The "Fifth Gospel"

Reprinted with permission from As I See It. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at

How the Holy Land illuminates the Bible like nothing else can & some notable Holy Land travelogues

I found the country [i.e., Palestine, in 1877] and the people pretty much as I expected, but I trust I understand both better than before. My faith in the Bible has not been shaken, but confirmed. Many facts and scenes, which seem to float ghost-like in the clouds to a distant reader, assume flesh and blood in the land of their birth. There is a marvelous correspondence between the Land and the Book. The Bible is the best handbook for the Holy Land, and the Holy Land is the best commentary on the Bible. (Philip Schaff, Through Bible Lands, pp. 383-84)

As a junior in Bible college in 1973, I had the singular opportunity to travel to Greece (including Patmos and Rhodes), Lebanon, Syria, but especially Israel, on a 14-day-long package tour, including air-fare and all fees, taxes and gratuities for the now absurdly cheap price of $600 (my father readily put up the cash for me to go; no better single investment was ever made in my education). I had in class heard the Holy Land referred to as “the Fifth Gospel” since it cast so much light on the events in the life of Jesus, and as a student of the Bible and preacher-in-training, I naturally very much wanted to the see the Holy Land for myself with my own eyes, to walk its hills, smell its air, feel its atmosphere, and hear its sounds.

I took the time to read up in advance on what I was going to see—a couple of brief books on Holy Land geography—which indeed did enhance the experience. Had this modest preparation been doubled and trebled by reading a shelf full of similar books, while I would have seen and understood more, even this would have been no adequate substitute for seeing it for myself. As is invariably the case, the images that developed in the mind’s eye through written accounts were often considerably different from those formed by actually being there. For myself, I was amazed at the utter smallness of the place—smaller than all but the very smallest of U.S. states. I was astonished, for example, to discover that the north end of the Dead Sea was clearly visible at sunrise from the top of the Mount of Olives, or that the entire Sea of Galilee can be seen at once by anyone standing on the hills surrounding it.

There is, then, no adequate substitute for actually being there. That being said, however, I am sure that there is very great value to be had in reading and studying “pilgrim” accounts of visits to the Holy Land, especially those that date to the 19th and earlier centuries, in particular those that came from the pens of trained Bible scholars who had eyes to see and understand what they were seeing. Also of merit are some accounts from professional writers—reporters, journalists, and such—whose very profession is observing and recording.

Why from the 19th century and earlier? The era of modern development—steam engines, trains, telegraph, electricity, and later automobiles and all the rest in the late 19th and all of the 20th century, plus the massive increase in population in the past 150 years or so, have massively altered the view in Israel, and greatly altered the culture and lifestyle of the land’s inhabitants. In the pre-steam, pre-train, pre-electricity era, there had been no significant alteration in the terrain of Canaan or in the lifestyle of its inhabitants since Biblical times. As a result, descriptions of the land, with its fields, towns, sea coasts, watercourses, valleys, mountains and deserts from the pre-modern era, and of the agricultural, social, commercial and other practices of the people from the same are much more likely to reflect the ancient situation, and therefore potentially cast considerable light on Biblical accounts, narratives and customs.

The OT and NT eras in Canaan, as well as those from the 2nd to the latter 19th century, were lit at night only by fire and moonlight. Transportation was chiefly on foot, or on donkey-, camel-, or more rarely horse-back. The largest proportion of the population was engaged in small-scale subsistence agriculture or livestock tending. Clothing was laboriously hand-made. The countryside was dotted with small clusters of houses passing for villages. Most commerce was by barter at local bazaars. In perhaps only one notable aspect did the Palestine of the era preceding the 20th century differ significantly from OT and NT times, and that was in the degraded condition of the native plant cover due to multiplied centuries of gross over-grazing by Bedouin livestock, and desolation of the original extensive forests, in part due to a short-sighted Ottoman tax on trees. The loss of grass and trees resulted in short order in massive erosion of the thin topsoil and broad general decline in the fertility of the soil, nearly to the point of sterility.

