Day Five: Around the Sea of Galilee

Today our tour focused on sites in Galilee associated with Jesus and his ministry.  We began our day with a drive through Tiberius to Mount Arbel. This is not so much a biblical site, but a hike up to the top of Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee. From the top of the cliffs we can see the west and north quarters of the sea, essentially where all of the Jesus sites are located. The carob tree at the top of the hill was struck by lightning a few years ago and is recovering nicely (I have done group photos from that spot for many years). Although the morning was warm, there was a strong breeze on top of Arbel so the walk was pleasant.

Mount Arbel in Galilee

We arrived at the Mount of Beatitudes and it was already quite crowded. We found a mostly shaded spot to read from Matthew 5 and talk about the Beatitudes. (See this post, What are the Beatitudes?) The group was able to visit the octagonal chapel then had a few minutes to pray and read the Bible privately.

Mount of Beatitudes in Galilee

After the Mount of Beatitudes, we drove of to Korazim, a site I have not visited in a few years. This is one of the cities that reject Jesus (Matthew 11:21).  One of the highlights is a “seat of Moses” in the synagogue. Jesus says in Matthew 23 that the Pharisees “sit in the seat of Moses,” although the rest of the chapter condemns their hypocrisy.

We then drove a short distance to Capernaum. For most the highlight here is Peter’s house, although it is difficult to see much of the house due to the large church built over the top. There is also a beautiful synagogue, although it dates to the fifth or six century, long after the time of Jesus. For me, the highlight of a visit to Capernaum is walking out in the beach near the Sea and reading the Bible. In this case I read Mark 2 since the healing of the paralytic takes place at Peter’s house.We took some time in the shaded area near the synagogue to read Mark 2:1-12 and talk about the authenticity of the site (is this really Peter’s house? Maybe?)

After lunch (Aroma Coffee, egg salad sandwich and a an iced coffee), we walked over to Migdal. Although this village was the home of Mary Magdalene, the place is rarely mentioned in the Bible. However, a first-century Synagogue was excavated along with an unusual carved stone found near the center of the synagogue. Some scholars have suggested the stone was carved to look like the Second Temple, although this is not particularly conclusive.

What is important is this is a first century synagogue not far from Capernaum. Although there is no evidence Jesus taught in this particular synagogue, the gospels portray him is teaching in many of the synagogues in Galilee. So it gave us an opportunity to discuss what teaching at the synagogue might have been like. There are a number of other excavated buildings adjacent to the synagogue including several mikvoth (pools for ceremonial washing; there are as many as seven excavated.

Migdal Stone in Galilee

After Migdal we drove the short distance back to Nof Ginosar to to the Yigal Allon center where the Galilee boat is on display.There is a presentation describing how the boat was discovered and preserved and the actual boat is on display in a climate controlled room. I have visited this museum a few times and I have enjoyed the presentation.

We then met our guide at 5:30 for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee before dinner. We were able to talk through the two big miracles on the sea of Galilee (See Matthew 14:22-33, Why does Jesus walk on the Water? and Why Does Peter Ask to Get Out of the Boat?) Several people shared some idea about why Jesus chose to reveal himself first in Galilee and many enjoyed some praise music.

Sea of Galilee


Day Four: Caesarea, Megiddo, Mount Carmel, Nazareth

We left Jerusalem by 7:30 AM for a drive north and west to Caesarea. Everyone was on time and since it was the Sabbath there was virtually no traffic on the road. The drive through Tel Aviv would be brutal, but there was very little traffic on the road this morning, [I will add some pictures later, I have a very slow WiFi connection right now]

Caesarea is one of my favorite places to visit. The city is Herod the Great’s tribute to the Roman Empire. By building such a beautiful city Herod demonstrates he is the ideal Roman client king and makes the claim that Judea is not something backwards end of the Roman empire, it can hold its own against any other Greco-Roman city.We spent a little time talking in the theater about the death of Herod in Acts 12 and Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea later in the book of Acts. This was likely a house arrest, Paul was likely in a similar situation to his house arrest at the end of Acts.

