A common impulse that unites Jews, Christians and Muslims

Pilgrim People

by Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

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Pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the religious imagination.

The desire to visit places — especially distant ones — that are seen as endowed with transcendence and spiritual power is evidenced in many of the world’s great religions. Since many faiths employ words denoting a journey — “road,” “walking,” “path” — to describe their religious practice, perhaps it is natural for the pilgrimage to provide a metaphor of that greater pilgrimage: the life of the believer. In fact, the notion of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — but in very different ways.

From the earliest settled period Israelites felt the urge to visit holy places where they experienced an encounter with the Divine. In the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — we see that the three most solemn festivals of the Jewish year were pilgrimage festivals. In Exodus there is an old listing of the major festivals: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of the Harvest (Shevuot/Pentecost) and the Feast of the Wine and Olive Harvest (Sukkot/Tabernacles). The Israelites are commanded to “celebrate” these festivals and to “appear before the Lord.” In fact, the word used for “celebrate” and for “festival” is taken from the Hebrew root ḥgg, which happens to be the same root as the Arabic word for the ḥajj, or obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca.

So strong is the notion of pilgrimage in the Hebrew Bible that Passover, which was originally a family or clan festival, evolved over the centuries into a pilgrim festival. The construction of the Temple by Solomon in the 10th century B.C. provided the Israelites with a focal point for pilgrimage. While political divisions, wars and exiles limited the ability and desire of some to travel to Jerusalem, the city remained and still remains the major pilgrimage site for Jews.

Throughout the historical books of the Hebrew Bible there are references to huge pilgrimage gatherings in Jerusalem, but these are balanced by remarks such as, “no Passover like this had ever been celebrated since the days of the judges,” and with laments that Israelites are not fulfilling their pilgrimage obligations.

While the very logistics for every Israelite to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year makes it highly unlikely that the ideal was ever attained, large numbers did manage to make it to Jerusalem at least for Passover. In his work “The Jewish Wars,” Flavius Josephus wrote of a Passover during his time in which 256,000 lambs were sacrificed. He estimated the number of pilgrims at 2.7 million — a number most historians doubt. (Indeed it is known that Josephus was not above creating data to fit his story.) Nonetheless, contemporary scholars believe that anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 pilgrims would visit Jerusalem on any given Passover.

The Passover was a tense time for the Roman occupiers of Judea during the New Testament period. The Roman troops were often put on higher alert and their numbers increased. They were well aware that the large number of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the feast proved fertile ground for riots and rebellion.

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