Pool of Bethesda and Saint Anne’s

This is the twenty-second post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

First thing in the morning on the last full day of our pilgrimage to Israel, we gathered outside our hotel and made our way out the New Gate. Our first stop of the day was on the other side of the Old City in the Muslim Quarter, just north of the Temple Mount and close to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.

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We were here to visit what remains of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man according to John chapter 5. It is quite large and deep, and you can descend the steps into it (there is very little water in it now).

After an introductory talk from our group leader, Tim, the group split up and poked around in the ruins for a few minutes while we tried to imagine what it would have been like to be at this pool when it was a gathering place for “the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” who were waiting for an angel to trouble the waters.

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Then we went into Saint Anne’s Church, which is right next to the pool. It’s a medieval church built by Crusaders, and in virtually any description of Saint Anne’s in any tour book you will see a mention of its remarkable acoustics. When you enter the church, you have an overwhelming urge to sing. So we gathered in the space in front of the altar and did.

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Then we went back outside to the leafy courtyard between the church and the street and split up into our “family groups”—bunches of about four people each that we always kept an eye out for when we moved from place to place so we didn’t lose anyone. We then spent some time sharing prayer requests and praying for each other.

This stop, with an ancient site right next to a medieval church, gave me a window into a very different kind of trip to Israel. Our trip was largely focused on archaeological sites, which I was very grateful for; I loved being able to walk around the ruins, feel the heat, and imagine what it would have been like to have been there during biblical events.

A different kind of trip would have focused more on Christian history—on the ways in which the church over the centuries has commemorated biblical events and taught about them. I’m glad our trip focused on archaeological sites, and I’m glad we got to go to some sites that you don’t always see on an Israel trip itinerary, like Arad. And we did visit a few churches—St. Anne’s, of course, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church built over Peter’s house in Capernaum.

If I ever go back to Israel, though, I think it would be nice to supplement this first experience by exploring a few of the churches we didn’t make it into, like the Church of the Beatitudes or the Church of the Nativity.

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Shrine of the Book and Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is the twenty-first post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 PM

Once we got to Jerusalem, the hiking part of the trip was largely over. On this day, we had gone to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Herodium, and Bethlehem, and had barely broken a sweat. The final stop in the afternoon was the air-conditioned and comfy Shrine of the Book, where several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display along with the Aleppo Codex. The roof of the building looks like a lid on one of the clay jars where the famous scrolls were found.

fullsizeoutput_2764The Shrine of the Book is on the grounds of the Israel Museum, which is focused on art and archaeology. Also on the grounds, close to the Shrine of the Book, there is an open-air model of what first-century Jerusalem looked like before the revolt that began in AD 66 and ended in the destruction of the city, including the temple.

We weren’t able to visit Qumran during our time at the Dead Sea during this trip, but I’m glad we made it to see the scrolls themselves. And the model is fascinating. Here’s a panoramic view of it, looking toward the temple complex from what would have been the Mount of Olives:

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We boarded the bus and passed by the Knesset, then returned to our hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. My dad and I wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was not far from our hotel in the Christian Quarter, so we hustled over there and looked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel in time to eat. But at dinner, our group leader, Tim, said he would lead anyone who was interested to see the church, so my dad and I went back and spent a bit more time inside.

Is978At this point I can’t remember what I noticed on the first visit versus the second visit a couple of hours later, so I’ll just give some overall impressions. Just inside the entrance to the church is a large stone slab. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw several people (mostly women) kneeling around it with bags they had brought with them. Out of these bags they took items like small crosses or pieces of cloth and rubbed them on the slab, then put them back in the bags. I found out later that this is called the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was allegedly prepared for burial.

Both the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are also supposed to be inside the church. To get to the site of the crucifixion, you climb some stairs just inside the main entrance to the right. The site of the burial is in a rotunda on the main floor, to the left of the Stone of Anointing. In the center of the rotunda is a shrine, a small building called an aedicule, outside of which pilgrims form a line so they can be let inside a few at a time by an unenthusiastic priest. When we were there, the aedicule was encased in scaffolding.