If you visit Caesarea, be sure to stop by the  the new visitor’s center (it is about two years old). The center has a small museum with a few artifacts, but the main feature is a film about Herod’s life and his need to impress Rome by building the city. It is a bit too influenced by Game of Thrones, but it fairly accurate and gives first time visitors an insight into why the city is intentionally Roman.

As for biblical significance, Caesarea is the city Peter visited when he preached to Cornelius in Acts 10. In Acts 12 Herod Agrippa was struck dead when he entered the theater looking like a God (a story confirmed by Josephus). Philip the Evangelist lived in Caesarea with his four daughters when Paul passed through the city on his return from Ephesus. Paul also spent two years under house arrest awaiting trial while Felix was the governor. Later, when Festus was governor, Paul made his famous appeal to Caesar in Caesarea.

From Caesarea we traveled to Daliat el-Carmel, partially to eat at the excellent Druze restaurant (yes, I did have the falafel). After a too-large lunch, we drove to the end of the ridge to visit the Carmelite church marking the traditional site where Elijah challenged the priests of Baal. We went to the top of the church and our guide orientated us to the geography of Samaria and northern Israel. We read i Kings 18 and talked briefly about that story, but there were extremely high winds making it difficult to continue.

After Carmel, we visited Megiddo. If you go, be sure to see the new introduction video, it has plenty of flashy edits, drone shots and interviews with Israel Finklestein by a really perky host. The video does a good job telling the story of the site as well as the history of excavations in less that ten minutes.

Why is Megiddo important for biblical Studies? According to 1 Kings 9:15 Solomon fortified Megiddo along with Hazor and Gezer. Jehu assassinated Ahaziah (2 Kings 9:27) and Josiah was killed in battle by the Egyptian army led by Necho II (2 Kings 23:29). Aside from the spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley, there is a 3000 BC Canaanite cult center and a major granary and other storage buildings. But the main thing to see at Megiddo is the water system, a passage carved through the rock to a hidden spring. (Megiddo is the inspiration for James Michner’s The Source).

We continued across the Jezreel Valley to Nazareth, although we did not do much in this very crowded and busy city (which looks nothing like it did in Jesus’s day). We drove up to a view point 1290 feet above sea level. Although it is highly unlikely, some Christians this this is the place where the people Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off a cliff in Luke 4:29. There is even a tradition that Jesus escaped the crod by jumping from the cliff, which is why it is sometimes called the Mount of Leaping. #Doubt.  The precipice is outside of town and clearly very high, but it is so far from the original Nazareth village of the first century to be an authentic location.

We are saying in the Village rooms, which are small, comfortable bungalow-style rooms. Even though it feels a little like camp, the dining room is excellent (the best food on the trip). Two people told me they were already looking forward to breakfast!

Tomorrow we will visit sites related to the life of Jesus, beginning with a hike up Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee.

Day Three: Mount of Olives, City of David, Southern Wall and the Herodium

In some ways, this was a normal Israel tour day starting on the Mount of Olives. But this year we added the Herodium at the end of the day, a location I have never visited before. So we did quite a bit of walking and passing through narrow underground passages.

We started early at the Mount of Olives. So early, we were the first group there and claimed a perfect spot for viewing the Kidron Valley and the Dome of the Rock. By now most of the group can point out the key buildings in and around the Old City.

Mount of Olives 2023

Because we had an early time for Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the City of David, we only had a short visit at  Dominus Flevit. I rarely take people into the church, but usually read the story of Jesus wept over Jerusalem before the Temple action (Luke 19:41-44). We only  had time for a look into the cave containing several first century ossuaries (bone boxes) just inside the entrance to the church grounds.

Next we visited the Church of all Nations, the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane. This is another site which is usually crowded, but there was only one big group this morning. After a quick look at the olive trees we went into the church to see the Agony Stone, the traditional place where Jesus prayed on the night he was betrayed (Luke 22:39-46, Jesus’s prayer and 22:47-53, the arrest).

