Digging the Bible

Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 18 2008 7:41 AM

Digging the Bible

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I have come very late to Bible tourism—like, 1,700 years late. In the early fourth century A.D., Queen Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and discovered the site of the crucifixion and the remains of the true cross (and maybe the tomb of Adam, too). Not a bad week's work.

David Plotz David Plotz
David Plotz, the deputy editor of Slate, is working on a book based on his "Blogging the Bible" series.

What were the Crusades if not a very long Christian tour of the Holy Land, complete with bad food and hostile innkeepers? Today, the majority of Bible tourists are Christians coming to walk where Jesus walked—Catholics, various kinds of Orthodox, and, particularly in recent years, American Protestant evangelicals.

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I'm not a Christian, but I wanted to walk that walk, too. I tried to find a Christian group that would let me glom onto their tour for a day. No dice. But I did find Sar-El Tours, a group, run by Messianic Jews, that leads Christian Holy Land tours. (Messianic Jews are Jews who believe Jesus was the Messiah. See: Jews for Jesus.) They set me up with Leor Ilan, who has been guiding evangelical Protestants around Israel for 15 years.

Though Leor is Israeli and as Jewish as I am, he is the best testimony for Christianity of anyone I've ever met. As we drive out to the Jordan valley, he tells me his incredible story: A few years ago, Leor, then a strapping young man in his 30s, fell victim to a brutal heart infection. He declined rapidly and was certain to die before he could get a heart transplant in Israel. A church in Dallas that had toured Israel with Leor heard about his plight and sprang into action. They flew him, his wife, and their baby daughter first-class to Texas, put them up in the finest hotel in town, and got Leor bumped to the front of the heart-transplant list. A wealthy oil widow who belonged to the church donated $500,000 to pay for the transplant. Leor got the heart and is as healthy as he ever was. Needless to say, he loves Christians.

I ask Leor to give me a life-of-Jesus day, so we drive north through the Jordan valley to the Galilee, Jesus' old stomping ground. We pass Jericho, which Leor points out to me in the distance, saying, "If we were on a tour bus, this is when the pastor would start singing 'Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.' " When I ask him how he deals with the archaeological evidence that Joshua didn't fight the battle of Jericho, and there were no walls to come tumbling down, Leor says that most of his tourists don't care. New Testament tours are much less intellectually fraught than the Old Testament excursions I've been having. That's partly because the life of Jesus is pretty well-documented and 1,000 years closer than most of the Hebrew Bible, and partly because the New Testament sites don't heighten the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, but mostly because the Christian tourists are unapologetically pilgrims. They are coming for spiritual uplift, not academic debate.

We pull off where the Sea of Galilee flows out into the Jordan River, which is Israel's official tourist baptism site. The actual place where John the Baptist baptized is much farther down the river, but it straddles the armed border between Israel and Jordan. So, the Israeli authorities wisely said: Baptize here! The Jordan is relatively impressive at this spot—a modest stream as opposed to its usual trickle. Even so, it makes the crossing of the Jordan, portrayed in the Book of Joshua as a jumbo miracle requiring major overtime from God, seem a little bit silly. I could hold back this Jordan with a few sandbags and a pair of hip waders.

Lines of buses fill the parking lot, and scores of people stand in the concrete staircases along the banks, waiting to get baptized. Most groups have a pastor with them who does the dipping, but if you arrive clergyless, you can rent one of the on-call pastors. You can also rent white robes for the occasion, buy a bottle of Jordan water, and purchase a DVD of the baptism titled I Was Baptized in the Jordan River.

We make our way past the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (Watch me reading the Sermon on the Mount during an earlier visit to Israel.) Then we pull into Tabgha, a monastery built on the site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Tabgha has a lovely 20th-century church—how often do you hear that phrase?—built on the site of a Byzantine church. The glory is a perfectly preserved fourth-century mosaic of loaves and fishes, placed next to the rock where the miracle is said to have occurred.

The jewel in the crown of the Galilee is Capernaum. All week I have been visiting sites of questionable biblical provenance—the palace of David, etc.—so I am giddy to be at a place that is so, well, biblical. Matthew 9:1 refers to Capernaum as Jesus' "own town." He set up his ministry headquarters, recruited Peter and other disciples, and performed several key miracles here. One remarkable building is the house of Peter, a small structure around which several churches were built during the first millennium A.D. The house, Leor says, is where Jesus would meet with his disciples and discuss his teachings. Jesus may have healed Peter's mother-in-law here, which prompts Leor to joke. "Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. When Jesus asked why he denied him, Peter said it was because he couldn't forgive him for healing his mother-in-law."

But the most amazing building at Capernaum is the synagogue. The visible ruin dates from the fourth century B.C., but beneath it you can see the foundations of a first-century synagogue, believed to be where Jesus taught. As we prepare to enter, Leor stands by the threshold and announces, "Under this site, a dead man was raised up; many demons were cast out; a blind man got his vision back; and many, many sick people were healed." Inside, the synagogue is a Babel. A Hungarian group is singing a hymn in one corner. Followers of the faith healer Benny Hinn are praying in English next to them. A French pastor is preaching just outside the door; a group of Koreans is streaming toward the exit, while a Greek church group and a Polish one are lining up to enter. It's an incredibly moving scene, a rare place where history and faith, archaeology and belief, are one. Whether Jesus raised a dead man here I don't know, but he walked here, and prayed here, and taught here, and the world comes to remember that.

We wend our way slowly back to Jerusalem, dipping into Nazareth and Cana—both gritty Arab cities with rich New Testament histories but little to see—and stopping at Meggido, the ancient town that makes a notorious biblical cameo. Meggido is a marvelous tel, with 27 layers of occupation over thousands of years, but all anyone remembers about it is that before the final battle in the Book of Revelation, the armies will assemble on the plain below "Har Meggido" (the hill of Meggido)—mistranslated as "Armageddon." (Here is a priceless detail: The key excavator of Meggido in the first half of the 20th century was an Englishman named—I am not making this up—P.L.O. Guy.)

On my only Friday in Israel, I stroll in the late afternoon through Jerusalem's Old City to the Western Wall. Jews worship at the Western Wall because it is the closest accessible place to where the temple's holy of holies would have stood, before the Romans destroyed it in A.D. 70. So, the wall is not a biblical site, or even a very old site, as they go. Jews have prayed here for just 800 years.

I put on a yarmulke and wiggle my way through the crowds of Sabbath worshippers to the wall itself. It's an amazing spectacle, a cross-section of world Jewry—the men, anyway, since women worship across a barrier—huge numbers of ultra-Orthodox, including the vast-bearded Hasids in their black frock coats and fur hats and the Litvaks in their dark suits and sharp fedoras; Israeli soldiers with guns and yarmulkes; Americans celebrating bar mitzvahs in Jerusalem; ancients rolled up to the wall in their wheelchairs; and polo-shirted tourists like me. I arrive as the dusk does, as the afternoon sky turns cobalt and then black over the Temple Mount. I find a spot at the wall, put my hand on it, and offer what little prayer I know. I say the Shema. I sing a few verses of "O God Our Help in Ages Past," a favorite hymn from my Episcopal high school, which seems kosher since it is based on Psalm 90. I feel holy, and calm, and warm.

I also feel like a cheat. In my heart, I know there is no reason for me to treat this as a special place. I don't believe God ever lived in the temple here, no matter what it says in my Bible. I don't believe the God of the Jews is any closer to the wall than he is to my attic. This is a sacred place only because other people genuinely, truly believe that God chose our people as his and picked this spot for his home on Earth, and because we wrote a book about it. Because they believe, they come here and pray. And because they come here, I come here and am moved. But I am freeloading on the faith of others. I have come to Israel to see the Bible, and I have seen it gloriously—but as history and anthropology and tradition—not as belief. I will leave Israel thrilled—amazed to have had the chance to dig where Judah Maccabee stood, amazed to have seen the first books of the Bible, amazed to have walked through the maybe ruin of the perhaps palace where the possible David might have lived—but I leave no more certain that God was here when it happened.

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