Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Rev Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land part 8

Rev. Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land continued…

From Capernaum, home of St. Peter and his family we take a long walk of about twenty miles to the little towns of Cana and Nazareth (of course in the 21st century we will take a comfy tour bus). This distance could easily be covered in a day by people who were accustomed to walking as were Jesus and his contemporaries. For us it is an effort to walk to the corner grocery store. Of the two towns Cana was by far the more important. It had a reliable spring of water and had been settled for thousands of years before the birth of Christ. There are a lot of candidates for the Cana of the Bible, but the one commemorated in our times as the site of the wedding at Cana is, at least in my opinion, the best of the bunch because of the testimony of early pilgrims including St Jerome.

Modern excavations beneath the present church have revealed remnants of early first century houses and an ancient basilica. Kfar Kenna, as it is called today, is only a few miles north-east of Nazareth. Remember that Jesus was at the wedding feast with his mother, his relatives and his disciples, according to the second chapter of the gospel of John. For such a crowd to be invited to a wedding, one would think that there must have been some sort of familial or other neighborly association. It makes sense that Cana was just a short walk from Nazareth. Nazareth, however, was about two miles east of nowhere at all. It was about as unimportant as a town can be.

At the time of Christ, it was tiny, about 500 people, though it seems to have had its own synagogue. Fr. Bargil Pixner, a scholar who really knew the Holy Land in the twentieth century, says that much of the royal family of David had remained in Babylon. They were comfortable there. The situation of the returning exiles must have been a little like the return to the Holy land during the upheavals of the twentieth century. The hardy went back. The smart stayed home in New York. “We’ll be going next year after we’ve got the business sorted out. Write. Keep us posted.” 

The Davidic family started to return during the century before Christ. There was talk of the Messiah. The Messiah would of course be a member of the Davidic family. This meant government jobs. When the old royal family started coming back in greater numbers, the Maccabees and the Herodians, not descendants of David were running things, so they settled in two towns near the Sea of Galilee. One was a bit to the east of the Sea of Galilee and was called Kokhaba, or the “the Star” calling to mind the prophecy, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24: 17) This is the only clear mention of anything resembling a Messiah in the Torah.

The other little town was called Nazareth, probably a word meaning “little shoot.”  This calls to mind the prophesy of Isaiah, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots, a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1.) The tiny town of Nazareth, like most ancient towns everywhere, was made up of a lot of people who were cousins. It is interesting to think that the people of this proud little town, by and large descendants of King David, wanted to throw Jesus over a hill for blasphemy when he proclaimed himself the Messiah.

It is also quite remarkable to think that in our times, the Christians of Nazareth, quite possibly descendants of those Nazarenes two thousand years ago, built a stadium in recent times on that same hill to receive Pope Benedict, the vicar of the Messiah. History is an amazing thing.

More to come...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Rev Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land part 7

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...

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 6

The Rev Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land part 6...

We make our way down the northernmost part of the Jordan valley (remember that we are making our pilgrimage sometime around the end of the 2nd century, perhaps 180 AD). The river Jordan has a valley between the Golan Heights to the east and the mountains to the west within a few miles we come to a wetland (a dignified name for a malarial swamp) called Lake Merom. In the 1950’s AD the swamps will be drained and that part of the Jordan valley, only about 10 or 15 miles long, will be called the Hula valley and the lake, Hula. A little farther and we come to Galilee proper and the town of Bethsaida, on the Sea/Lake of Galilee. Bethsaida means house hunting, or perhaps fishing. It could be a place for both. It sits on the northern edge of the Lake of Galilee and to this day the swampy Hula valley is a bird sanctuary and one of the few places in the Holy Land where a little wildlife hunting goes on in the 21st century.

At one point it seems to have been the home of Peter and some of the twelve disciples. It was a nice place to live, if you didn’t catch malaria. Now we are in Galilee proper, not a large place but a very well-populated one. The Lake of Galilee was tropical and fertile. The lake teemed with fish and the towns huddled around the lake. The lake which is below sea level was home to a million people according to some estimates, perhaps more. Forget the Bible movies abbot Jesus preaching in some barren desert. Didn’t happen. If you go up the hills and out of the tropical valley, you will find some dry and empty places, but that’s not where the Lord did most of his work. When Jesus wanted to be alone and pray, He went into the hills which were certainly drier than the valley of the Jordan in Galilee.

