transcendent connection. They may bring it with them. They may find it here, unexpectedly. In my own experience, the numinous cannot be sought and captured where it is expected to be; it finds you out in its own time.
In the roof and in the garden, as Gildas Hamel observes, “the wood is the material sign of a continuous incarnation. The wood beams and trees are witnesses of the faith communities (including their politics and military adventures!) that allow us to think of an on-going creation.” (Hamel, Gildas. Personal communication. March 26, 2016.) Both harvested timbers and still-growing trees embody traditions that are not dead but alive.
Over the centuries the care that has been given in tending the ancient Gethsemane grove, and in repairing and caring for the olden building of the Bethlehem church, are examples of how venerable trees, or even dead wood, can inform and propagate living traditions.
Tree-ring researchers whose work informed this study include, from the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, Charlotte Pearson, Katherine Hirschboeck, and Malcolm Hughes, and from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, Daniel Miles. Thanks to Robert P. Erickson, M.D., of the University of Arizona for encouraging the pursuit of this inquiry. Gildas Hamel of the University of California at Santa Cruz contributed bibliographical suggestions and local knowledge of Jerusalem.
Bernabei, Mauro, and Jarno Bontadi. “Dendrochronological analysis of the timber structure of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.” (Journal of Cultural Heritage 13 (2012) e54–e60).
Kaniewski, David, and Elise Van Campo, Tom Boiy, Jean-Frédéric Terral, Bouchaïb Khadari, Guillaume Besnard. “Primary domestication and early uses of the emblematic olive tree: palaeobotanical, historical and molecular evidence from the Middle East.” Biological Reviews. Cambridge Philosophical Society. (Biol. Rev. (2012), 87, pp. 885–899. 885doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2012.00229.x).
Petruccelli, Raffaella, and Cristiana Giordano, Maria Cristina Salvatici, Laura Capozzoli, Leonardo Ciaccheri, Massimo Pazzini, Orietta Lain, Raffaele Testolin, Antonio Cimato. “Observation of eight ancient olive trees (Olea europaea L.) growing in the Garden of Gethsemane.” Comptes Rendus Biologies. (C. R. Biologies 337 (2014) 311–317).
Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.
Francis. Laudato Si’ [On Care for Our Common Home]. Vatican: Catholic Truth Society. 2015.
Hamel, Gildas. Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1990.
Holloway, Julia Bolton. The Bible and Women Pilgrims. http://www.umilta.net/egeria.html#Egeria. accessed March 26, 2016.
Jensen, Mari N. “Unexpected Wood Source for Chaco Canyon Great Houses.” UANews. December 7, 2015. https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/unexpected-wood-source-for-chaco-canyon-great-houses. accessed March 26, 2016.
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008.
Nicholl, Donald. The Testing of Hearts: A Pilgrim’s Journal. London: Lamp Press. 1989.