The penultimate day of Campbell University Divinity School’s “Bible Lands Study Tour” for 2011 was one of those days with so many parts that participants get to the end of the day and can’t remember what they had for lunch.
The day began as we walked through the St. Stephen’s Gate (also known as the Lion’s Gate and the Sheep Gate) into the Old City of Jerusalem. Our first stop was at the Pool of Bethesda, where Amanda Crump led us in a thoughtful devotion based on the story of Jesus asking a crippled man if he wanted to be healed (John 5:1-9). We then went into St. Anne’s church, a Crusader edifice with incredible acoustics, where both Amanda and we sang.
We proceeded to the Ecce Homo convent, located over the former structure known as the Antonia or Praetorium, a large fortress built by Herod the Great to keep watch over the temple. It is likely that Jesus was either held temporarily or even tried there after his arrest, and paving stones for the first century street as well as part of the Antonia are still accessible, though 10 feet below street level outside. Students found it meaningful to remove their shoes and walk on the very pavement, known as the lithostrotos, where Jesus may have stood.
On a rare rainy day in late May, we walked along part of the Via Dolorosa, then on through a market in the Arab quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the earliest traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. There, as we climbed the stairs to the glass-covered rock thought by some to be Golgotha, we observed differences in pilgrim style: while we snapped photos, Orthodox pilgrims lined up and shuffled along on their knees for a chance to kiss the glass covering the spot where they believe Jesus was crucified.
After a quick walk back through the market and the Jewish quarter to view an excavated section of the cardo, or main street in Jesus’ day, we boarded our bus for Qumran, where we had lunch and visited the site often thought to have been home to the Essene community. It was in near-inaccessible caves near Qumran (such as Cave 4, pictured here), that the Essenes hid their precious manuscripts of scripture and other documents in order to save them from the invading Romans. When these were found nearly 1900 years later, they became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, providing the oldest manuscripts we have of every book in the Old Testament except for Esther.
From Qumran we drove south along the western shore of the Dead Sea (known in both ancient and modern Hebrew as the Salt Sea) to the isolated military fortress of Masada. Built by Herod the Great as a possible fortified retreat if Cleopatra should try to take control of the area, Masada is best known as the last hideout of a band of nearly 1,000 zealots who held out for three years after Rome put down a Jewish rebellion in A.D. 70. It took the 10th Roman legion nearly seven months to finally capture Masada, but its residents foiled their victory by committing mass suicide on the night before Roman soldiers stormed through a breach and into the fortress.
We rode a cable car up to view impressive storerooms, a large bathhouse, Herod’s palace, and a building used as a synagogue by the rebels, among other sights. The room at the right of the picture was used for storing the synagogue’s scrolls. After deciding to kill themselves rather than submit to torture or slavery at the hands of the Romans, the zealots left the top scroll open to Ezekiel 37, the story of the dry bones coming back to life.
From Masada we drove back north to the oasis of Ein Gedi, where we stopped at an overlook that allowed us to see the waterfalls that emerge from a barren mountain to feed the oasis below.
The end of the day found us on the shore of the Dead Sea, where most participants went for a “swim” in the viscuous water that is 30 percent salt. One feels so sticky and gummy when emerging from the water that all understood why it was a “once in a lifetime” experience — not many want to do it a second time.
On our last day in Israel we will visit the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, excavations at the southern steps, the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial, and the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed. Afterward, we’ll have a late-night flight home from a most memorable journey.
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.