Galilee means the circle. It was actually called Galil Hagoyim, Galilee of the gentiles. The region had been part of the territory of the half tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph. When the kingdom of David and Solomon split into the two kingdoms of Judah in the south and of Samaria in the north also called Israel, Galilee became home to one of the golden calves set up by Jeroboam, founder of the northern kingdom in about 910 BC. Things were never the same after that. Remember that the united kingdom of Israel was tiny to begin with, about 75 miles by about 30 miles. The two new kingdoms were tinier still, Israel/Samaria being about twice the size of Judah (Judea). This northern kingdom of which Galilee was part was founded in 930 BC and after just about 500 years it was destroyed by the Assyrians, the ancestors of my barber. Much of the population of the Northern kingdom was dragged off into exile in Mesopotamia (Iraq/Iran) and replaced with deportees from other conquered kingdoms who brought their gods and their non-kosher recipes for noodle kugele. (Just kidding about the noodle kugele.) 

The population of Galilee and Samaria, just to its south became ethnically and theologically mixed, the newcomers intermarrying with the Israelites who had managed to remain. The Samaritans of the north had never been that concerned with keeping kosher and worshipping one God anyway. The exiles of the north never returned from Assyria. They blended into the Assyrian population and become what most call the ten lost tribes of Israel. They don’t seem very lost to me. Many of them now live in Skokie and come to my Bible study.

When the Judean exiles were allowed to return to the Holy Land after their exile in Babylon, they were greeted by the remaining mixed population of Samaria. One imagines the scene. “Welcome home cousins!” To which the returning Jews responded with, “Who, pray tell, are you?” There was enmity between north and south and the Samaritans were entrenched just north of Jerusalem and there they stayed.

A few years later in 300BC, Alexander the Great invaded and settled Greek speakers on the east and south sides of Lake Galilee. They built temples to their interesting and fun-loving gods to whom they sacrificed pigs and whose rather randy behavior they imitated.  In the northwest of Galilee were the remnants of the Canaanites with their child sacrifices, we know them today as the Lebanese. They are still with us and a number of them also come to my Bible study. Lovely people, very Christian and very good to their children these days. Far more child-friendly than America with its abortion industry but, as always, I have slipped off the track again.

Back to the guide. With all these foreign and frankly non-kosher neighbors, the region accurately called Galil Hagoyim was surrounded by the gentiles. Any religious movements or prophets or messiahs coming from Galilee were quite suspect. Galilee had been annexed by Judah Aristobulos, the first of the Maccabee rulers claiming the title king.  Judeans resettled the area, and this was how the family of David, including Joseph and Mary would end up in Galilee. And I suppose this is how you and I and our time machine have wound up there, as we make our way to Jerusalem, I mean Aelia Capitolina, as we continue our 2nd century AD pilgrimage.

More to come…

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 5

Having arrived at Caesarea Marittima on our ancient pilgrimage to the land of Jesus, let us hurry to another Caesarea, Caesarea Paneas also known as Caesarea Philippi (Caesar Town of Philip) today called Banias. The Philip in question is variously known as Philip II, Philip the Tetrarch or Herod Philip.  He was the son of Herod the Great who killed the innocents and his fifth wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, not to be mistaken with Elizabeth Taylor or Cleopatra Queen of Egypt. Philip II was born in 19 BC, and is not to be confused with Herod II, whom some writers call Herod Philip I. Is that perfectly clear?

Looking at a chart of this family’s genealogy is like looking at a very complicated football diagram. Who married whom and how they were related and which number wife this was are completely undecipherable to most people including me. For instance this Philip is the Philip who married his niece Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Herod II also called Herod Philip. Herodias, Herod Philip and Salome were all members of the same family. I suppose marrying your relatives makes it easier to figure out where to spend the holidays.

