Jerusalem in Medieval Christian Thought

Giotto - Entry into Jerusalem
Giotto - Entry into Jerusalem
Giotto – Entry into Jerusalem

Jerusalem in Medieval Christian Thought

George N. Atiyeh

Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 13, Nos. 3 & 4. (Summer-Autumn, 1979)    


Sacred to mankind, Jerusalem in its forty, perhaps fifty, centuries of existence has occupied a unique place in human history. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, Jerusalem has stirred the passions of mankind for as long as history has been recorded, inspiring thinkers, poets, prophets, saints and last but not least warriors and politicians. I plan in the following essay to scan the pages of history in search of the role that the idea of Jerusalem as the City of God has played in the development of Christian eschatological thought during the Middle Ages, particularly as it was reflected in the works of Dante Alighieri and other great writers and thinkers of that period. However, it is important in order to under-stand the place of Jerusalem in the World scheme set up by Dante Alighieri, on whose Divine Comedy we shall focus our attention, to consider the early Christian thinking on Jerusalem as a symbol of new and heavenly things.

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is presented as the place where God chose to establish his special relationship with the Jewish people (Psalms 78: 68ff).1 They could find fellowship with Him in prayer, praise and sacrifice in the Temple. God’s presence there made the city holy. The holiness of the place derives, according to Joel (4:17), from Jehovah’s dwelling in Zion, the holy mountain. The trends of thought generated from the concept of God’s presence in Jerusalem centered around the nature of His presence. Are we to understand His presence in Jerusalem as physical or spiritual? Does God physically reside in the temple or does He reside there in a spiritual manner? Is not God’s nature and essence spiritual and non-material? Should we not then understand His presence as a spiritual one to effect revelation and redemption for the whole of mankind and not for one nation?

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