Tracking Jesus

Two weeks from now the adventure begins. Our “10th Anniversary Jesus Dynasty” tour group will set off for the Galilee and we will begin what I call “tracking Jesus.” Our focus will be on exploring the places, both geographically and archaeologically, where “Jesus walked.” You can take a look at our itinerary here: Jesus Dynasty Tour Itinerary. At this point our group numbers 33 plus me–with two more joining us just yesterday–so it is never too late, so long as one can find a good airfare. This trip is unique and I won’t be doing one like this again. I am particularly pleased that my friend Ross Nichols has signed on to go with us.

Sunrise over the Mt of Olives, Jerusalem
Sunrise over the Mt of Olives, Jerusalem

This is my 60th trip to the Holy Land since my first in 1962 at age 16 when our family made a pilgrimage to the Old City. On March 2 I turn 70 year old. Since that time I have been involved in what we scholars call “a quest for the historical Jesus,” and my trips to Israel have inevitably involved an investigation of the geographical, archaeological, and textual evidence related to what I have called “the Jewish Roman World of Jesus,” see the excellent essays by Dennis Duling and my teacher Norman Perrin, that masterfully survey this historical landscape, linked with permission here.  I have been profoundly influenced by my mentors and colleagues whose archaeological experience far exceeds mine–particularly Jim Strange, the late Bargil Pixner, and Shimon Gibson–with whom I have worked the most closely. None of them, of course, should be held responsible for the various positions I have come to over the past 40 years. One aspect of my quest that continues to this day–even on this tour–is to ask the question Carl Sandburg poses in his marvelous poem “The Grass,” namelywhat is this place? Where are we now?

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.

So much of what I have been fascinated with over the years is trying to determine just that–from Jesus’ birth, to his growing up outside Sepphoris, to his connections to John the “Baptizer and his subsequent preaching career, to his last days in Jerusalem leading to his death. I have written extensively on these topics in my books and on this blog, see for example, see my posts, “Locating Golgatha,” Standing Again with Jesus: Ecco Homo Revisited,” and “A Jesus Hideout in Jordan.”

Here is the preface to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, in which I describe my outlook and state of mind on my very first trip to Jerusalem in 1962 when my life-long career of “tracking Jesus” all begin. I hope it will tantalize you enough to read the whole book and join the adventure alongside me:

Early morning in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt of Olives over 50 years after my 1962 visit

It is a rare book that is forty years in the making. In some sense this is the case with The Jesus Dynasty. Over forty years ago, as a teenager, I made my first visit to the Holy Land with my parents and my sister. It was that experience that set me on my own life-long “quest for the historical Jesus.” This is the phrase the scholars use to describe the historical research related to Jesus and the origins of early Christianity over the past 200 years.

What do we really know about Jesus and how do we know it? Forty years ago 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. I had begun to read the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and I had become fascinated with the figure of Jesus. On that Holy Land trip this interest began to develop into a more intense desire to know what could be known about him and 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 Jordan. We were shown around by one of the hundreds of would-be resident guides who pressed upon anyone who looked like a tourist and could be hired on the spot. We saw all the sites typically shown to Christian pilgrims—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 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 AD visible. Even the modern street level, I learned, was 12 to 15 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 that is 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 understand and reveal 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 that 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 2000 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, likely belonging to the family of high priests that presided over the trial of Jesus. In the summer of 2004 the pool of Siloam, mentioned in the New Testament, was uncovered, forgotten and hidden for centuries from view. 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.