Furthermore, those 19th century (and earlier) expeditions were not 7- or 10-day tourist outings. With the time, expense and difficulty of the trip over, while in-country and back, these explorations commonly lasted months, even years, not days or weeks, giving ample time to more fully appreciate the scene, examine the details and grasp the instruction.

Finally, not a few of these accounts are accompanied by well-executed engravings of people, places and things, which greatly enhance the intelligibility of descriptions. Photography came into use in Palestine in the 1850s and after, and those accounts with photos from the latter half of the 19th century are of course the most instructive in this regard.

Noteworthy travelogues I’ve read

I have read in full several travelogues of visits to the Holy Land, some by thoroughly competent Bible scholars, and at least two by professional writers (newspaper reporters/journalists), all but one of them being from the 19th century.

1. The account I read most recently (completed in the past month) was Illustrations of Scripture: Suggested by a Tour through the Holy Land by Horatio B. Hackett (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1859; 227 pp.). These observations were based on Hackett’s travels in Egypt and Palestine in spring and summer of 1852. Hackett (1808-1875), one of the preeminent Bible scholars among Baptists in America in the mid-19th century, was a seminary professor, author, editor, linguist, and Bible translator, and was fully prepared to maximize the opportunity for instruction. For example, I found his treatment of the parable of the mustard seed to be particularly useful in answering the quibbling objections of a Bible critic (see “The Parable of the Mustard Seed,” As I See It 11:11).

2. The first account of Holy Land travel that I read, and the best thus far, was Through Bible Lands: Notes of Travel in Egypt, the Desert, and Palestine by Philip Schaff (New York: American Tract Society, 1878; 413 pp.). Schaff, of course, was the preeminent church historian of the 19th century, a prolific author and editor, and a superior scholar and linguist. This account was produced during an extended trip, from December 1876 until August 1877, which also included time spent in Europe.

3. While not exactly a travelogue, or even lessons learned or illustrations derived from such, I choose to mention George Adam Smith’s The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1894, 25th revised edition, 1931; 744 pp.). In part, this classic volume is based on four trips to the Holy Land made by the author, in 1880 and 1891 (before the first edition), and again in 1901 and 1904. The author comments on the value of having inspected the land before the extensive development that began in the latter part of the 19th century:

The following chapters have been written after two visits to the Holy Land. In the spring of 1880 I made a journey through Judea, Samaria, Esdraelon, and Galilee: that was before the great changes which were produced on many of the most sacred landscapes by European colonists, and by the rivalry in building between the Greek and Latin Churches. (Preface to the first edition, p. x)

This is by far the most detailed description of the geography of Canaan in English known to me, with each locale tied to whatever Biblical events transpired there. It is not light reading, but it is valuable, and is a volume that could not be written today, and therefore is irreplaceable.

4. A still-young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) accompanied a group of religiously-motivated tourists to Europe and the Middle East in 1869, visiting Italy and Rome, Egypt, the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey and Greece. He wrote, with not a little “stretching” and even preposterous exaggeration, some superb satire and biting sarcasm, an account of his experiences, with clearly evidenced utter disdain for Romanism and all of its extra-biblical trappings. That volume was called (full title) The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, being some account of the steamship Quaker City’s pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land; with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents and adventures, as they appeared to the author. A shorter title might easily have been, A Curmudgeon Abroad. When I read it nearly twenty years ago, I found it most entertaining. Here is a sample:

The last twenty-four hours we stayed in Damascus I lay prostrate with a violent attack of cholera or cholera morbus, and therefore had a good chance and a good excuse to lie there on that wide divan and take an honest rest. I had nothing to do but listen to the pattering of the fountains and take medicine and throw it up again. It was dangerous recreation, but it was pleasanter than traveling in Syria. (Chapter 45, opening paragraph)

(We quoted Clemens’ description of an encounter with a camel during this trip in AISI 9:8, though that account was actually published in his 1872 book, Roughing It).

5. H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), a cynic and abrasive social critic but a first-rate writer with a considerably higher than typical knowledge of the Bible, made a “pilgrimage” to the Holy Land in 1934 and later wrote a brief account of some of his experiences (see his Heathen Days [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947], “Pilgrimage,” pp. 256-277).