After Gethsemane, we crossed the Kidron Valley and walked up to the City of David. This involves crossing the busy street (probably the most dangerous thing we did on this tour) in order to follow a walking path down past the Tomb of Absalom and back up the other side of the valley to the City of David. The parks service has cleaned this area up considerably ]and there are free and fairly clean toilets. Like the tombs of Zechariah, this tomb had nothing to do with David’s son and dates to no more earlier than 150 B.C. It is a useful reference for Herod’s tomb at the Herodium.

There is set of stairs climbing up the west side of the Kidron. This is not steep, but there are something like 180 steps. The walk ends at the south east corner of the Temple Mount, near the Southern Temple archaeology park, offering a unique view of that end of the Southern Wall. It is just a short walk from there to the City of David.

The highlight of the City of David is Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This is the water system built by Hezekiah according to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30. After a short walk down through tunnels to the Canaanite spring, there is a split in the Tunnel between the “wet” tunnel and the “dry” Canaanite tunnel. The wet tunnel has water flowing over the knees, and is completely dark. About half the group walked through the wet tunnel. I, however, took the the rest of the group through the dry tunnels (which were, tobe fair, somewhat moist).

The dry Canaanite tunnel exits near the Jebusite walls (more bathrooms and a bottle refill station). After a short walk we met the “wet tunnel” people at the pool of Siloam. The pool of Siloam is mentioned in connection with Jesus healing a blind man (John 9:7). In the first century it may have functioned as a public mikveh for pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem from the south. Since the pool was discovered more than ten years ago, additional work has been done to expose steps which appear to lead all the way up to Robinson’s Arch.Beginning in January 2023, archaeologists removed the garden across from the edge of the site, hoping to find the rest of the pool of Siloam. Unfortunately, they found nothing, and finding nothing after digging out that much dirt is unusual in Jerusalem. There were no coins, pottery, masonry, etc. The likely explanation is someone cleared the land many years ago, but the study of the site is not yet complete.

From the Pool of Siloam, we entered the Herodian era sewer that leads up to the Temple Mount. This is a narrow passage, often the walls are covered in green algae and the steps can be slippery. There are plenty of lights and the air does circulate so I never felt closed in. For much of the way I walked stooped over (some of our taller people had more difficulties). It is a thrill to get to the end of the tunnel and see the Herodian stones and climb the stairs to the first century streets on the southern end of the Western Wall. Even so, this is a difficult tunnel for older, taller, or wider people.

Once we emerged from the darkness of the Second Temple sewer, we were at the southern corner of the Temple Mount. The site is excavated to the first century, and there are stones pushed from the top of the Temple Mount by the Romans. Most of the stones have been cleared to show a first century street under Robinson’s Arch. But the highlight for most people is the steps leading up to the Temple entrances and exits. This is one of the places in the Old City where I can say with some confidence that is is likely Jesus walked up and down these steps, as did the apostles when they went up to the Temple to worship in the book of Acts.

There was a new surprise: There is now an Aroma Coffee at the entrance to the Davidson Center, right by the ticket office. This means you can get lunch and drinks without climbing the steep stairs leading to the Jewish quarter. I had a nice sandwich and and iced coffee. Although it was not extremely hot, the iced coffee (and short rest) was perfect.

After our lunch, we rejoined our bus to drive to the Herodium. This is one of several palace fortresses Herod the Great built, the most famous is Masada. For reasons I cannot really explain, this was my first visit to the Herodium, and I must say it lived up to expectations. Following a short orientation film in the visitor’s center, we walked up the long set of stairs into the fortress itself. Herod’s mausoleum about half way up, but it was destroyed by the zealots some time before the Jewish revolt.

Do we really know this was where Herod was buried? In 2007 Ehud Netzer discovered an ornate sarcophagus, and the foundation of the mausoleum looks enough like Absalom’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley to argue the site was used for the burial of a very important man. I am sure someone has challenged the claim, but it seems fairly certain Herod was buried at the Herodium.

Tomorrow we get an early start for Caesarea, then on to Galilee.

Day Two: Yad VaShem, Israel Museum, Temple Mount, Temple Tunnels

When you plan a trip like this, you need to be flexible. Today is a good example of this. Because of various circumstances I cannot control, my plan to visit the Temple Mount on Day one was bumped to day two, and my plan to visit the Temple Tunnels on day three was also moved to day two. The upshot of this is: we did a lot of things today!