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The aedicule and the dome above

 

Once inside the aedicule, you crouch through a low doorway, three or four at a time, into a cramped space with another stone slab (smaller than the Stone of Anointing) on the right. Under this slab is, according to tradition, where Jesus was buried. You kneel for a minute or so in front of the marble slab. You can touch it. Then the unenthusiastic priest tells you your time is up. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but National Geographic ran a photo essay last fall on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that included this picture of the inside:

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Source: Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations

Being inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was, for me, a cultural experience more than a spiritual experience. It began with the trinkets being rubbed on the Stone of Anointing, and continued throughout. I was constantly looking around to see what other people were doing, and wondering why they were doing what they were doing.

It’s not that I don’t think the site has significance. The site of the crucifixion and burial don’t look anything like what they would have looked like in the first century, but I have no reason to doubt that these are really the places where Jesus died and was buried. Because longstanding tradition has placed it here, I do think this is likely where it all happened.

But as I wandered through the church, from the site of the crucifixion to the Stone of Anointing to the aedicule to the Chapel of Adam, deep in the bowels of the building, this was my prayer: I’m so glad you’re not here anymore. It’s amazing to think that a site could be so important because Jesus rose from the dead and left it: “He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Herodium and Self-Preservation

This is the twentieth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

After being turned away at the Temple Mount and then visiting the Mount of Olives on the morning of our first full day in Jerusalem, our group traveled south to an ancient site called Herodium, which is today in the West Bank. This was one of several palace fortresses built by Herod the Great. Out of all of them he decided that he wanted to be buried here, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1.673). The archaeologist Ehud Netser found what is likely Herod’s tomb in 2007. When it was found, the ossuary (bone box) in the tomb had been smashed. It may be that a generation after Herod’s death, during the Jewish revolt from AD 66–70, the Zealots rebelling against Rome took hammers to what was left of Herod.

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Herodium is an impressive spot, built into the top of a flat-topped hill. From this hill you get panoramic views: to the northwest you can see Bethlehem, and even Jerusalem a bit farther away due north. To the southeast you can see the wilderness sloping down toward the Dead Sea. And though Herodium is in the Judean desert, you get a nice breeze at the top of the hill. Maybe that’s why Herod liked it so much.

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The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say where the magi met with Herod to speak with him about the birth of Jesus, though it does say they went to Jerusalem initially (Matt 2:1–12). Since Herod loved this spot, it’s not impossible that they met him here. In any case, when standing on top of the hill, it’s not hard to imagine the wise men (however many of them there were) coming out of the wilderness to the east. And with Bethlehem so close by, it’s also not hard to imagine jealous old Herod looking down on it and fretting about this new king who was entering the world right under his nose.

He did all he could to preserve himself and hang on to what he’d worked for—including killing opposition leaders, young children, and members of his own family—and it was still taken from him. It’s hard to submit, hard to let go of control, but in the end we will all be forced to do so whether we want it or not.

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After enjoying the views and hearing about the history of the place, we went down into the tunnel system built into the hill, where we took a pause in the coolness, prayed, and sang. Then we continued through the tunnels out of the fortress and drove into Bethlehem.

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In Bethlehem we had lunch and browsed around one of the few souvenir shops we visited on the trip. I bought a miniature olive-wood nativity scene, because how can you not when you’re in Bethlehem? I also bought a small icon magnet of St. Nicholas that now adorns our refrigerator. Of course, St. Nicholas has nothing to do with Bethlehem, but he’s come to have a lot to do with Christmas.

On the way back in to Jerusalem, we got stuck in traffic and one of us (this is the internet, so I’ll never say who) had to go to the bathroom and ended up going by the side of the road, shielded by umbrellas. Whenever our group of travelers gathers again, it seems that moment always comes up in conversation.

The Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Nearing the End

This is the nineteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

On our group’s first morning in Jerusalem—the first day of the trip that did not dawn already blazing hot—our first stop was going to be the Temple Mount. We trooped outside the old city wall to the bus, rode around to the other side of the old city, got out and through the Dung Gate, and settled into the security line before it was scheduled to open.

We waited.

And we waited some more.

Then we received word that there had been some unrest on the Temple Mount the day before, and the opening for that day was delayed indefinitely. It would eventually open later that day, but by that time we had already decided to get back on the bus and move to the Mount of Olives. We would not get to visit the Temple Mount this trip.

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On the Mount of Olives in my standard uniform for the trip: broad-brimmed hat, hydration pack, breathable shirt (shorts and hiking boots not pictured)

On the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley east of ancient Jerusalem, we sat in a small amphitheater while our group leader, Tim, talked to us about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he said, the Sunday before Passover, on the day the lambs were being selected for the feast. Around ten years before this, Josephus tells us that Thaddeus claimed to be messiah and around 4,000 people were killed. Tensions, in other words, were high.

