The Nine Quarters of Jerusalem

The Revd Canon Dr William Lamb
The Third Sunday of Lent


Choral Eucharist

1 Corinthians 1.18-25     John 2.13-22

Since the nineteenth century, the Old City of Jerusalem has been conventionally divided by foreigners into four distinct quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. It is a neat description, and yet in his recent book, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, the writer, Matthew Teller, offers a more complex story about the geography of this city.

Teller notes that Jerusalem was only split into four when Europeans started exploring Jerusalem in greater numbers: ‘One day Jerusalem was whole, the next it had four quarters’. It’s ridiculous and yet everyone accepts it as true. Teller notes that the Temple Mount is simply omitted from this configuration: surmounted by the Dome of the Rock, is it part of the Muslim Quarter? Or is there evidence of a studied neutrality given that it was once the site of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem? Teller makes the point that a series of explorers and European lithographers created these quarters – but in so doing they imposed a series of assumptions that they had brought with them from their own, more familiar, European cities. Quarters were for minorities and foreigners. Many European cities had a Jewish Quarter. Birmingham has Chinese and Irish quarters, Paris has a Latin Quarter, for all those Latin speaking strangers assembling around the medieval University of Paris. But Jerusalem? Teller suggests there are nine quarters, distinct communities, each with their own history. The quarters of Jerusalem identify the homes of different communities, but they also alert us to a thicker description of this complex city as a contested space – a space which excites passions, as well as conflict, deep loyalties, as well as destructive rivalries. But the Temple Mount – is omitted.

In the days when the books of the New Testament were written, people used the Temple to think with. The Temple provided the conceptual apparatus to think about the way in which the world was ordered, each court marking out the way in which the entire cosmos was shaped, helping Jews to understand their place within the world, and their relationships with their neighbour. In the Holy of Holies, where God himself was said to dwell, there was a huge curtain or veil, which is described by the first century Jewish Historian, Josephus. He records that this Babylonian tapestry was embroidered with a panorama of the heavens. It was ‘a kind of image of the universe’(Josephus, Jewish War 5). This is the same curtain that according to St Mark is ripped apart at the time of the death of Jesus in the crucifixion. Mark is telling us that in this moment, the world as we know it is being torn apart. For Mark, the temple in Jerusalem no longer provides an adequate conceptual framework for thinking about God’s ways with the world. By the end of Mark’s story, the temple, like Jerusalem, has become a contested space.

But for John the Evangelist, this sense of the Temple as a contested space is evident from the very beginning of his narrative. The Synoptic gospels place the cleansing of the temple after Jesus’ public ministry and just before the passion narrative unfolds. Thus the actions of Jesus are viewed as a direct assault on the authority of the chief priests, and this becomes the pretext for his trial and eventual execution a few days later. But John places this event right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Remember that it follows directly after the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus at first refuses to respond to the request of Mary his mother, saying ‘My hour has not yet come’. The hour when Jesus is glorified is the moment when he faces his passion, and as if to accentuate that emphasis, John places this incident right at the beginning of his ministry. In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee and then works his way towards Jerusalem. But in John, Jesus is always going up to Jerusalem. This is the place where the central drama of the story will unfold. Each visit alerts us to something deeper about the story of the passion. Each visit helps to provide a thicker description of the glory which will unfold.

Jesus confronts the sellers and traders, and the money-traders sitting at their tables. It is a dramatic, even violent, act. ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ With these words, the temple itself becomes a contested space – a space which excites passions, as well as conflict, deep loyalties as well as destructive rivalries. The story continues with a series of allusions to the identity of Jesus. The first of these allusions points back to the beginning of the gospel. In the prologue, when John says, ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’, the word ‘dwelt’ in Greek has the sense of pitching a tent or setting up a tabernacle. The same word is used in the Book of Exodus to describe the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. John takes this imagery and applies it to Jesus, the Word made flesh. So it comes as no surprise here that Jesus not only refers to God as ‘my Father’, laying claim to the title ‘Son of God’, but goes on to refer to the temple of his own body. The place where God dwells is in his body. ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’ is a clear and unambiguous reference to his death and resurrection. And if, as John goes on to assert, Jesus abides in us and we abide in him, then we discover that God dwells in us, in our bodies. That extraordinary comment of C S Lewis from this pulpit, in his sermon The Weight of Glory: ‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.’

This is the extraordinary theology proclaimed in John’s gospel. And yet, sometimes John’s theology is presented as problematic. It is contested. The idea that Jesus replaces the temple is sometimes presented as ‘supersessionist’, as evidence of John’s ‘anti-semitism’, as Christianity replacing or superseding Judaism. And yet, while it may well be true that this gospel has been read in the course of history to justify the persecution of Jews, this is a profound misreading of the text. John writes as a Jewish person about another Jewish person, Jesus, and he uses the language and imagery of the Hebrew Bible at almost every turn. John is drawing on the same inheritance as rabbinic Judaism, and what he is trying to articulate is not the abrogation of an ‘old covenant’, but the opening up of the same covenant to everyone. What John is seeking to articulate, writing after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, is that God’s promises have been transfigured, not destroyed. The continuity of revelation is never broken. God’s presence dwells among us. And the witness of the New Testament reminds us again and again that that divine presence is often most evident to us when we encounter the poor and the dispossessed, the downtrodden and the heartbroken, the refugee and the stranger – when we stand alongside all the wrong people.

And that means that God’s presence is often found – uncomfortably and uncertainly – in contested spaces, amid contested stories, where the fractions don’t really fit. In The Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, Matthew Teller says, ‘We all have our Jerusalem. Our place of heavenly perfection, our city of joy. The culmination of our hopes and the embodiment of our dreams. A true home, where we will live in communion with humanity and the higher powers in the comfort of certainty and the certainty of comfort.’ But John the evangelist does not offer us easy comfort. He disrupts our certainties. He challenges our assumptions. He writes in order to complicate the question: what is the Jerusalem you seek? What is your heart’s desire? Where do you see the glory of God?