I intentionally planned a day at two major museums, Yad VaShem and the Israeli National Museum. This makes for an easier day of walking after yesterday’s marathon.

One of the most important things I include on my tours of Israel is a visit to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Museum. Sometimes college age students are not as well informed about the events leading up to the Holocaust. I try to point students into certain directions, especially to the display on the role of anti-Semitic Christianity in the rise of Nazism. This was terrible theology and not at all the teaching of the Bible, yet many Christians justified pure evil by appealing selectively to a few verses badly interpreted. I try to point out the Holocaust began with burning books and slowly indoctrinating people (often at young ages) through propaganda, and I invite them to think about (obvious?) parallels in contemporary American culture.

The Yad VaShem museum is designed to physically represent the descent into the horrors of the Holocaust. The story is told through pictures and film documenting the beginnings of the anti-Jewish attacks in Germany and elsewhere. Many displays have video interviews with survivors which are challenging to watch.

If you visit Yad VaShem, plan on stopping by the museum bookstore just outside the exit of the main museum (not the store near the entrance/exit of the whole complex). This is the only source for Yad VaShem publications and all proceeds go to support the museum. These are often specialized, academic studies of the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). But there are many collections of letters or other personal stories written by survivors. For my last three or four visits the same woman was operating the store. She is so nice and informative and recommended several books to me.

There are three main things to see at the Israel National Museum for biblical studies (the focus of this trip). First is model of Jerusalem in the first century. This model used to be at the Holy Land Hotel but was moved to the Israel Museum. Although someone (like me) might raise a minor objection to nearly every detail of the model, it is extremely helpful for visually seeing the whole city as it might have appeared in the first century.

Temple Model

The second highlight of the museum is the Shrine of the Book, a small museum dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are a series of displays illustrating how the scrolls were found and some artifacts from Qumran, but the main room has examples of several types of scrolls found int eh caves at Qumran. These include Scripture (a few panels from the Great Isaiah scroll were on display), several apocryphal books (including the Genesis Apocryphon), and several of examples of the literature created by the Essenes (the Temple Scroll, the Habakkuk Pesher and the Thanksgiving Scroll).

The Shrine of the Book also has a small display for the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in book form (just slightly older than the Leningrad Codex). If you visit the Shrine of the Book be sure to go down the stairs and see this display.

The third highlight is the archaeological wing of the museum. This section alone could take several hours to fully digest, we were only able to see some of the highlights. The Tel Dan inscription is on display and there are several inscriptions from the Second Temple. There is a fragment of the warning to Gentiles to stay out of the Jewish section of the temple courts, the so-called Trumpeting Stone which indicated where a priest sounded a trumpet from the Temple Mount, and the Theodotus Inscription.

Tel Dan Inscription

Tel Dan Inscription

After an unfortunately rushed visit to the museum, we drove to the Dung Gate in order to visit the Temple Mount. I should say, we drove near the Dung Gate; traffic was so bad we got out and walked about a third of a mile along the sidewalk. This was much faster, although probably the most dangerous thing we will do on this trip. It was Bar Mitzvah day, so coming through the Dung Gate we were treated to joyous klezmer music(and it is possible some of my students danced…but just a little).

We were well-prepared to visit the Temple Mount. This means no Bibles or clothing with anything vaguely Christian on it. No one had backpacks that needed to be searched, and everyone dressed as modestly as possible. This eased our entry, although several women still needed to cover up a bit more. Keep these things in mind if you plan to visit the Temple Mount.

Compared to one year ago, there were far more people visiting the Temple Mount. I think this is good since there are many important things to see there. We had enough time to walk up to the Dome of the Rock (although we cannot enter) and stand in the shade and discuss several of the buildings and features. Unfortunately they start moving people out at 2:30 PM. We exited the Cotton Gate, and our guide treated us to tea (or Turkish coffee) from one of the shops.

