Jerusalem: A Magnet for Christian Visits (Part Five)

December 15, 2018
Baptisms in Israel at Yarding on a Vision Christian Tour
Christians visiting Yardinet (Upper Jordan river) to be baptized as part of a tour - some for the fist time, others for recommitment. Photo: Vision Christian Tours -

In Part 01 of our series, we learned that Christians have been visiting the holy city in a continuous flow since the early years of the church. Today, the number of incoming Christian visitors to Israel, with the ostensible goal of visiting Jerusalem, is around 60%, or more.

In Part 02, we learned about the strong ‘tourist factor’ which helped stimulate Christian visits. 

In Part 03, we have seen that this ‘continuous flow’ and ‘tourist promotion’ has increased visits by Christians to Jerusalem and Israel, worldwide.

In Part 04, we began to define the Christian visitor, either as a ‘tourist,’ ‘pilgrim,’ or both.

Here in Part 05, we will continue to explore this fascinating topic: are today’s Christian visitors to Jerusalem ‘tourists,’ ‘pilgrims,’ or both. This is not an easy task. Another reason is that today’s Christian visitors, unlike ‘classic pilgrims of old,’ tend to visit non-traditional and even non-Christian and/or non-Biblical sites, like the Western Wall, Haram el Sharif (Temple Mount), and Masada. They can also attend conferences, participate in archaeological digs, volunteer on kibbutzim, ‘shop until you drop,’ plant trees, float on the Dead Sea, and more. 

Looking for a definition is not helped by the social anthropologists, the only group that ever studies the pilgrim phenomena. They use terms like communitas, a liminal experience, freedom from social structure, etc. Yet, they fail to utilise the very source-book of Christian pilgrimage, namely the Bible. So, we need to look at the Bible, theology, and history, to understand our status in the holy city and holy land.

Theology of Pilgrimage

Dictionaries define pilgrim as a stranger or foreigner (from the Latin peregrinus) and pilgrimage (peregrinatio) as wandering, a long journey, or a journey to a sacred place.

Peregrinus stems from the Biblical Hebrew and Greek. There are two pairs of words to denote the pilgrim. Firstly, the Old Testament speaks of ger in Hebrew or paroikos in the New Testament Greek. These mean a ‘one who lives as a resident alien’ (BROMILEY 1985:149), like a permanent resident, a long-term foreigner who still lacks citizenship rights. Ger/Paroikos could mean a non-Israelite, but often referred to the patriarchs and the physical descendants of Israel (BROMILEY 1985:789).

Doing religious things does not make them more of a in the heart is the key...

The second pair of words are toshab (Hebrew) and  parepidemos (Greek), meaning a temporary resident alien. A modern counterpart is a visitor that receives a three to six month tourist visa; thus, they have even less rights than a resident alien. Like ger/paroika, they also denote transitoriness (STEWART 1988: 1231). In 1 Peter 2:11 it states:

‘Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers (paroikos) and pilgrims (parepidemos), abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.’

The Biblical idea is that the patriarchs, heirs of Canaan and of God’s promises, were still no more than magurim or permanent residents without citizenship rights in the land of promise. Furthermore, the believer in Christ is considered a ‘citizen of heaven’ who is an alien temporarily residing in this present fallen world order; they are sojourning in the flesh awaiting their eternal home. Their mortal lifespan is considered a pilgrimage (Stewart 1988:1231). Hebrews 11:13 says:

‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth.’

From this comes the concept of pilgrimage, meaning that a citizen of another country sojourns in a holy land with a holy place, as a stranger in a strange land, in order to make contact with the roots of their faith and/or understand, apprehend, and/or appropriate their heavenly reward. Like Ellis Island to the Old World migrant to the United States, the pilgrim passes in transit through a holy land in order to obtain their future inheritance. 

The following are offered as definitions:

A ‘pilgrim:’ Any person of faith on a long journey, who, consciously or subconsciously, is in search of the sacred–sacred site, sacred city, sacred land, and/or sacred person.

A ‘Christian pilgrim to Jerusalem’ is considered to be any visiting foreign Christian, whether alone or in a group, with faith in their heart, travelling to and sojourning in a sacred place (temporarily or longer), consciously or subconsciously seeking to connect with the source and city of their faith. As people of faith, since our entire earthly life is a ‘pilgrimage,’ then visiting the key city of the Bible (mentioned 811 times as ‘Jerusalem’) is a pilgrimage, too, no matter how unstructured, relaxed, unconventional or untraditional it may be. 

It is not so much what the pilgrim does (e.g. liturgical acts), but who they are (a person with faith in Christ), that makes them a pilgrim. Doing religious things does not make them more of a pilgrim nor doing touristic things make them less—faith in the heart is the key that separates the pilgrim from the tourist.

Here are 2 sub-categories:

CLASSIC PILGRIM: One who comes to Jerusalem for the express purpose of visiting the holy sites and conducting conscious acts of devotion. Non-religious activities are kept to a minimum. Catholic and Orthodox groups, particularly during special seasons, would often fit this categorisation. They are the most likely group to have contact and church services with indigenous Christians.

BIBLICAL TOURIST: A Christian who visits Jerusalem to see the sights associated with Christ and the Bible. They do not necessarily partake in any conspicuous liturgical or religious activities. Furthermore, they visit non-Christian and non-sacred sites and do other tourist activities. Many evangelical and Protestant visitors could be classified as such.

In Part 06, we will look at the nature of Christian visits and other fascinating things.


BROMILEY Geoffrey. (1985) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans. STEWART R.A. (1988) “Pilgrimage” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Volume III, Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press.



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