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Nestled away in Orlando, Florida, amid major tourist attractions such as Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios Theme Park, a newer entry has appeared, titled The Holy Land Experience. Operating as a ministry of Zion's Hope, this religiously-based theme park purports to enable visitors to experience life as it was during the days of Jesus. Their goal is to bring to life the Old and New Testaments through various exhibits, dramatic presentations, and musical performances. The heart and soul of The Holy Land Experience and of its sponsor, Zion's Hope, is Pentecostal Christian evangelism; yet, the exhibitions and presentations can be interesting and entertaining to persons of all faiths.

At first, one might wonder why a theme park intentionally promoting conservative Christianity contains at least as many exhibitions highlighting historical features from early Judaism, including an ancient Hebrew scroll, a replica of the Herodian Temple, the Wilderness Tabernacle, and the caves adjacent to Qumran (not yet opened). Studying their magazine, Zion's Fire: A Christian Magazine on Israel and Prophecy, one learns that, in addition to encouraging and enriching conservative Christian faith, Zion's Hope ministries are also directed toward helping persons of the Jewish faith understand (and hopefully embrace) Christian truths.

Similar to studying Jesus's parables themselves, visitors will engage The Holy Land Experience on different faith levels and perspectives, but the varied impressions they leave with are most definitely a function of their religious hermeneutic. That is, the lens of their religious faith will filter and color their encounters with the different exhibits and presentations at this park. The principal audience for The Holy Land Experience is adults, both Christian and Jewish — but all are welcome, I am sure. Smaller children will delight in petting the array of biblical animals, such as sheep, goats, a miniature horse, and camels, or feasting on a delicious "Goliath Burger" —although I doubt they will jump with joy while viewing a cuneiform tablet from ancient Mesopotamia or perusing an impressive model of ancient Jerusalem. Children will also enjoy "Qaboo and Company's Oasis Outpost," with its climbing rock and water misting station. Future visitors may anticipate two new presentations, one titled "Pilate's Verdict: The Trial and Triumph of Jesus Christ" and a second presentation titled "Ancient Festivals of the Biblical World."

As visitors enter The Holy Land Experience through the City Gate, they quickly move into the Jerusalem Street Market — a step intended to transport them back into Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. From the open-market, bazaar-like shops well stocked with souvenirs, to the well-trod, stone-paved streets, lined with flora and fauna, from the Jewish music playing in the background to the time-appropriate costumes, sandals, and robes, visitors are invited to taste the richness of Christian/Jewish antiquity brought to life. At different times throughout the day, visitors along this street may find themselves witnessing a dramatic presentation, "The Ministry of Jesus." This brief, fifteen minute drama recreates episodes in Jesus's ministry. Guests witness incidents of Jesus's healings such as Blind Bartemaeus (Mark 10:46-52, Matt 20:29-34, Luke l8:35 -43) and the woman with a discharge (Mark 5:21-43, Matt 9:20-26); Jesus's encounter with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31, Matt 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30), and his confrontation with the attorney whose question, "And who is my neighbor?" evoked the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The apparently random selection of events in Jesus's ministry is juxtaposed in the script and enacted so as to depict different aspects of Jesus's character: he had divine power to heal, was knowledgeable about Jewish law, and skilled in rabbinical rhetoric. In these scenes, Jesus appears as a handsome, friendly, compassionate person, as well as a skilled debater who wisely answers the lawyer's question. He even invites small children to surround him and to pet a snowy, white lamb. Adjacent to the Jerusalem Street, there are large openings embedded among huge rocks, representing the Dead Sea Scroll caves at Qumran. This exhibit is scheduled to open at a future date.

