On the Via Dolorosa, tracing the footsteps of Christ on his way to the Cross, I did not exactly encounter the sweet, powerful mystery of Jesus. Instead, I saw, elbow to elbow, the proud baroque factions of Christianity, the multiplicity of sects and churches which clamor here in his name, like the aggressive Arab shopkeepers in the adjoining bazaar.

Pilgrims more devout than I undoubtedly do feel spiritual balm in this experience, walking the narrow streets of the Old City, tracing the supposed route of the 14 Stations of the Cross, from Pilate's judgment to the tomb of stone where Christ rose from death, but I have talked to enough good people who had similar reactions to know that I am not singularly impious. Disgusting - this is the word many use to describe their walk to Calvary. A harsh word in print, but it comes from people sincere and troubled by what they saw.

Part of this, let me acknowledge, is a tourist's eternal anticipation and disappointment. Somehow you expected to be alone, contemplating the event, absorbing the feelings of Christ's suffering and crucifixion in appropriate serenity. But, of course, you are never alone as a tourist. You are part of the tourist herd and an eager gallery of Arab guides and hungry urchins mock your confusion as you stumble through the maze of the Old City.

It does'nt help when you encounter Christ prison souvenirs opposite the Church of Flagellation, where Jesus was given his crown of thorns. Or the kid hawking umbrellas at Station III, where Jesus fell with the Cross. Or the aromatic sandwich shop called Uncle Owad's next to Station V, where blind Simon helped Jesus.

Stations VIII and VIII were closed for repairs; a collapsing arch needed new support. Pilgrims stumbled around in the rubble of rocks and steel beams, with the dank smell of old, wet mortar, searching for their path out of the detour.

Part of the revulsion, I also acknowledge, is a matter of culture shock, especially for an American Protestant raised on the severe pieties of Calvin and John Knox. These sacred places, for the most part, are the dominions of Eastern Orthodox churches - Greek, Armenian, Assyrian-that were on the scene a long time before the Presbyterians. Their religious ornamentation seems strange to western eyes: These shrines of gloomy marble and gold elaboration, lit by forbidding oil lamps overhead, do not exactly remind one of the little brown church in the vale.

Still, with all those things said, the heart of the disappointment is deeper. If Christ came to unify mankind with his message of love, his powerful simplicity, how is it that these churches have made his legacy into a babble of competing voices? This terrible paradox of Christianity confronts the pilgrim in old Jerusalem and none of the guidebooks provides a satisfactory explanation.

My guide, a good-natured young Palestinian named Esmeul Sabbh, blushed in the Christians sorted out for me. The Polish Catholics have this church. The Peres Blancs of France have that one. The Armenian Orthodox have Station III and the Greeks have VI. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains in a quite small space holy ground of the Cross and the tomb, is a weird historical mixture, like a fragile treaty made by contending kings.

As Esmeul became more confident, he directed my charity to this monk and that one, obviously selecting his own favorites.Light the taper at the altar which now covers the rock of Calvary; give the priest some money. Esmeul knelt down under the alter and showed me the hole where the Cross of Jesus was supposedly fixed.

"You put your hand in and get the stuff of Jesus," he explained. Esmeul pulled his hand out and sniffed his fingers.

"Now I show the tomb of Jesus. Don't pay anything. Everybody gives money here, but if the Franciscans ask you for money, don't give them anything, just look."

The tomb is now covered in Byzantine marble, a small chapel within the larger church. A slab of polished marble, more gold and darkened paintings, but no natural stone. A Syrian Catholic monk was keeping vigil, passing out the candles.

When we came out of the official crypt, Esmeul led me around to the rear of the little chapel to the unofficial one, where the Egyptian Coptic Christians have their own piece of the rock. It was no more than a small closet, with a bearded monk on his hands and knees, beckoning me into the dark cubbyhole as if he were going to show me dirty pictures.

"This," he said proudly, "the original true stone of the tomb of Jesus." At his direction, I bent down on my knees and held my candle in a small hole at the base of the closet. Sure enough, a real rock.

I was a bit shaken by the weirdness. As we left, I asked Esmeul what he made of all these different Christians. He blushed again.

"I have to study it more," he said, evidently thinking I was confused by his tour patter, not by the reality. "I have to study officially."

THE MAYOR of Jerusalem, like all mayors everywhere, wants to put the best light on his city. Teddy Kollek is Jewish, of course, but he emphasizes how well the 35 christian sects of Jerusalem get along these days, very harmonious, very constructive. To make his point the mayor said:

"Easter used to be the most dangerous day of the year in Jerusalem."

I laughed in disbelief, thinking he was being droll. "It's true," he insisted, "the Christian would be fighting in the streets, often with guns. Sometimes people were killed."

This Christian factionalism is the legacy of Christian empires. Absurd as it is, no one has any idea how to terminate archaic hatreds and the rivalries of long-dead emperors. The Treaty of Constantinople, for instance, established the rules by which the churches are supposed to share this holy ground. It was signed by the czar of Russia, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the king of Prussia and the queen of England, among others. In their absence, its terms are not scrupulously upheld by Teddy Kollek.

