Walking in Jesus’ Footsteps at an Archaeological Dig

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).

Israel Germany 2014 168

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.

Israel Germany 2014 166

And that’s what I proceeded to do, stepping on as many of the paving stones as possible. It was thrilling!

Israel Germany 2014 169


The Pope and the Palestinian Jesus

Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land is now history. The general consensus among Vatican observers and political pundits is that nothing of great significance was achieved during the Pope’s three-day visit to the region. There was no breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations. That was to have been expected for, as the Pope made clear beforehand, the purpose for his visit was a purely religious one: He wanted to meet with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, in the Holy Land as part of a healing process to bring the 1,000-year-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to an end. Pope Francis may have wanted his visit to be a purely religious one but it could hardly remain thus, when Jesus Himself has been turned into a political weapon in the region.

One of the first things Pope Francis would have encountered as he arrived in Bethlehem last Sunday was an art exhibit set up in Manger Square. In preparation for the Pope’s visit, the Palestinian Presidential Committee of Higher Affairs had commissioned an open-air exhibition of paintings of biblical scenes by European Masters. As he entered Manger Square, the Pope would have seen reproductions of some of Europe’s greatest religious artworks–doctored reproductions of some of Europe’s greatest religious artworks! One of the reproductions that no doubt caught the Pope’s attention was that of Raphael’s 1507 Masterpiece, “The Deposition.” In the reproduction, the upper half of the body of Jesus is as it was painted 500 years ago; the bottom half of Jesus’ body is now that of an injured youth wearing blue jeans. Near the body, an Israeli soldier looks on. Other art reproductions have been similarly altered with one purpose in mind: to demonize the Israeli ‘occupier’. The organizers of the art exhibit were totally candid about the reason for the art exhibit: The art for the papal visit was commissioned to “highlight Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation and oppression.” I wonder what Pope Francis’ response was to this unapologetic appropriation of some of Christendom’s finest religious art for political purposes. Did the Pope, or anyone in his entourage, raise objections at the time, or even later?

Deeply troubling though it be, the hijacking of Western Christendom’s religious art shouldn’t come as a surprise since, like the doctored reproductions in Manger Square, Jesus–the Jew from Judea–has himself been radically altered for political purposes. In his 2013 Christmas message, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas engaged in the most outrageous sort of historical revisionism by claiming that Jesus was a Palestinian. Abbas stated that “In Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born–a Palestinian who brought the gospel and became a guide for millions worldwide, just as we, the Palestinians, are fighting for our freedom 2,000 years later. We try to walk in his footsteps to the extent possible.”

Abbas was derided at the time for making such a claim and yet, amazingly, this notion of Jesus as some kind of ‘Palestinian martyr’ has been gaining traction. The biennial Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences hosted by Bethlehem Bible College–a religious institution which describes itself as “evangelical”–have been drawing increasing numbers. The 2014 conference, the largest yet, was attended by 700 Christians from diverse countries. As the very name of the conference implies–Christ at the Checkpoint–participants are encouraged to think of Jesus as a Palestinian harassed–or even worse–by his Israeli oppressors, just as Jesus suffered under Roman oppressors 2,000 years ago.

It may have been his intention to restrict himself solely to religious matters on his visit, but then, Pope Francis suddenly and inexplicably went ‘off script’ in Bethlehem last Sunday. In what was later said to be a totally spontaneous move, the Pope went up to the protective security barrier erected by the Israelis in Bethlehem, touched it, and proceeded to pray. He stood, praying, under graffiti that read, “Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look [sic] like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.” Unwittingly and unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt), Pope Francis allowed himself to become a political tool in the hands of the Palestinians. What did the Pope pray about at the security barrier? Did he thank God for saving the lives of innocent Israelis from suicide bombers? Did he ask God to bring an end to the situation that made the security barrier necessary in the first place? Did he not realize that some might view his actions at the security barrier that day as a mocking parody of observant Jews praying at the Western Wall?

On June 8, Pope Francis is going to hold a special “prayer session” at the Vatican. He has invited PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him, and they have accepted. The Pope has said he doesn’t want to negotiate anything with the Arab and Israeli leaders, just pray together, the three of them. If Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ–that is, the one who speaks and acts on earth in place of Christ–as Catholics believe he does, it seems to me that the upcoming pray meeting would be an appropriate time for Pope Francis to re-acquaint Abbas with the Jewish Jesus.