There are several other accounts on my shelves that I have occasionally consulted but have not read through:

Other noteworthy travelogues

6. The first of these in importance and value is surely The Land and the Book, or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery, of the Holy Land, by William M. Thomson. (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1880; 718 pp. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882; 3 vols.). This is likely the single most important or famous title in this genre. The author was a resident missionary in Syro-Palestine for 45 years, and wrote from full and long experience. I purchased the single volume edition some 27 years ago, and have long sought the three-volume set—at an affordable price—but have so far managed only to acquire a stray copy of Volume 2. Because of its le2ngth, I have not yet plunged in and read it cover-to-cover as I intend to.

7. Sinai and Palestine, in Connection with Their History by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (London: John Murray, 1881; 560 pp.). The author (1815-1881) was a Broad Church Anglican scholar, and a prolific writer, chiefly of history. This account is in part the product of the author’s two visits to Palestine: winter 1852/spring 1853 and again nine years later.

8. James Neil spent some twenty years in all in Palestine, and after the first three years’ residence there (1871-1874) wrote Palestine Explored, which has the explanatory title-page gloss: “with a View to its Present Natural Features, and to the Prevailing Manners, Customs, Rites, and Colloquial Expressions of its People, which Throw Light on the Figurative Language of the Bible,” (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1883; 319 pp.; Second edition).

9. Bible Light from Bible Lands by Joseph Anderson (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1856; 344 pp.). The author hailed from Helensburgh, Scotland, but is otherwise completely unknown to me.

10. The voluminous Anglican writer Cunningham Geikie (1824-1906) wrote The Holy Land and the Bible. A Book of Scripture Illustrations Gathered in Palestine (New York: John B. Alden, 1888; 2 vols. in one; 656 pp.). This is alas a borrowed copy which the owner has so far stubbornly refused to sell to me!

11. One account that I have long wanted to read is the one by noted scholar and preacher John A. Broadus (1827-1895). His health having been very much impaired by severe over-work, he took a year-long leave of absence from teaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, then in Greenville, South Carolina, and went to Europe and the Middle East. His biographer and son-in-law A. T. Robertson reports:

From Feb. 5, 1871 to May 13, 1871, a diary was kept of the tour in Egypt, Asia, and Greece, while full and charming letters describe the entire trip abroad. From these notes a notable series of articles, entitled, “Recollections of Travel,” was written for the Religious Herald. (The Life and Letters of John Albert Broadus, p. 239)

The Religious Herald was the Virginia state convention publication, and many of Broadus’ writings were published there. This series was never reprinted in book form, and so access to it is difficult to obtain, at best. (One continuing desideratum is for some ambitious ThM or ThD student to scour the Religious Herald to compile a complete bibliography of all the writings of Broadus found in it, perhaps with a view to reprinting the best of these in the form of books or Internet posts. Any volunteers among the student bodies at Southern, Southeastern, Midwestern, New Orleans or Southwestern? I’d do it myself if I had the means and access to the microfilms of the relevant Religious Herald issues).

The student of Scripture cannot but profit by giving careful attention to one or two or more of these aforementioned tomes, especially the better ones in the lot. The key to correct Bible interpretation is for the reader, as far as he is able, to transport himself chronologically, geographically, culturally and linguistically (that is, in time, space, custom, and language) to that of the original readers of the Bible. To neglect these volumes, and others in their class, is to deprive oneself voluntarily and needlessly of a clearer perspective on the Sacred Text.

(Note: Several years ago, I began compiling a chronological list of all Holy Land pilgrimage/exploration accounts that I could find reference to, extending back as far as the 4th century AD. In the next As I See It, I to include a list of these accounts as far as they are known to me, though I am discovering, the further I get into the subject, that it is almost a bottomless pit, with previously unheard of narratives and journals showing up at irregular intervals unexpectedly on the right hand and on the left. Is some church history major looking for a possible dissertation topic?)

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