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The pilgrims

When Jesus appeared at the top of the Mount of Olives, the crowd accompanying him shouted “Hosanna” (“Save us”). They waved palm branches, the Zealot symbol of freedom, which was earlier used on coins from the Maccabean period (Luke 19:31–37). But instead of inciting a revolt, Jesus wept (Luke 19:42–45). He was indeed claiming to be king, and he was indeed making a political statement—but not in the sense that he was setting himself up as the kind of kind the world was used to. He was forcing the hands of those who were opposed to him. He knew that this would get him killed.

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The many burial plots on the Mount of Olives

From the top of the Mount of Olives, we walked down toward the Temple Mount to Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night that he was arrested. “Gethsemane” means “olive press,” and there are many olive trees still present there. Of course, as is the case with so many places mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t clear where the exact spot Jesus prayed is. A few places compete for the honor, and we went to two such places on this morning. But as I wrote in my post on Nazareth, I think standing in the exact spot is overrated. We spent some time contemplating in one spot, then took a quick walk around the walled garden next to the Church of All Nations.

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A very old olive tree in the garden next to the Church of All Nations

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus in Gethsemane said he was not leading a revolt, and the disciples fled (Matt 26:55–56). Perhaps they fled because they realized only then that Jesus would not lead an open rebellion against Rome. Perhaps also Judas betrayed Jesus because he wanted to force Jesus’ hand and spark a revolution. I first heard of this theory from Dorothy Sayers’s book The Man Born to Be King, and I think it has a lot of merit. Ultimately, though, no one knows exactly why Judas betrayed Jesus. The important thing is that Jesus knew he would die, and he went to his death willingly. And he calls those who follow him to take up their crosses as well (Mark 8:31–38).

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The facade of the Church of All Nations, with the retaining wall around the Temple Mount to the right

Night in Jerusalem

This is the eighteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

In the afternoon of June 26 our tour bus left Caesarea, and Galilee, and took us to where we would spend our final three days. By that point in the trip we had been in Israel (with a couple of trips into the West Bank) for a week, and we had not yet set foot in Jerusalem.

When we got there, the bus driver parked just outside the old city walls, between the Jaffa Gate and the New Gate, and we walked in to our hotel: the Knights’ Palace. It was a charming little place, a former seminary, with a medieval feel: stone exterior and interior, with suits of armor in the hallway and portraits whose eyes seem to follow you like you’re in an episode of Scooby-Doo.

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The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Knights’ Palace is in the Christian Quarter, wedged up against the northwest wall of the old city and not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After checking in, most of our group spent the evening going on a walk around the city.

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Walking just inside the Jaffa Gate

I love walking in cities at night. While I’ve spent plenty of time wandering around the major cities I’ve lived in (Prague, Budapest, Vancouver) both during the day and at night, it’s the night walks that have stuck with me, even years afterward.

Maybe this is because my senses are heightened when I’m walking around at night, knowing there is a higher likelihood that I’ll be the victim of some crime. Or, more likely, walking at night just seems more intimate. With the sky dark and the lampposts lit up, cityscapes (especially squares) feel to me almost like a living room. There are fewer people around, and some of the inhibitions that people have in the daylight crowds go away; you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know (you’re also more likely to be propositioned by a prostitute or see stag parties singing/yelling to everyone around as they stagger down the street—two lingering memories from my time in Prague).

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Standing near the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Tim led us through the warren of narrow streets that first night, looking for a way up to a rooftop from which we could look east and see the Dome of the Rock. Along the way, we saw the Israeli police questioning a young boy who had apparently thrown a rock at someone. In Jerusalem, little things like that can apparently get out of control quickly.

Then we came back down from the roof, meandered through the Jewish Quarter to Hurva Square, and headed east to a place where we could overlook the Western Wall.

fullsizeoutput_2755It was stunning, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Of the three nights we spent in Jerusalem, no matter how tired I was after that day’s excursions, I went walking around at night to take in as much as I could: enjoying the views, watching the people, eating the gelato (who knew you could get gelato in the old city?). I was a little nervous about getting lost by myself, so I had to look for people to go with, but thankfully there were plenty of other people who were also excited to do night exploring (thanks, Kurt & Suzie, Jenna & Abigail!).

