Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 12

Continued from last week…

Let’s take a slight detour from the Jericho road as we go up to Jerusalem. I do mean up.  Jerusalem is about 15 miles from Jericho and is about 2,500 feet above sea level. Jericho is 853 feet below sea level.  This means that you climb about half a mile going to Jerusalem. It is most certainly “up.”  As the psalm says, “…we shall go up with joy to the house of the Lord.”  The road is pretty steep. 

We are going to go to Bethlehem first.  Bethlehem is about 6 miles south of Jerusalem and was just a sleepy little town until the time of the byzantine Christians in the centuries after the birth of Jesus. It was the ancestral home town of the old royal family of David and not much else till the time of Christ. It is at least 3,500 years old and probably started out as Beth Lachmi (House of the Canaanite fertility god Lachmi) but in Hebrew it became Beth Lehem or “House of Bread” — much better symbolism as far as Christians are concerned. Bethlehem is in the same range of hills as Jerusalem and being a rocky place it is full of caves.

Caves make great basements. It is common in many places as in the Holy Land to build a house above or around a cave. The cave can be used to house animals, for storage and for living quarters. Early traditions tell of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  St. Justin Martyr, a native of the Holy Land, said around 150 AD that the Holy Family stayed in a cave on the edge of town.  Origen, who also lived in the Holy Land, wrote in 247, that the locals claimed Jesus was born in a certain cave in the town of Bethlehem. The emperor Hadrian tried to obliterate the site in 135 by converting it into a shrine to Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire. 

The first church on this site was built by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine 327. This first church was destroyed in the mid 500’s in one of the Samaritan revolts. The church was rebuilt in 565 by the Roman/Byzantine Emperor and this is the church we see in modern times. It is one of the oldest churches in the world still in use and is pretty good archaeology. There is a warren of caves under the church that lead to the Roman Catholic church next door, for the life of me I can’t figure out what the place looked like in the time of Christ, and I don’t think anyone else can either. Now on to Jerusalem.

Try to picture Jerusalem before any people lived there. There are two ridges with sharp valleys dividing them. On the far west is the valley of Ben Hinnom, now called Gehenna. Then there is the central valley, the Tyropoeon or cheese-makers’ valley, and on the east dividing Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives is the valley of the Kidron Brook. The two ridges, western Mount Sion and the City of David and the eastern ridge are the site of ancient Jerusalem.  The City of David was the first area fortified. The valleys were extremely steep and the ridges were thus very defensible, being vulnerable only on the north side. In addition, the eastern ridge has a fairly high hill topped by a flat rocky outcropping called Mount Moriah.

Tradition holds that this rocky promontory just north of the ancient town was the place where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord. The eastern ridge has the added advantage of a natural spring half way down the ridge called the spring of Gihon which made a great place for settlement. The ridge formed a kind of natural triangular fort with steep hills on either side. All you had to do was fortify the northern edge of the triangle. The area was settled as early as 7,000 years ago and the southeastern ridge, the City of David, the oldest part of modern Jerusalem was inhabited by 3,000 BC. It wasn’t much of a city, maybe 5,000 or 10,000 people at most, but it was very well fortified. You have to imagine the valleys on either side of the town as much steeper than they are now. 9,000 years of people throwing out garbage will certainly fill up a ravine eventually. They are pretty steep now.

Imagine what they must have been.  In 1200 BC, the little city state was an Egyptian vassal kingdom, guarded by a small Egyptian garrison. When Israel entered the land, Jerusalem was one the many Canaanite cities that they failed to conquer. So when David came to the throne about a thousand years after Abraham had first settled in the area and perhaps 400 years after the Exodus from Egypt, Jerusalem was still a tiny city state inhabited by a Canaanite people called the Jebusites. It was just a little town on a steep ridge with a threshing floor on the outcropping of rock on top of Mount Moriah just to the north of the town. This little mud hut town and its threshing floor were about to change history when David set his sights on it about 3,000 years ago...

To be continued...


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 11



Continued from last week…

As I said before, now on to Jericho! But, one must ask, “…which Jericho?” There about 20 Jericho’s that stretch back 13,000 years. Throughout the Holy Land you will see hills. Some are just hills. But there are hills that are more than they appear. They’re called “tells” and they have a tale to tell. (Sorry. Couldn't resist the pun. I hate puns. They are downright punishing). “Tell” or “tel” is a Hebrew word that means hill. By the way, “Wad” is an Arabic word that means “gulch or ravine.” We pseudo-scholarly types delight in using words that no one really understands. It makes us look smart even when we are lapidarily dense. A Tell or Tel is really a colossal monument to poor sanitation, In the midst of prehistory when the first hunter gatherer cave persons settled down, they did so by springs or rivers or fields of barley. In fact the most recent theory is that farming and settled life emerged just when we discovered that last week’s barley soup fermented, developed bubbles and tasted good. Not to mention making one smile. They called it beer.

