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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Mount Zion
The Upper Room
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The Upper Room

During the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), Jews flocked to Jerusalem. No one knows how many: even today, with aerial photography, it is hard to estimate the size of a crowd.

Few accept Josephus' figure of 2,700,000 at one Passover (War VI 9.3). The esplanades of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which most scholars identify with the courts of Herod's Temple, can hold 400,000. That figure is probably close to the ancient reality. But whether one chooses the larger or smaller number, it is clear that during these festivals Jerusalem experienced a huge "tourism boom." Where would all the pilgrims have stayed?

Many would have received hospitality in the homes of Jerusalemites, who made guest rooms available for this purpose. Homeowners were prohibited from taking rent from pilgrims because the homes in Jerusalem "belong to the tribes," although the pilgrims would have felt a social obligation (not legally binding) to give gifts in return. More.  (Those who could not find accommodation in the city would have stayed in tents outside, as Josephus indicates in Antiquities XVII 9.3.)

During Jesus' pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover, he made use of such a guest room. In Luke 22:10-12, Jesus tells Peter and John to follow a man carrying a jar of water, and when he enters a house, to tell the owner, "The Teacher says to you, 'Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large, furnished upper room. Make preparations there."

Such a room is also mentioned in Acts 1:12. After Jesus' ascension from the Mt. of Olives, the disciples went back into the city, to "the upper room where they were staying." They were still in Jerusalem fifty days after Passover for the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost, seven weeks after Passover, on the 50th day). At this time they were ...

...all with one accord in one place.  Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them, and one sat on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak.   (Acts 2:1-4)

Both these events relate to the history of ancient Israel.

The Lord's Supper: According to the first three ("synoptic") Gospels, this meal was a Passover Seder. And what was Passover at that time? The festival had both an agricultural and a historical significance. (As did the Feast of Tabernacles.) Agriculturally, Passover marked the barley harvest. Historically, the Book of Exodus (12:14) calls it a festival of remembrance, on which the children of Israel remember how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Jesus broke bread, in our earliest account (I Corinthians 11:24-25), saying,

 “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me.”

He presents himself as the fulfillment of the redemption that began with the exodus from Egypt.

The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost corresponds to the wheat harvest, but the First Testament does not connect it to a historical event. The ancient Rabbis did so, however, linking it to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Here, then, we also find a fulfillment: the giving of the Holy Spirit occurs on the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.

upper-room-tb-n123199.jpgThe Upper Room that we visit today on Mt. Zion has no resemblance to a room of 2000 years ago. The area has gone through a difficult history. The present design is basically Franciscan, from the 14th century - but with a Muslim mihrab , added in the 16th after an Ottoman  sultan ordered the "infidels" out. (The Israelis took over in 1948 and have held the hill ever since. The site is under their jurisdiction.)

Is this, despite the Gothic appearance, the place of the events that we remember here? The case is stronger for Pentecost.  Writing in the 4th century, Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis  describes a visit by Hadrian to Jerusalem more than 200 years before his time. The emperor, he says, surveyed the city, which still lay in ruins from the destruction by Titus in 70 AD.
And Hadrian found the temple of God trodden down and the whole city devastated, save for a few houses and the very small church of God, where the disciples, when they had returned after the Savior had ascended from the Mount of Olives, went to the upper room. For there it had been built, that is, in that portion of Zion that escaped destruction, together with blocks of houses in the neighborhood of Zion and the seven synagogues that alone remained standing in Zion, like solitary huts. (On Weights and Measures, 14-15)

By the time Epiphanius wrote, the term "Zion" was confined to Jerusalem's western hill (see Mt. Zion). In 348 one Cyril, later to become bishop of Jerusalem, delivered a sermon referring to the place "where the Pentecost Spirit descended upon the apostles, namely in the Upper Church of the Apostles." Was this the same "small church of God" in Zion referred to by Epiphanius?

Apparently so, for later in the 4th century a bishop named John refers to...

the dedication of the Holy and Glorious Zion, which is the mother of all churches, that had been founded by the Apostles, which Emperor Theodosius the Great (379-395) has built, enlarged, and glorified, and in which the Holy Spirit had come down on the holy day of Pentecost. (van Esbroeck , 314-315.)

When Egeria describes the Jerusalem liturgy (ca. 394 AD), she mentions that the Sunday morning service is held in the large church built by Constantine in Golgotha (today the Holy Sepulcher  - SL), "that is, behind the Cross, on every Lord's Day throughout the year except on the one Sunday of Pentecost, when they proceed to Zion." (My emphasis - SL.)

There is a strong tradition, then, at least from the 4th century, maybe from the 2nd, and even perhaps from the time of the event itself, connecting a place on Mt. Zion with the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

There is no 4th-century tradition, however, connecting the same place with Jesus' Passover meal. According to Egeria, that meal was remembered on Maundy Thursday "behind the Cross" at Constantine's Church of the Resurrection.

Thus the 4th-century Christians, despite their interest in identifying biblical sites, did not have a traditional place for the Lord's supper, as they did for Pentecost. Since both events occurred in upper rooms, however, the one on Mt. Zion attracted the memory of the Lord's supper a century later.

With one or both of these traditions at their backs, the Byzantines built a grand church called Holy Zion (Hagia Zion), which appears on the 6th-century Madaba map. It is unclear whether it incorporated the older Church of the Apostles.


17092002170931.jpgA liturgical celebration in the Church of Holy Zion focused on King David and the Apostle James (founders, respectively, of the Jewish and Christian communities in Jerusalem). This service gave rise to the belief that both were buried on the hill. (O'Connor , p. 105.) Accordingly, the traditional tomb of James is today found in the Armenian cathedral just north of the Old City wall. (See St. James Cathedral in the photo on the right.)

The tomb of David is located in a chamber below the Upper Room. The Book of Kings (1 Kings 2:10) has David buried within his city, which was on the spur just south of the Temple Mount. But the Byzantines didn't know where David's Jerusalem was. Misled by the name Zion, which had shifted to this western hill, they assumed his grave was here.

upper-room-pelicans.jpgWhen the Persian army invaded the Byzantine Empire in 614, it destroyed most of the land's churches, including Holy Zion. After the Persian withdrawal, the Christians rebuilt it, but in the early 11th century al-Hakim battered it down. Within the southern section of the ruins, the Crusaders built a church they called St. Mary of Mt. Zion: they had a tradition that after Jesus' resurrection, the Virgin had lived on this hill until her death (today remembered in the nearby Dormition Abbey). The Crusader church incorporated today's Upper Room (the north wall includes Crusader columns). With implicit reference to the Lord's Supper, a Crusader capital reflects the belief that the pelican, if unable to find food for her young, offers them flesh from her breast.

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