 

Caesarea and Kingdom Building

It’s hard to believe it’s now been almost a year since the pilgrimage to Israel I made with a group from my church last summer. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to try to write reflections on every stop we made, but I’m actually pretty close to finishing now. This is the seventeenth post (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

Our last stop in northern Israel before heading to Jerusalem was Caesarea. There were two Caesareas—Caesarea Philippi, which we had visited a couple of days earlier, and the one on the coast, which is usually just called Caesarea (or Caesarea Maritima if you want to differentiate it from the other one).

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Standing at one end of the hippodrome

Like so many extant ruins around Israel, Herod the Great picked this spot to build a palace. He wanted a harbor here so he could get a cut of the trade that passed through, so he conducted a building project from about 22–10 BC so an artificial harbor could be created. The palace covered twenty-six acres, and there was a theater and hippodrome here as well. Josephus wrote that Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great entered this theater dressed in robes of silver that shone in the sun. When the crowd acclaimed him as a god, he accepted their praise, and he died shortly thereafter (this is also recorded in the New Testament in Acts 12:20–23). There was also a lighthouse, and ruins of the breakwater are still visible underwater. The site includes red columns from Egypt and black columns from Greece.

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Looking toward the hippodrome, with the palace in the foreground

From AD 6, when the Romans took over Palestine, Caesarea was the headquarters of the Roman governors. In 1961 there was a stone found here with an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate. The apostle Paul passed through here on his missionary journeys, and he was imprisoned here for two years before he was sent to be tried in Rome (Acts 23:23–26:32).

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A replica of the Pilate inscription; the original is in the Israel Museum

When our group arrived, we went up to the top of the theater and felt the ocean breeze while our group leader, Tim, explained the history of the place and showed us some points of interest. Then we went north to the ruins of the ancient palace. Just below the palace, on the beach, we found ancient pieces of pottery and marble that had been eroded by the waves. Then we continued north through the hippodrome.

Is8059 After we left Caesarea, we stopped at an aqueduct not far away, then continued on to Jerusalem for the night.

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When Tim gave us an overview of Caesarea, he ended by saying that Herod the Great built this to show he was great. That is what he wanted to do with his many building projects, and at least in some sense he succeeded, since we can still see parts of what he built and we still know his name. But of course the palace is in ruins and nobody uses the hippodrome anymore. And even though we know his name, we don’t love Herod. He doesn’t have a place in our hearts. So Tim asked, “What kind of kingdom are you building?”

Megiddo and to’ebah

This is the sixteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26, AM

Our next stop after the area outside Nazareth was Megiddo, a site on the north side of the Carmel ridge, on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times it was along the Via Maris, the main route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and so held strategic and military significance for a long time. In the united monarchy of Israel, it is listed as one of three cities that Solomon fortified (along with Hazor and Gezer, 2 Kgs 9:15). There is a gate there that some archaeologists believe dates to Solomon’s time. In 609 BC, Josiah king of Judah challenged Pharaoh Neco in battle there and was killed (2 Kgs 23:29–30). The site was abandoned sometime during the fourth century BC.

Is8023Many people associate the name “Megiddo” with Revelation 16:16, which places a gathering of armies at a place called “Armageddon” (literally, “mountain of Megiddo”). Normally Armageddon is thought of as a battle, but a close reading of Revelation shows that the battle is never fought. Personally, since so much of Revelation is intended to be symbolic, and since there is no such place as the “mountain of Megiddo,” and since it’s physically impossible for the armies described in Revelation to gather in the space around Megiddo, I don’t think any literal future gathering for battle is likely to be fought at Megiddo. As Darrell Johnson says in his fine book on Revelation, “The name stands for the last resistance of the anti-Christ forces before the coming of the new creation” (Discipleship on the Edge, 290). Likewise, Grant Osborne writes in Revelation Verse by Verse:

We should begin with the connection of Megiddo with warfare, since so many battles were fought there (Judg 4–5, 7; 1 Sam 31; 2 Kgs 23; 2 Chr 35). It is also associated with the obstinate opposition of the world to God and his people, with the primary background being Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39) and the mourning of the apostate nation in Zechariah 12:9–14, who here represent all the nations who have broken covenant with God. Thus the message in the name “Armageddon” would be that all who stand against God will mourn as they face God’s wrath. It stands for the assembly of all the sinful nations arrayed against God and his people as they come together in defiance to make war against God and the Lamb. (272)

The point Revelation is trying to make, I think, is that evil forces gather with a militaristic mindset, not precisely where. So at Megiddo, our group leader, Tim, (thankfully) didn’t talk about Armageddon. Instead, he talked to us about idolatry.

