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Sunday, December 10 2023
A Historical Narrative of the Nativity

A Historical Narrative of the Nativity

The Nativity scene.  We have all viewed a number of different styles, but the essence remains the same.  Straw.  Barn animals.  A wooden feeding trough.  A star overhead with a particularly pointed tail.  A few men who look royal, bearing gifts.  Maybe an angel or two looking on.  An adoring mother and father.  And of course, a beautiful little baby.  We have one at home from Colorado that is comprised of black bears playing the above roles.  No one has to explain what characters they represent either.  Most everyone over the age of four knows who they are.  Even atheists can easily identify the setting from a distance with bitter contempt.

Make no mistake – this is not a criticism of period inaccuracies of the traditional Nativity scene.  It is not an argument for the time or season of the year with an actual birthdate.  This observation is based not upon conjecture (with exception to end result speculations, founded on evidences given).  Rather, this is about a biblical timeline and extra-canonical testimonies that will help to explain and understand why things happened during the birth of Jesus Christ the way that they did.

Chapter 1 – Modern Bethlehem

If you travel to Israel and go to see the traditional site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you may be somewhat surprised.  Most people are unaware of how the area in Israel is divided up with the Palestinian residents.  There are situations throughout the land where you cross over checkpoints as if you were entering another country.  Some of the places have Palestinian administrative and police controls, while others have Palestinian admin in conjunction with Israeli security controls.  When crossing into a Palestinian controlled territory, there is little to no check while coming through.  However, when returning into Israeli territory, one must be prepared to be questioned thoroughly and possible searched.  As critical as the world may be about Israel’s concern for security, the threat is very real for them on a day-to-day basis.  And tourists are perfectly naïve to being used as transports for potential terrorist activity.  Bethlehem is one of the Palestinian controlled areas, and you cannot ignore the difference when crossing these borders. 

Those who are familiar with the Roman Catholic tradition of the location of the birth of Christ know specifically about the Church of the Nativity.  People from all over the world flock to the building that was originally built in 333 AD by Emperor Constantine.  Due to destruction by enemies, it has been rebuilt a number of times.  The unmistakable Byzantine décor is cluttered about, only to be exceeded by the throngs of people present.  One must be fully aware of your wallet or purse, as the surroundings offer a prime ground for pickpocketing.  The asserted location of the birth of Christ is a cave that the church structure is built over.  Be prepared to wait in long lines if you wish to lay eyes on the proposed actual spot though – and also for some priestly theatrics. 

There are 3 religious groups represented within the church; The Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches control the premises.  There is an obvious tender balance between their authority and the Palestinian control over the land it resides upon.  But the real tension is between these 3 Christian denominations.  These representative priests will go to fisticuffs over perceived infractions between them.  Each group is supposed to share equal amounts of time to perform their liturgies about the place.  Fights have broken out over seconds of time and who has been incorrectly cleaning certain areas.  These priests have gone so far in the past with their skirmishes that several of them had to be hospitalized due to injuries.

But the question is obvious: How does a predominately Muslim population work in relative peace with all of these Christians flooding into Bethlehem?  Money.  The financial draw is very large, and everyone is well aware of the economic impact it brings.  There is no shortage of high-pressure tourist shops in the area to sell you whatever you are looking for.  Commercialism is everywhere.

Chapter 2 – The Ancient History

Yet there is another history regarding the location of Christ’s birth.  It is not new, nor is it left entirely uncontested by some who disagree.  The following information is not based on contentious refutation.  Rather, it is historical evidence from biblical and extracanonical sources being provided for consideration and the benefit of understanding of what happened on a particular night.  But first, some 1,800 years before the census while Quirinius was governor of Syria, the preliminary stage is being set for what will ultimately take place in the area known as Bethlehem, closest to Jerusalem.[1]

If the history of Israel is ancient, Bethlehem must be considered uber-ancient.  The first mention of the location is actually prior to it being called ‘Bethlehem.’  In Genesis 35, it is referred to as ‘Ephrath,’ with the parenthetical insertion of ‘Bethlehem’ for latter readers who have never heard of Ephrath.  In this passage, Jacob has been traveling with his pregnant wife, Rachel, when her nurse, Deborah dies.  This is more of a problem than it initially sounds, as is evidenced in the subsequent events.  After they bury the body of Deborah near Bethel, they continue their journey and Rachel goes into hard labor.  The birthing process was more than taxing upon her and as a result, she dies there at Ephrath (Bethlehem).  Jacob buries her body there and continues on his journey to set up camp at a place near what is called the “tower (migdal) of Eder (flock).”[2]  While it may not seem as such, this is a crucial element to the historical framework of the birth of Jesus Christ.

As with many ancient locations, the exact place where the tower existed is unverified.  However, through archaeology and other antiquities, the examples of these “migdals” are abundant.  When the western contemporary mind hears of a tower, it is immediately assumed to be something tall and impressive.  But in reality, most of these structures in ancient middle east are not very striking at all.  There are some exceptions[3], but for the most part, these towers would not be perceived by the average person as qualifying for a tall building. 

Chapter 3 – The Selection of The Shepherds and The Law of Flocks and Herds

In Luke chapter 2:1-7, Joseph and Mary have already arrived in the region of Bethlehem and Jesus has been born.  It is in verses 8-20 that we are introduced to a group of shepherds.  Consider for a moment that Luke spends almost twice as much attention to the event surrounding the shepherds as he does the actual birth of Christ.  This is no small detail.  Many lessons have been drawn from this passage based on the assumption that God chose to announce the birth of the Messiah to the lowliest of the peoples – a bunch of poor, soiled, uneducated, low-class persons.  While this might preach well for a Christmas lesson, it is presumptive at best in thinking this class of men were selected for the greatest declaration in the universe since God spoke creation into existence.  As always with God, there is a particular purpose, and it is implicit to the deep history surrounding this region.

When the shepherds are introduced in the biblical text, it is most often assumed that they are Bedouin herders, traveling in nomadic fashion, even as many do in current times in the Middle East.  While this would be a reasonable thought in most regions of Israel, there is a glitch in the supposition that these were random herders approached by God.  The evidence lies within ancient documents of rabbinical commentary on the Torah.[4]

There are two compilations of ancient commentary[5] on the Torah.  The order in which one was written first depends on how one views the realization of the documents.  Some date the order by which one was completed first[6].  Others date them based on which was started first.  What muddies the waters even more so is whether one dates the origins based on the written form or the oral form, which the latter cannot be accurately traced.  These writings are intimately interlaced with the Mishnayot, written into the body of the Talmudic text.  Regardless, both writings were and are crucial to the conductive applications of Jewish law in daily living.[7]

In Mishnah Bava Kammah 7:7; 79b[8] the tending of flocks (small, domesticated animals) in the land of Israel was not allowed.  It was believed that the animals were destroying the land and preventing agricultural prospects.  The only exception to this was a provisional area on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was given for the raising of animals needed for sacrificial offerings at the Temple.  All of the sheep and goats raised in this area were presumed to be strictly for these orders.  Additionally in the Talmud[9], all livestock found in the area surrounding Jerusalem “as far as Migdal Eder” were deemed to be holy and consecrated and could only be used for sacrifices in the Temple, in particular for the peace and Passover sacrifices. There was thus a special, consecrated circle around the city of Jerusalem.

With these laws in mind, the only legal flocks that could be kept in around this controlled area of Jerusalem would have been of animals being considered for sacrifice at the Temple proper.  But, even of flocks raised for the very purpose of sacrifice, they had to be inspected for blemish and/or defect.  There are a number of passages within the Tanakh concerning sin offerings being without defect.  In all circumstances, the last line of inspection would be at the discretion of the priests involved in the actual sacrifice of the creature.  Thus, the priests were the final arbiters concerning whether or not an animal was worthy for use on the altar.  But who would be the initial judges of what should be presented at the Temple?

The flocks that were being raised for the primary reason of Temple sacrifice would be shepherded by those of the priestly duty.  Thus, these shepherds were not bedouin in context.  They were priestly shepherds.  It was these men of the priesthood that the revelation of the arrival of the Messiah had come, and they knew exactly where to go to see this wonder of wonders. 

Many Christmas renditions imply certain details that are explicit in Scripture.  One such item is the ‘manger.’[10]  A manger is not a stable, but a feeding trough that is typically found in a stable.  In most regions where the raising of flocks was publicly permitted, the task of finding one particular feeding trough would a challenge.  If the aforementioned evidence of the restriction of the raising of flocks in the area around Jerusalem holds true, locating a manger would be centralized to the priestly flocks of Migdal Eder, where the bearing and inspection of the lambs for sacrifice would occur.  Accordingly, the Lamb of God would be born in the appointed place of sacrificial offerings. 

Chapter 4 – Post Facto Comments

If indeed these are priestly shepherds assigned with the task as described in the Mishnah and Talmud, and they have witnessed the born Messiah given through the testimony of a chorus of angels, it is highly doubtful they could hold this news to themselves.  In all probability, they made straight for the Temple in Jerusalem to spread the good news they had seen and heard to the priests of the higher order.[11]  Word would spread fast among the ranks, and undoubtedly be extended to the public gossip lines.  With the knowledge of the date of birth of the newborn Messiah, it would be difficult to deduce when the child should be brought to the Temple for circumcision.  In Luke’s account, two persons are introduced who are present at the Temple, looking in anticipation for the “redemption of Israel.”[12]  Simeon is being led by the Holy Spirit to the Christ child.  Anna the prophetess spent the better part of each day at the Temple.  Perhaps they had also heard the rumors circulating about the shepherd’s testimony of what happened eight days prior and were earnestly looking for His arrival at the Temple. 

The gaps in Scripture from the time of Jesus’ birth to His adult ministry are vast.  Outside of His parents temporarily losing Him on the return trip home from the Passover in Jerusalem, the silence is deafening.  It is estimable that as time passed, most people would forget or dismiss any messianic reference to Jesus because no real revolution had taken place with Him – and that’s exactly what most had in mind with any messiah that would come.  But on the day that Jesus came to His cousin John who had been baptizing people in Bethany, John announced to “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[13]  He reiterates this title on the next day when Jesus approaches and John is standing with two of his disciples.[14]  It is plausible that the title had come from Christ’s birth narrative.[15]

An interesting footnote is found back in Genesis 35, when Rachel dies upon giving birth to Benjamin.[16]  While she is passing from a very difficult birth, she names the child ‘Ben-oni,” which means ‘the son of my sorrow.’  However, Jacob chooses to call him “Benjamin,” which means ‘the son of the right hand.’  This all takes place in the region of Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock.  Jesus has been and is now called “Man of Sorrows”[17] and Son of God, who sits at the right hand of the Father.[18]  Perhaps this is yet another Messianic inference that is found in the history of the Tower of the Flock, Migdal Eder. 

Some contemporary Jews in Israel today believe they possess sheep that are direct descendants from the sheep that Jacob bred in Genesis 30.  Regardless of the validity concerning the purity of the line, these people are bringing some of their flocks to the region of Migdal Eder in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.  Though they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they do believe the Messiah will reveal Himself at Migdal Eder.  Thus, according to their beliefs, they are re-establishing the priestly flock[19] in their rightful place, since eradicated in 70AD during the destruction of the Temple.
 

A long journey.  Shepherds.  Sheep.  Angels.  A star.  A manger.  A woman giving birth.  The Savior of the world coming forth.  All in a place called Bethlehem and a 2,000-year history of a Tower of the Flock.  This is the historical narrative of the nativity of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] There are technically 2 cities called Bethlehem in Israel.  The most well-known site is 5 miles south of Jerusalem.  The other (Joshua 19:15; Judges 12:8) is 7 miles northwest of Nazareth.

[2] Genesis 35:21

[3] E.g., Strabo’s tower, which would be the equivalent to the modern perception of a lighthouse.

[4] Also known as: The Law of Moses or the Pentateuch.  These are the first five books of the Scriptures, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. 

[5] These also include rabbinical debates.

[6] This is often the source of rebuttals in regard to applicable dates of these writings.  Some researchers state that the completion dating of the writings do not align with the applicable time of Christ’s birth.  However, the preceding period of oral tradition is often neglected in these hasty conclusions.

[7] It is of worthy note that many of the interpretive applications in these writings are somewhat implausible to the Scriptural text.  Some items discussed are in the vein of superstition (e.g., what color cat was acceptable to keep within a household.  Ironically, white cats were considered unlucky, while black cats were preferred – the exact opposite of western tradition). 

[8] Period of the Second Temple.

[9] Mishnah Shekalim 7:4

[10] Luke 2:7, 12, 16

[11] Luke 2:20; Scripture states that the shepherds “went back.”  We are not given the detail of where they went back to, but only that they told of all they had “seen and heard.”

[12] Luke 2:25-38

[13] John 1:29

[14] John 1:35, 36

[15] Contemporary Christians understand the title reaching back to time of the Passover lamb as well.

[16] Genesis 35:16-21

[17] Derived from Isaiah 53

[18] Mark 16:19

[19] In particular, the “Jacob Sheep” of a presumed unaltered breed-line of sheep.