This Salome is probably none other than the Salome who was such a fantastic dancer. She so pleased her father who was probably also her uncle that she was able to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. It seems that she went on to marry another uncle, our Herod Philip who was around 30 years older than she was!! Herod Philip the Tetrarch rebuilt and rededicated the city of Paneas, naming it after the Roman emperor and adding Philippi (of Philip) so as not to confuse it with the Caesarea on the sea-coast, which his father Herod the great had built.

I tell all these lurid details so that you can get a feel for the rather loose attitude to religious orthodoxy that the Herod family had. They thought nothing of building shrines to pagan gods, provided those pagan gods were politically correct. I also mention them because it’s a lot of fun albeit hopelessly confusing. Just as his devoutly Jewish father Herod the great built a city filled with Roman temples and idols to honor the Roman emperor, so too did his son Herod Philip II the Tetrarch (ruler of a fourth) established a city dedicated to the gods of the pagans. The newly-refurbished town honored the divine Roman emperor and served as Philip’s regional capital.

These people were nothing if not morally tolerant and inclusive. All the hub-bub centered on a huge outcropping of rock at the foot of which stood a cave, from which flowed a spring that was thought to be bottomless. It was the farthest source of the river Jordan and was sacred to the old Semite god Ba'al gad (Lord of Luck) also called Ba'al-hermon. (Lord of Mount Hermon.)

Alexander the Great introduced Greek colonists to the area starting around 300 B.C., who established a strong presence in southern Syria. They identified Baal Gad with the nature spirit Pan. The new town was beautiful against the hill and there were beautiful temples enshrining this sacred spring and honoring all the major Roman gods. The bottomless spring was thought to be one of the entrances to the underworld, or the gates of hell. (This concept of hell is not to be confused with the Christian concept of hell as a place of eternal torment. In Greco-Roman mythology the place of unending torment was called Tartarus. You went there for having ticked off the gods. Most people just went to the underworld, Hades, or hell, a grey place of shades where people lived in an unending joyless semblance of life.)

There were various places thought of as entrances to the underworld. One of these was the rock on which the Jerusalem temple stood. Jesus, it seems, had left the Holy Land to go north in order to spend a little quality time with His disciples. He passed by this gleaming white and multicolored city perched near the sacred spring. In the presence of these false gods of politics and power, He asked St. Peter, “Who do you think I am?” Peter answered. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Jesus said to him in return, "You are the rock on which I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” There Jesus stood before the great rock on which Philip had built a shrine to the false god of politics and nature. There he stood before the very gates of hell, and there Jesus, this threadbare Rabbi,   said that the church built on the rock of Simon bar Jonah would prevail against the powerful gates of hell whether they were the temple that Herod the Great had built to his own glory in Jerusalem or the shrine that his son Philip had built to honor Roman might over the gates of hell in Banias.

And you know what? The gates of hell did not prevail. Just a few short years later, Roman might destroyed the Temple of Herod and the fisherman, Simon bar Jonah died in Rome while conquering the Roman Empire by his death. Simon Peter is buried about 20 or 30 feet below the altar of the basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The pope sits directly over the tomb of Peter. Rome was reduced by barbarian invasions, by plagues and by famines to hardly more than a medieval village, but because Peter’s tomb was there as well as Paul’s they couldn’t quite abandon the malarial swamp that Rome had become.

Peter conquered Rome and revived it as the capital of the great capital of the spiritual empire of the Universal Church. That church is quite literally built on Peter — “upon this rock I will build my church.” The foundation stone in Jerusalem has been stripped of its temple and the shining Roman temples of Banias Caesarea of Philip lay in ruins, but the tomb of the fisherman still draws untold millions to prayer. Christ has conquered those empires, and no empire thus far in history has prevailed.

Tiberius and Herod would be forgotten except that their power was associated with the origins of the Christian faith. The humble fisherman of Capernaum and his Lord, the humble carpenter of Nazareth has prevailed. The ruins of Banias are evidence of their victory.

More to come...