Near the Jerusalem Street Market is Calvary's Garden Tomb— the site of another dramatic presentation,"Via Dolorosa Passion Drama," in which Jesus walks along a road, the Via Dolorosa, bearing his cross. He is crucified nearby on Calvary, buried in a tomb within a beautiful garden, and miraculously raised from the dead. Certainly, this resurrection drama, depicting the central affirmation of the Christian faith, should be the main dramatic presentation in The Holy Land Experience, but I am not certain. Unfortunately, stormy weather necessitated a rescheduling and eventual postponement of this drama on the day we visited the park. On a second visit to the park, the Dolorosa presentation had been replaced by a new drama titled,"Pilate's Verdict: the Trial and Triumph of Jesus Christ," which, believe it or not, also had to be cancelled due to inclement weather. It may be worth a return visit to see how they handle The trial accounts before Pilate, the empty tomb episode (which of the Gospel versions they follow or whether they choose to harmonize various elements of the different stories,) and the resurrection experience (again, which Gospel version they follow or if they intermix the different accounts).

Since the new presentation, "Pilate's Verdict," occurs at a different location in the park, Holy Land Experience directors scheduled a "Historical Presentation" at the Garden Tomb. This is a lecture on ancient Jewish burial practices, and Jesus' burial in particular. Taking elements of the story mostly from John and Luke, the narrator explains how Jesus was buried and the consistency of this event (along with a few inconsistencies, as well) with Jewish burial practices of that day — the use of spices, the inner configurations of the tomb, the size of the rock at the entrance, dual chambers, and special burial cloths. To his credit, he indicates that the exact location of Jesus' burial tomb is currently disputed: the traditional site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and an alternative site, Gordon's Calvary.

Most disconcerting to me was the narrator's simplistic transition from the language of historical fact to the language of faith. It is one matter to argue that aspects of Jesus' burial might have been consistent with traditional Jewish burial rites, but it is entirely another matter to describe the empty tomb traditions (which likely were later additions, anyway) and the resurrection experience as if they, too, were datum of empirical history and thereby subject to historical validation. I have no difficulty proclaiming the reality of Jesus' resurrection — but that is a declaration of faith, and as such it is epistemologically different from other statements regarding Jesus' death and burial. I realize that Christians of a more conservative nature may interpret the matter differently than do I, and that is their right. Also, perhaps a public lecture at a theme park is no place to debate theological issues of faith and history in the Jesus tradition; nevertheless, I feel that some acknowledgement, at least, should have been made that resurrection language is different from the language used in historical reconstruction. I wonder how they would have depicted the crossing of the Sea of Reeds ( Exodus 14, 15).

At the center of the park is the Temple of the Great King, fronted by the Plaza of the Nations. This is a replica of King Herod's Temple and surrounding plaza, including thirty magnificent Roman columns. Inside the Temple, one will find a state-of-the-art theater that presents a film titled "The Seed of Promise." This show presents Zion's Hope's belief in God's divine plan of redemption for sinful humanity. It traces the history of fallen humanity from Eden through God's efforts at reconciliation via the law, culminating with his ultimate act of redemption by the atonement of Jesus Christ. If there could be any doubt at this point as to the Pentecostal theology motivating The Holy Land Experience, this film will most likely remove it once and for all. Certainly, few Christians would question the sincere hope expressed by Paul (Romans 11) and by the writer of Matthew (28:19) that God truly seeks the eventual redemption of all humankind and that He will bring about the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom. Yet, I wonder if the subtle exclusivism of this film might be somewhat contradictory to the loving and compassionate Jesus who, earlier in our visit to the park, extended mercy to all persons, even to the sick and to the sinful, to the blind and to the lame, to the Romans and the Jews and even to the Samaritans.

Next to the Temple and the Plaza of the Nations is a building that houses a partial replica of the Wilderness Tabernacle (Exodus 25ff). Expert use of visual technology allows visitors to view the external appearance of the Tabernacle and, once the lights are dimmed, also to observe the interior, including Aaron's ministrations, sacred furniture, and other religious symbols that include the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant. This dramatic presentation shows Aaron, the priest of Yahweh, dressed in full sacramental attire, complete with the ephod, preparing to offer sacrifices and to perform other sacerdotal acts both inside and outside the Tabernacle. A large alter located just outside the Tabernacle provides Aaron with a proper place on which to sacrifice the imaginary animals. Even the incense-burners seem to emit a kind of odor. Appropriate sound effects intensify one's sense of presence in a holy place; that is, the timely use of lightening, thunder, and music enrich the experience of witnessing early Hebrew worship at this very important shrine in ancient Israel's religious practice.