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:48 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, July 29 2021

Circumcision

The understanding of circumcision amongst contemporary Western hemisphere Christians is typically skewed at best.  The situation is further complicated in a hypersexualized culture that cannot keep a straight face in discussing these types of subjects.  Nevertheless, in the biblical context, it is an important issue that needs to be understood.  Otherwise, we walk away with extremist ideas that never lead to truthful conclusions. 

Additionally, I am aware of a number of different takes and understandings concerning the matter.  While there are some points in these that may pique one’s interests, I will not be able to pursue each of them for brevity’s sake.  It is my intent to share with you some historical backdrop for biblical contextual understanding.  This is not an exhaustive discussion on the matter.  It is merely highpoints to start with.

Near and Middle Eastern antiquity chronicles the customs of circumcision in Egypt and Semitic (Middle Eastern) cultures.  However, we have no reliable records as to the origins of the practice altogether.  The earliest records we have date back to the 3rdc millennium BC (3000-2001 BC) from Syrian and Egyptian sources.  There are disputes concerning who started the practice.  But in more recent findings, there is reason to believe that Egyptians may have adopted the custom from the Semites.   

In Egypt, it was most acquainted with the priesthood.  There, the priests would cut the foreskin without complete removal, thus allowing the skin to hang freely.  The vast majority of the Semitic groups customarily removed the foreskin altogether.  If given to the archaeological evidence and datings, the Hebrew adaptation begins well over a millennia after the Egyptians.  Genesis 17 is the first mention of circumcision in the Scriptures according to YHWH’s covenant with Abraham.  Under this historical timeline, it would not be a strange command in making a covenantal pact.  At times, understanding of history such as this brings some angst to Christians and Jews alike.  However, it should not.  YHWH uses many things that are somewhat familiar to the people (cf. the Suzerain / Vassal Treaty-Covenant effect in comparison to YHWH’s covenant with Israel) during the timeframes we read about.  While we do not have any concrete evidence to support the argument, one may still speculate that YHWH had such customs in place as far back as the Tower of Babel, which were subsequently spread throughout the world and diluted over time.

The Abrahamic covenantal act of circumcision would be an identifying mark of a religious commitment between man and YHWH.  As outlined by Hall, there are three basic divisions of the significance of circumcision over the Hebraic history[1]:

  1. Hebrew Writings
    1. Circumcision behind the Stories
    2. The Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus 4:24-26)
    3. Circumcision of Abraham
    4. Circumcisions at Gilgal (Joshua 5:2-9)
  2. Greek and Roman Periods to the Bar Kokhba Revolt
    1. Consolidating Circumcision
    2. Explaining Circumcision to the Greeks
    3. Neglecting Circumcision
  3. Early Christians and Circumcision
    1. Circumcision is Necessary
    2. Circumcision is Irrelevant
    3. Jews Should Circumcise; Gentiles Should Not
    4. Literal Circumcision is Abolished
    5. Circumcision Used Positively

Again, for the sake of brevity, I will not detail the history behind these titles.  I will offer a generalization that will hopefully aid you in your understanding of the implications when this is mentioned in Acts 7 and subsequent passages. 

At the risk of oversimplification, one might make the argument that circumcision is a practice of a ‘blood-rite” that occurs in a covenant.  As was practiced during covenantal agreements, animals would be slaughtered and separated.  The participants would pass between the parts and state that if either party should break the covenant, may what has happened to the animals happen to them.[2]  Likewise, participants would often bind blood from themselves between the parties to signify a bond/pact.  Even in contemporary terms, we speak of things “written in blood,” and have movie scenes that demonstrate similar practices.[3]  Circumcision served as a sign of blood between the man and YHWH and was to be a form (cutting away) that displayed this function (covenantal pact).

Over time, the people of Israel also began to look upon this as a sign of national identity.  At times, to some degree, the original function became somewhat eclipsed by the national identity as opposed to the covenant with YHWH.  Under the correct application of the function, the sign of the flesh (circumcision) was an outward indicator of what was supposed to be a part of one’s spiritual condition in terms of being dedicated to YHWH, i.e., a circumcised heart, lips, ears, fruit trees, etc.[4]

When Alexander the Great conquered the Near and Middle East, he imposed the Greek culture everywhere he went.  A considerable portion of this culture was public nudity – but not necessarily in our contemporary hyper-sexualized thought process.  To the Greek, the public exposure of a man’s bare glans was as obscene as we would think a naked man in the produce section of a grocery store.  Thus, circumcision was seen as horrific mutilation and a repugnant display.  This was taken so seriously, that drastic measures were often taken in certain circumstances.  If a Greek child was born with what was considered a defective foreskin, he would be subject to a surgery that would lengthen it to the desired shape.  If a man was to be in public nudity (including competitive sports), they would often tie the foreskin with string or pin the end together, so to not risk exposing the glans. 

As the Romans adopted this attitude from the Greeks, ridicule and scorn for circumcised Jews abounded.  Thus, public baths, sporting events, etc., were no place for a Jew to attempt to appear.  As time progressed, it also became a mark for severe persecution – even death.  Men would be publicly stripped in court for observation, and at certain points in history, infants were slaughtered based on whether they were circumcised or not.  Emperor Hadrian considered castration and circumcision as equivalent and outlawed both. 

Therefore, as one might easily read and understand that strict Judaizers in the biblical text were harshly critical and discriminatory against those who were not circumcised,[5] imagine the risk that a man was taking who was circumcised in the Greco-Roman atmosphere.[6]  There was much more on the line for Timothy than just getting a pass for the Jews that Paul was attempting to reach. 

At the risk of overgeneralizing the subject, there were 2 major attitudes amongst the Jews that prevailed for centuries concerning circumcision.  1) If a male was uncircumcised, it was impossible for him and his household to behold any blessing of YHWH.  In effect, he was handed over to the realm of evil.  2) If a male was circumcised, then it was just the reverse – both he and his household enjoyed the favor and protection of YHWH. 

The history is mixed on views from both proponents and antagonists concerning anything associated with marriage, the transference of covenant, fertility, etc.  This is peripheral to the focus in the upcoming passages in Acts. 

There is much more in history concerning the church and its attitudes towards circumcision.  This article is an informal attempt to bring you up to speed on some of the pending implications in the biblical text of Acts as we proceed with our studies.

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over every ruler and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision performed without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.  Colossians 2:11

 

[1] Robert G. Hall, 1992. Circumcision. ABD, Volume 1 A-C: 1025.

[2] Genesis 15; Jeremiah 34:18, 19.

[3] The Outlaw Josey Wales scene with Ten Bears, cutting their palms and clasping each other’s hands together.

[4] Exodus 6:12, 30; Leviticus 19:23-25; 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25, 26.

[5] Acts15:5ff; Galatians

[6] Acts 16:1-3

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, November 27 2018

This is Magdala

Continuing Day 6 travels will lead us approximately 1 mile north of Tiberias to Magdala.  Sorting out the name of this location has been of debate over the years.  The map attached will refer to it as “Magadan,” as will many scholarly articles because it is transliterated (letter for letter) as such in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 15:39).  There is a parallel passage concerning the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8:10 that refers to the region as Dalmanutha (meaning “many towers”).  Because both passages are geographically dealing with regions and districts, these biblical citations are not necessarily in disagreement.  The Jewish Talmud refers to the area as Migdal Nûnnya, meaning “Tower of Fish.”  The Greeks called the area Taricheae or Tarecheae.  Thus, Magdala-Taricheae would mean, “Tower of [Salted] Fish.”  The city is most traditionally known as being the hometown of Mary Magdalene.  However, some scholars believe the town to be on the western shore of Galilee near the plain of Gennesaret.

Towns in this region were very important to the Romans as a fishing export.  Many towns in the area were named Taricheae for their fishing industry.  Strabo (cf. article “This is Tiberias”) records knowing of the salt-fish business operated by Galilee.  In biblical references, there are no events or disciples other than Mary Magdalene related to this place.

When Nero’s position progressed in 54 AD, he conveyed Tiberias and Magdala-Taricheae to Herod Agrippa II.  Though once fortified, Vespasian captured the city in 66 AD.  It is the only location of a sea battle between the Romans and the Jews, which ended badly for the latter.  The Jews fled from Vespasian’s armies to Tiberias, where he captured 12,000 refugees and ordered their slaughter in the stadium (cf. “This is Tiberias”).  6,000 others were farmed out as slaves to build Nero’s canal at Corinth and 30,400 in number were sold.

Pilgrimages did not take place to Magdala from the 4th to the 6thC AD, which means it was not acknowledged by most people of this particular time frame as being a site directly related to Scripture.  However, before 518 AD, a person by the name of Theodosius wrote, “My Lady Mary was born (at Magdala),” which city he only knows by that name.  A small synagogue was unearthed there between 1971-73.  Excavators believe it was converted into a fishpond around 70 AD after the First Jewish Revolt.  A 21 ft masonry and mortar tower remains across the street but is considered a water tower, as opposed to a fish tower.  More recent (and important) discoveries include the Migdal Synagogue, which was revealed in 2009.  It is considered to be possibly the oldest synagogue in Galilee, dating back to 50 BC.  It was discovered during a dig for the location of a new hotel on Migdal Beach.  One particular artifact discovered is the Magdala Stone, which is adorned with the relief of a seven-branched menorah.  What makes this important amongst archaeologists is that they believe the only way a person would know how to portray and sculpt the figure is to have seen it in person at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ruins of a 5th – 6thC AD monastery, decorated in mosaics, is present to the south.  Records from the 8th – 10thC AD indicate a church structure present and traditionally held as Mary Magdalene’s house.  However, pilgrims in 12thC AD make no mention of a church there.  It was not until the 13thC AD that records indicate Muslims using the location of the church as a stable. 

  • Biblical References
    • Matthew 15:39
    • Mark 8:10
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Madaba (Biblical Medeba)

Approximately 18.5 miles south of Amman, on the King’s Highway, rising on the natural elevation of the Jordanian plateau, is the city of Madaba (biblically known as “Medeba”).  On the fourth day of our journey, this will be one of three places we will visit. 

Biblical references to the city are limited, though the historical antiquity concerning the early church is phenomenal.  When Israel entered Canaan, they conquered and occupied Medeba, which was one of the cities of the Moabite Mishor (Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9, 16;).   Approximately 100 years later, King David battled against the Aramean–Ammonite coalition near this city (1 Chronicles 19:7).

There are many tombs dating from the 1stC AD that provide pieces of evidence of the Medeba area belonging to the Nabatean kingdom of Petra.  One monument is dated 37 AD, which is the period of King Aretas IV.  In terms of antiquity though, 2 tombs discovered at Tel-Medeba date back as far as the 13th to the 10thc BC.  Many would date these as being contemporary with the period of the Israelite exodus and conquest of Canaan. 

Approximately 300 years after the time of King David, Mesha, king of Moab, regained control of the city.  600 years later, the Maccabean revolt finds itself ambushed by the “Sons of Jambri,” a tribe from Medeba (110 BC).  A Jewish caravan is looted, and the brother of Judas Maccabaeus is killed.  After a prolonged siege, John Hyrcanus retakes the city.  In a series of war deals made in the years following, the city control was given to King Aretas, of Petra.

During the 7thC AD, historical references to Madaba appear to go dark.  Much of this is attributed to the invasion of Islam into the territory. 

In the late 19th century, bedouin Christians pitched their tents in and around the ruins of the city.  As they began to build more permanent shelters, they had the wherewithal to realize the artifacts that existed among the cut stones they were using.  Many of these were conveyed to authorities that revealed intricate mosaics from the Byzantine-Umayyad period that beheld the Church of the Virgin, the Church of the Prophet Elijah, the mosaic of the crypt of Elisha, the Church of the Holy Martyrs, and the Church of the Map (as well as many others).  This earned Madaba the name, “City of Mosaics”.

The Church of the Map hosts an incredible mosaic of documentation of the Onomasticon (of Eusebius).  This depicts the twelve tribes of Israel, their boundaries, and surrounding areas. 

  • Biblical references: “Medeba”
    • Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9, 16; 1 Chronicles 19:7; Isaiah 15:2;

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:37 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Jerusalem

Part 2

Today, many of the most popular sites are contested by Muslims as focal points to Islam.  The Western Wall (Wailing Wall; Hebrew - Kotel) is known to the Muslims as the Buraq Wall.  They believe it to be where Muhammad tied his steed, al-Buraq, to the wall when he was traveling through Jerusalem on his way to ascending to “paradise.”  For Christians and archaeologists, it is the expansion of the Second Temple that Herod the Great built that is known as, “The Temple Mount.”  It is considered to be the holiest place for Jews to pray who cannot get past the restrictive point to enter the Temple Mount itself.  The “Little Western Wall” is even closer to the Holy of Holies, which by definition to the Jew, is the closest to God one can be.  It is important to note that the term “Wailing Wall” is not typically used by the Jews and is considered derogatory.  It was originally applied in the description of the Jews who went there and wept over the destruction of the temples that existed prior. 

With the increase of the Zionist movement in the 20thC (which are inclined to a restoration of a Jewish kingdom reigning from Jerusalem), tensions increased between Jews and Muslims.  In fear that the Jews were gaining a stronger foothold, a riot broke out at the Wall in 1929 where 133 Jews were killed and 339 were injured.  The subsequent Arab-Israeli War of 1948 left the eastern side of Jerusalem in Jordanian control.  The Jordanians banned all Jews from the Old City, which included the Wall, for 19 years.  After the Six-Day War on June 10, 1967, Israel finally regained control over the area and Jews were allowed to reenter.

