Nation & World

The Holy Land comes to Florida as a theme park

5 min read

Little did a Harvard scholar who studies sacred spaces imagine that she would find the Holy Land in Florida.

Several years ago, while chatting with her niece, a resident of the Sunshine State, Joan Branham, visiting associate professor of women’s studies and early Christianity and Judaism and acting director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), learned about Florida’s newest theme park, one with a divine foundation.

Instead of a giant roller coaster as its main attraction, one of the park’s big draws was the massive replica of a temple.

Intrigued, Braham investigated.

What followed was a series of trips to Orlando’s “The Holy Land Experience,” a park and museum that, according to its Web site, “brings the Bible alive!” with interactive exhibits, live shows, and presentations.

There, Branham, who is trained in the art and architecture of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and studies how the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem acts as a model of sacred space for the formative church and synagogue, found the newest adaptation of her research, a massive reconstruction of Jerusalem’s Herodian Temple.

Her findings were part of a discussion (March 12) at HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) titled “The Temple That Won’t Quit (or Jesus Does Disney): Constructing Sacred Space in Orlando’s Holy Land Theme Park.”

The talk was organized by CSWR as part of its informal World Religions Café series.

The history of the ancient structure dates back to the 10th century B.C. when King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, a sacred Jewish space designed to house the Ark of the Covenant. Destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., a second temple was completed in 516 B.C., and later renovated by King Herod in approximately 20 B.C. It is this incarnation of the temple that is copied at the theme park. The Romans destroyed that temple in 70 A.D. Today, only a retaining wall of the second temple complex still exists. Some Jews believe the messiah will return with the construction of a third temple at the same site.

Branham has spent the past six years visiting, photographing, and conducting interviews at the park, and following its controversies and recent change of ownership. Her research will be published in detail in the summer issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

The park opened in 2001 and covers 15 acres, said Branham. At a cost $16 million to complete, it was run, until recently, by Zion’s Hope, a Christian ministry that proselytizes specifically to Jews. Its new owner is the Trinity Broadcast Network. Branham said it is unclear if the park will change under the new management.

Branham called the ancient Jerusalem temple an “exemplar of sacred space” and said that over time its design inspired subsequent religions “wishing to stage spatial sacrality in their own buildings’ designs.” Notably, Christianity, she said, appropriated the ancient prototype within its own church structures.

But a decidedly new twist was put on the modern representation of the temple in “The Holy Land Experience.” The new monument, a six-story replica of the façade of Herod’s temple, serves, Branham said, as a “literal backdrop to evangelical Christianity” in a park that attempts to merge Christian and Jewish traditions “into a homogeneous entity.”

At the park, she noted, Jewish and Christian merchandise is for sale in the gift shop, including trinkets that join the symbols of the two religions, like the Star of David/Christian cross necklace.

The important Jewish landmark, the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, provides the backdrop for Jesus’ bloody walk to his crucifixion, as centurions yell, “Clear the path,” and onlookers lick ice cream cones.

“Afterward,” Branham said, “one can line up for a photo op, not with Mickey or Minnie, but with the bloody-handed, but friendly, centurion.”

Center stage is the park’s giant temple re-creation, the setting for daily Christian dramas.

While much of the action that unfolds at the park is moving, admitted Branham, who noted its actors rival some of the best performers on Broadway today, the pervading sense that the two religious traditions are being melded into one is unsettling.

In the original Herodian Temple, sacrificial blood on a large altar, she said, “defined the layout and the function of the space.” But at the Holy Land’s temple, a giant red silk cross fills in for an animal’s blood in a dramatic presentation by a high priest.

“This strange juxtaposition of cross on altar,” said Branham, “acts to convert the actual physical structure of the Jewish temple and its accoutrements into the Christian understanding of the death of Jesus as the definitive blood sacrifice.”

The very nature of “The Holy Land Experience,” she noted, is one that doesn’t try to acknowledge disparities between Judaism and Christianity, “but [attempts] rather to dissolve differences that define the two traditions.”

Above all, the park’s physical layout, by geographically juxtaposing Christian and Jewish entities — like the Qumran caves and the garden tomb of Christ — links them symbolically, she said, creating a “seamless theological and historical narrative, presenting the two as simultaneously coexistent and compatible entities.”

And right in the middle of the action, concluded Branham, is the looming temple, “acting as center and axis to the entire site.”