On the other side of the Temple of the Great King and the Plaza of the Nations is the Shofar Auditorium, housing both a modified presidium style theater and an impressive model of Jerusalem. One of the presentations in the Shofar Theater is titled "The Centurion" which is an adaptation of Jesus's dramatic healing of the centurion's servant (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Although the script takes a few liberties with details in the biblical texts, the point is nevertheless clearly made that Jesus responds positively to the centurion's deep faith by healing his servant. The play casts the healed person as a "servant" (doulos) rather than a "child" (pais), as in Matthew's initial reference (Matt 8:6). Rhythmic choreography and uplifting music combine to celebrate the wondrous curing of the servant. The centurion's deep sense of humility and unworthiness is counterbalanced only by his momentous faith in Jesus's power to heal his servant. Located elsewhere in the Shofar building, one finds a magnificent scaled model of Jerusalem. At different times throughout the day, lectures are offered identifying the different buildings in the city and explaining the significance of topography for its history. To be sure, the lectures assume a maximalist view of Israelite history, which is derived from an almost literal interpretation of the biblical text. Visitors who may be a little more skeptical of the historical and topographical reliability of the biblical narratives may react less enthusiastically. Even so, one cannot help but be impressed by the meticulous detail exhibited in important buildings, such as the Temple, and its surrounding areas, such as the Antonia Fortress, Herod's palace, the Hippodrome, Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the two possible sites for Jesus's crucifixion, to mention only a few. This model has much to commend itself, and students of the Old and New Testaments alike can gain an appreciation for Jerusalem, much as it appeared just prior to Titus' destruction in 70 C.E. Biblical narratives set in Jerusalem become much more understandable once this model is examined.

Finally, on the outer edge of the park, just beyond the Shofar Auditorium, stands one of the main attractions, the Scriptorium. This building houses a wonderful display of Bible translations, including authentic settings, life-size characters, and excellent narration, as well as actual cuneiform tablets and other artifacts from antiquity. The building is arranged chronologically into a number of smaller rooms, depicting prominent translators and tracing key moments in the history of Bible transmission. Each room is decorated appropriately for the material displayed. Helpful narrations in each room enable visitors to understand and to appreciate the tremendous value and importance of the documents on display. One finds ancient tablets and scrolls from both Mesopotamian and Israelite history, original copies of early translations of the Bible, such as those by Wycliffe and Luther, plus many other artifacts illuminating the biblical tradition.

Lasting about one hour, a tour of this exciting exhibit comes to a climactic end with an impressive audio-visual production, depicting some of the great leaders of Israel and of early Christianity. Regardless of whether one affirms the Bible as the revealed Word of God or the Hebrew Scriptures as sacred texts, or even if one views this material rather as ancient Near Eastern literature or first-century religious writing, one should certainly appreciate the inherent value of this collection and applaud its outstanding displays. My only question here is whether English evangelist Charles Spurgeon belongs in the same category as the biblical translators presented in the exhibit; Spurgeon was perhaps a great preacher, but not one whose translations of the Bible rewrote history. Could it be that Zion's Hope's indebtedness to elements of Spurgeon's theology colored their judgment as to his standing as a biblical translator?

Now, a few personal reflections are in order. Educationally, The Holy Land Experience can certainly be valuable to anyone interested in the history of biblical times, regardless of faith perspective. The excellent collection of Bibles and Hebrew scrolls displayed in the Scriptorium alone is worth the price of admission. Their curators have done an excellent job of presenting a selective history of the translations and reproductions of the Bible-an area that many graduate students today in Old or New Testament find tedious and uninspiring. The cuneiform tablets and the Hebrew scrolls, likewise, are truly impressive. The model of Jerusalem is beyond question of educational value, particularly the Temple and surrounding courtyards. Equally interesting is their rendition of the Wilderness Tabernacle and Aaron's ministrations as priest. As indicated earlier in this review, there are several historical inaccuracies in some of these exhibits, due to their uncritical reliance on the Bible as authentic history, but even so the overall impact of The Holy Land Experience gives visitors a heightened sense of Biblical persons, places, and events come alive. The assumption that many of these persons, places, and events are in fact historical realities, through which God disclosed himself, is another issue altogether.