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It appears that, even during the time when the Israelites occupied Megiddo, there was religious dualism—Yahweh was worshiped along with the goddess Asherah. This from the article on Megiddo in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books: “It is likely that two deities, male and female, are represented in Shrine 2081, presenting at Megiddo a possible early manifestation of the dualism represented by the worship of Yahweh and his Asherah at Kuntillet ʿAjrud in the early eighth century BCE.”

It may seem surprising to those who have read the Bible all their lives that this kind of thing was going on. Weren’t the Israelites monotheists? Well, according to those who wrote the Old Testament, they were supposed to be, but all too often they worshiped other gods, or they practiced syncretism—the worship of Yahweh alongside other gods. The prophets of ancient Israel were always railing against this tendency in their contemporaries, calling idols to’ebah, which means “disgusting” or an “abomination”: “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable [to’ebah] to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret” (Deut 27:15).

Is8034In Jeremiah’s time, God was disgusted that the Judahites were likening him to the god Baal, saying he wanted child sacrifice. This was an abomination (Jer 32:35). Baal worship involving child sacrifice was abhorrent to the Greeks, and they put an end to it before Jesus’ day. But there were other things that were still going on in the first century that God also found disgusting. When Jesus entered the temple after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he says the temple establishment is making it into a “den of robbers,” quoting a passage from Jeremiah that speaks of abominations going on in the temple itself:

“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things [to’ebah]? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!” declares the Lord. (Jer 7:9–11)

Jesus is saying that, just as the old temple was destroyed because the Israelites thought they could do whatever they wanted there and God would look the other way, so the temple of his day would be destroyed because the Jewish leaders blatantly disobeyed God in the temple itself through their greed. It’s a good reminder that religious activity is not what God wants. What does God really require? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).

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Nazareth, or Why Standing in the Exact Spot Is Overrated

This is the fifteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

After I returned from a trip to Israel last summer, I decided I would write a series of reflections on most places we visited before I forgot them all. Now it has been eight months since I got back, and over two months since I wrote the last post.

Life has been busy.

But entering the season of Lent, and beginning to look ahead to Good Friday and Easter, has made me want to pick up this task again. I last wrote about Mount Arbel, a quiet spot overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We visited there in the early afternoon of June 25, and from there we went to a rocky place along the Jordan, north of the Sea of Galilee, where three of our group were baptized. That evening, we went on a boat out onto the sea itself. The next morning, we packed up and left our hotel in Tiberias. Our first stop of the day was Nazareth (sort of).

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June 26, AM

I say “sort of” because we didn’t actually go to Nazareth. Nazareth is a modern city, and while there are churches built on various holy spots, it doesn’t look like the ancient Nazareth where Jesus grew up. So Tim, our leader, took us to a hillside that in ancient times lay somewhere between the Jewish town of Nazareth and the Roman city of Sepphoris, a few miles to the northwest.

The reason Tim took us there is that this site was apparently once a quarry. While Jesus is normally thought of as a carpenter (the common translation of Mark 6:3), the Greek word used to describe him is tektōn.tektōn could have been a skilled worker in a number of building materials, which may have included wood but also stone or metal. Tim asked us to imagine Jesus coming out here as a tektōn, working with the stone that would have gone to buildings in Nazareth or Sepphoris.

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This place may have seemed a little farther removed from history than some of the other places we visited, where there is greater certainty that Jesus or some great biblical figure was very close. That is true, but this entire trip the idea was to travel as pilgrims, not as tourists. A tourist, camera always at the ready, would care more about standing in the exact spot where something happened, but a pilgrim is different. Pilgrims are more interested in having a closer experience of God, whether they are standing in the exact spot or not.

A few days ago I listened to a podcast from New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, where he was talking about a recent trip to Israel he had taken with a group of students. On the podcast, he sums up what sets pilgrims apart from tourists (as well as archaeologists and historians):

Sometimes we can get a little negative about people going to these places because they believe that is exactly where Jesus was born, or where he died, and we can throw up historical dust into the eyes of people and say, “We’re not for sure.”