It is very difficult, even for a skillful diplomat like Mayor Kollek, to talk about the Christians of Jerusalem without sounding cynical and mordant.

If American Christians are tired of hearing about the enduring hatreds of Jews and Arabs, this may provide a little cautionary humility. Or perhaps it is only God's small joke on mankind: that it takes the artful mediation of a Jewish mayor to keep the Christians from killing each other.

But this is not a Jewish burden alone. The Turkish ruler, Saladin, who drove out the last Crusaders half a millennium ago, found the Christian arguments impossible to resolve. Who would ring the bell? Who would open the doors? Who would say the mass? Saladin ended the squabbling by turning over the keys to the Chruch of the Holy Sepulchre to an Arab family which still today maintians that chore as a hereditary power. An Arab unlocks the door to the holiest place in Christendom.When Jordan ruled here in the 1960s the Armenians and the Greeks used to have bitter, sometimes violent clashed over who would carry the fire from the holy crypt at Easter.

Since the Israelis captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and took full authority over the old walled city, no fighting in the streets or churches has occurred. However, the Egyptian Coptics and the Ethiopian Coptics still have a bitter, century-old lawsuit going over possession of St. Michael's Chapel and a key passageway which leads to the Sepulchre's rooftop, where Ethiopian monks live in squalid little huts.

And the White Russian Orthodox are, naturally, still fighting the Red Russian Orthodox over church property in the Holy City. Does it belong to the Soviet government, which no longer recognizes the state of Israel? Or to the anti-communist Christian emigre church based in New York? The Jews could use another Solomon for that one.

It's no secret how the Jews keep peace among the Christians. By indulging them - by filling their requests quickly and generously, no matter how bizarre or petty.

Norma Teasdale, the mayor's liaison with the churches, was quite frank about this.

"It's discrimination," she said. "They get treatment that nobody else gets, but it's a positive discrimination. That's our policy, to make the churches feel prominent."

When the Israelis captured the Old City, they found that they had inherited one remaining Chaldean Catholic church but that all the Chaldeans, who are Arab, had fled to their homeland of Iraq. All that remained was a 75-year-old vicar, a priest with no parishioners.

"We treated him like the head of a church," Teasdale said soberly. "He wanted a new church built and we even built a mausoleum for him on our account. He was putting the finishing touches on the church when he fell off the ladder and that's how he died. So we buried him in the mausoleum."

A droll story, but also a grim metaphor for the stubborn religiosity of Christian imperium.

People do find in Christ a sense of unity, a mysterious harmony with all of life. But they also find in many churches, eastern and western, a sense of apartness, of self-congratulation and even bellicose ambition to rise above and dominate.

But Jesus said on a worn hilltop in Galilee: "Beware of practicing your peity before men in order to be seen by them: for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."-Matthew 6:1

WAS THERE another Jesus? Was there a part of Christ's message that we did not hear, that was lost or suppressed? This is a breathtaking question, one which might yield a modern miracle of sorts, a stirring of Christian imagination that would threaten these ecclesiastical fortresses built over 2,000 years.

Listen to this: Some years ago, in the desert near Luxor on the Nile, archeologists discovered ancient Christian parchments, presumably maintained by the Coptics in the 1st or 2nd century after Christ, when Christianity was still an underground faith, maintained in small secret cells and oppressed by kings and emperors.

These parchments are like the Dead Sea Scrolls, only they contain heretical messages - teachings of Christ which add a stunning new dimension to his message.

The arguments continue over their authenticity, with good reason, for these writings of the "Gnostic Heresy" portray a deep and individualistic approach to Christian faith, profoundly antagonistic to institutional churches. The Gospel of Thomas, who was by his own account Christ's brother and disciple, was published last year and includes these words from Jesus:

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will destroy you."

The startling and eerie thing about those words, a paradoxical statement on human nature, is that they foreshadow the heart of every major protest and rebellion and reform movement that arose subsequently within Christianity, from the Albigensians to Martin Luther to born-again Baptists on the American frontier. The idea that each one has a divine connection within oneself - and the redemtpion does not require official interlocutors with God - would be naturally offensive to the institutions that perform as the true interlocutors.

Elaine Pagels, a historian who is chairman of religion at Barnard College in New York, is preparing a book on these lost texts, in which she will argue that, as Christian churches rose as institutions and began to accumulate power, these gospels were most likely suppressed because they were so antithetical to the political necessities of organized Christianity.

The other stunning quality of that single message from the Gospel of Thomas is that Jesus' paradox is an extraordinarily acute summary of modern psychiatry, the message enunciated 1900 years later by Sigmund Freud. Wouldn't it be staggering to learn, after all these years, that Jesus formulated the dynamics of individual analysis, the science that now competes with religion?

I can't attest to whether any of these possiblities are true or, even if they are true, whether Christians will take them seriously. But I do find it exciting to consider the mystery. Perhaps the last miracle of Christ is that he has survived Christianity. CAPTION: Picture, The Via Dolorosa, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at right.