Friends and supporters of Baptists Today traveling in Israel and the West Bank worked their way from old to oldest today. We began with a stop at two relatively new churches (less than 100 years old) built over older sanctuaries or traditional sites. The German Church of the Heptagon (for seven springs nearby), alternately known as the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, commemorates Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, which could not possibly have happened at that site, since it is a well-watered and fertile place, while the gospels indicate that the crowds were in a wilderness area near Bethsaida (several miles away) when Jesus fed them. But, old church traditions often diverge from biblical evidence. The small church has a mosaic floor dating from the Byzantine period that includes the iconic image of loaves and fish that decorate ceramic dishes for sale in nearly every gift shop.
A short walk to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee brought us to the Church of Peter’s Primacy, a modest chapel built over a big rock said to be the place where Jesus was cooking fish over a charcoal fire when he greeted the disciples following his resurrection. Three times he asked Peter “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter answered in the affirmative, and Jesus challenged him with some variation of “feed my sheep.”
From the rocky shore behind the church we touched the water one last time and bade goodbye to the Sea of Galilee before driving down the eastern side of the lake on our way to Beth She’an, where an ancient tel dating back to 3200 BCE or so rises above the Greek/Roman/Byzantine city of Scythopolis, built at its base. Excavations there have uncovered a well-preserved theater, elaborate bathhouses, and two main streets running at right angles, each lined with shops, administrative buildings, and temples.
Beth She’an is old, but the tel of Jericho is the oldest known city in the world: it is there that Kathleen Kenyon uncovered a watchtower dated to 10,000 BCE, the earliest structure of its kind ever found. There’s not much else to see in the excavations at Jericho: many of the early layers were constructed of mud brick, which is hard to distinguish from the surrounding soil. Jericho figures into the Old Testament story at several points, including the story from Joshua claiming that it was the first Canaanite city to fall to the invading Israelites when they came into the promised land.
Jericho also appears in the New Testament as the home of Zacchaeus (yes, we saw a sycamore tree), and as the destination of the unfortunate traveler in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The New Testament Jericho was located a mile or two from the older city. It featured multiple palaces built by Herod the Great as a winter retreat. Supposedly, Herod gave the city to Cleopatra as a wedding gift when she married Mark Antony.
The day involved a chance to watch people as much as old sites. At Qasr Al Yahud, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism (and probably pretty close), Israel has built a baptismal facility across the Jordan River from a more modest site built by the country of Jordan. There the river is little more than 20 feet wide, shallow and polluted. So much water is taken from the Sea of Galilee for irrigation that most of the water in the Jordan at that point derives from sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial waste. That does not stop Orthodox pilgrims from donning baptismal gowns to be saved (unwashed) and used as burial shrouds and dunking themselves, three times each, in water so muddy that the bottles many visitors collected looked like lemonade gone bad.
We finished the day by singing “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” as we drove into the city from Jericho, then settling in at Ramat Rachel, a Jewish kibbutz hotel between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. More good food was awaiting — as do more inspiring days to come.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.