However, less commonly thought of are pilgrimages of the Jews before the end of antiquity. How common an activity was this, say in the first century? This discussion came up in part of a review of Earl Doherty's Jesus: Neither God Nor Man by James McGrath. The question was about whether it is plausible that there should have been Christian pilgrims in the first century to sites such as the empty tomb, something absent from earliest records such as Paul's letters. How plausible such pilgrimages would have been and how likely someone would have mentioned such a pilgrimage and then how likely we would have that record won't be discussed here, but instead a fundamental question is worth considering: how common was pilgrimage among Jews at the time of Jesus? James was figuring it was uncommon, but he wasn't certain; in a comment he suggested I look into it. That is what I shall do here.
As noted before, pilgrimages are a near universal in religious cultures around the world. There were numerous holy places in the Greco-Roman world as well, such as the temples of Aesculapius where miracles and cures were often claimed. We also know of medieval and modern Jewish pilgrims, not to mention Christian ones, such even with no evidence one would expect pilgrimages to be part of Judaism just from this general background. With that initial probability favoring Jewish pilgrims, it would force one contending the opposite to justify that position.
However, there are evidences to consider. The most obvious form of pilgrimage in Second-Temple Judaism are the three major festivals that brought Jews from all ends of the Diaspora to Jerusalem. The most obvious festival is Passover, which brought Jesus and his Disciples to the Temple as well. There is no question of the magnitude of these festivals; Josephus wrote of the immense size of the crowds during Passovers, and Philo of Alexandria also wrote of his own pilgrimages to Jerusalem for festivals; we can also supplement rabbinic writings as well to confirm the magnitude of these festivals.
Nonetheless, this is not the sort of pilgrimages that are interest if one wants to compare to later periods or to Christianity. We should be curious if there were other sites that Jews would wish to travel to because of their holiness or other religious importance. For example, did Hebrew pilgrims trek to the tombs of the saints or the location of special events from the Old Testament? What sorts of records do we have? What does archaeology show?
My investigations were helps immensely by Pilgrimage and the Jews by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson. Their book focuses more on later periods, including Jews travelling to Holocaust sites and memorials, but there is also a fair amount concerning antiquity. They look at much of the Old Testament of holy sites that may have attracted crowds. However, one thing that they did not consider but seems much like Christian relic stories from the Middle Ages, concerns the body of the prophet Elisha. According to Sirach 48:14 even the dead prophet brought about numerous miracles; could the author be thinking of something like relic stories? If 2 Kings 13:20-21 is in view, this makes sense. In this story a dead body is through into the tomb of Elisha, and the dead man returns to life. Perhaps we have here an old sort of relic story. Apparently Elisha had a tomb and people told stories about its miraculous powers. We would then expect people to occasionally show up there as so many did at the temples of Aesculapius.
Another important document after biblical texts is a work often figured to date from the early first century CE, the Lives of the Prophets. This work tells of many stories concerning the numerous speakers for God, and in many cases their death and tomb location is mentioned. The importance of their tombs was apparently worth knowing as the fuller title of this work is The Names of the Prophets, and whence they were, where they died, and how and where they were buried. This work may have been known to the authors of the New Testament, but I won't pretend to know if that's true. Nonetheless, it does give insight into the beliefs and activities of the time.
Here are a few examples from this document. Ezekiel is said to have drawn large crowds while preaching, and at one point does a Moses miracle to the river Chebar in Mesopotamia, splitting it to help his people escape the Chaldeans and then drowning the pursuers. Ezekiel's tomb is described as having a stairway and multiple chambers. The tomb of Jeremiah is said to have the sorts of powers medieval relics had, such as the sands taken from his Egyptian resting place were used to cure snakebites. The tomb of Isaiah is also noted as in the vicinity of Jerusalem, so holy sites were located close and far away from the Holy City. The story of Elisha resurrecting a dead man through bone contact is also retold. These tombs seem to be well known as they help make sense of Luke 11:47 with Jesus talking about the tombs of the prophets. Apparently these places were well-known either to Jesus or the Gospel authors.
Archaeology also supports this period as a time when many came to see the places of various righteous figures of Israel's past and mythology. The Cave of the Patriarchs has been shown to have been refurbished during the time of Herod the Great, as wells as the tomb of David according to Josephus (JA 16.182). (Lest we forget, there was also Herod's elaborate tomb, the Herodium, which he must have hoped people to show up to in remembrance considering the place.) The construction at these places further indicates that they were common places for travelers to visit, so their upkeep would have been good for business.
I have focused on locations and documents whose province is better known to show that indeed in the first century there were Jewish pilgrims to holy places other than the Temple. More uncertain we could add Rachel's tomb, the tomb of Daniel, and others. There is also the Mount of Olives; the fact that Jesus was supposed to have gone up there signifies it's importance, and would also suggest why the unnamed Egyptian rebel in the 60s CE also gathered his troops at this place. John the Baptist's placement at the Jordan has significance, and the people who traveled to him can be said to have been on pilgrimage. Later, the tombs of the rabbis were commonly venerated. All of this strongly indicates that in fact pilgrimage was indeed a commonality of Jewish religious practice in the first century, even beyond that going for festival celebrations.
With that established, we may begin to ponder about the resting place of Jesus' body... temporarily, of course. Would it have become a venerated location soon after his death? Would we have expected the Jerusalem pillars to have "set up shop" outside of this most holy place for tourists? This is a discussion that will need to take place at another time.