How Bible Scholars and Treasure Hunters Unearthed Modern Jerusalem

They were looking for the past. They created the present.

Modern Israeli leaders are unequivocal about the importance of Jerusalem to the state of Israel.

“It has been proved without a doubt that Jerusalem is the main artery of our national consciousness,” former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2017. “The root of Zionism is in Zion.”

This wasn’t always the case. In the early years of the Zionist movement, the Jewish diaspora considered recreating a homeland in many places, from the United States to Uganda. Palestine was on the list, but many Zionists, who tended to be secular, viewed Jerusalem as a backward and superstitious place—exactly the opposite of the forward-thinking socialist nation they envisioned.

The story of how that changed starts, oddly enough, with a 19th-century Congregationalist minister from Connecticut named Edward Robinson.

When Robinson visited Germany in the 1830s, he was shocked by the discipline of biblical criticism then flourishing in Protestant universities there. Instead of treating Scripture as divine revelation, German academics subjected the Bible to the same textual criticism as other ancient documents.

Robinson was deeply concerned these scholars were calling into question what he cherished as the revealed truth of Scripture. He was worried the theological disease would spread from Germany to liberal-minded Harvard University and from there infect American Christians.

To combat this trend, Robinson hit on the novel idea of proving the veracity of places, names, and events described in Scripture. He would use the tools of science to oppose what he saw as a dire threat to the Christian faith. So in 1838, he arrived in Jerusalem armed with a compass, measuring tape, telescope, and the Good Book as his …

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