Continued from last week…
I have already discussed the amazing tiny-ness (new word) of the Holy Land, but now I return to the absolute itty-bitty-ness of the area in which Jesus did most of His work. This area is called the Gospel Triangle and is a small patch of ground beginning at Capernaum. One walks up the hill from the valley of the Sea of Galilee to Chorazin. We are not quite sure that the current site actually is Chorazin. They have found no ruins there that date to the time of Christ, but there are plenty of ruins from just a little while later and the earlier town is there somewhere.
Bethsaida, which I have already mentioned, is another four miles, give or take, to the east. It was a fishing village built where the northern part of the Jordan flowed into the Sea of Galilee by boat. Capernaum is just about five miles southwest of Bethsaida along the lake shore and that completes the triangle. These three little towns are named in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as the places where Jesus performed his greatest miracles, yet they failed to repent. Because these towns rejected the Gospels they would not be lifted up, but would be worse off than Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment. They would not be exalted but forgotten and so it was that these three towns were in fact lost to history in the first few centuries after the time of Jesus. They were only rediscovered by modern excavators.
Now they are uninhabited museums filled with tourists and pilgrims but have no real inhabitants. It is interesting to think that this is only one place in the Gospels where Chorazin is mentioned and Bethsaida is not mentioned much more. Jesus did most of his work there, yet they seem forgotten in the Gospels. One remembers the words of the Gospel of John, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) It is amazing to realize that we only have a taste of Jesus’ ministry presented to us in the Gospels.
All the wonder He worked in Chorazin and Bethsaida go unmentioned. Jesus seems to have made Capernaum his headquarters when He was there and one sees a marvelous modern church built over ancient ruins. In these excavations, visible under a glass floor of the present modern building there is an ancient house in which there is a very special room, which was plastered and marked with graffiti referring to St. Peter. The central room of this ancient house contained the remains of oil lamps, but no cooking ceramics. Thus, it is theorized that this first century structure was a church built into the house of St. Peter. Some scholars say nonsense, but what do they know?
From here we move on to Mt. Tabor, the place venerated as the site of the transfiguration of Jesus. Mt. Tabor is a natural stone outcropping, not a typical “tell” which a hill is caused by a succession of ancient villages built one on top of another. It has been fortified at times, but seems never to have been occupied by a village. It is quite a walk up and there is no easy source of water there as far as I know. Jesus was transformed in the sight of Peter, James and John who wanted to put up three booths, one for Jesus, and the others for Moses and Elijah who appeared with Him. This is a clear reference to the Jewish feast of booths. It is interesting to note that Mount Tabor was one of the mountain peaks on which a beacon was lit to summon the Jews of Galilee for the celebration of the Holy Days. A light summoned people to the temple in Jerusalem, and a brilliant light on the mountain summoned us to the heavenly Jerusalem when Jesus was transformed.
As with all things archaeological, the identification of Mt. Tabor with the Mount of the Transfiguration is disputed. The New Testament says that Jesus brought Peter, James and John to a high mountain and that Jesus was transformed into a radiant light before their eyes. The Gospels omit which mountain this all happened. The earliest mention that Tabor is the mountain comes from a local theologian, Origen in the 3rd century. The town of Naim, now called Nein is down the hill form Mount Tabor. It is there that Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead as his funeral procession left the town. He did this just after coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John. He raised the boy from the dead as if to repeat the promise of resurrection that he had made on the mountain. It seems reasonable that if Naim was at the foot of the Mount of the Transfiguration, that Tabor was that mountain.
The present church and the Franciscan priory were built in 1924 by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi on the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church and a 12th-century crusader church. The visit is well worth the hair raising cab ride up the side of the mountain which is much bigger than it looks from a distance.
More to come...