Just yesterday I returned from a two week group tour of historical sites in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Hosted by the Society for Biblical Studies (SBS) and led by my friend and library director, Tom Phillips, it struck a nice balance of academic and spiritual interests. Many traditional religious sites were extraordinary and moving to behold, and these included the Western Wall, the Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Resurrection / Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Annunciation, the Church at Capernaum, St. George’s Church at Madaba (the location of the Madaba Map), and others.
In terms of educational value, Jerash (Gerasa) in modern day Jordan was the most profound. Unlike most ancient Roman cities, this one was not built over with later or modern construction, so the bulk of the city’s layout and many of its buildings were able to be unearthed and reconstructed. While walking its streets, I gleaned several insights into New Testament texts, insights that may find their way into journal articles as time and opportunity affords.
Sephoris/Zippori was also fascinating in that it played host to the editing of the Mishnah (the most sacred text in Judaism next to the TaNaKh) and, as the closest major city to Nazareth, may have been a destination or even a work location for Jesus. It is instructive here to remember that the Greek word in Mark 6:3 (tekton), usually translated as “carpenter” in English, can just as easily and plausibly be rendered as “builder,” “craftsman,” or even “artisan.” In other words, Jesus may just as likely have been a stone mason or mosaicist as a carpenter, and the roads, buildings, and mosaics of Sephoris and nearby smaller towns (Capernaum, Migdal) may well have been places where Jesus plied his trade.
The site at Migdal, where a synagogue was first discovered in 2009, was just recently opened to visitors. While the site was technically closed on New Year’s Day, an archeologist from the Israeli Antiquities Authority happened to be working on site that day and gave our group an expert tour. He dated the synagogue’s construction no later than 29 CE (the date of a coin in the building’s foundation) and its destruction during the early phases of the Jewish War (ca. 67-68). Since the site was not built over in later years, it is one of the best-preserved and most credible candidates for the earliest synagogue yet discovered. Christian historians and pilgrims will find the site fascinating because of its potential connections to Mary Magdalene (Migdal = Magdala, Mary’s possible hometown), obviously a very popular figure in Christianity through the ages and today, as well as its potential connections to Jesus himself. The Roman Catholic church has built a beautiful church on the site which features the Magdalene and other early Christian women (Luke 8:1) prominently. The altar, designed in the shape of a boat, has as its mast a cross. Looking past the altar to the Sea of Galilee through a huge window, participants in worship will feel as if they are floating in one of the stories set there. The site, along with the hotel currently being constructed there, will almost certainly be a very popular destination for myriads of visitors (scholarly and religious) in coming years.
– Mark Bilby