At Caesarea Philippi, the following transpired…
Dad: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Em: “Wait, which rock?”
Meg, pointing at the gravel: “Um, that one.”
There were a lot of moments like that on the trip.
How do we know? How can we know which spot is the real spot where, as my sister put it, something “Jesusy” happened? Around the Sea of Galilee, the problem was not too frustrating, because, well, it’s a pretty big lake, hard to mistake it for anything else. But in many of the other sites, well, let’s just say it took a lot of imagination. In fact, one of the audio guide narrators had us standing in front of the southwest corner of the Temple Mount when he said, “Now, in order to complete the next part of the tour, we will have to use man’s greatest tool, the imagination!” It was so hard it was funny. The Temple Mount, however, probably was one of the places where we struggled the least to employ our imagination. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we had a much harder time. Supposedly, this is the spot of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, but you’d never know it as the whole place is coated in mosaics, candles, and precious metals. And how do we know that is the real place? Well, it is likely it all happened around that area. Within the church you can climb a set of stairs on top of a rock which is, according to tradition, is the rock of Golgotha, The Skull. Granted, a skull shaped rock would be convincing evidence. But still, how can we know? If I’m not mistaken, this site was decided upon as THE site by Constantine’s mom, Helen. It has been the traditional spot ever since. This is where my Protestant eyebrow raises a bit.
“Man,” sighed my sister, “They just plopped down a church anywhere a Jesusy thing happened.” It’s kinda true. At Tabgha is a monastery marking the spot on which Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes. As lovely and peaceful as the place is, how are we supposed to imagine 12000 people eating a huge picnic provided out of thin air? I came to see what Jesus saw, not what a monk built hundreds of years afterward.
While sometimes a holy site had a building where there wasn’t one, other sites showed off desolation where there once was something. Many of the sites we saw were to the untrained eye simply a pile of rocks. But these rocks are markers, grave stones in a mountainous mausoleum, the tombs of multiple civilizations, one right after the other, all of them build successively on top of each other. At Megiddo, the site where Armageddon will occur, there was a tel, or a mound where a city used to be. This tel, however, was particularly interesting as mounds of earth go, since, according to UChicago archeologists, it houses the remains of more than 30 separate cities. Egyptians, Israelites, Persians, Babylonians, Romans…the list is huge. Now, imagine that. Go! I dare you to try. Personally, I couldn’t even begin to wrap my brain around it.
There were a few places where you really could see what Jesus saw. Kursi is an area on the eastern shore of Galilee where Jesus rescued the demoniac and sent the demons into the herd of doomed pigs. Even today you can see the hills where the pigs might have been living, and the cliffs over which they might have met their demise. In the hills were caves where the demonic was said to have lived. In my opinion, this kind of site resonates much more strongly than a church marking a spot (though, as you can see in the photo below, there are the remains of a Byzantine church at Kursi). In this case, you really can walk in Jesus’s footsteps.
Next time I go to Israel, I want to take with me a Messianic Jewish archeologist pastor. One of them would really help.