A trip to Israel-Palestine is a remarkable experience. Even with a commercial tour, the place itself would affect you. There are echoes, resonances of the stories that have formed those who followed Jesus for almost 2000 years. And there are older echoes too – the foundation of the Jesus story goes back many more thousands of years with stories of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, stories of King David and King Solomon and their successors like King Hezekiah, and stories of the prophets too – although many of them lived the surrounding areas, not in what is now Israel-Palestine. If you travel to this place as a part of a pilgrimage, the echoes gain strength as you walk quite intentionally in the places where Jesus walked, following the path of Jesus.
The Geography helps tell the story.
The PLACE itself has something to contribute. Getting acquainted with the geography of the Bible opens up new understandings of the scriptures. Some scholars refer to the lands of the Bible as the FIFTH GOSPEL. Others refer to it as an interpretive grid, that helps the stories make sense. At any rate, being in the PLACES where the stories of the scriptures take place enable us to hear them very differently.
Geography dictates how and where civilizations develop. Communities sprung up around areas where water, food and shelter were easily obtained. Water has always been the first priority in the Middle East.
The Sea of Galilee is a large, fresh water lake. It is a fertile area, with water and fish easily available in Jesus’ time. The writer Josephus described it as an area so fertile that even a lazy farmer could make a living. Visiting the area helps us understand the stories of Jesus’ ministry very differently.
The calling of the disciples was a bit different than we assume. You’ve heard about them – these poor, humble fishermen, right? BUT Fishing was a prosperous enterprise in Jesus’ day. There were 14 fishing harbors in Jesus’ time. The area was prosperous. Fishermen were small business owners with hired workers. Peter and Andrew were part of their father’s business – Zebedee and Sons. They could leave to follow Jesus because the family living wasn’t dependent on their labor. Their father ran the business and had hired workers, after all. Jesus also recruited a tax collector, who would have been upper-middle class. The disciples weren’t poor. They were hard-working entrepreneurs who brought those perspectives and skills with them when they followed Jesus.
The area was far from a backwater, or simple rural area as we often suppose. The writer Josephus refers to the region of Galilee as “Galilee of the gentiles.” Jesus was raised and working in a very culturally diverse area. The Via Maris was the most-travelled trade route, and it ran right by Capernaum, where 80% of Jesus’ ministry took place, according to the gospel stories. Nazareth was only a couple of miles from Sepphoris, a sizeable city and the seat of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who ruled over the Galilee area after his father’s death. Herod the Great was the ruler in power when Jesus was born. His son Herod Antipas’ building program infused a lot of capital into the local economy around Galilee and created a large metropolis. A carpenter from Nazareth would have found work in nearby Sepphoris, and been well-paid for his efforts. In the second century, Sepphoris would be the place where the Sanhedrin compiled the Mishna, the interpretation of scripture sometimes called the “Oral Torah.” It was a cultural center.
The geography provides illustrations and object lessons throughout the entire Bible. Jesus’ parables about farming provide many examples. Herod the Great’s man-made mountain, the Herodian, is another. Herod had part of one mountain moved on top of another one to create a taller mountain to serve as a fortress. Jesus’ explanation about the power of faith: “if you say to this mountain, move – and it will move,” was probably said with the mountain serving as an object lesson in the background.
We hear the stories of scripture differently when we see where they took place. We feel closer to Jesus as a human in his PLACE.
Vision correction for Anachronism
Part of the challenge in reading ancient literature, whether it is the Bible or Plato, is that we tend to read through the lens of our own time. We carry our own assumptions with us – and they may result in us misreading the ancient literature.
Jesus’ appearance. If I asked everyone to describe Jesus, without consulting each other, I would wager that there would be a lot of points in common despite the fact that there is no physical description of Jesus in the Bible. Paul never met him and didn’t care about his appearance – and Paul’s writings are the earliest in the New Testament. The gospels don’t give us any physical description of Jesus. And yet, we picture Jesus a certain way -- the way we have seen him portrayed in Western art – with long hair and a beard, even if we correct his skin tone to resemble a middle eastern Jew. But we are fairly certain about the long hair and beard, right? BUT this would have been extremely unusual in his day. Most men had short hair and were clean shaven. Mosaics and pottery from the first century ALWAYS depict men with short hair and clean shaven. Possibly due to Hellenistic influence in the area, the model of the Romans, or cultural expectations – but men were clean shaven and had short hair. Paul, who was also first century, expressed the common assumption in I Corinthians 11:14, “Does not even nature teach you that it is a shame for a man to have long hair?” Paul’s ministry was the closest thing we have to a contemporaneous account. The Nazarites wore their hair long – but they also had some different lifestyle patterns, including that they didn’t drink wine. Since Jesus was criticized as being a glutton and a wine-bibber – he definitely wasn’t a Nazirite. See? We tend to read the texts from our point of view rather than their own.
The geography and stories in context offer a good bit of correction to the anachronism we bring – and help us get closer to what they meant in their own time.
We visited the excavated ruins of Sepphoris, and spent time there in an aristocratic house. The most important room of every house of the time, rich or humble, was the dining room, where people would recline on benches for conversation and eating. In the houses of the wealthy, dining rooms were larger and more highly decorated. In this aristocratic house, the benches were arranged around one end of a lovely mosaic with scenes from the life of Dionysus. The mosaic contains 1.5 million tiles in 28 shades of natural stone. There is a birth story with a divine father and human mother, unusual birth circumstances and visits by shepherds, and a story in which Dionysus turned water into wine. The parallels were striking. The gospel writers were trying to appeal to people from Gentile environments by using language and frames of reference that they could understand – like the stories of Dionysus. Masters of syncretism, merging cultural elements, to contrast the power of Jesus with that of Dionysus….and then say, “Jesus is real by the way. Jesus has all of the power of Dionysus – but more.” When Jesus turned water into wine he was probably intentionally trying to help people understand that he should replace Dionysis in their worship. The same thing happened with the dates of Christmas, Christmas trees and ornaments. Inclusivity of other religious traditions is part of the development of the Christian tradition. It’s easy to see this at Sepphoris. We can understand Jesus better by seeing where he was in ministry.
This was an amazing pilgrimage. I look forward to sharing more with you as time goes on. I learned some new things about the stories of the scriptures, and remembered some things I’d forgotten along the way. The trip helped me with an interpretive lens to re-read the stories – and I invite you to read them again with me this year. There is a piece of paper inserted in the bulletin – and I’d like to take a quick poll. Please write your name at the top. Then write a “1” and answer this question.
Would you be interested in making a pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine sometime in 2021 to visit the places of the stories and deepen your understanding of scripture? (The cost would be around $3000 for ten days including air fare, bus, lodging, tour guide and two meals a day.)
Then 2. Would you be interested in reading through the whole Bible this year to deepen your faith – that’s four or five chapters per day --and if so, would you prefer an in-person group or on-line?
And 3. what days of the week and times would work for you?
Bible study isn’t easy – but it is easier, and more rewarding, if we do it together. We each bring insights and experiences that help us see truth more broadly when we share them.
The excitement of walking where Jesus walked is real. It is thrilling to be out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat built like the boats of his time – even in a storm. It is powerful to hear the words of the Beatitudes on the “mount” or hill where tradition tells us those words were first said. It is a spiritual experience to sit on a rock on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where tradition tells us Jesus had a fish fry on a charcoal fire for the discouraged and weary disciples – and asked Peter that probing question, “Peter, do you love me?” And to hear the echoes of that question with our own names.
The path of Jesus isn’t just in Israel-Palestine and Jordan. We can follow it here too. Here too his invitation echoes, “Come, follow me.” Here too we are invited to drop our old patterns to try a radical new way of living, to FOLLOW THE PATHS OF JESUS towards a new world order. Whether we ever walk the shore of Galilee or not, may we hear his word of invitation – and dare to follow.