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Following Jesus’ steps: Are millions of Christians on the Via Dolorosa walking the wrong way?

April 4, 2015 at 10:23 AM EDT
NewsHour Weekend‘s Martin Fletcher explores one of the most famous streets in the world: The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which follows the path where it is said Jesus was tried and convicted and later crucified and buried. While it’s only about a 10-minute walk, the street can be a profound religious and emotional experience for Christians from around the world. But now there’s renewed debate about whether the millions of pilgrims who visit every year have been walking the wrong way.
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MARTIN FLETCHER: For centuries, Christian pilgrims have come to Jerusalem to retrace the last hours of Jesus’ life, walking the traditional stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa — or way of suffering.

The biggest crowds come on Good Friday but you’ll find pilgrims here every day of the year.

The Hoods are visiting from upstate New York.

MAN: “I just wanted to see where the different stations were and what they represent. I’ve always heard about the stations of the cross but never really understood it.”

KEN COSTA: “I’m following the stations of the cross from one through fourteen.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: At the fifth station of the cross, where pilgrims lay their hands where they believe Jesus rested his hand, we met Ken Costa from India.

KEN COSTA: “Very spiritual. I felt that I was touching Jesus’ hand. And since it’s imprinted here, as this is the fifth station where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus, so my belief is that this was the way.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: But was it? Recently revealed discoveries on the other side of the city — remnants of an ancient palace which just may be the true site of the trial of Jesus — is renewing debate about the true route of the Via Dolorosa.

This is the route of the current Via Dolorosa, going from east to west, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That’s the way millions of Christian pilgrims over the years have followed in the footsteps of Christ.

But there’s archaeological evidence that they’ve got it all wrong, that the real historical Via Dolorosa ends at the Holy Church, but that it should start more than a half mile way on the west side of the city near the Tower of David Museum.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “This is one very special street name, isn’t it? Via Dolorosa?”

MARTIN FLETCHER: To understand better, we visited with Franciscan Father Alessandro Coniglio.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “Christians when they come to Jerusalem, I imagine everyone walks the Via Dolorosa.”

FATHER ALESSANDRO CONIGLIO: “Yes.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: “Why?”

FATHER ALESSANDRO CONIGLIO: “Because this is the path that Jesus walked. It’s a unique experience.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: He took us to the very start of the traditional Via Dolorosa. Each of the fourteen stations is marked with numbers to help pilgrims find them.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “So actually the first station of the cross is in a Muslim boys’ school.”

FATHER ALESSANDRO CONIGLIO: “Yes.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: A school now, but at the time of Jesus it was the Antonia Fortress where it’s long been believed the trial of Jesus took place.

FATHER ALESSANDRO CONIGLIO: ”This is the most important place for us because here Jesus started his passion. Here he was judged by Pilate.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: The second station — across the street in two Franciscan shrines — is where tradition has it Jesus takes up the cross and is flogged by soldiers.

Station three: Jesus falls for the first time.

Station four: Jesus meets his mother.

Station five: Simon helps Jesus carry the cross. That’s also where we see pilgrims touching the wall.

Station six: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

He falls for the second time at station seven.

And comforts the women of Jerusalem at station eight.

Number nine: Jesus falls for the third time at this Roman pillar.

The last stations ten to fourteen are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the exact place where Jesus is crucified, dies, and is buried. The site was identified back in the fourth century by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Pilgrims have worshipped here ever since.

But on the western side of the Old City at the Tower of David Museum, we met archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who gave us a look at the evidence in a brand new exhibit that challenges the existing route of the Via Dolorosa.

SHIMON GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST: “So this is it”

MARTIN FLETCHER: This was once a one-story prison, long ago abandoned. No one thought very much about it. But then archaeologists started digging and kept going, uncovering layers of 2,800 years of history including what could be the foundations of the palace of Herod the Great.

SHIMON GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST: “Now these recent excavations really brought to light further proof of the existence of a monumental edifice which can be identified as the compound of Herod the Great and subsequently the praetorium where Pontius Pilate sat.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Pilate, the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to death. If Pilate held the trial at Herod’s Palace, which Gibson and many other historians believe, then the area near the Tower of David Museum is where the Via Dolorosa should start.

In fact originally in the first millennium, pilgrims did think the Via Dolorosa went this way.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “When we say we have found something new today, we’re actually going back to the old route of the Via Dolorosa.”

SHIMON GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST: “Yes.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: “So why is the Via Dolorosa today where it is?”

SHIMON GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST: “The traditional Via Dolorosa was really established at the time of the crusaders. The crusaders in 1099 invaded Jerusalem. They were able then to rearrange the features within the city in order to fit in with their idea of where the holy sites should be.

Hence they decided that the Antonia Fortress, that would be the starting point for the Via Dolorosa, and of course the end point had to be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: The theory that the traditional Via Dolorosa might go the wrong way isn’t new, but this exhibit is.

Just opened to public, it’s got people talking. Listen to what’s happening on this tour.

GUIDE: “And so if we can prove that Herod’s palace is here, then we can prove the historical Via Dolorosa — the historical Via Dolorosa — should start from somewhere around here.”

VISITOR: “That will change a few things.”

GUIDE: ”That will change a few things! Not impressed?”

WOMAN: “I don’t like your wording. We have to be very sensitive about saying we can prove. We can’t prove. We can ask the question: might the trial have been here even though tradition says it was there?”

MARTIN FLETCHER: ”Are you getting specifically more groups coming here because of the story that Christ’s trial may have been here?”

EILAT LIEBER, TOWER OF DAVID MUSEUM: “Absolutely. Every day.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Tower of David Museum director Eilat Lieber has big plans for the new exhibit and hopes it will attract history buffs and pilgrims alike. Today the museum gets 300,000 visitors a year.

EILAT LIEBER, TOWER OF DAVID MUSEUM: “We want a million visitors every year.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: No doubt there’s a business side to all this. Christian tourists account for more than half of Israel’s $11 billion dollar tourism industry. And the traditional Via Dolorosa, which is lined with tourist shops galore, is a top destination.

But for pilgrims like Ken Costa, walking the Via Dolorosa is not about money. Nor about history.

KEN COSTA: “It’s only faith.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: “It’s only faith.”

KEN COSTA: “Yes, it is.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Father Coniglio agrees; walking the Via Dolorosa is an act of faith.

FATHER ALESSANDRO CONIGLIO: “We don’t have a ticket for the entrance in these two shrines here, so we will not lose anything if pilgrims will start from another place. We are just trying to say that traditionally the pilgrims started from here at least in the last three centuries.”

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