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.

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.