Fifty years ago last month I made my first visit to the Holy Land with my parents and my sister. I had just turned sixteen but it was that experience that set me on my own lifelong “quest for the historical Jesus.” This is the phrase scholars use to describe historical research over the past two hundred years related to Jesus and the origins of early Christianity.
What do we really know about Jesus and how do we know it? In 1962 I had not even formulated the question with any sophistication. I knew nothing of archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts, or historical research. But I had begun to read the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and had become fascinated with the figure of Jesus. On that Holy Land trip, which was very much a “Christian pilgrimage” tour for our family, this interest began to develop into a more intense desire to know what could be known about Jesus, in his own “place and time,” and thus to somehow touch that past.
I vividly remember walking around the Old City of Jerusalem. The city was thick with tourists, all Christians, no Jews or Israelis. This was before the 1967 Six Day War when the Old City of east Jerusalem was still ruled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as an aftermath of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. We were shown around by one of the hundreds of would-be resident guides who could be hired on the spot pressing upon anyone who looked like a tourist. We saw all the sites typically shown to Christian pilgrims—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Upper Room of the Last Supper, and the Dome of the Rock, where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood. On such a tour one enters dozens of churches, all built centuries after the time of Jesus but supposedly at the precise place where this or that event took place.
Over the three days we were there I began to experience a growing sense of disappointment. I was having difficulty connecting, even in my imagination, 20th-century Jerusalem with the city in the time of Jesus as described in the New Testament. Even if the names and places were the same, and correctly identified, what I saw before me were Turkish, Crusader, and Byzantine remains, with little if anything from the 1st century a.d. visible. Even the modern street level, I learned, was twelve to fifteen feet above that of Roman times. I had purchased a tourist guidebook entitled Walking Where Jesus Walked, and somehow, in my naiveté, I wanted to do just that.
We stayed in a small hotel on top of the Mount of Olives just to the east of the Old City. About midnight, restless, I got out of bed, Bible in hand, and decided to walk to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the mountain. The steep path down is now paved, but I could see bedrock cut or worn along the way on both sides, indicating this was the narrow road from ancient times. I imagined Jesus riding the donkey down that very path into the Old City, hailed by the crowds as Messiah, a week before he was crucified. In those days, unlike today, you could enter the Garden of Gethsemane at any hour, day or night, as the gate was always open. Visitors were also allowed to walk among the centuries-old olive trees. I was the only one there that night, at that hour. My reading had convinced me that this was the spot where Jesus spent the last night of his life in prayer. For the first time on our tour, on that path and in the garden, I felt that I was able to reach back and connect with the past that I sought. I stayed there for the longest time, trying to imagine it all.
I kept thinking to myself—this is the place. It happened here. The “historian” in me was awakening and I think a bit of the “archaeologist” as well. In some way I had begun what would become a lifelong quest to discover and to understand the life of Jesus as he lived it.
There is something in all of us that thrills to this experience of touching the past. It could be an old letter, a genealogical record, a battlefield, a cemetery, or fragments of an ancient text. Today in Israel you can visit the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum and view the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to around the time of Jesus. I think many visitors experience the same feeling I did the first time I saw the displays. There, under glass, just a few inches away, are the actual ancient documents written over two thousand years ago. I remember pausing for long minutes before each exhibit, trying to take in the reality of what I was viewing. There one is looking at the very parchment or papyrus from that long-ago time, with words in Hebrew and Aramaic that could have been read by Jesus or his followers.
Many other sites in Jerusalem have now been excavated. You can walk or sit on the very steps that led up to the Jewish Temple built in the time of Herod the Great. When I first visited Jerusalem in 1962 these steps were twenty-five feet below the present surface, completely lost to modern eyes. In various places the paving stones of the streets of the Roman city have been exposed. Twelve feet below the modern street level, in the Jewish Quarter, you can walk in the ruins of a wealthy mansion, one that likely belonged to the family of high priests who presided over the trial of Jesus. In the summer of 2004 the pool of Siloam, mentioned in the New Testament, was uncovered, after being forgotten and hidden from view for centuries. All over the country the past is being exposed to the present by the spade of the archaeologist and equally by the deciphering of ancient texts by the historian.
My training at the University of Chicago, and my emphasis for the first 20 years of my career as a historian of early Christianity, was on texts–reading, interpreting, and attempting to ascertain in a critical way what our literary evidence offers. Since the early 1990s I have made 50 trips to Israel, as I have come to think that the “material” evidence, both “on” and “under” the ground, gives us an indispensable context for reading our texts. I remember the late Bargil Pixner used to refer to his own study of the geography of the Galilee and the archaeology of Herodian Jerusalem as a “fifth Gospel,” every bit as significant as the discovery of a significant new text. Whether I am digging an archaeological site, researching in a library, or studying firsthand a given area or location, my focus remains the same—to recreate a past that has important relevance to our present. In a strange way I think my work on the “historical Jesus,” which has been central to my larger Christian Origins agenda, remains a part of that personal quest that I began to have in inkling about that night in July, 1962 in the Garden of Gethsemane.
On this blog I have often written posts that integrate some of my findings on the “material” or “archaeological” side of things, pulling in topics of general interest as well as areas I have been directly involved in. I know we have added over 500 new daily blog readers over the summer so I thought it might be interesting to look back a bit at the archives. Here is a list, in no particular order, of what I consider to be the “Top Ten” discoveries in which I have been involved that have most informed and shaped my understanding of Jesus and his earliest followers: