Years ago, I opened the drawer in the nightstand by my husband’s side of the bed and discovered an old photo album belonging to him. In it I saw many pictures familiar to me. But one made me stop and laugh. It was a shot of him sitting atop a camel with pyramids in the background. I assumed he had paid for one of those “get your photo on the cover of a travel magazine” shots at a novelty store. So I asked him where he had the photo made.
Looking somewhat confused, he answered, “Egypt.”
“You’ve been to Egypt?” I was shocked. We’d been married five years, and I was just making this discovery?
“That Holy Land trip I did with my parents in high school—it included a few days in Egypt.”
Clearly I had no idea.
Recently when I had the chance to join twenty journalists in Israel at the invitation of their Ministry of Tourism, my husband sent me with his blessing. All those years since his trip, as he’d read about Jesus “going up” to Jerusalem or “down to Bethany,” he had appreciated his first-hand knowledge gained by on-site observation. And he wanted the same for me.
So I went. And after I’d been gone a few days, he saw my Facebook photo updates and added this comment: “Jerusalem looks the same as in 1974—the Wailing Wall, the streets, city walls, sealed gate, the Dome, Mount of Olives, and the Valley of Gehenna….”
And of course he was right, in one sense. Yet I also saw discoveries unearthed since his trip years ago. When rabbi-archaeologist Asher Altov led our group through the newly discovered David’s Palace site, he told us, “I can show you stuff found here in the past few days.” The mayor of Jerusalem later told us he visits The City of David monthly and every time he learns of some new find.
Below I’ve included a sampling of what my husband missed. These and others provide reasons why anyone who hasn’t been to Israel, either ever or lately, might want to put a trip to the Holy Land on the priority list.
• Bethsaida (Aramaic for “House of Fishing”). The village home of Peter and Andrew, Philip, James and John, was discovered only nineteen years ago. And no one has built a church on it. Bethsaida is the only place visitors can actually see the remains of an entire first-century city left untouched for 2,000 years. The most significant find for Christians is a home where archaeologists found more than one hundred fishing items such as lead hooks, anchors, and weights. Clearly a fishing family occupied the house, and Mark 1:16 tells us Peter and Andrew were of just such a family in Bethsaida.
• Galilee Boat, also known as the Jesus Boat. During a drought that affected the Sea of Galilee, two brothers discovered the remains of an ancient fishing vessel sticking out of the silt. Over an eleven-day-period in a process that included encasing the boat in a polyurethane shell, the craft was lifted from its mud grave. To date experts date the ancient vessel at 100 BC to 100 AD, and its structure and features are consistent with fishing boats mentioned throughout the Gospels. The craft’s twelve different types of wood suggest multiple repairs, pointing to both the longevity of the boat and the poverty of its owner(s). As of 2000, tourists can see it on display.
• The Pool of Siloam. Remember the story about Jesus at the Pool of Siloam healing a blind man with a mud mixture and telling him to wash it from his eyes (John 9)? Within the past five years, a sewage pipe broke in a Kidron Valley neighborhood near Hezekiah’s Spring, and a repair team’s bulldozer unearthed this pool from Jesus’ time.
• Nehemiah’s Wall. In November 2007, The Jerusalem Post, reported, “The remnants of a wall from the time of the prophet Nehemiah have been uncovered in an archeological excavation in Jerusalem’s ancient City of David…. The section of the 2,500-year-old wall was dated by pottery found during a recent dig at the site.” Our guide noted that the stones are thrown together consistent with the skill level—or lack thereof—and haste with which Nehemiah’s project was completed.
• King David’s Palace and waterway. In March of 2008 King David’s waterway, which the Bible references in 2 Samuel 5:8, was identified. New findings suggest the water system served to purify David’s warriors after they conquered the Jebusite city outside of present-day Jerusalem. In addition in the past six months evidence has come to light that confirms with relative certainty that David’s Palace has been found here.
• Synagogue at Magdal. In September 2009 a synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BC to AD 100) was discovered in Mary Magdalene’s hometown of Magdal. The synagogue joins just six others in the world known to date to the Second Temple period. The artist who crafted the menorah in its center probably saw first-hand the menorah in the Temple.
• Cardo in Old Jerusalem. After Titus’s troops crushed the Jewish rebellion of AD 70, an eight-mile-long colonnaded cardo was built, running across the city from north to south. The cardo, or column-lined “Main Street Marketplace” was discovered some years ago, but within the past few months an impressive portion has been uncovered near the Temple.
• Bethany beyond the Jordan. One significant new location lies in Jordan. The site is rich with biblical history as it’s where Elijah was taken up. And four hundred years later, John lived in this wilderness. A relatively recent discovery now also places it among the sites where Jesus walked. When I was there last year, the Assistant Director of the Bethany beyond the Jordan Baptismal Site, Rustom Mkhjian, offered to hop on our bus and give us a personal tour. He asserts that this is where John baptized Jesus based on the Bible, information from an old pilgrimage route, an ancient mosaic of the Holy Land with this site marked, and archeological discoveries on the site itself. It took a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan and then military assistance in removing eleven land mines before archaeologists could excavate and the government could allow tourists. But now visitors can see the ancient steps that led down to the place, now dry, as the river follows a different course today. In that dry hole lies an ancient church buried beneath centuries of mud. Most ancient churches had set floor plans, and the alteration in this church with steps leading down to the river provides a major clue. A member of our team recommitted his life to Christ on the trip and asked to be baptized here. No matter where the water flows, the Spirit is still at work here. As we finished, the sky opened above the site, and the sun broke through the clouds shining down with its golden rays. The phenomenon made it easy to imagine the Father announcing, “This is my beloved Son…”
Why go—or return—to the Holy Land when all space is holy? Because such a journey allows us to more readily imagine and engage with the stories and people of our historic Faith. God penetrated time and space, and He chose this place as His setting. To see where these events happened allows us to more easily visualize the chapters that have passed and how we, His characters, are still part of the unfolding plot. As my friend Diane wrote after returning from Israel, “I’m reading [the Bible] and underlining places I can now picture and names that trigger memories… The visual context for history has been amazing. We walked where Jesus walked. And He and other biblical figures became more real.”
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• Check out The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land, written by Dr. Charles Dyer (ThM, 1986; PhD, 1986), Greg Hatteberg, (ThM, 1992). Their book provides biblical and historical background for the most-visited sites along with facts about some of the lesser-known locations.
• In addition to archaeological sites, some museums have expanded. Two deserving special mention are as follows: At Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s second most-visited tourist site (after the Western Wall), a new museum complex opened in March 2005. It includes the Holocaust History Museum, four times the size of the previous museum. And the 80,000 square feet of new space in The Israel Museum is set to open in conjunction with the celebration of the Museum’s forty-fifth anniversary in May 2010.
• Approximately every other year Dallas Seminary leads a trip to the Holy Land that includes an extension to Jordan. Maybe you should start planning now to go—or return—with us in 2011. It promises to be an inspirational eduvacation. For more on tourism in Israel, go here. For more about Dallas Seminary’s upcoming Holy Land trip, go here.