Last month, I was privileged to do something Christians have been doing now for almost two millennia: I travelled to the Holy Land. It is Helena (c. 248-c. 328), mother of Constantine I the Great, who is credited with turning a then-obscure, backwater Roman province, Syria Palaestina, into an important destination for Christian pilgrims from the 4th century on. (In AD 135, the emperor Hadrian had changed the name of the Roman province Judaea to Syria Palaestina in order to obliterate any connection with the Jews after the Bar Kochba Revolt.) The empress-dowager Helena Augusta travelled throughout Syria Palaestina , ‘identifying’ sites where important events in Jesus’ life had occurred. Having been given access to the imperial treasury by her son, Helena had churches erected at a number of these locations. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are the two most well-known. Helena’s travels in the region set off a flurry of pilgrimage activity. Visiting these so-called ‘holy sites’ became a way for medieval Christian pilgrims to obtain indulgences–and remains so for Catholics today.
I was not in Israel on a religious pilgrimage; nor was my reason for being there a strictly religious one. Among other things, I wanted to stroll Tel Aviv’s famous beach promenade; see the breath-taking view of Haifa from atop Mount Carmel; visit Israel’s northernmost city, Metulla, on the Israel-Lebanon border–all things I subsequently did. That said, it was the possibility of walking where Jesus and his disciples once walked that was, for me, the most exciting prospect. And that prospect did become a reality–or as close to a reality as is possible two millennia later.
Retracing the steps of Jesus and his disciples became a reality–not at a ‘holy site’, but at an archaeological site. Unlike the holy sites I had visited earlier that day, there was no beautiful Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church on the grounds, no tranquil flower garden, no statues, no card shop, no restaurant, no tourists or pilgrims, no parking lot filled with buses. In fact, there were only three of us there that late afternoon: the guard in the guard house at the gate, plus my husband and I.
We were at the site of ancient Bethsaida, identified as such only in 1987. Bethsaida is a city mentioned several times in the New Testament. Three of Jesus’ disciples were from Bethsaida: Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44). Bethsaida was the site of one of Jesus’ more unusual healing miracles: He healed a blind man, not instantaneously as he usually did, but in two stages. First, he put his own saliva on the blind man’s eyes, but the blind man saw only “trees walking”; next, Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes and the man’s vision was completely restored (Mark 8:22-25). Bethsaida was one of three Galilean cities cursed by Jesus for their lack of repentance (Matthew 11:21).
The excavations at Bethsaida are still underway, but one feature of the ancient city that has been uncovered is a cobbled street dating from Jesus’ time. It is highly likely that this north-south paved road which passes between the ruins of two residences was walked by Jesus and his disciples, probably more than once. This archaeological site, still under excavation, offered me something no holy site had been able to do: the opportunity to retrace Jesus’ steps–quite literally.
And that’s what I proceeded to do, stepping on as many of the paving stones as possible. It was thrilling!