A walk in Jesus’ footsteps but with the advantage of not having to walk through all those damnable hills and valleys? Count me in! What better way to see the primary sites of Jesus’ early life and ministry than to get on a vivid orange bus and travel north from Jerusalem through Nazareth, past Magdala, and then stop off at Capernaum and go boating on the Sea of Galilee…
The exploration of Jesus’ footsteps began with a trip north from Jerusalem to Tel Megiddo, one of the most valuable archaeological sites in the world. A tel is basically a hill created by consequent layers of civilisation placed one on top of another over an extended period of time. The tel of Megiddo is a massive example of one of these, rising 60 metres above the plain of the Jezreel Valley and comprising of an area of 15 acres. The Tel itself dates back to the seventh millennia BCE (the early Neolithic period) and hosted the Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites and Persians before finally fading from history sometime around the 3rd Century BCE.
What made the city so valuable was its tactical location. Located at a major strategic point on the Via Maris – the main trading route that travelled from Egypt northwards along the Mediterranean coast before turning east and heading into the modern day areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Basically, whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the trade route and the wealth of the region. It is little wonder then, that the town itself was primarily a military base and the remains of many stables testify to the large chariot armies that must have emanated from the city during times of hostility.
One of the more amazing aspects to Megiddo is the city’s water supply. Originally water was taken from a spring outside the hill of the city, but sometime in its ancient past, the ruler of the city had a vertical shaft dug 36 metres straight down within the city walls. The vertical shaft then had a connecting horizontal shaft dug 70 metres through solid stone to meet up with the spring and channel water into the city. The spring itself was then covered over and hidden, allowing the city a permanent water supply during periods of siege. One can only imagine the amounts of hard labour, presumably slave based, that worked to create this massive irrigation system.
In more modern biblical history, Megiddo is foretold in the Revelation of John as the place of the final battle between good and evil. The actual Hebrew name Har Megiddo was corrupted by the Greek translation of the bible and, with the dropping of the ‘H’ and the addition of an ‘E’ or two, became the more recognised word, Armageddon. So the end of days will be apparently be fought here within the Jezreel Valley out in front of Tel Megiddo.
Following our encounter with Tel Megiddo, we modernised a bit (going from 300BCE to 3BCE) and travelled to the Palestinian city of Nazareth. Nazareth stood in stark contrast to the Jewish quarters we had previously seen. Narrow streets and a lack of civic maintenance really had a few of us questioning just how the Israeli state allocated funds within its territories. Nevertheless, we made our entrance into the hilltop community and walked towards the Basilica of the Annunciation. As someone who has previously struggled with Marian theology, and who has only really begun to explore it in the last few years, I was questioning how I would feel or respond spiritually to the place. The basilica itself is believed to have been built over the place in which Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the son of God. The structure which stands above Mary’s home is a stunning example of architecture. Designed by a Jewish architect for the Roman Catholics and built by Muslims, it really is a testament to the diverse cultures that exist within the region. This cultural theme is then further emphasised by the numerous mosaics and images of Mary that adorn both the basilica and its grounds. These images, gifted by Catholic communities around the globe, depict Mary in the cultural traditions of that region. From African, to Chinese, to Russian, the art works and depictions are stunningly beautiful. One image hard to miss is the American depiction of Mary. This picture is three dimensional and created from glass, bronze and aluminium. Our tour guide told us that the image is composed of materials from the Apollo Missions, but I found nothing to support that so will take that information with a grain of salt. Interestingly, the site was spiritually uplifting and really prompted a questioning of the role and importance of Mary within the Catholic faith. This is certainly an area that I will continue to explore.
Following the experience at the Basilica of the Annunciation, we headed off to the Church of St Joseph, a structure little more than a hundred metres from the Basilica of the Annunciation. This church is built on the remains of a Jewish home dating back to the time of Christ and while there is no evidence to support the notion that it is the home that Jesus was raised in, it is interesting to see the ritual bath, storage areas and beautiful church that surrounds it.
At this point we were hurried back to our bus and experienced the joys of the underdeveloped Nazarene street system. Facing a traffic jam of moderate – but extremely slow – proportions, we were astounded as drivers took liberties around the bus, around each other, and around the foot path. Not to be deterred, our bus driver pulled a U-turn in the middle of the traffic jam and proceeded to another one where regular horn use, dramatic gesturing and enthusiastic posturing from locals was the order of the day.
After escaping the hustle of Nazareth, we headed off to lunch at Magdala. Magdala is a small town on the shores of Galilee and is most famous for its connection with Mary Magdalene, the female disciple from Jesus’ posse. Mary in the Gospels is famous for having seven demons exorcised, but there was no demonology to be seen as we settled into the local restaurant for lunch. Here we were introduced to the local experience of service. While Mary was faced with demons, we were faced with staff who made every effort to serve us well, but with language and cultural barriers and a limited amount of time in our pocket, the experience was one of the most confusing I have ever had. With most of us looking awkwardly at each other – and the odd sideways glance – we ate a relatively sumptuous meal; unless you ordered steak. Meat in Israel must be kosher, which means bloodless and salted, in other words, killed beyond belief.
From lunch, we then travelled north up to the town commonly associated with Jesus’ early life and ministry, Capernaum. Capernaum was a small Jewish town on the northern shore of Lake Galilee. It was from this small town that Jesus is reported to have recruited the fisherman Simon, better known as Peter, the apostle on whom Jesus’ new church was founded upon. It is also the place where Jesus performed twelve miracles including the healing of Simon-Peter’s mother. The town is now just a series of ruins, but central to the city are the rebuilt remains of a white Jewish synagogue. This building is actually built upon the original synagogue contained within the city and is likely the synagogue that Jesus drew massive crowds to as he preached. The New Testament acknowledges that sometimes the crowd was so big that Jesus needed to speakoutside the synagogue and archaeological evidence has revealed a massive courtyard on the western side of the temple. It is assumed that this is the area in which Jesus delivered his message to the gathered crowds.
Once finished with Capernaum, we headed off to Ginosar where we boarded the slightly infamous Jesus boats. These boats are large vessels that take tourists on trips around Galilee to see sights such as Tiberius, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes and the area where Jesus performed the miracle of the fish and the loaves. Hilariously, the boat ride began with the raising of the New Zealand flag and the singing of the New Zealand national anthem – beginning with the Te Reo. From there, the boat began to crank out happy clapper church songs, with a bias towards Hillsong styled Christian hymns. At this point, the boat’s First Mate headed out onto the deck and promptly initiated a call to arms which resembled a local folk dance. Never one to miss an embarrassing opportunity, I dived into the local dance and proceeded to get my white boy dance moves into gear. Fortunately, my impression of a dying flamingo did not jeopardise the ability of the boat to sail, and nor did it promote feelings of sea sickness in the observant passengers. Following what is probably the worst example of communal dancing ever witnessed in both the Eastern and Western Worlds, the boat returned to shore and released us for the long ride back to Jerusalem.