I think that we need to distinguish between a tourist, an archaeologist/historian, and a pilgrim. A tourist is curious. We’re over there trying to see things. We’re there to see, to take pictures, to take selfies, to remember. An archaeologist/historian is going to toss the dust up and say “We’re not sure, we’re not sure, we’re not sure.” But the pilgrim doesn’t care that much if it is the precise location because they’ve come to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or the temple in Jerusalem, or the Mount of Olives, or Gethsemane, or Capernaum, or Nazareth, or Sepphoris because they think it is a thin place, and they’ve come to pray and to seek God. …

We need to recognize that space can sometimes become a thin place, a thin space where we encounter God.

McKnight talks about “thin places”—an idea that originated in Celtic Christianity to describe physical places where a person can have a fuller sense of who God is. This idea can be, and has been, abused, with people believing relics from that place have magical properties and charging large fees to enter and so on. At its best, though, I think there’s a lot of truth to this idea of thin places.

There are thin places that invite reflection and meditation—places where you feel closer to the heavenly realm where God and his angels reside. These thin places are not so much about standing in the exact spot where something happened long ago, trying to document every inch of it. They are, for me anyway, more about being in the same area where God performed a great work, understanding that it was an ordinary place that is much like the place where you live. They are places where you realize that the same God is still working his purposes in the world and inviting people to listen and join in with what he is doing.

P.S.—In case you’re interested, here is the podcast I referenced above. The quote starts at about the 12-minute mark.

Arbel and the Balance of Community and Solitude

This is the fourteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25, PM

After leaving the impressive ruins of Beth Shan, our group went north to Mount Arbel, which is just west of the Sea of Galilee. There we had lunch (our standard bologna pitas) and then walked out to the east end of the mountain, where we could see a panoramic view of much of Galilee.

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Though this mountain isn’t mentioned by name in the New Testament, Tim sat us down at the overlook and talked about the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:32–56). He believes that, afterward, Mount Arbel is probably the solitary mountain where Jesus went up to pray (Matt 14:23; Mark 6:46). He reasoned that it is the largest mountain in the area, and its name means “mountain of God.” After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, and he prayed all night. If he were on Arbel, he would have been able to see the disciples out on the lake. Then, in the early morning, he went out to them on foot.

fullsizeoutput_2732It’s certainly possible that Arbel was the place where Jesus went to pray, especially since the Gospels are unclear about where the feeding of the 5,000 took place. Luke seems to set it in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), though Mark says the disciples left to go to Bethsaida afterward (Mark 6:45). John says the disciples set out for Capernaum afterward (John 6:17); Matthew just says “the other side” (Matt 14:22), and both Matthew and Mark say they ended up at Gennesaret (Matt 14:34; Mark 6:53). I don’t ascribe much importance to these kinds of geographic puzzles one sometimes finds in the Gospels, though. They can usually be chalked up to the Gospel writers not caring as much about geography as modern people do, modern people not always knowing how ancient people used place names, or both.

At any rate, Jesus withdrew to a mountainside after feeding the 5,000, and Arbel is as good a place as any for this to have happened. In fact, even if Jesus didn’t go to the top of Arbel on this particular occasion, it’s hard to believe that he never went there. It is, after all, the highest spot for miles around, and it had a reputation for being a special spot for communing with God. It may also be the site of the Great Commission, which is said to have taken place on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16).

So after Tim’s talk, most of the group climbed down the north side of the mountain. It was a steep descent, and it was 100 degrees that afternoon, so we had the option of going down that way or returning to the bus the way we had come. I decided, after hearing about Jesus’ withdrawing to pray, I wanted to spend some time in solitude instead. After waiting for most of the group to disperse, I meandered across the mountain by myself and prayed, with the only sounds I heard coming from the rustling grass and the goats at the base of the mountain.

fullsizeoutput_272eAfter leaving Arbel, we drove to a spot on the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee. We had to search around to find a spot, since it was Sabbath and there were quite a few people enjoying the Sabbath along the river. On the way, as our driver tried to navigate a series of hairpin turns, the bus stopped and our Israeli guide Ariel got out. He opened the luggage bay underneath us, got out a rock the size of a large throw pillow, and laid it next to the road. With the extra bit of traction, the bus was able to proceed.

When we got there, three of our group were baptized, first giving their testimonies of how they came to know God and what he has meant to them. After the baptisms, all of us had the opportunity to remember our own baptism. Though the rocks were slippery and there was only about two feet of water, we had a wonderful time of meditation on what it has meant for us that Jesus has called us to follow him. Then we finished the day by going out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat.

This was a day when I thought a lot about the interplay between solitude and community. I’ve always enjoyed solitude; when I read Henri Nouwen’s short book Out of Solitude many years ago it spoke to me because I often find it easier to communicate with God, to feel his presence, in solitude and silence. I loved the group experience of this trip, but I relished those times, like up on Arbel, where I had the chance to be alone for a moment.

But I’m also prone to overdo the solitude thing. Nouwen writes that it is in solitude that Jesus found the courage to do his Father’s will. His time in solitude drove him back out to service in the world. If I were him, I would have wanted to stay up on the mountain, but that would have defeated the purpose of solitude.

I’ve done it enough times to know that when I don’t let solitude drive me out to engagement, I can get anxious or depressed. I can start to soothe myself and fill time by eating or watching stupid television or listening to podcasts I’m not even excited about. What I really need is to listen closely for when I’m being pushed back out into the world, and let solitude lead me into greater caring and greater engagement with community.

Beth Shan and Looking for the Unimpressive

This is the thirteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25 AM

On the day after going north of the Sea of Galilee to the Golan Heights, we went south 12 miles to a place that was called Beth Shan in the Old Testament. It was in Egyptian hands for a long time, and then occupied by the Canaanites during and after the arrival of the Israelites (Josh 17:16). It was in possession of the Philistines during the early Israelite monarchy; the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung on the city wall there after their deaths (1 Sam 31:11–13).

Our bus let us out near the base of the north side of the tell and we walked up to the top, where we were met with a view of the impressive Greek and Roman city that later grew there, called Scythopolis. It is not mentioned by name in the New Testament, though during that time it was the westernmost city of the Decapolis, the only one west of the Jordan River (Matt 4:25). It is mentioned a few times in the Apocrypha (Jdt 3;10; 2 Macc 12:29–30). It later became a center of Christianity, was conquered by a Muslim invasion of 634, and was destroyed by an earthquake in 749. The area continued to be occupied, and the name of the ancient city is preserved in the modern town of Beit She’an.

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This site is much grander than the little fishing villages like Capernaum and Chorazin where Jesus spent much of his ministry. There was a bath house, an amphitheater, and many public buildings and temples. As we walked through the excavated town, I reflected on how even the most impressive societies can come to ruin.

I grew up in the evangelical Christian subculture in the United States (and when I say “evangelical” I’m not talking about a voting bloc but a group, found across different denominations, that has a particular focus on the cross, the Bible, conversion, and active participation in God’s mission in the world). The evangelical subculture is often the opposite of impressive. With some exceptions, much of the art has been derivative and kitschy, and the intellectuals among us have lamented how evangelicals as a whole can be anti-intellectual (though Mark Noll has more recently expressed hope regarding evangelical scholarship).

fullsizeoutput_272cBecause my first experience of Christianity was as part of a subculture, I have received over and over, both explicitly and implicitly, the message that Christianity is something that you are supposed to leave behind when you gain an understanding of the world outside that subculture. You’re supposed to grow up in the church, and then when you become an adult, you realize the world is more complicated than you originally thought and leave Jesus behind.

Maybe because I’ve always had a contrarian streak, I have never been comfortable with this assumption. In fact, I have gone the other way: when I realized that there was a bigger world outside my subculture, I decided to go deeper—not back into my subculture, but into Jesus and the broad, deep story of his church. And I discovered that not only was he bigger than the subculture I had been a part of, but he was big enough to encompass the wider world.

is737Our group leader, Tim, reflected that there are impressive stones at Scythopolis, but the Bible says we who follow Jesus are living stones (1 Pet 2:4–5). We are a place that says to the world, “The presence of God is here”—a temple. This temple may not be outwardly impressive in the eyes of the world, but neither was Jesus. Neither were the little fishing villages where he spent most of his time compared to the glittering Scythopolis.

When I see a place like Scythopolis, I think of the culture that currently holds sway, that I feel pressure to conform to. I realize that this culture that seems so powerful now will be gone soon. There are many wonderful things about the United States and its culture, but it will not last forever. Jesus and the group of people he gathered around himself came before it, and will remain after it.

I encourage you, then, to look for the little and seemingly unimportant ways in which God likes to work. Advent is a perfect time to do that, as we reflect on how Jesus came not as a powerful king but as a baby born into poverty and scandal.