Wandering humanity settled in stable communities in order to grow and harvest barley so they could make more barley soup and stick around while it aged. Well, if you drink too much of last week’s barley soup, you tend to throw stuff out the window until the garbage just piles up and you have to either throw out the trash or build over it. In a male dominated society you can imagine what happened.  Soon you were living on a hill and that convenient stream was down the hill and the water had to be schlepped up the hill. This was no problem. The carrying of water was the job of women. The job of men was to chase a pig around town, or to watch the other guys chasing the pig. (The probable origin of football — now we chase the pigskin around a field and not the entire pig.)

The problem with Jericho is that there are lots of Jericho’s. Some even have walls that have fallen down. If you assume Ramses the Great was the pharaoh of the Exodus, then the Israelites would have entered the Holy Land around 1200BC. Tel Jericho (how’s that for scholarship?) was unoccupied at that time. The reason that we assume Ramses was the pharaoh of the Exodus is that 1) the Hebrew slaves built the city of Pi-Ramses and 2) Yul Brenner made such a great Ramses in the film “The Ten Commandments.” The Bible (1 Kings 6:1) places the Exodus 480 years before the building of Solomon's Temple. That would mean Exodus happened around 1450 BC.  

Manetho, the ancient Egyptian historian also favors a more ancient though more gradual exodus. Saying that Ramses built Pi-Ramses is like saying the English settled New York. Ramses and the English were fond of renaming things. The Dutch settled New York but called it New Amsterdam. Pi-Ramses existed long before Ramses. In the 1400's BC there was a Jericho up there on the tell, though not much of a town. Remember these are men telling the story and they probably also fished. No one ever catches a fish that got away that wasn't an aquatic monster. Enjoy Jericho. It really is the place where Israel entered the Holy Land and where Zacchaeus climbed the tree.

Next we arrive at the inn of the Good Samaritan. This is the place where the story of the Good Samaritan didn't happen. It was a parable. A story. It’s a great story. But it didn't happen. The locals will enthusiastically show you where it didn’t happen. On the road going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, there are the remains of a building that fits the parable very nicely.

In the 6th century, a monastery with pilgrim facilities was built on the site of what was may have been a travelers’ inn at or before the time of Christ.  The Crusaders built a fort on a nearby hill to secure the road for pilgrims. In 2009, Israel built a museum there. The remains of the monastery church were rebuilt with an altar but no Christian symbols. In my pseudo-scholarly opinion, the sites in Galilee are pretty good archaeology as is Bethlehem and the church of the Holy Sepulcher. These have good archaeology and good history behind them.

Next Jerusalem!!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Rev Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land part 10



Continued from last week…

We continue our journey down the Jordan Valley to the oasis city of Jericho. If we were travelling two thousand years ago, we would go by the coast route or the Jordan Valley route. The central mountain route was fastest, but who would want to go through Samaritan territory?  We eventually arrive at the southern end of the Jordan which was a very wide stream at the time of Christ, especially during the spring flood. Now most of the water has been drained off for irrigation and only a trickle reaches the Dead Sea.

To get an idea of the Jordan as it once was, you should see it as it flows out of the Sea of Galilee. By the time it gets to its southern mouth it can be a little disappointing. We have arrived at the place of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. It, like most shrines in the Holy Land, is both confusing and disputed. The Gospel of John mentions Enon near Salim as one place where John the Baptist baptized, “…because there was much water there.” The Gospel of John also says that John baptized at Bethany beyond the Jordan, not to be confused with Bethany near Jerusalem. This was thought by ancient commentators to be Bethabara on the east bank of the Jordan near Jericho.

Eusebius of Caesarea located the place of the baptism of Jesus on the west bank of the Jordan. Maybe Jesus was baptized in the middle of the Jordan and they are both right. Who knows? Al-Maghtas (a word meaning immersion or baptism in Arabic) on the east side of the river in Jordan is now thought to be the earliest place venerated by pilgrims as the site of the baptism of Jesus. The site was excavated recently and was visited by St. John Paul the Great in March 2000. It was there somewhere and the desert is all around it – the desery into which Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Don’t wander around. It may be small but the place is desolate and dangerous. Stick with the group. Now on to Jericho!  But, one must ask, “Which Jericho?”