The Rabbinical Tunnels are a series of underground paths that have been built along the Western wall as the Temple has been constructed, destroyed, and rebuilt over the centuries.  The tunnels provided underground access to a variety of locations, as well as having cisterns for water used in temple service, including ritual cleansing.  Aside from the history of their use, they also give access to archaeological views of the different Temple periods, such as the Solomonic (971 BC), Second Temple / Zerubbabel (began 536 BC), and Herodian (began 19 BC).  Through each of these periods, the Temple went through partial and complete phases of pillaging and destruction.  Rebuilding would take part on top of the remaining structure and foundations.  Therefore, as the tunnels descend, they pass by and through former walls and streets, just as layers in a cake.  Due to the continuing tensions between Christians/Jews and Muslims over the holy site, any continuing excavation is frowned upon.  However, the exposed tunnels offer a brilliant view of not just the pathways of rabbis from long ago and where they conducted their business in and about the Temple, but also hundreds of years of antiquity and magnificent architecture. 

Upon exiting the tunnels, we will be able to view the traditional “stone which the builders rejected.”  The history starts with one of Herod’s vast architectural projects called, “Antonia’s Fortress,” which was located on the edge of Mount Moriah, adjacent to the Temple.  From this mountain, Herod had stone quarried to build the Temple Mount (including its colonnade and platform) and Antonia’s Fortress.  It was from this fortress that Pontius Pilate oversaw the Roman troops that were headquartered there.  Located near the northern end of the Temple, the fortress had four main towers on each corner.  The southwest corner tower is where Jesus was brought to stand before Pilate.  This tower overlooks the Temple courtyard.  Therefore, the people standing in the courtyard looked up at Pilate, Jesus, and Barabbas and shouted, “Crucify Him!”  A sidewalk exists along the base of the Western Wall that ends directly under the southwestern corner of the tower at the fortress.  This is where a massive rock has been left for centuries, still bearing the scars of chisels.  It was one of the quarried stones from Mount Moriah that was to be used in Herod’s building project.  However, the builders rejected this huge stone and left it in the spot it still resides in. 

Jesus and His disciples were leaving from Jericho and bound for Jerusalem (Luke 19:1ff).  They came around through Bethany and Bethpage, approaching the Mount of Olives when He sent them to retrieve a colt.  As He enters the city riding the colt, the throngs of people shout praises to His name by quoting from the 118th Psalm; “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”  This is what is commonly referred to as, “The Triumphal Entry.”  Upon entering the city, Jesus casts out the merchants from the Temple while declaring the words of Jeremiah (which ended with Jeremiah being cast into a pit – [Luke 19:46]).  In the days following, Jesus continues to teach the people in and around the Temple complex.  He is eventually confronted by the chief priests and scribes, to which Christ responds with a parable about a vineyard owner.  When He ends the parable, He quotes the very Psalm the people were singing when He made His triumphal entry into the city.  However, He quotes the line, “The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone.”  Since Christ continually used visuals around Him to illustrate, He was probably standing within eyeshot of the same stone that remains at the foot of the southwest corner tower at Antonia’s Fortress, where He would later be standing with Pilate, above before the crowds in the courtyard of the Temple.  Ironically, it was the Pharisees who commanded Jesus to rebuke His disciples in Luke 19:39 for praising Him as King.  Jesus responded to the Pharisees: "I tell you, even if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”  Perhaps it is this stone that still stands, crying out its witness to all who see.

  • Biblical References:
    1. Psalm 118:22, 26
    2. Luke 19:38; 20:17

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 11:25 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Jerusalem

Part 1

It was a time after Abram had been called by God to come out of Ur of the Chaldeans in the scroll of Genesis (Chapter 11ff).  He had made a covenant relationship with God and journeyed to Egypt, where he let his wife Sarai be taken by a Pharaoh.  God delivers her back into the arms of Abram and their house increases greatly.  They are forced to deliver his nephew Lot from the hands of an alliance of rogue kings who had captured him in the land near Sodom.  Then, Abram meets a man in Sheveh, which is (“the King’s Valley”).  His name is Melchizedek, and he is a priest of El Elyon (“God Most High”), the king of the city of Salem (“Peace”).  They break bread and drink wine in communion to the name of El Elyon.  This is about 1980 BC, around 600 years before the Exodus, almost 900 years before the time of King David (1 Samuel 16ff).

David comes into the full reign of his kingship at 30 years of age (2 Samuel 5).  7 years later, he leads his men in a charge against the Jebusites who inhabited the city called, “Jerusalem,” which is the very same city that had been previously called “Sheveh,” of Melchizedek.  The Jebusites were Canaanite people who were essentially mountaineers who had been living in the hill country.  The city had formerly been called “Salem,” which literally means “peace.”  “Jeru” means “city.”  Therefore, Jerusalem is “City of Peace.”  This is ironic, in the sense of the history of the city, because of the strife that it has been most associated with.  This makes the 122nd Psalm applicable across centuries of time; “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Note the raw number of biblical references to the proper noun “Jerusalem” in the biblical text.  This alone should alert one to the importance placed on the city by the Word of God in relation to His people.  However, one should not be enamored beyond the point of intent.  What made Jerusalem special was that it held the temple and in the temple was the Holy of Holies.  Within the Holy of Holies was held the Ark of the Covenant and on the propitiation (mercy seat), which was the center of the lid between the cherubim figures, was where God said He would meet man once a year for Yom (“day”) Kippur (“Atonement”).  Thus, what makes Jerusalem distinct is that God met man here for an extended period of time.  Now He lives immediately within each Christian who is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

For the sake of brevity, only highlights will be covered in this article.  To give an idea of how extensive writings are about the city, it is considered to be the most renowned city in the ancient East.  It has more than 6,000 bibliographical references in literature.  It is considered the “most holy city,” hosting 3 monotheistic religions.  Wars, both subtle and direct, continue to be waged over who will control the city and particularly, the Temple Mount.  Antiquities are difficult to excavate from the city site because the land has been occupied for over 6,000 years.  To compound the archaeological issues, the city has been ravaged and rebuilt multiple times over the millennia.  Each time, masonry would be looted from the city while other materials would be brought in from neighboring ruins to replace them. 

The city has been called “Jebus,” “Shalem” and “Zion.”  However, it was first mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts (18th – 19thC BC) as the name “Rušalimum.”  It has also been called by the Akkadian name of “Urišalim” in the Armana letters (14thC BC).  Abdi-Hiba, an Egyptian vassal who was ruling in Jerusalem during the reign of Pharaoh Amenophis IV (Akhenaten – 1340 BC) wrote declaring his loyalty to Egypt.  Sennacherib (Assyrian – 701 BC) referred to the city as “Ursalimmu” when he surrounded King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18, 19; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36, 37).  Many scholars attribute the name of “Shalem” to the Semitic patron god, Shalem, which was mentioned in a mythological text from Ugarit.  While this may unsettle Jews and Christians alike, it sets as a consideration to be an example of something that evil has attempted to adopt and mimic as an idol, only to regain its original meaning as God has deemed. 

In historical comparisons to the population and size of the city, the Jebusites constituted approximately 1,000 people on 12 acres.  The city of David expanded to 2,000 persons on 15 acres.  However, the building of the Temple Mount during the reign of Solomon expanded the region to 32 acres and an approximate population of 5,000 residents.  One of the largest expansions was under King Hezekiah when the Upper City was pushing the boundaries to 125 acres with 25,000 people.  After the Babylonian captivity, during the time of Nehemiah, the city subsided to 30 acres with a population of 4,500.  In the Hasmonean era, Jerusalem initially grew to 165 acres and 35,000 people and during Herod’s reign, an estimated 40,000 people lived in a 230-acre territory.  But her growth did not stop there.  Continuing through the Roman period, Jerusalem doubled in size to 450 acres with an estimated population of 80,000 or more.  After the Muslim invasion, the numbers shrank to 55-60,000 residents.  As of 2017, the city population sits at 901,302, with the metropolitan district at 1,253,900 and the land area is 252 square miles (48 miles – city alone).

Under the Davidic reign (1011-971 BC), the establishment of Jerusalem as the central capital was geographically strategic for the united kingdom of Israel.  Furthermore, when David brings the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to Jerusalem, the city now becomes more than a political location.  It became the merger of the Mosaic era to the Davidic, forming a unity of the religious and the legal rule of Israel. 

When David’s son takes the throne (971-931 BC), the kingdom will ride on the wave that David drew them together upon.  Though limited by God to build the Temple in Jerusalem, David prepared everything his son Solomon would need to construct the finest building ever seen.  King Solomon also built some of the most comprehensive structural additions to the city in the palace complex, which was composed of residences, a justice hall, a throne room, and arsenal storage.  The Temple took 7 years to finish and the palace complex, an additional 13 years.  However, Solomon used forced labor among the people of Israel to accomplish this, among several other architectural endeavors.  Seeds of rebellion were sown and upon the passing of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel divided into a lingering civil war.  Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, was the rightful heir to the throne, while Jeroboam, son of Nebat contested from the north.  Thus became the divided kingdom of Judah and North Israel. 

With the kingdom split, Jerusalem lost a portion of its significance in the nation as a whole.  Nevertheless, it still drew considerable attention from enemy kingdoms and required continuous reinforcements to its fortifications.  The city withstood invasions (some, temporarily) from numerous enemies, including Assyrian, Babylonian, and Greek armies (to name a few).  Bear in mind though, that the vast majority of these enemies were sent by God as judgment on Israel for her rebellion against Him. 

One of the kingdoms that subsequently took over Israel was Persia, who had defeated their previous captors, Babylon in 538 BC.  Cyrus, king of Persia decreed for the walls and Temple to be rebuilt back in Jerusalem.  However, it took the Jews over 20 years to complete the reconstruction of the temple proper.  It was rededicated under King Darius I (of Persia – Ezra 6) in 515 BC. 

Led by Alexander the Great, the Persians were conquered by the Greeks and Jerusalem was taken in 332 BC.  Over the years, Jerusalem was thus changed into a Greek city-state by Antiochus IV and named “Antiochia.”  After desecrating the Temple, the Jews led a rebellion under the Maccabeans and cleansed the Temple on December 25, 165 BC.  This date is commemorated in the Jewish holiday known as “Hanukkah.”  For almost a century (142-63 BC), the Jews would be politically, religiously, and economically independent during this period known as the Hasmonean reign.  These were a dynasty of high priests and kings that had descended from the line of Mattathias, who had led the revolt that liberated Jerusalem.  The Hasmoneans built a bridge over the Tyropoeon Valley that joined the Upper City (center of government) to the Temple Mount.  At the apex of this period, John Hyrcanus and his son, Alexander Jannaeus, served as successive high priest and king of Judea.  However, in 63 BC Pompey (the Great) ended the Hasmonean reign, though he kept Hyrcanus in place.  While the Jews were celebrating the Sabbath, Pompey employed his battering rams and attacked the Temple Mount, entered the Holy of Holies, destroyed the city walls, and took residence in the Upper City.  As a side note, though Pompey did not immediately die upon entering the Holy of Holies, he was later defeated in another battle and fled for his life into Egypt, where he was assassinated.  From the time of Pompey’s invasion to the appointment of Herod the Great (37 BC), the Hasmoneans ruled under the jurisprudence of Rome. 

During the Herodian period (37-4 BC), Jerusalem reached its apex of development and enjoyed abundant prosperity.  Historically, the city was noted for its splendor, but it still had its socioeconomic disparities.  The poorer classes were in the Lower City, where most of the markets were conducted.  The more affluent lived in the Upper City, which included chief religious and political figures.  Regional taxes and Herod’s construction projects were the primary sources of government income.  Due to the intensity of the sheer number of Herod’s construction projects versus the intent of brevity for this particular article, most items will not be covered here.  It is safe to say that all of Herod’s buildings and sites are still considered to be architectural wonders of beauty and artifice.  The city walls were fortified with 164 towers of defense.  It is disputed as to whether there were 2 or 3 city walls during this period.  Nevertheless, any wall would have to be substantial to support the weight of the towers.  Several other Romans contributed positive construction updates to Jerusalem.  For example, Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD), prefect of Judea, installed a rather large upgrade to the water supply with the city’s first aqueduct from Solomon’s Pool. 

The final tipping point that incited the First Jewish War (revolt) against Rome occurred because Roman prefect, Gessius Florus, stole money from the Temple treasury in 66 AD.  By 70 AD, Titus led an attack and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple within (see “This is Masada”).  Despite the destruction, Jerusalem managed to hang on and remain the central city of the nation of Israel.  Emperor Hadrian visited the city in 129 AD, rebuilt it, and renamed it Aelia Capitolina, after his middle name.  Through the Byzantine period (324-638 AD), much of the city was improved with sites dedicated to events in the life of Jesus.  The invasion of the Islamic armies in 638 AD conquered Jerusalem and held the city until the Crusader period of 1099 AD.  To the Muslims, Jerusalem is considered the third most holy city, behind Mecca and Medina.  The city was recaptured from the Crusaders by Islamic invaders in 1187 AD.  Christian and Jewish tolerance fluctuated through this period until 1517, when the Ottoman Turks took control of Jerusalem and ruled it from Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, until the Islamic conquest). 

Presently, both Israeli and Palestinian governments claim Jerusalem as their capital.  While peace is largely kept by the presence of the Israeli military, the tension remains present for the control of the area.  The city was liberated by Israel in the War of 1948.  However, revisionist history has been and is presently being taught that Israel is a recent invader, and that the region belongs to the Palestinians.  Most recently, the United States, under the leadership and campaign promise of President Donald J. Trump, declared acknowledgment of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel and thus, relocating the US embassy back to the city.  Prior, on August 20, 1980, the United Nations passed Resolution 478, which moved 22 of the 24 embassies in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (see “This is Tel Aviv”).  Anti-Israel countries have denounced the move by the United States.

  • Biblical References:
    • Genesis 14:18
    • Joshua 10:1, 3, 5, 23; 12:10; 15:8, 63; 18:28
    • Judges 1:1, 7-8, 21; 19:10
    • 1 Samuel 17:54
    • 2 Samuel 5:5-6, 13-14, 6:12, 8:7; 9:13; 10:14; 11:1, 12; 12:31; 14:23, 28; 15:8, 11, 13-14, 29, 37; 16:3, 15; 17:20; 19:19, 25, 33-34; 20:2-3, 7, 22; 24:8, 16
    • 1 Kings 2:11, 36, 38, 41; 3:1, 15; 8:1; 9:15, 19; 10:2, 26-27; 11:7, 13, 29, 32, 36, 42; 12:18, 21, 27-28; 14:21, 25; 15:2, 4, 10; 22:42
    • 2 Kings 8:17, 26; 9:28; 12:1, 17-18; 14:2, 13, 19-20; 15:2, 33; 16:2, 5; 18:2, 17, 22, 35; 19:10, 21, 31: 21:1, 4, 7, 12-13, 16, 19; 22:1, 14; 23:1-2, 4-6, 9, 13, 20, 23-24, 27, 30-31, 33, 36; 24:4, 8, 10, 14-15, 18, 20; 25:1, 8-10
    • 1 Chronicles 3:4-5; 6:10, 15, 32; 8:28, 32; 9:1, 3, 34, 38; 11:4; 13:3-4; 15:1, 3; 18:7; 19:15; 20:1, 3-4; 21:4, 15-16; 23:25; 28:1; 29:27
    • 2 Chronicles 1:4, 13-15; 2:7, 1; 3:1; 5:2; 6:6; 8:6; 9:1, 25, 27, 30; 10:18; 11:1, 5, 14, 16; 12:2, 4-5, 7, 9, 13; 13:2; 14:15; 15:10; 17:13; 19:1, 4, 8; 20:5, 15, 17-8, 20, 26-28, 31; 21:5, 11, 13, 20; 22:1-2; 23:2; 24:1, 6, 9, 18, 23; 25:1, 23, 27; 26:3, 9, 15; 27:1, 8; 28:1, 10, 24, 27; 29:1, 8; 30:1-3, 5, 11, 13-14, 21, 26; 31:4; 32:2, 9-10, 12, 18-19, 22-23, 25-26, 33; 33:1, 4, 7, 9, 13, 15, 21; 34:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 22, 29-30, 32; 35:1, 18, 24; 36:1-5, 9-11, 14, 19, 23
    • Ezra 1:2-5, 7, 11; 2:1, 68; 3:1, 8; 4:6, 8, 12, 20, 23-24; 5:1-2, 14-17; 6:3, 5, 9, 12, 18; 7:1, 7-9, 13-17, 19, 27; 8:29-32; 9:9; 10:7, 9
    • Nehemiah 1:2-3; 2:11-13, 17, 20; 3:8-9, 12; 4:7-8; 6:7; 7:2-3, 6; 8:15; 11:1-4, 6, 20, 22; 12:1, 27-29, 43; 13:6-7, 15-16, 19-20
    • Esther 2:6
    • Psalm 51:18; 68:29; 79:1, 3; Psalm 102:21; Psalm 116:19; 122:1-3, 6; 125:2, 5; 135:21; 137:5-7; 147:1-2, 12
    • Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12, 16; 2:7, 9
    • Song of Solomon 1:1, 5; 2:7; 3:5, 10; 5:8, 16; 6:4, 8:4
    • Isaiah 1:1; 2:1, 3; 3:1, 8; 4:3-4; 5:3, 14; 7:1; 8:14; 10:10-12; 10:32; 22:10, 21; 24:23; 27:13, 14; 29:1; 20:19; 31:5, 9; 33:20; 36:2, 7, 20; 37:10, 22, 32; 40:2, 9; 41:27; 44:26, 28; 51:17; 52:1-2, 9; 62:1, 6; 64:10, 18-19; 66:10, 13, 20
    • Jeremiah 1:3, 15; 2:2; 3:17; 4:3-5, 10-11, 14, 16; 5:1; 6:1, 6, 8; 7:17, 34; 8:1, 5; 9:11; 11:2, 6, 9, 12-13; 13:9, 13, 27; 14:2, 16; 15:4-5; 17:19-21, 25-27; 18:11; 19:3, 7, 13; 22:1, 19, 14-15; 24:1, 8; 25:2, 18; 26:18; 27:3, 18, 20-21; 29:1-2, 4, 20, 25; 32:2; 32:32, 44; 33:10, 13, 16; 34:1, 6-8; 34:19; 35:11, 13, 17; 36:9, 31; 37:5, 11-12; 38:28; 39:1, 8; 40:1; 42:18; 44:2, 6, 9, 13, 17, 21; 51:35, 50; 52:1, 3-4, 12-14, 29
    • Lamentations 1:7-8, 17; 2:10, 13, 15; 4:12
    • Ezekiel 4:1, 7, 16; 5:1, 5; 8:1, 3; 9:4, 8; 11:15; 12:10, 19; 13:16; 14:21-22; 15:1, 6; 16:1-3; 17:12; 21:2, 20, 22, 19; 23:4; 24:2; 26:2; 33:21; 36:38
    • Daniel 1:1; 5:2-3; 6:10; 9:2, 7, 12, 16, 25
    • Joel 2:32; 3:1, 6, 16-17, 20
    • Amos 1:2; 2:5
    • Obadiah 1:11
    • Micah 1:1, 5; 3:10, 12; 4:2, 8
    • Zephaniah 1:4, 12; 3:1, 14, 16
    • Zechariah 1:12, 14, 16-17, 19; 2:2, 4, 12; 3:2, 7:7; 8:3-4, 8, 15, 22; 9:9-10; 12:1-3, 5-11; 13:1; 14:1-2, 4, 8, 10-12, 14, 16-17, 21
    • Malachi 2:11; 3:4
    • Matthew 2:1, 3; 3:5; 4:25; 5:35; 15:1; 16:21; 20:17-18; 21:1, 10; 23:37
    • Mark 1:5; 3:8, 22; 7:1; 10:32-33; Mark 11:1, 11, 15, 27; 15:41
    • Luke 2:22, 25, 38, 41, 43, 45; 4:9; 5:17; 6:17; 9:31, 51, 53; 10:30; 13:4, 22, 33-34; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11, 28, 41; 21:20, 24; 23:7, 28; 24:13, 18, 33, 47, 52
    • John 1:19; 2:13, 23; 4:20-21; 4:45; 5:1-2; 7:25; 10:22; 11:18, 55; 12:12
    • Acts 1:4, 8, 12, 19; 2:5, 14; 4:5, 16; 5:16, 28; 6:7; 8:1, 14, 25-27; 9:2, 13, 21, 26, 28; 10:39; 11:1-2; 11:22, 27; 12:25; 13:13, 27, 31; 15:1-2, 4; 16:4; 19:21; 20:16, 22; 21:4, 11-13, 15, 17, 31; 22:5, 17-18; 23:11; 24:11; 25:1, 3, 7, 9, 15, 20, 24; 26:4, 10, 20; 28:17
    • Romans 15:19, 25-26, 31
    • 1 Corinthians 16:3
    • Galatians 1:17-18; 2:1; 4:25-26
    • Hebrews 12:22
    • Revelation 3:12; 21:2, 10

 

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 11:14 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Hezekiah’s Tunnel

and The Pool of Siloam

In what is considered to be one of the engineering marvels of the world, beneath Jerusalem lays the connecting tunnel from the Spring of Gihon to the Pool of Siloam.  The events that pushed a king in Judah to do the unimaginable to secure his people are recorded by both the king and his encroaching enemy from Assyria.  To accomplish the task will require none other than the literal guiding hand of God. 

King Hezekiah is one of the few kings in the history of Israel (Judah, in this case of the divided kingdom) that is recorded as “doing right in the sight of the Lord.”  The irony of this is that he was born of King Ahaz, who was an abundantly wicked man (2 Kings 16, 17).  Not only did he (Ahaz) desecrate the temple, have his altar built (and placed before the actual altar of the Lord in the temple), encourage idol worship, and depend on the nations to defend him, but he also offered human sacrifice of his children to idols.  It is incredible how the heart of a son can be so different than the heart of his father. 

Because of Ahaz’s wickedness (and north Israel’s king Hoshea), enemies plundered the land of Israel.  Despite God’s warnings through His prophets (i.e. Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Obed), Scripture states that they “stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God.”  By this time, Ahaz had already cut a deal with the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser, and bribed him with the Temple treasury to defend him against his enemies. 

An important side note here is that Pekah, King of north Israel, is one of the enemies attacking Ahaz (Jerusalem, in particular).  This means that the nation of Israel as a whole is fully engaged in civil war. 

Also, of note is, that during this period, the Assyrians had a well-known reputation as being the most brutal nation in warfare.  The mere notion of any contact, let alone the chance of loss, would cause kings and their nations to tremble because Assyria used the nobles to make an example.  They would decapitate the political and religious figures in the cities conquered and stack their heads in pyramid form in the center of the town square.  No one was allowed to dispose of or bury the remains.  This was to remind all who would see what would happen to them as well if they contested.

Hezekiah is 25 years old when he takes the throne of Judah.  He purges Israel of every idol he can find.  In one case, it was something of antiquity that was never intended to be idolatrous.  The object was quite the reverse when fashioned (cf. Numbers 21).  The bronze serpent that Moses made for the rebellious nation of delivered Israelites to gaze upon had been kept for nearly 800 years.  Hezekiah destroyed it because of their idolatrous worship.  However, Judah was burning incense to it in worship.  Cleansing the nation, Hezekiah is described in Scripture as one who “trusted in the Lord” and who “clung to the Lord.”  There was none like him, neither before, nor after (2 Kings 18:5). 

Assyria had burned through north Israel, but their appetite was not yet satisfied.  A new Assyrian king had arisen by the name of Sennacherib and he had his sights on Jerusalem.  It would be there that he could take complete control of the land and within the Temple, would be treasures unspoken.  Sennacherib is in the process of taking all the fortified cities of Judah as he makes his way towards Jerusalem.  But Hezekiah would not be considered a valiant king of war.  Nevertheless, he knew he had to take some sense of defensive action to secure the city from such a ruthless foe.  More shields and weapons were added.  Plans were assembled and fortifications were reinforced (2 Chronicles 32:5).  But something additional and substantial would be needed. 

No matter how fortified a city’s walls might be against the battering rams of an invader, two things can work together to bring a city to its knees over time – food and water.  Of these two resources, water is the most valuable and it was typically brought in from the outside of the city walls (*see note on Warren’s Shaft at the end of this article).  All Sennacherib would have to do is wait them out on thirst and starvation.  Hezekiah knew this.  So he made a plan and rapidly went to work.  Time would be of the essence because this project will require chiseling through solid rock.  Secondly, with a spring of fresh water outside the city walls, the enemy would have a constant supply of water for its troops (2 Chronicles 32:2-4).  To cut off the spring outside and divert it to the inside was a twofold plan.

The primary source of water for the city of Jerusalem is the Spring of Gihon (or “En-gihon” meaning “gushing” – see map).  This is the same Gihon where Zadok anointed Solomon as king of Israel (1 Kings 1:38ff).  Somehow, water would have to be routed from the spring into the city without allowing an external enemy to dam or redirect the stream.  The only option would be to channel it underground.  In 701 BC, Hezekiah employed his workers, who would cut through 1,748 ft of solid rock to connect the spring to the Pool of Siloam in the city walls.  Workers started on opposite ends of the project and met in the middle upon completion.  The tunnel has several curves in it that are presently unverifiable in intent.  Many believe they were directional mistakes while others think it had to do with the stone density (otherwise known as “karst,” which is a natural fault line of sorts).  Speculation regarding the engineering also suggests a possible method of sounding from the rock above to the chiselers below for direction. 

An inscription was posted in the tunnel commemorating the event of the two teams meeting in their dig.  The partial rendering reads, "The tunneling was completed... While the hewers wielded the ax, each man toward his fellow... there was heard a man's voice calling to his fellow... the hewers hacked each toward the other, ax against ax, and the water flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of 1,200 cubits."  The inscription was discovered in 1880 and removed in 1890.  It is presently stored at the Imperial Museum in Istanbul.

The tunnel height starts at 5 ft high at the entrance and deepens to 16 ft at the end.  However, the Ophel, which is the highest point in Jerusalem, is 130 ft above the tunnel.  For 2,700 years, water has poured through the channel in the rock.  The gradient is 12 inches from the spring to the pool, causing the water to continuously flow.  Pick marks of the chiselers remain in the tunnel rocks today. 

The traditional Pool of Siloam site has recently (in terms of archaeology) been contested.  In 2004, a sewer system was being installed in the city when the excavator hit precut stones.  Archaeologists continued the dig and discovered what many believe to be the actual Pool of Siloam of Hezekiah’s time.  This location predates the previous site, which dates closer to the Byzantine period.  However, the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) group believes this “new” discovery to be a second pool (as the Byzantine is considered third).  It is estimated that an older pool is directly located under the newest discovery.  A notable point is that over half of the most recent site remains covered in rock and stone.  This is because the remaining surface area is owned by an individual who refuses to allow any further digging.  BAR experts believe this new discovery to be the actual place where Jesus healed the blind man (Luke 9:7ff).

As for the result of the confrontation between Sennacherib and Hezekiah, there are two main sources for reference.  Scripture states that Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem and taunted them to abandon Hezekiah and surrender.  Meanwhile, in the city, Hezekiah led the people in prayer to the Lord for deliverance.  That night, an angel of the Lord went out into the Assyrian army and killed 185,000 of the soldiers.  The next morning, Scripture states that they literally “woke up dead.”  Subsequently, Sennacherib leaves and goes to his capital home of Nineveh, located in Assyria.  Eventually, while Sennacherib is worshipping the Nisroch in its temple, two men kill him who are identified as his children. 

However, upon returning home, Sennacherib records a different slant on what has been called the “Taylor Prism,” which now resides in the British Museum.  For centuries, marauding kings would return to their homes and spectacularly document their victories, even in some occasions when they were technically defeated.   The Taylor Prism is one such example.  Sennacherib stated that he had Hezekiah “shut up like a caged bird.”  While this is technically true, it does not fully represent the net result of his resounding defeat at Jerusalem and of course, his subsequent death at the hands of his own children. 

In recent years, revisionist historians have attempted to alter the renderings and have deemed the Scriptures to be incorrect.  However, the basis on which they mount their positions is largely assumptive and subjective. 

*Warren’s Shaft – A 45 ft tunnel with steps down to a water access point that comes from the Spring of Gihon.  The dates of when the shaft was dug are in dispute.  However, many biblical scholars believe that this is where David gained access to Jerusalem with his mighty men when he took the city.  The shaft ties into the front end of Hezekiah’s tunnel.  Some have questioned the account of the construction and purpose of the tunnel if the shaft already existed within the city walls.  However, the proximity of the shaft to the edge of the city walls did not necessarily offer the security of the water supply in the event of the initial wall being breached.  Two towers (1800 BC) were built at the entrance by the Canaanites to protect the water supply.  As well as the base of the shaft and tunnels connecting, the ruins of the towers have been preserved and are open to view.

  • Biblical References:
    • Numbers 21
    • 1 Kings 1:38ff
    • 2 Kings 16-17; 18-20
    • 2 Chronicles 32
    • Luke 9:7ff
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 11:01 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Ein-Gedi

Day 8 will also include one of the top attractions for natural wonders, Ein-Gedi (meaning “spring of the kid [goat]”).  It has also been known as “En-Gedi,” “Engedi,” “Engaddi,” “Áin Jidi (Arabic),” “Hazazon-tamar,” “Hazezon Tamar,” “Hatzatzon Tamar,” and “Tell el-Jurn.”  An oasis on the edge of the Dead Sea, about 35 miles southeast of Jerusalem, Ein-Gedi is fed by a natural spring that emerges from the lower section of the cliffs there.  Its antiquity has been attested to the discovery of a temple that dates to the 4th millennium BC.  During the Herodian period (50-60 AD), it served as a military stronghold.  The Romans built a bathhouse there and the Jews built a synagogue (6thc AD).  What makes this particular place so outstanding, is the incredible amount of water produced in an otherwise terribly desolate region, which was allotted as a part of the wilderness district of Judea.

In biblical history, Hazazon-Tamar was an Amorite stronghold when Abraham rescued his nephew Lot from an alliance of 4 kings.  David took refuge in Ein-Gedi while hiding from Saul and his search parties.  At a later date, the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites crossed the Dead Sea and encamped in Ein-Gedi to invade Judah.  King Jehoshaphat declared a fast and prayed for the Lord’s deliverance.  God answers his prayer and gives word that the King and Judah need not worry about the encroaching enemies.  Thus, the invading armies began fighting against one another and killed each other before organizing a plan against Judah. 

The Song of Solomon mentions Ein-Gedi pertaining to the beauty of its henna blossoms.  Henna is presumed to have been the plant that the fragrant flower was used in the production of perfume.  Ovens and pottery that have been excavated at Tel el-Jurn were used for the perfume.  In terms of prophecy, many look to Ein-Gedi as the place where fulfillment will come to the turning of the Dead Sea into a viable freshwater lake.  The water is to stream from the temple after the restoration of Israel.  Historical records speak of the palm trees, dates, groves, vineyards, balsam, resin, and medicine in the area. 

During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it is believed that Ein-gedi had been occupied by Edomites (Idumeans) who had converted to Judaism after being conquered by John Hyrcanus (2ndc BC).  It is also considered plausible that a Ptolemaic town was taken over and made the capital of the toparchy under King Herod.  During the First Jewish War against Rome, Josephus recorded that the Sicarii (cf. “This is Masada”) Zealots had seized Masada and made a raid on Ein-Gedi during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  They slaughtered the people and plundered the city.  Pliny said that after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, Ein-Gedi was left in ruins. 

During the Second Jewish War, a Jewish leader of the population in En-gedi named Simon Bar-Cochba tried to rally the people to come to the aid of those battling against Rome.  This drew Roman attention to the town and the residents there fled to the mountain caves nearby.  The Roman troops encamped above them and held them to their deaths. 

Through the Byzantine period, little was recorded about the area except the confirmation of a large village located there.  After the Muslim invasions of the 7thC AD, it was primarily used as a bedouin occupancy.  A kibbutz was built after Israel reclaimed its statehood. 

  • Biblical References
    • Genesis 14:7
    • Joshua 15:62
    • 1 Samuel 23:29
    • 1 Samuel 24:1
    • 2 Chronicles 20:2
    • Song of Solomon 1:14
    • Ezekiel 47:10

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 10:55 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is The Dead Sea

With the highest measured salinity in the world for a body of water (25-30%), the Dead Sea has earned its name for good reason.  No aquatic biological life form can technically survive in a salinity of this value.  The Sea has been referred to by various names in ancient times, including the “Salt Sea,” “Sea of Arabah,” “Sea of the Plain,” “Eastern Sea,” “East Sea,” and “The Former Sea.”  Josephus called it “Lake Asphaltitis and the Arabic name for it is, Bahr Lût, meaning, “Sea of Lot.”

The general theories about the cause of the salt content usually divide into 2 groups: 1) the salt mountain Jebel Usdum (now called, “Har Sedom”) leaching into the Sea; and 2) the biblical phenomenon of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).  Both sides roundly reject the other’s assertions.  However, this does not necessarily have to be an either/or situation.  A massive geological fissure exists from the south of the Jordan River Valley to the Zambezi River in eastern Africa.  Therefore, God may have used a large earthquake (which the area is prone to) and erupted subterranean heat, sulfur, and noxious gases (i.e. hydrogen Sulfide) and blown salt all over the region. 

The current surface of the Dead Sea is 1294 ft below sea level.  It is about 50 miles long and 10 miles wide.  The Sea is divided into 2 uneven sections by a point of land referred to as “el-Lisan” (“the tongue”).  It receives water primarily from the Jordan River along with other minor tributaries.  Winter and spring rains also drain into the Sea through several wadis located there.  While salt is still mined from the Sea, the most lucrative extraction is that of potash. 

To the southwest corner lies the fortress of Masada.  A little further north is En-Gedi and on the northwest corner are the infamous Qumran caves, which yielded the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Because of the rough terrain on the western side, in conjunction with the sudden and violent storms that emerged on the Sea, it became a fantastic eastern boundary in defense of Judea against her enemies.  The traditional sites for Sodom and Gomorrah are located on the western side of the Sea (a 700 ft tall halite formation called “Mount Sodom”).  However, there is no extensive evidence to support their exact locations. 

The Dead Sea has made the news in the last few years pertaining to an oil field discovery.  The Hatrurim Reservoir is estimated to hold 7-11 million barrels of oil.  In the last few months, reports of aquatic wildlife (both fish and plant) in the Sea have excited the prophetic community.  It is reported that fish and plants have been spotted in the Sea which is the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy given in Ezekiel 47:8, 9.  However, some say that there is nothing unusual about the sightings because they are technically not in the Dead Sea proper.  Rather, they are peripheral areas of water pools that appear from the discharge of underwater springs.  Thus, the report should be taken with a ‘grain of salt’. 

  • Biblical References:
    • Genesis 14:3
    • Numbers 34:3, 12
    • Deuteronomy 3:17, 4:49
    • Joshua 3:16; 12:3; 15:2, 5; 18:19
    • Ezekiel 47:18
    • Joel 2:20
    • Zechariah 14:8
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 10:53 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Dan

Day 6 of adventure will lead us through another packed series of sites that begins with the ancient city of Dan.  Tel Dan (Tell el Qadi) is first mentioned in Scripture during the time of Abraham in (Genesis 14:4).  At that time, the city was known as “Laish” (also “Leshem”) to the people.  Laish appears in Egyptian Execration Texts that date back to the 18thC BC.  Thutmose III also lists Laish as one of the cities he conquered.    A scarab of Ramses II (1279-1213 BC) testifies to prevailing Egyptian influence in the region.  The city’s name was changed to Dan after the tribe of Dan conquered it in the taking of Canaan (Joshua 19:47).

Dan is located on the northernmost edge of Israel at the foot of Mount Herman and near the headwaters of the Jordan River.  The Tel is situated at a main intersecting of roads leading to Damascus and the Mediterranean Sea.  It covers approximately 50 acres and is just over 65 feet above the surrounding plain, at a 40° angle on the rampart.  This tells us that the city had a substantial means of fortification and defense built into it for the location it was in. 

Archaeologists have estimated that artifacts date the first settlement of Dan (Laish) to 5000 BC.  There is a large gap of physical evidence until the 27thC BC.  Several periods are representative of the settlement’s inhabitants over the centuries before the conquest by the Israelites. 

It will be after the death of Solomon that Jeroboam, son of Nebat challenges Rehoboam (Solomon’s son and successor to the throne of Israel) to be king.  The kingdom responds by dividing itself in a civil war.  Jeroboam knows that Rehoboam has the upper hand of influence over most of the people though, because within his territory of Judah, Rehoboam has Jerusalem, and thus, the temple of God.  To compete with this, Jeroboam builds his places of worship to attract not only Israelites but foreigners as well.  He incorporates shrines on the “high places” in Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12) with the comingling of altars to YHWH and idols represented by golden calves (possibly the Apis Bull of Egypt, which is often considered the idol built by Aaron in the wilderness after the exodus).  The sanctuary built by Jeroboam has been discovered at Tel Dan.

As mentioned previously, Dan was abundantly fortified, possibly for two main reasons.  First, the city was on a main artery between major trade routes in the north.  Being somewhat removed, it would be susceptible to foreign invasions, especially bordering enemy nations.  Secondly, as an established religious location, even more attention would be drawn to the assumed treasuries of the idols. 

Dan continued to be a place of idolatrous worship, even during the Hellenistic periods.  Several coins from Antiochus IV, Demetrius V, Constantine I, and Constantine II have been discovered.  Inscriptions written in Greek and Aramaic giving homage to “the god who is in Dan,” remain. 

  • Biblical References
    • Genesis 14:4
    • Joshua 19:47
    • Judges 18:29; 20:1
    • 1 Samuel 3:20
    • 2 Samuel 3:10; 17:11; 24:2, 6(?), 15
    • 1 Kings 4:25; 12:29-30; 15:20
    • 2 Kings 10:29
    • 1 Chronicles 21:2
    • 2 Chronicles 16:4; 30:5
    • Jeremiah 4:15; 8:16
    • Ezekiel 48:2, 32
    • Amos 8:14
Posted by: AT 10:11 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Capernaum

After leaving Caesarea Philippi, we are to pass by the proposed site in Bethsaida where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish to feed the multitude.  We will also go by the Mount of Beatitudes on our way to Tiberias for a St. Peter’s fish lunch.  Afterwards, we will take a cruise on a boat in the Sea of Galilee, and from there we will journey on to the north towards Capernaum. 

After departing from the wilderness (40 days and nights), Jesus receives word that John the Baptist has been taken into custody.  Jesus leaves Nazareth to set His home in Capernaum.  It will later be referred to as “His own city” (Matthew 9:1).  At least 3 of His disciples were from this city.  Though Peter and Andrew were originally from Bethsaida, Scripture tells us that they moved to Capernaum (Mark 1:29).  Here, Christ cleanses the leper, cures a centurion’s servant, calls Matthew from his tax collection table, heals a royal officer’s son, heals a man let down through a roof by his friends and cures Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever.

The people that we read of being present in Capernaum give us some indication as to the importance of the city.  A Roman centurion with a detachment of soldiers, a taxing station, and a royal official are ample evidence of the governing attention given.  Nevertheless, Jesus chastises them in Matthew 11:23 for the way they willingly ignored the signs and wonders given to them.  Yet faithful people lived there during the time of Christ.  The Roman centurion with a sick servant had previously built the synagogue there (Luke 7:5). 

From the middle of the 2ndC AD, Capernaum became a central point for rabbinical Judaism.  Christians were roundly rejected, and little was done to change their perception.  Debate still exists about whether archaeologists have discovered the actual ruins of Simon Peter’s house there.  Regardless, by the 4thC AD, a church was built at the site and a new one (the Octagonal Church) replaced it in the 5thC AD.  By the 11thC AD, the city is abandoned due to the Islamic invasion of the land. 

There is some dispute amongst modern scholarship as to whether the name “Capernaum” means “Nahum’s Village.”  During the time of Christ, it had a population of approximately 1,500 people.  In the scope of local antiquity, the city is relatively “young,” considering it is dated as being established in the 2ndC BC during the Hasmonean (Judean) dynasty.  During that time, several new villages were planted in and about good water sources and fertile grounds.  The ruins of two central synagogues are evident in the ancient city.  However, the greatest traditional attraction remains to be the proposed residence of Simon Peter.  The general construction of the homes confirms that when the paralytic man was let down through the roof by his friends to Jesus, it would have been entirely possible by simply removing a section large enough to fit the bed through.

  • Biblical References
    • Matthew 4:13; 8:5; 11:23; 17:24
    • Mark 1:21; 2:1; 9:33
    • Luke 4:23, 31; 7:1; 10:15
    • John 2:12; 4:46; 6:17, 24, 59
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 10:08 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Caesarea Maritima

Day 5 of our journey will be busy as before, with 4 sites visited (technically 5, including the night’s stay in Tiberias).  The first location will be the historically rich city of Caesarea.  Our route will be along the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea to arrive at the seaport also known as Caesarea Maritima.  Centuries prior, this location had been used by Egypt as their shipping portal to the eastern Mediterranean, extending from Greece to Cyrenaica (also known as “the Levant”).  Records of the Sidonian king named “Strabo” retaining settlement in the area extend back to the 4thc BC.  It was known as “Strabo’s Tower.”  Because of the location of the port to the fertile land of the Plain of Sharon, agricultural transportation was a prime marketing trade.

Having been under Ptolemaic control in the late 2ndc BC, a ruler by the name of Zoilus captured Strabo’s Tower and local lands.  He then changed the port to a fully fortified city by constructing an artificially protected anchorage point.  To accomplish this, Zoilus literally changed the coastline and flooded the area to create a shipping harbor.  During the Hellenistic age, the harbor was closed into the city walls for additional fortification.  Zoilus maintained control of the area until being overcome by Alexander Jannaeus in 103 BC.  By the time Herod the Great comes into power (40-4 BC), the city will practically be in ruins. 

Herod will eventually be placed in the position of Rome’s client king of Judea.  Caesar thus granted him additional territory, which included the ruins of Strabo’s Tower.  After the acquisition, Herod turned the region into a major international port he named “Sebastos” to bolster his economic position, both locally and with Rome.  Eventually, Herod will rebuild the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  As a counterpart to appeal to his Gentile allies, Herod developed the area into a definitive Greco-Roman attraction that included pagan temples, a hippodrome, an amphitheater, and a theater.  In an astonishing archaeological feat, the entire complex was completed in just over 10 years (22-10/9 BC).  These events have been recorded by Flavius Josephus in historical detail. 

Upon Herod’s death, his son Archelaus took over as king of Judea.  However, Caesar Augustus deemed him as incompetent and removed him from the seat in 6 AD.  The kingdom under him, including Caesarea, was annexed into the immediate Roman Empire.  Now being considered a part of Judea, the seaport was appointed as the capital of the region.  Thus, a census was called for by Augustus and directed hence from Caesarea to determine the amount to be taxed upon its residents.  This is the very census that Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary respond to and subsequently travel to Bethlehem for.  (Luke 2:2). 

In additional terms of biblical historicity, few cities rival Caesarea for events; Pontius Pilate governed Judea as prefect from this capitol city; Philip (deacon in the Jerusalem church) brings Christianity to Caesarea in Acts 8:4-40; Peter confirms the converting of the first Gentile, Cornelius (and household) in Acts 10:3-48; The apostle Paul had been taken from Caesarea to Tarsus in Acts 9:23-26, but is later imprisoned there for two years before (57-59 AD) being transferred to Rome (Acts 23-26).  The interesting aspect of this situation regarding the profound wisdom of God is that even though imprisoned, Paul’s evangelistic outreach extends through the shipping portal of Caesarea. 

The beginning of the First Jewish War (66-70 AD – Destruction of the Temple) is largely attributed to circumstances occurring in Caesarea.  Through disruptions with the people, some 20,000 Jews were killed there in one hour.  Vespasian and his son Titus issued orders to the Roman legions from this location.  At one juncture, over 10,000 soldiers resided in the city.  However, when the war was over, “social boredom” set in with people.  Therefore, Titus hosted “victory games” in the amphitheater for the people’s entertainment.  As appointed “gladiators,” 2500 Jewish prisoners were required to fight to their deaths for the amusement of the populace.  In honor of their commitment and loyalty to Caesar, Vespasian renamed the city as a Roman colony - Colonia Prima Flavia Augustus Caesarea.

Additional construction, honors, and titles were placed upon the city due to subsequent favors of Caesars to follow.  By the end of the 3rdC AD, the Jewish population had largely recovered from the wars.  Prominent rabbis began issuing legal decisions from Caesarea and were recorded in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.  When Origen arrived in 231 AD, he turned the city into a center of learning for Christianity.  He constructed a library there (which housed the Hexapala) that was utilized for decades by scholars of the Scriptures. 

The peak of Christian persecution occurred in Caesarea from 303-313 AD.  Multiple believers were martyred there for their faith and testimony.  Eusebius of Caesarea recorded many of the events in “On The Martyrs of Palestine,” in 311 AD.  He is the same Eusebius who wrote the first historical chronicle of the church, “Ecclesiastical History.”

During the Byzantine period and the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, a political dispute between bishops emerged over the importance placed on Caesarea as opposed to Jerusalem.  Regardless, the library continued to enrich many who came to study there. 

Into the 6th and 7thc AD, the city began to decline due to drought and religious conflict with Islam.  After the port was rebuilt in the early 6thC, the city surrendered approximately 100 years later (614 AD) to the Persians.  Emperor Heraclius overthrew the Persians in 627-28 AD.  But only 6 years later, the Muslims invaded and attacked Caesarea.  The city withstood the attacks until 640-641 AD.  Caesarea could have ultimately survived their onslaught, but a Jew by the name of Joseph betrayed the people and led the invaders into the city through an aqueduct.

By the time of the Crusades, Christians reclaimed the city.  In the process of regaining control, a green cut-glass chalice was discovered in the Great Mosque and was determined to be Holy Grail.  The Genoese fleet took the chalice back to their home city of Genoa, where it remains in the treasury of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence). 

Throughout the centuries, the general ruins of Caesarea have remained intact, despite skirmishes in the territories.  It was not until 1952 that a Jewish community established the modern settlement of Caesarea next to the ancient city.  Today, the general population is just over 5,000.  Caesarea Maritima has been declared a national park and preserved for antiquity. 

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 09:49 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Beth Shean

In what is considered to be one of the oldest settlements in the world, this city has offered possibly more archaeological discoveries than any other in the region.  Also known as Beth-Shan, Beit Shean, Baithsan, Bethsa, Tell el-Huşn and later named by the Greeks as Scythopolis (capitol of the Decapolis), site inhabitants date as far back as 4500 BC.  This date rivals the oldest city in archaeological history, ancient Jericho.  The Semitic name of the city can be interpreted to mean, “house of rest.”  However, many believe it was more likely identified with the meaning “temple of Shan,” due to the Sumerian worship of the serpent god Ŝahan.

The city is situated at a junction between the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys.  The Tel rises approximately 213 ft and is .5 mile in circumference.  Located in Issachar (Joshua 17:11-12, 16; Judges 1:27, 28), Beth-Shean was given to Manasseh.  However, Manasseh was unable to completely drive the Canaanites out of the land because of their “chariots of iron,” and thus, they remained in the land.  To complicate matters, the Israelites then put the Canaanites to slave labor, which ironically is what they had been delivered from. 

Later, Israel demanded her first king, much to the chagrin of the Prophet Samuel.  Saul was anointed but soon came to be a disappointment as a man and leader from God.  David is subsequently anointed by Samuel as king but has to run for his life because of Saul’s insane jealousy.  Towards the end of Saul’s reign, Israel had been struggling to break the Philistine hold on the land of Jezreel.  After Samuel dies, Saul gathers his forces and prepares to confront the enemy (1 Samuel 28:4).  However, when he sees the Philistine army, he is terrified and turns to inquire of God.  He receives no answer from the Lord, so in his desperation, he seeks out a medium (spiritist) for consultation.  While he does not ask her to specifically tell him what to do, he does ask her to bring Samuel up from the dead.  Much to the surprise of the medium, it works, and Samuel appears.  Samuel chastises him for disobeying God and tells him he will lose the battle. 

Meanwhile, as the Philistines are gearing up for battle against Saul’s army, David and his men approach them from the rear.  The surprised Philistines recognize him and want to know why he is there.  For years David had been hiding in the land of the Philistines from the hand of Saul, who sought to kill him.  Even though he had to act as if he were insane, he survived for 1 year and 4 months (1 Samuel 27:7) in the hotbed of Israel’s worst enemy and ended up collecting his elite fighting group of “mighty men.”  David leaves from the immediate land of the Philistines and goes to Gath.  He tells the king there (Achish) that he has come in peace and sets up camp.  But then he raids the sounding lands of all those who were set against Israel.  When David returns, Achish inquires where he has been raiding.  David lies and tells him he has been in the south country, which belonged to the Israelites.  Achish believes that David is purely anti-Israel now and trusts him. 

Achish is aligned with the Philistines and thus, musters for battle against Saul.  David is unaware of whom specifically the Philistines were fighting against.  But he must keep up the façade with Achish in order to keep his cover.  However, when he rides up with Achish to the battle camp, the Philistines recognize him and begin to inquire why he is there.  The Philistines do not trust David to stay true in the fight and believe it is too risky to have him along.  Achish then appeals to David to hang back because of the friction. 

David departs the battlefront and comes back to his camp in Ziklag, only to find that it has been raided by the Amalekites while he was gone.  They took everyone captive (which included David’s wives and children) and all their possessions and then burned the rest to the ground.  The people started to turn against David, but he pulled himself together and consulted the Lord for direction.  He receives word from the Lord to pursue the marauders and rescue his people.  After finding an abandoned Egyptian that had been fighting for the Amalekites, he finds the location of the enemy and lays them waste.  All of David’s people and possessions are rescued, including his wives and children. 

Meanwhile, back at Mount Gilboa, the Philistines are roundly defeating the Israelites (1 Samuel 31:1).  The sons of Saul are killed, and the Philistines are now in pursuit of him.  Archers manage to mortally wound him, and Saul begs his armor bearer to finish him off.  The armor bearer refuses, so Saul falls on his sword and commits suicide.  The armor bearer sees this, panics, and does likewise to himself.  Later the Philistines find the bodies of Saul and his sons.  They stripped Saul’s body of his weapons and decapitated him.  His weapons were stored in the temple of Ashtaroth and they fastened his body, along with the bodies of his sons, to the walls of the city of the site we visit here, Beth-Shan (Shean). 

By the time of King Solomon’s reign, the city will be administered under Megiddo/Ta’anach (1 Kings 4:12).  It will be listed multiple times throughout Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine history when it will be known as Scythopolis.  When the Maccabean revolt occurs, this particular city will be spared because of its lack of resistance and support of the Jews.  Later, it became the capital city of the Decapolis, even though the vast majority of the district was to the east of the Jordan and Scythopolis was to the west.  Remnants of synagogues from the 6th and 7thc AD have been discovered with Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic inscriptions.  The city fell to Islamic conquest in 636 AD and was utterly destroyed.  A mosque was built on site and the city was renamed as “Besian” by the Muslims. 

As a footnote, going back into the 15th-16thc BC periods, it is important to note the presence of ancient figures identified in the archaeological stratigraphy of Beth-Shean.  Pharaoh Thutmose III and Ramses III are evidenced in artifacts, as well as hieroglyphics declaring the presence of the “Sea Peoples,” who are later identified as “Philistines.”

  • Biblical References:
    • Joshua 17:11, 16
    • Judges 1:27
    • 1 Samuel 31:10, 12
    • 2 Samuel 21:12
    • 1 Kings 4:12
    • 1 Chronicles 7:29
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 09:26 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

This is Caesarea Philippi

After Dan, we will travel about 4 miles to the city of Caesarea Philippi.  It is located at the southwest base of Mount Hermon at approximately 1150 ft above sea level, at the headwaters for the Jordan River.  Being almost 25 miles to the north of the Sea of Galilee, the location was strategic in defending the fertile plains to the west.  Before the Hellenistic Period, the name of the area is relatively unknown.  However, a shrine built there to the idols Baal-gad or Baal-hermon (Joshua 11:17ff; Judges 3:3; 1 Chronicles 5:23) may have been the actual cave site discussed next.

A cave of individual note is located there where a spring emerges and particularly floods during the spring rains.  Greeks who came to stay there dedicated the existing shrine to their idol “Pan,” and “the Nymphs.”  During the reign of Antiochus the Great (ca. 200 BC), the name of the city was refined to Panion (or Paneion).  The title remained for the region and would etymologically change to “Paneas.” 

As a side note of particular value for cultural understanding, Pan (meaning “all” in Greek) was the idolatrous god of the wild, untamed mountains, shepherds and flocks, simple music, sexuality, and an association with the Nymphs.  He was half goat and half man, whose appearance frightened more than attracted others.  However, his music on a set of handmade pipes constructed of reeds cut down while pursuing a nymph named Syrinx was seductive.  The sexual focus on Pan’s fiction developed into sordid stories of rape, homosexuality, and bestiality.  Even the word “nymph (+mania)” is used in psychological terms today in reference to those with sexual addictions.  The story continues that Pan loved naps even more than his nymphs and disturbing him was at one’s peril.  Once angered, Pan could let out a shrieking voice so terrifying, that all who heard it would “panic,” hence, the origin of the word.  Legend stated that the overwhelming feeling of fright one had when lost in the mountain wilderness was the presence of Pan.  He is the only “god” in Greek mythology to have died. 

However, the cave carried an even extended myth to the locals there.  They believed that the opening of the cave (where the shrine was built) served as a gateway to “Hades.”  In this underworld, the fertility gods (such as Pan) would sleep throughout the winter.  Every year when the spring would come flooding out of the cave, they believed the fertility gods were awakening and coming forth.  Horrible acts of worship occurred around this cave and city.  Prostitution and bestiality were openly practiced as well as ritual human sacrifice.  The cave was literally seen as the entrance and exit to “hell.”

Understanding this gives a more comprehensive context to the understanding of Matthew 16:13ff.  Of all the places for a Jewish Rabbi to bring His students, Caesarea Philippi had to be of some question in the minds of the disciples.  Not only would it be the equivalent of holding a midnight Bible study in Patpong, Bangkok (red light district), regardless of one’s belief in idols or not, it would be next to the notorious opening to the underworld. 

Here Christ stands in Caesarea Philippi with His disciples and asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  Amid a hub of hedonistic idolatry, the question is answered by Peter in almost a purely Jewish fashion (“John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah”).  It would be akin to the typical “church answer” to open questions.  But undoubtedly, the eerie location had to be on their minds.  Then Jesus asks Peter the same question, except regarding him personally.  “Who do you say that I am?” Then Peter gives his great confession of faith.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  But what Jesus speaks next is phenomenally connected to the geographical context.  Jesus calls him “Peter (masculine - Petros),” which essentially means “rocky.”  Then Christ says it is upon this “rock (feminine – petras),” that He will build His church, and the gates of “Hades” will not overpower it.  Thus, while standing in front of stone shrines to idols, Jesus proclaims His church to be built on the “rock” of the confession of true faith.  Moreover, before this legendary doorway for the underworld and the gods, He states that even the gates of hell will not prevail against His church.  Not only would this crush imaginary fears, but true fears of evil as well.  Then adding to the wonderful news, Jesus tells them that He will hand them the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”  So, the false gate of hell is vanquished with no power and the entrance to the kingdom of heaven is at their hand.

Going back in time before the coming of Christ, Herod the Great (20 BC) was given the district of Paneas by Augustus.  In response, Herod built a temple constructed of white marble to honor the Emperor.  Herod dies shortly thereafter (4 BC), and Philip inherits the area as a part of his tetrarchy.  He reconstructs the city and renames it “Caesarea,” in honor of Augustus.  Philip used his name in conjunction with Caesarea, to distinguish it separately from the existing city of Caesarea.  Agrippa II (ca. 53 AD) increased the size of the city and changed the name to Neronias, to honor Nero.  The name did not stick, however.  Josephus records that during the First Jewish War, Vespasian and his legions rested in the city.  After the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, Emperor Titus sends some of the captives to Caesarea Philippi to have them thrown to wild beasts. 

The name of the city fell back to Paneas in later Roman and Byzantine periods.  After the invasion of the Muslims, they adopted the name into the Arabic form, “Banias.”

  • Biblical References
    • Matthew 16:13
    • Mark 8:27
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 09:00 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Friday, November 02 2018

This is Tiberias

During our Day 5 tour of Caesarea, Megiddo, and Nazareth, we will be staying two nights in the area of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.  In comparison to the antiquities of most places in the region, Tiberias is fairly young, being established in and around 20 AD.  When Herod Antipas (see genealogical flow chart below) came into power, he built the city to rule (as a capital) his tetrarchy of Galilee and Perea.  It was strategically located on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee (also referred to later as “Lake Tiberias) between the Sea to the east and the hill country to the west.  Hot springs were nearby (which had been described as hot enough to cause injury) and the region was noted for its excellent produce of figs, wine, wheat, and barley, which were sold in the Tiberian market. 

As the construction of the city ensued, tombs were accidentally discovered which caused alarm for the Jews involved.  Declaring the site as “unclean,” most of the Jews refused to participate in the construction.  Therefore, Antipas used a blend of Gentiles, some Jews who were willing to stay, and slaves who had been freed.  Some of these people were landless, so the attraction to work and live in a new city was obvious.  Josephus wrote of the odd mix of the poor and foreigners that were used to populate the city.  Antipas named the city in honor of Emperor Tiberius and minted coins at the city with one side stating, “Of Herod The Tetrarch,” and on the other, “Tiberias.”  The earliest date on the coins is 24 AD, which correlates to the completion of the construction. 

Within the city, Antipas built markets, a stadium, baths, and an elaborate royal palace perched overlooking the city.  He decorated the palace with statues of animals that Jews took particular abhorrence.  During the First Jewish Revolt, it was the first building to be destroyed.  It also housed what would be referred to as the “finest synagogue in Galilee.”

Herod Antipas would eventually be exiled by Emperor Caligula in 39 AD and replaced with Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamne (see below).  Agrippa suddenly died and the region and title went under the Roman authority from Caesarea.  By 61 AD, Nero gives control to Herod Agrippa II, son of Agrippa I.  Though he technically ruled Tiberias and neighboring lands to the end of the century, he was ousted by the Jews heading into the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD), because he sided with Rome. 

When Vespasian took the throne in 69 AD as Emperor, he led a charge against Tiberias to which they easily surrendered.  He spared the city and returned the control to Agrippa.  But in the process, the Vespasian ordered 12,000 refugees from Taricheae to be executed in the stadium.  An additional 6,000 were sent to build Nero’s canal at Corinth, and 30,400 were sold as slaves.  Agrippa subsequently dishonored the city by moving the capitol to Sepphoris.  In the Second Jewish Revolt, Emperor Hadrian abolished the Jewish municipal government altogether in Judea. 

Despite the wars, Tiberias retained its position for marketing to the Roman Empire.  Agriculture and fishing, along with many other goods and services flowed through the city.  Tiberias was also known for exceptionally clear glass production.  By the 2ndC AD, Jews began returning and the city became a Jewish center for education and study.  In an ironic twist, the city once declared “unclean” became one of the 4 pillars of the sacred community.  In 150 AD, the Sanhedrin is moved from Sepphoris to Tiberias.  Institutions of rabbinical learning were established and eventually, the Mishnah was compiled there (220 Ad).  The Tiberian form of vowel pointing was invented, and the Palestinian Talmud was written in the 4thC AD. 

The Talmud spoke of 13 synagogues existing in Tiberias.  Within the synagogues was a form of Jewish denominationalism, with Babylonian Jews meeting separately from the “Jews of Tarsus” who met separately from the special synagogue of the city council.  Though Constantine built the first church recorded there and established a bishopric over the city, Christianity never really took hold, even after Emperor Justinian (527 AD) passed a law that banned all Jewish government in Tiberias and handed it over to Christian authorities.  The Persian Invasion of 614 AD, followed by the Muslim Arabs in 636 AD changed the religious landscape to what it largely reflects today. 

However, one interesting fact remained throughout this time of occupation; Tiberias became the center for a group called “The Masoretes.”  These are the scholars who are largely responsible for what is referred to as the “vocalization” of the Hebrew Bible.  What this means, is that they inserted vowels between the consonants of the Hebrew words (which are otherwise assumed in pronunciation).  In doing so, otherwise, single scrolls were doubled in length, turning them into 2 scrolls.  This is why we have 1st and 2nd scrolls of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

Throughout Tiberias history, it has largely been subject to severe earthquakes.  It was almost completely destroyed on January 1, 1837. 

  • Biblical References
    • John 6:1, 23; 21:1

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Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:20 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Friday, November 02 2018

This is Tel Aviv

The modern city of Tel Aviv was originally founded on the outskirts of the ancient city of Joppa (contemporary “Jaffa”) in 1909.  In the scope of Israel and the Middle East, this would classify Tel Aviv as being a relatively ‘new’ city.  Tel Aviv’s growth eventually took over a large portion of the area and now encompasses the historical city (Joppa).  They were merged in 1950.  Its name means “Ancient Hill of Spring.”

All of what would be considered contemporary or secular (“this worldly”) in Israel is found in Tel Aviv.  It is second in population (over 440,000) to Jerusalem and is ranked 34th on an economic scale to the global community.  It has a large technology sector industry that is known as “Silicon Wadi” in parallel comparison to “Silicon Valley” in California, USA.  It has earned the reputation of the “party capital of the Middle East” and boasts a round-the-clock entertainment business culture.  Since its founding, the city was purposed to be modeled after cities in Europe. 

In contrast to the contemporary nature of Tel Aviv, the ancient city of Joppa is mentioned in historical antiquities dating as far back as Thutmose III in the 15thC BC.  The Papyrus Anastasi I describes the Syro-Palestinian geography of the 13thC BC, which included Joppa.  Located in the tribal territory of Dan (Joshua 19:46), the cedar timbers from Lebanon used by Solomon to build the temple were shipped through Joppa and transported by land to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 2:15).  It is also mentioned as the port at which Jonah hired a vessel to flee from the presence of God to go to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3).

When reading history concerning Tel Aviv, much of what is written is based on anti-Israel revisionism.  Inhabitants from Israel are often referred to as “immigrants” to the region.  This gives the notion that land had never been conveyed to them by God and was originally belonging to the Arabs.  Moreover, revisionist history is being taught in most major universities that Israel essentially did not exist until May 14, 1948.  Tel Aviv had been the temporary location for the State of Israel’s governmental affairs, until moving to Jerusalem as a capitol in 1949.  However, in 1980, continued Muslim objections became a point of contention, and the UN assembly directed over 13 embassies to be relocated from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  While many US presidents, including the last 6, have promised to move the American Embassy back to Jerusalem (thus, recognizing it as the capital of Israel), it was not until President Trump that the event actually occurred.

Tel Aviv is currently estimated at 93% Jewish, 1% Christian, and 1% Muslim.  The remaining 5% are non-affiliated.  There are a reported 544 synagogues.  However, the overwhelming percentage of “Jews” should not be misconstrued as all being directly related to religiously practicing Judaism.  In Tel Aviv, there are 2 major factions of Jews – one religious and one secular.  As of 2008, a center for secular Jewish studies has been established in the city.  This may pose as an oxymoron to some, but the title ‘Jew’ is no longer singularly defined in religious terms in Tel Aviv.  Instead, it is taken more in reference to the historical and cultural concerns therein.

Additionally, the secular influence has also become a segue to the pro-homosexual movement in Tel Aviv.  The city hosts the largest annual homosexual parade in the Middle East and Asia.  As labeled by American Airlines as the “best gay city in the world,” Tel Aviv is one of the most popular homosexual vacation destinations in tourist travel. 

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:11 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Friday, November 02 2018

This is Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls)

The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) are one of the greatest biblically related finds in the history of archaeology and the study of antiquities.  981 fragments were discovered in 11 caves and constituted the oldest copies of Scripture we have to date.  Thousands of scroll fragments have been found in the Dead Sea area.  The DSS are famous for some being largely intact, as opposed to fragmented pieces of Scripture and other articles. 

The stories of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are somewhat different.  All of them tell of a 15-year-old boy named Muhammad adh-Dhib of the Bedouin tribe Taamirah, who found them around February or March of 1947.  All differ on what the boy was actually doing when he stumbled across them.  One story says he was looking for a lost sheep in the caves.  Another story states that he was moving smuggled supplies from Jordan to Bethlehem.  Yet another says he was seeking shelter from an approaching storm.   Possibly the most popular one tells of the boy and his friend throwing rocks into the nearby caves.  They noticed a peculiar sound when one of the stones hit something that sounded like pottery being shattered, similar to how one might know what breaking glass sounds like. 

When the first cave was entered, the boys discovered several jars (most of which were broken) with scrolls of leather wrapped in linen cloth.  The scrolls were extremely brittle and decomposed but had writing that the boys did not recognize.  Adh-Dhib and his friends took the scrolls to a Muslim sheik in the Bethlehem market area.  Seeing they were not in Arabic, he passed them over to another merchant.  Somewhere along the line, the largest and oldest of the scrolls from the writings of the prophet Isaiah was offered for £20 in Bethlehem, which was rejected because it was not believed to be very old.  Ultimately, through a chain of events, many of the scrolls ended up in the hands of Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue-Samuel (Syrian).  Professor Sukenik of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem acquired others from the Muslim sheik at Bethlehem.  More scrolls were purchased from the Bedouins.  Finally, George Isaiah (a merchant in Jerusalem) convinced one of the Bedouins to take him to the cave where the scrolls were found.  Among other artifacts, one large jar remained that had been considered too large for removal. 

The first expert who was consulted for the scrolls was Stephan Hannah Stephan, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church.  He was a well-known Orientalist who worked with the Department of Antiquities of Palestine.  Upon his inspection, he confidently pronounced the scrolls to be worthless.  However, his field of expertise was in Arabic history as opposed to Hebrew paleography.  Thus, his skepticism betrayed his observation.

The discovery happened at what most would view as an important time in Israel’s history.  It would be on November 25, 1947, that the United Nations passed a resolution to partition the Palestinian area.  The relationship between Israel and the Arabic people became more hostile than before and cooperation with the scrolls diminished.  Through a series of events, the scrolls were largely acquired by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, as well as others that were subsequently discovered in additional caves.  It would not be until 1991 that the scrolls would be released and published on digital medium for global observation.  However, it was not without a great deal of stress and trial to open them to the public.

While there are some disputes over the authorship of the scrolls, the majority opinion is that they were written and stored by the Qumran sect of the Essenes.  The Essenes were composed of an ascetic group of Jews who felt the necessity to separate themselves from the “unholy” in Jerusalem.  Pliny the Elder (post 70 AD) recorded and described a group of Essenes that were living in a desert community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, near Ein-Gedi.  The reason for the scrolls being in the caves is believed to have been to hide them from the Romans during the First Jewish War (66-68 AD).  The community at Qumran was ultimately sacked and thus, the hidden scrolls remained.    

Qumran is an archaeological site consisting of 270 caves located in the West Bank.  The area is composed of a plateau with sheer cliffs and extremely difficult navigation.  Structures dating back to the 7th and 8thc BC have been excavated, extending into the Second Jewish War (132-35 AD).  There is a major cemetery 50 miles east of the community with over 1,100 tombs.  Interestingly, one major section of the graveyard contains only male bodies.  In another section, both male and female are present, as well as infant bodies.  It is observed that very few of those buried there had exceeded the age of 40. 

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:05 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, November 01 2018

This is Petra

On the first place of visit in our journey, we are scheduled to tour the ancient city of Petra (Greek - meaning “the Rock”).  As much is asserted about the origin of the city, much is left unproven at this historical juncture.  We know more about its existence from the 4thC BC to our time than prior.

The line of the Edomites is intrinsically connected to Petra.  But more specifically, the Nabateans have a deep-rooted history with the city.  The Nabateans are descendants from the Arab kingdom of Nabatea and had a significant role in conjunction with the Israelites in the 2ndC BC, by supporting the Maccabeans, Judas and Jonathan.  For centuries they were considered nomadic.  Later they will be more specific settlers. 

There is equal evidence for dispute as to the origin of the Nabatean people being from either southern or northern Arabia.  Regardless, we can definitively pick up in 312 BC, when the Nabateans were centered in their capital city of Petra.  This is an impressive period for them because they successfully defend themselves from an attack by a commander by the name of, “Antigonous the One-Eyed.”  While you may have never heard of him, you undoubtedly are familiar with his commander – Alexander the Great. 

Petra was important as a part of the trade route (particularly aromatics/spice) from South Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea.  They became the principal carriers of frankincense and myrrh.  They established several settlements in the caravan routes from the Hijaz (also called, “Hejaz”) and Damascus, and between Petra and Gaza.  With Petra not only being located in juxtaposition to the King’s Highway, the Nabateans had also gained control over many of the oases (pl. oasis) along trade routes, giving them a more economical advantage in transportation marketing.  This set Petra as the capital of the greatest commercial kingdom in its region.

The Nabatean’s involvement with Israel becomes even more entrenched with Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas (also known as “The Tetrarch”), who marries the Nabatean princess, Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas IV.  The reason this may be of interest in your journey is because Antipas divorces her to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias (Matthew 14:1ff).  John the Baptist had an issue with this, and subsequently, Herodias managed to finagle a plan to have John the Baptist beheaded.  As we leave Petra, northward along the King’s Highway to the west there will be hills that border the Dead Sea.  This is where the hilltop fortress of Machaerus is located.  It is the place where John the Baptist was eventually beheaded. 

As is with most ancient cities, Petra has been changed structurally and architecturally through the centuries.  When the Romans took the Nabatean stronghold in 106 AD (under Trajan), many architectural changes were made.  By the 3rdC AD, they carved out the magnificent Roman temple structure, ed-Deir.  It towers 175ft high with beautiful colonnades of typical Greco-Roman features. 

After Emperor Trajan’s conquest of Petra, the capital of Provincia Arabia was moved to another location.  During the Byzantine Empire (395-1453 AD), Petra reflects some Christian influence in monastical occupation.  The “monks of St. Aaron” remained in the area as late as the dates of the Crusades.  Yet Petra declined.  For a period of time, even its name was lost, and it became referred to as “Kerak.” 

During the period of the Crusades, Petra regained relevance for its geographical location as a trade route.  During this period, a fortress called “Wâdî Mûsā” (“Valley of Moses”) was built outside of the Sîq (see last paragraph for description).  Needing financial support, the Latin Kingdom used the center as a taxing port for caravans.  However, after the defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 AD, the Muslims regained control of the entire region and the practice stopped. 

J. L. Burckhardt is often credited with discovering Petra in 1812.  This is a contemporary “discovery” at best, as Petra is obviously far more ancient.  Much more attention to restoration and preservation has been given over the last couple of centuries to the city and its surrounding features.  It has been popularized in recent times by the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”  The location where the incredible scenes of people riding through a giant fissure in the red sandstone, is called the Sîq, which we will get to experience firsthand.

  • Biblical references: “Sela / Selah”; “Seir (“sons of”)”
    • 2 Kings 14:7; 2 Chronicles 25”11ff; (Amaziah’s reign in Judah – 796-767 BC;
    • Isaiah 16:1; (the Prophet Isaiah - 739-681 BC).
    • 2 Corinthians 11:32; King Aretas (Nabatean)
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 05:15 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, November 01 2018

This is Nazareth

Continuing our journey on Day 5, we will travel north of the Valley of Jezreel to the town of Jesus’ youth, Nazareth.  The town is situated between the Sea of Galilee (15 miles east) and the Mediterranean (20 miles west).  This city is where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear Jesus.  After His birth in Bethlehem, they returned to Nazareth as their home.  Scripture refers to Nazareth as the village where Joseph and Mary resided and raised Jesus.  When Jesus first set foot to begin in His ministry in the flesh on earth, He left Nazareth to visit the towns of Galilee.  When He returned there and spoke in the synagogue, He was met with a harsh reaction.  Many people identified Christ as coming from Nazareth, to which some gave a less than favorable reaction (“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”).

Matthew 4:15 quotes Isaiah 9:1 as a prophecy fulfilled, referring to “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  It is important to note here that Jesus spent His childhood in a city within a region that did not have a closed-minded Judaizing command that held foreigners with contempt.  This will be a decisive factor for Christianity to reach the world as opposed to being isolated from those outside of Judaism. 

Scripture states that prophecy was being fulfilled in Jesus being a “Nazarene.”  Most proposals are agreeably problematic though.  Some have related this to a wordplay being used by Matthew in relation to Isaiah 11:1. This would mean that Matthew is using “Nazarene” as the Hebrew word “nēşer,” which would mean “branch” or “root.”  Another take is that the word is connected with an earlier Hebrew name of “Nazara,” which would refer to the entire district of the land.  In this case, it would mean “Galilean.”  Nevertheless, in Acts 24:5, an attorney by the name of Tertullus levies charges against Paul by saying he is a “ringleader of the sect of Nazarenes.”  While it carries a slightly different spelling, it is clearly a derogatory name used by Jews towards Christians. 

During the Herodian and pre-Herodian periods, Nazareth was approximately the size of a 60-acre plot of land with an estimated population of 480 persons (1stC AD).  The village has been understood to be purely Jewish as late as the 4thC AD. When the failure of the First Jewish Revolt occurred in Jerusalem, 24 divisions of priests fled northward from the temple.  One of the priest’s families named Hapizez settled in Nazareth.  This priestly “character” in Nazareth carried deep into the 3rdc AD according to the Midrash Qoholeth. 

Nazareth classically is referred to as a “tiny village” with no mention of a church from the records of Eusebius and Jerome.  However, during the Constantinian period, at least two main churches were built: The Church of Gabriel and the Church of Annunciation.  Some caves in the area were set apart as shrines to Mary and Jesus.  During 679-704 AD, Muslim conquest held the Church of Annunciation hostage and demanded a very large ransom from the Christians, which they paid. 

When excavations ensued in the late 19th and early 20thC, several interesting artifacts were recovered from the general region and caves discovered beneath the Church of Annunciation.  A Neanderthal skull was also unearthed near Nazareth in 1934.  Caves were discovered that were adorned with painted plaster, a cross, and inscribed prayers to Jesus in Greek language.  These caves are adjoined to a building that has been identified as a Jewish-Christian synagogue.  Excavations also revealed that under the beautiful mosaic floors therein, from an earlier period, was a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) with seven steps leading down into the water.  

Today, Nazareth is the largest Arabic city in Israel with a 69% Muslim and 30.9% Christian population of 210,000 people.  Nazareth has a thriving high-tech industry, thus earning the title, “Silicon Valley of the Arab Community.”

  • Biblical References:
    • Matthew 2:23; 21:11
    • Mark 1:9
    • Luke 1:26; 2:4, 39, 51; 4:16, 28-30
    • John 1:45, 46
    • Acts 24:5
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 05:12 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, November 01 2018

This is Mt. Nebo

After touring Madaba, our journey will take us to a ridge that rises in Jordan approximately 2,330ft called “Mount Nebo.”  In Numbers 20, the nation of Israel is contending with Moses and Aaron because they have no water.  It would be ignoring the context not to also see that Moses and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, has recently died and been buried.  Undoubtedly grieving, in combination with the complaining of the people, clearly leaves Moses irritated with their attitudes.  Thus, he carries out an order from God to take “the rod” with his brother Aaron to speak to the rock before the eyewitness of the people, so that it would, “yield its water.”  However, standing before the rock and the people, Moses makes 3 critical errors.  Instead of speaking to the rock, he, 1) lets his anger take control of him and chastises the people; 2) takes partial credit (glory) for what is about to happen (“shall we bring forth water”); 3) and he struck the rock, not once, but twice to bring forth the water.  This act cost Moses his entrance into the Promised Land. 

However, in God’s grace, He does allow Moses to view the land of Canaan from a mountain of the Abarim, which was in the land of Moab opposite Jericho.  It was called then, as it is today, Mt Nebo.  This will also be where he will die.  Scripture states that Moses was buried in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor (Deuteronomy 34:6).  This would be in the valley called Wâdī Ąyun Mûsā.  Scripture also states that no man knows his burial place “to this day.”  Yet in typical custom not to disappoint, tourists and pilgrims that came to the area during the Byzantine era were pointed to a tomb declared to be Moses’ burial site.  As demonstrated throughout the centuries, there is no shortage of traditions and legends for locations in the area concerning Moses and related events.

The contemporary location of Mt Nebo is with the headland called Râs es-Siâghah, which is 6 miles northwest of Madaba in East Jordan https://bibleatlas.org/full/nebo.htm .  There are several springs at the foot of the northern slope that supply water to farming regions to the west and to the town of Madaba in the southeast.  The springs are referred to as ‘Ąyun Mûsā, which means “the springs of Moses.”  There is also a wadi to the west and a ruin on the north and the south (see, “This is Petra”) that holds his name as well. 

The Byzantium monastery subsequently settled into the area and built a basilica that hosted a Presbytery, baptistery, chapel, and diakonikon baptistery (a central place where the priests could wash themselves and the holy articles, as well as a storage area for pertinent books and other objects precious to them).  The ruins are in exceptionally good condition despite the Islamic invasions of the 7thC AD. 

Archaeological excavations have borne out that the name of Nebo has been faithfully kept to the mountain and region before the 4thC AD.  Eusebius’ Onomasticon (see, “This is Madaba”) demonstrates that the mountain was already known by the name long before the Byzantium inhabitation. 

  • Biblical References:
    • “Nebo” - Deuteronomy 32:49, 34:1;
    • Moses – Numbers 20:1ff;
Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 12:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
 

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