The Fifth Gospel
The incarnate Jesus comes alive in the landscape where he walked, taught, healed and gathered his followers. I resisted several opportunities to travel to the Holy Land (both my husbands wanted to go) partly because I didn’t want to contaminate my vividly imagined 1st century world. Through years of Bible study, I had created a landscape devoid of the layers of monuments created to mark the many referenced places he lived and worked. I was afraid of being caught up in the Zionist fervor that inspires so many Christians to visit the Holy Land. And I was nervous about our safety. Many questioned the wisdom of traveling to Israel. Even the US State Dept. has a high alert status for the region.
Our Shepherd Tours guide, Tony Azraq introduced the idea of the Fifth Gospel as he welcomed our group of 39 pilgrims, twenty from Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle and nineteen from Immanuel Episcopal Church, Mercer Island, WA.
A professor of archeology, educated in the US, Tony has a strong command of Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic as well as English. He is, as are most of the guides with Shepherd Tours, a Palestinian Christian residing in Israel as a 2nd class citizen. He knows his Bible and recent archeological discoveries. His knowledge plus the academic research presented in a book from the recommended study list, Excavating Jesus, by Crossan and Reed, removed any doubt from my mind as to the historic existence of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Many details in the Four Gospels may be less about the facts of Jesus’ life and more about the authors’ audience and intention. That ceased to matter once I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, sailed on its waters beneath the Golan Heights and witnessed a terrifying, sea-churning storm.
Our The Pilgerhaus Tabgha retreat center and guest house on Lake Tiberius, the Roman name for it, is peaceful. Run by Germans, this place was the perfect venue for exploring the sites of the Beatitudes, the feeding of the 5000, the fishing area where Jesus may have called his first disciples and Capernaum where He spent 18 months of his brief ministry. Mt. Tabor, the place venerated for the Transfiguration, and Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown are a short bus ride away.
In 1938, the Italians built the church at the place presumed to be where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Somehow, it didn’t matter that this event was not located anywhere until the 4th C. Our celebration of the Eucharist in an outdoor sanctuary put me at His feet.
Along the shore of the Galilee, from our guesthouse to the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, is a short walk. Here Jesus is said to have given Peter the task of keeping this new ministry going after He was no longer physically present to lead. The small chapel built early in the 20th C. reverberated with music as we approached. A small German group of pilgrims sang a familiar hymn and then left the place to us.
Recent archaeological digs enhanced the significance of another seaside holy place. A wealthy Mexican (drug money?) began building an elaborate resort. The digging unearthed new discoveries which halted the project.
Magdala’s excavation reveals a synagogue and Roman ruin. It may be the home town of Mary of Magdalene. The present day church celebrates Galilean fishermen (upstairs) and women (undercroft). See the woman’s finger reaching for the robe of Jesus. Her faith caused her blood flow to stop, so the story goes.
It is near here that Jesus is said to have walked on water.
Our guide explained the story of catching 153 fish as meaning the 153 distinct nations known to Jesus at the time of his ministry and indicating the reach of the disciples. They were to become fishers of all people in the known world.
The challenges facing present day Christians in the Holy Land hit us full force for the first time when we visited the church commemorating the feeding of the 5000, called the Church of the Multiplication. As we gathered to enter the church, we smelled wet burned wood. A few days before our arrival, a group of violent Zionist Israeli youth from one of the settlements came into the courtyard of the church and set fire. Once inside the church, we left the smell behind but the scar of violence against Christians stayed with us.
Our first Sunday back from our Pilgrimage, the Gospel reading presented Jesus beginning his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth. He opens the Torah to Isaiah and begins to read the passage that informs so many to work for right relationship in economic and social justice in the world: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The story goes on to say, Jesus wasn’t well received in his hometown.
According to Excavating Jesus, Nazareth was such a small place in those days, it probably did not have a structure for a synagogue and there probably would not have been a scroll to unroll. It is even probably that Jesus did not read. Does it matter? For me, these archaeological facts make Jesus more real and take nothing from his message. One must develop a bicameral mind to hold the primitive nature of the place where Jesus grew up and the grandiosity of the layers of venerative structures in that place today.
photo Berthold Werner
In Nazareth, our group found no less than eight churches venerating various events in His family’s life. Nazareth is the largest Arab center in Israel, both Muslims and Christians. It is only 37 miles from Capernaum, a three-day walk in Jesus’ time. The fierce storm that prevented us from getting to the top of Mt. Tabor had long since dispersed and the group made it to this amazing place where Jesus is said to have appeared in radiant glory to Peter, John and James.
We left the tranquility of the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum for Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In my next post, I will describe how our pilgrimage interwove with the stories of conflict, occupation, fear and hope. It was wise of our leaders to begin with deep history and theological reflection in the quiet surroundings of Lake Tiberias. I appreciated the frequent Bible readings, short services and hymn signing that brought us together in each place. The pace picks up and emotions are far more confusing in the next days. Stay tuned.
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