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than twenty successive settlements in Jericho. The first of goes back 11,000 years (9000 BC), and thus is one of the oldest cities on earth, if not the oldest. Plentiful natural springs have attracted people since people have been in the neighborhood. Jericho is called the “City of Palm Trees.” It is fertile and fruitful. The springs and natural pools are like a miracle as you come out of the desert. I am particularly fond of one of these spring/pools called the Well of the Prophet Elisha. In former times it was a crystal-clear pool next to a little truck stop where one could buy a cold bottle of non-alcoholic whatever. I was student with a pack on my back and had just been travelling (by car) in the sweltering Jordan valley desert. When I saw the cool clear water and the Arab women with their jars getting water to carry home, I ripped off my shirt and jumped in, much to the horror of the locals and the delight of a busload of Baptist pilgrims. The place is now marked by a very nice restaurant, gift shop, and a beautiful fountain. The well itself has been covered up by a rather sophisticated water works. I like to think that I contributed my little bit to the development and covering of the well. It keeps crazy tourists from jumping into the town’s water supply.

Next week, more about Jericho

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Rev Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land part 9



Continued from last week…

Back to the theme of the tininess of the Holy Land. Remember that the entire area is not much bigger than New Jersey if you count the farthest extent. Remember too that much of it is uninhabitable because of desert areas and the whole thing was divided into much smaller mini-countries. You had Galilee, Samaria and Judea all ruled by petty kings from the Herod family and you had the Decapolis. Smack dab in the middle of all these Semitic mini-countries you had ten cities that were thoroughly Greek. Decapolis means “ten cities” Gerasa (Jerash) in Jordan Scythopolis (Beth-Shean) in Israel, the only city west of the Jordan River Hippos (Al Huson) on the Golan Heights) Gadara (Umm Qais) in Jordan famous for the Gadarene demoniac, Pella in Jordan where the first Christians fled when warned of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem by the Christian prophets. This happened around 65 AD. Then you have Philadelphia, modern day Amman, the capital of Jordan, Capitolias, now called Beit Ras in Jordan, Raphana also in Jordan and Canatha (Qanawat) in Syria as well as Damascus, the capital of modern Syria. 

These towns were either established by or taken over by Greek-speaking immigrants as a means of Hellenization (Greek-ification) by Alexander the Great and his successors. It’s important to understand this. It means that Jesus probably spoke Greek fairly well. He was exposed to Greek culture and language. He seems to have preached in the Decapolis, and I bet he did so in Greek. It is likely that the sayings of Jesus were being written down by his followers while He was still preaching and ministering and they seemed to have done so in Greek. 

In the first three Gospels, the same Greek words are used to tell the same stories and sermons, so the source from which these sayings and stories were taken was probably written down in Greek. There were three common languages spoken in the Holy Land at the time of Christ: Aramaic, a Semitic language that seems to have been Jesus’ first language (He says “Eloi, Eloi lamah sabacthani?” which seems to be Galilean accented Aramaic); then there was Greek, the language of commerce and government; then there was Latin, the first language of a very few, like Pilate and the Herods. Some of the Herods grew up in Rome in the house of the emperor on the Palatine hill and their Latin would have been excellent. Most “Romans” didn’t speak Latin. The language of the army was probably Greek. It’s what everybody spoke back then, just like everybody speaks English these days. I think most Dutch and Swedes speak better English than I do. 

The Holy Land was never a mono-lingual, mono-ethnic country. Joshua failed to drive all the Canaanites out of the land in 1300 BC, the Maccabees failed to drive all the Greeks out of the land in 100 BC and Herod was a Latin-speaking Hellenized Arab. The Holy Land at the time of Christ was a multilingual multiethnic crass money-making hodgepodge just like it is today. Get thoughts of Bible pageants with people wearing bath robes and towels on their heads out of your mind. 

You will be overwhelmed by the traffic, the chaos, the crowding and the commercialism. You will be chased by peddlers shouting “ONE DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR!” just like you would have been chased by peddlers at the time Christ shouting “one shekel, one shekel, one shekel,” or “one denarius, one denarius, one denarius!”  My point is this: The Holy Land is just the same in our times as it was at the time of Christ. Forget the Bible pageants you see at Christmas with people wearing towels on their heads. Forget starry-eyed visionaries. God so loved the world. The real world. The world I would rather escape. The world collides with itself in Jerusalem. It always has. It always will. God loves the world. This is why Jerusalem is so absolutely Holy. 

To be continued...