Today three of us boarded a local mini-van type bus near the Damascus gate of the old city of Jerusalem and journeyed with our local Palestinian passengers to Bethany (modern name al-Eizariya), home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus whom Jesus raised to life. Bethany is only 4 km. from Jerusalem. But there is this wall thing to contend with. The trip took 20 minutes to go around the wall until we came to an opening. Going out of Jerusalem is uneventful: they let anyone out. Coming back in, however, was another story: an Israeli army person got on, said something we could not understand, and half the bus got out. We stayed on. We figured that if he wanted us to get out too, he would make it clear. He never did. There were just three of us on this trip: Kim, JW and me. We had to show our US passports and try not to stare at the enormous gun he carried, and that’s it. Then the others got back on the bus and we returned into the walled, walled city.
When Jess came to Jerusalem he made Bethany his HQ; the Mary-Martha-Lazarus family were friends. For people who lived (live?) here, a 3 km/2 miles walk is no big deal – people walk all the time – most of them here are thin. Go figure. The “site” of the home is of course now a church – or rather a series of churches: the modern one you see first; behind it a Crusader-era church with its thick stone walls, and beneath that, a Byzantine church with it’s small mosaic floors still peeking through here and there. The real attraction is the tomb that now is way below ground, down a twisting, steeply descending stone stair in to a small room the size of a walk-in closet. Then there is a second chamber the size of a smaller closet, that you get into only by bending down and crawling underneath.
By now we know the drill: this may not be THE tomb or THE place where Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ house was, but it is Bethany and it must be close and it probably looked something like this tomb. How cool is that?
Of course no visit to the Holy Land is complete without a ride on a holy camel, right? Awe shucks – it’s the last day; why not?
Today: The Dead sea area, including Masada. This group shot is from the top of Herod’s fortress/palace/zealot’s last stand against the Romans in 70 CE.
We went down to the Dead Sea – the terminus of the Jordan River that begins all the way up in Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heightes, flows down the mountains into the Jordan River, into the “Sea” of Galilee (really a fresh water lake), on down the Jordan River and finally ending at the Dead sea, the lowest point on the face of the earth, 1,385 ft below sea level. It’s warm there. The Sea is shrinking fast as water all along the Jordan from start to finish is diverted for agriculture: if you want to make the desert bloom, which Israel has done, you need water; lots. Even down at the Dead sea there are groves and groves of date palm trees – in a barren wilderness desert! Amazing.
Israel is two things: a very dense 1 square kilometer old city in which everything significant happened, and also a place of sites that have been traditionally identified as “the actual spot”, most of which are covered by elaborate churches. Some of them have a good shot at being either authentically “the spot” (meaning, the layer of rock you can see is actually the 1st century Jesus/Roman layer) or else built on layers above the spot at the same location, which has been destroyed, built over, destroyed, and built over again for centuries. It has, after all, been 2,000 years; and for the first 313 years of Christianity, we were illegal, persecuted, and in hiding – not building pilgrimage sites and publishing maps. But Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his devoutly Christian mother, queen Helen came to the Holy Land and asked the locals “where did it happen?” At times they were able to say “here” or “under here” (under this pile of rubble). It is relatively certain that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on layers of destruction above the spot of the tomb of Jesus. If so, then the place we visited today, the Garden Tomb is not the correct site. However, this must be said; these two locations are not more than 1/2 mile from each other. The more “authentic spot” now has a huge church over it; the probably inauthentic spot has the advantage of looking more like what it did in Jesus’ day: it’s a lush garden; quiet with tall trees shading walkways lined with blooming flowers, and it is home to a private tomb of a rich person. Not only that, it is adjacent to an outcropping of rock that looks vaguely as if it could be “Golgatha” – the place of the skull. So, maybe the Garden tomb is 1/2 mile from the real garden – but it has the look and feel of the real thing, which makes visualizing it easier. At the Garden we held a communion service, each of us pastors in turn taking the cup and bread and offering it to the next until all were served. In the background, I heard another group of pilgrims in the Garden singing “Slava Gospodu” or Praise the Lord” in a Slavic tongue – Russian I think(?) – reminded me of our days in Croatia.
Next we made our way to the Western wall, or the wailing wall. What a party palace that was. Think of an African village having a major feast: the sounds of drums and singing in celebration filled the air! Several families were coming through the gate in succession celebrating a son’s Bar Mitzvah – when a Jewish boy turns 13 he takes on the “yolk of torah” and becomes a son (Bar) of the Commandment (Mitzvah). What a festival; dancing, singing, carrying around the boy on shoulders, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) – and drums! Two drums at once, conga-like; and as I said, sounding like something I always associated with African rhythms. One of our group said “baptism should be like that”. Dead-right.
Another one of those authentic and not spots is Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was said to have been scourged. The church there now sits over a dungeon which was made for torturing prisoners as the Romans seemed to be good at (there are no new ideas). The dungeon has only one entry point: a round hole, like a street man-hole, down through which a prisoner would be lowered. Inside the dungeon there are actually holes in the rock wall near the ceiling for tying up a person to be scourged and left hanging. Clearly this would have been a perfect place to identify as the site of Jesus’ scourging. But in the first century it was probably not where the Romans did that – but then again, it’s very close to it, and looks very much as it must have looked. The totally authentic part of it is that there are steps going from that palace down the hill towards the Kidron valley towards the opposite hill called the Mount of Olives that are indeed 2,000 years old. Yes, it is quite likely that Jesus walked those very steps in the 1st century.
In the afternoon we toured the Citadel, a castle ruin. Now what you can see are walls built by the Crusaders, but the defensive towers are authentically Herod’s. In other words, when Jesus looked up and saw Herod’s palace, he saw those very towers.
As we gathered this evening for worship we sang a song that I wrote for this trip called (in haste, for lack of a better title) The Israel Song whose refrain is:
We started Sunday by going to Bethlehem, a scant 6 km. from Jerusalem, but a world away. Bethlehem is now part of the West bank, a Palestinian territory. We had to cross through that infamous, enormous cement wall to get inside.
we went into one of many caves used by shepherds as sheep-folds in the time of Jesus
The Bethlehem Lutheran Church
We worshiped with Arabic Christians (I hope you take some time with that phrase and let it sink in: Christians who are Arabs) who worship in Arabic. The Lutheran church in Bethlehem was built in the 19th century, neo-gothic design. There, we celebrated the 22nd anniversary of one of the pastors on our pilgrimage, Mary.
After lunch we visited the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp which is a dense warren of overcrowded streets originally built as temporary emergency housing to the thousands of Palestinians who had to flee as the Israeli’s took control in 1948. There has been no solution since that time. This is not a pretty picture. I put a link in this subtitle to the Wikipedia page that has the basic information about this camp. The UN site also has more.
Today was a retreat day – no guided tour. So a group of 9 of us took the 7 kilometer walk from the Mount of Beatitudes where we are staying down to the Greek Orthodox Church on the Sea of Galilee, just across a wall of stone from Capernaum where Peter’s house is. Not only is the church beautiful inside and out, it is surrounded by lush vegetation – including a wrap-around grape arbor. The priest got out his ladder and Cynthia climbed up to cut several clusters of grapes for us.
I have had to accept that seeing Israel is a higher priority than blogging about it. But the trip to Caesarea Philippi and the Golan was amazing. King Herod – the one who Matthew tells us tried to kill all the baby boys so that the “king of the Jews” who the magi were seeking would not be born – Herod wanted to keep that title for himself. And he was a brutal man. According to the ancient historian Josephus, Herod “The Great” killed 3 of his own sons – and one of his wives – prompting Caesar to say that he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son (Jews of course would not slaughter a pig). Herod died in 4 BCE leaving his kingdom to his 3 sons. One was named Philip, thus the full name, Herod Philip. Herod Philip built a city which he named for Caesar – in order to ingratiate himself to Rome – but there was already a city called Caesarea, so to distinguish them, Philips is called Caesarea Philippi. He built it on a beautiful site, the source of springs which makes it a lush fertile valley – even creating a stream with waterfalls you see below. But before Philip built his city, the site was already home to a large temple to the god Pan – often pictured as partly goat, partly human. The stream from the spring flows out from a cave under a great rock face – of course the streams of “living water” flow from the temple – that’s as it should be. The city became his capital for the region.
This site is important for Christians because of the famous conversation Jesus had with the disciples which culminated in Peter’s great confession of faith. Here is the text:
Matt. 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
There is a lot going on here. Jesus had changed Peter’s name from Simon – the name of a Maccabean war hero, to Peter, meaning “rock”. He is in the region of the capital city, at a huge rock outcrop – that is not the rock on which Jerusalem is built, and he calls Peter the “Rock” – alternative to both Zion and Caesarea Philippi.
No one has heard of Sepphoris, I know, but wow – we all should have.
Sepphoris is a town so close to where Jesus grew up in Nazareth that lots of men and boys from Nazareth would rise each morning, take their tools, and walk over the hills and through the valleys – two hours – to find work on the city of Sepphoris. It is almost unimaginable that Jesus and Joseph were not among them; of course they were. Our bibles call Jesus a “carpenter” as if he worked with wood exclusively, but the Greek word is really a word for “building-tradesman” who could work with stone, wood, tin, plaster, – all phases of a building project – or even simply an unskilled building worker – the term is that broad. In any case, when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth it was a tiny place – 400 residents max – and probably less than that. There would be almost no employment there; it is almost certain that people skilled in the building trades would go to the nearby city of Sepphoris for work. So, we went to the ruins of the city of Sepphoris – from which the village of Nazareth is clearly visible – and walked on streets that Jesus himself may have walked on, or even built.
It was Herod “the Great”‘s son Herod Antipas who was at work in Jesus’ day re-building Sepphoris to make it his capital. He was re-building it because it had been destroyed previously. This is key: the Romans destroyed Sepphoris and enslaved the Jewish survivors because at the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, a man named Judas led a revolt against Rome. Rome ruthlessly crushed that revolt and Sepphoris, where Judas was from, was destroyed – the quintessentially disloyal city. So when Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas assumed the throne, he wanted to make sure that Rome knew that he was loyal – the opposite of Judas. So he re-built the home of traitorous Judas as a distinctly Roman city; any pagan Roman would have felt at home there, with its theater, temples, and all things culturally Roman.
So, every day, Jesus probably walked over the hills to work in Sepphoris and walked home each night to Nazareth having helped to build the kingdom of Herod, the Roman-pleasing sycophant. And the remarkable thing is that when Jesus started preaching the kingdom of God, his references were all rural, in spite of having spent his working life in a Roman, urban setting. He spoke of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, of the sower who sowed his seed and of the shepherd with his sheep. He seems to have intentionally avoided (rejected?) urban images and metaphors. His kingdom was not Herod’s, or Rome’s, or the Zealot revolutionaries, but rather the trans-national, multi-ethnic Kingdom of God, the creator of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.”
When Jesus was born Nazareth had no more than 400 people living in it. Now, modern Nazareth is home to over 70,000 people, mostly Christian Palestinians. They are Arabs by heritage, but Christians by faith. Think how hard their lives are between the giants of the Jewish state and the Palestinian-Muslim community!