The dramatic presentations likewise add to the park's efforts to make the biblical narratives come to life. The actor who plays the centurion is particularly convincing as he agonizes over the sickness of his servant and grieves over his own unworthiness to receive the Lord's blessing. The portrayals of the woman with a discharge of blood and blind Bartemaeus kneeling beside the road are likewise convincing, as they seek help from Jesus. But the characterization of Jesus as a smiling, handsome man, laughing with his friends and glad-handing everyone he meets, seems somehow to be a one-sided depiction. Absent in the Jesus-scenes is the anger he displays in Matthew toward the Pharisees in the Temple, the struggles he had with unbelievers, his agitation about the disciples' confusion, particular Peter's. I presume that it is not until the Passion drama that Jesus reflects real pain, real suffering, and real grief. Many of these dramas reflect a synthesizing of disparate Gospel traditions, particularly the renditions of the empty tomb scenes and the subsequent resurrection accounts. Like the Gospels themselves, the Holy Land writers present a Jesus tradition that reflects their particular theology, including their view of biblical inerrancy, prophecy-fulfillment, Israel's redemption, and the rapture. Christians whose faith is of a more Pentecostal model will certainly be pleased with this theology and will doubtlessly will embrace few of the theological reservations expressed in this review. And that is certainly their privilege.

Either intentionally or unintentionally, visitors to The Holy Land Experience are presented with Zion Hope's vision of the history of divine revelation, beginning with the Wilderness Tabernacle, continuing with God's presence in the great Temple, climaxing in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and concluding with the writing and dissemination of the Bible, in its various translations. Actually, the film shown inside the great Temple, "Seed of Promise," begins God's redemptive process in the Garden of Eden, and goes forward to the eschaton at the end of the age highlighting key moments in history where God's intrusions occur. The fulfillment of prophecy theology is definitely alive and well in Zion's Hope ministries. Christians who share this fundamentalist view of faith should be inspired and vindicated by their visit to The Holy Land Experience, but Christians holding other faith-models, to say nothing of persons of non-Christian beliefs, may be less enthusiastic with the theology implicit and promoted within the park. It is certainly difficult to separate the well-done exhibits and the creative presentations in The Holy Land Experience from their Pentecostal, prophecy-fulfillment theology that brought the park into being.

Certainly, there is much to commend The Holy Land Experience. Visitors should leave the park with a richer understanding of historical features lying behind many of the Biblical narratives. The dramatic presentations add life-like qualities to Biblical characters. The awesome displays of Bible translations housed in the Scriptorium afford many persons unique opportunities usually reserved for those who are fortunate enough to visit the great museums of the world. But, at the end of the day, historical reconstructions, physical or dramatic, cannot produce or substantiate Christian faith. In the theological tradition where I stand, the Bible as the revealed Word of God and Jesus as the Incarnation of God, are both confessions of faith, the truth of which lie beyond the limits of rational validation (or falsification.) No amount of high-tech audio/visual productions can transform objects/events of history into object/events of faith. The exquisitely manicured shrubs opposite the lake and the Garden Tomb boldly proclaim, "He is Risen." Perhaps Zion's Hope ministries should take a lesson from the author of Mark's Gospel and allow the Lordship of Jesus to remain a confession of faith rather than a belief in search of historical proof. Or, as the author of John's Gospel reports that Jesus said to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." ( John 20:29) (translation, NRSV)

Frank Johnson, Chair, Department of Religion and Philosophy, Florida Southern College,

Citation: Frank Johnson, " The Holy Land Experience," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2005]. Online:


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