Temple Mount

After a visit to the Western Wall, we visited the Temple Tunnels. Last year we followed the Great Tunnel route, this year we followed the Great Stone route. When I visited the tunnels in past years, the Great Stone route was the only option. As is implied by the name, this version of the tour starts with a basic orientation and a visit to the massive stone that is the foundation for the retaining wall around the Temple Mount. The route runs along the Western Wall and ends at the Strouthion Pool. Our guide for the visit was extremely passionate and animated in her presentation (and everyone loved her). Both routes are excellent, and to be honest, I am not sure which I prefer.

Temple Tunnel

One advantage to the Great Stone Route is that the tour exits near the Pool of Bethesda. Even though we only had a short visit there, several people in my group thought Bethesda was the highlight of their day. I was able to talk through the story in John 5 and to discuss some of the archaeological features of the pool.

Tomorrow is another busy day, starting early at the Mount of Olives.



Day One: The Old City of Jerusalem

The 2023 Grace Christian University Israel/Jordan trip began with a long travel day (all day Monday and Tuesday). We started with a two and a half hour delay out of Chicago, and another hour in Istanbul. With the time change some in the group had been traveling for more than 24 hours straight (and not being able to sleep on a plane makes that feel even longer). This is my eleventh student trip to Israel, and we have an additional six adults joining us. Everyone was able to roll with the unexpected delays with flexibility and good humor. As I have done the past few trips, I began in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Since our hotel is a 10 minute walk from the Garden Tomb, we started our first day in Israel with a visit to this beautiful garden to read the story of the resurrection and reflect on Jesus’s death and burial. Our guide in the Garden Tomb (Mike from Texas) was excellent (as is usual for Garden Tomb guides), especially since he had to negotiate space  between several large groups. After a very nice orientation to the Garden Tomb we celebrated communion.

From the Garden Tomb we walked a short distance to the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Damascus Gate and on to the the Church of Holy Sepulcher. Our guide took in the “back way” through the Ethioptic church to enter the plaza in front of the church. Most of my group had no idea what Ethiopic Christians were, nor Coptics for that matter. It is always good to expand their knowledge of eastern forms of Christianity.

The Church of Holy Sepulcher is really a collection of churches and chapels on the traditional site of Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb. I took some of the students to Golgotha and had a good discussion of the value of traditions which support the site (some are very good, others are very weak). The line to enter the actual tomb of Jesus was very long so I took the students into the Syrian Chapel. There are usually very few people in the Syrian chapel, but there are two first century tombs in the back of the chapel which are good illustrations of the tomb people are waiting an hour or more to enter.

All things considered, the Holy Sepulcher has a better claim on being the actual location of the crucifixion and location of Jesus’s tomb, but the Garden Tomb is a much better place to actually worship.

We made our way to the Jewish Quarter, stopping at the Broad Wall, which is unfortunately completely covered for some sort of project. The wall likely built in 700 BC by King Hezekiah. We were able to see the Cardo, a small portion of street from the early Byzantine period depicted on the Madaba Map.

After a quick lunch (falafel and water for me) and a stop in Moriah Books (only one book purchased, which demonstrates considerable restrain for me), our guide Ofer suggested something different: A visit to St Mark’s Church. This is a  Syrian Christian church built on the site of John Mark’s home mentioned in Acts 12:12. A group of Christians gathered in the home owned by Mary to pray for Peter when he was arrested by Herod Agrippa. The church claims this was the location of the Upper Room, the Last Supper and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. This is a beautiful chapel and more people need to visit it, but I was not able to see any archaeology to support the claims this is the location of the Upper Room. On the other hand, I have not see the archaeology to support the Upper Room most tours visit.

The day was getting late, so we made a short visit to the Citadel neat Jaffa Gate. This site is good for showing the real depth of the Old City of Jerusalem, from Hasmonean times (150BC) to Herodian (first century BC); there are Crusader era fortifications and Ottoman walls. The top of the building offers an excellent view west to the new city of Jerusalem and to the east to see the Dome of the Rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, and other major sites in the city. I have usually visit the Citadel early on the first day to give the group an orientation to the Old City, but it was good for the group to see here they had been earlier in the day.

Old City Jerusalem

We ended the day by walking  back to the Damascus Gate on the Ramparts. I used to do this with groups before the Citadel was open Since we had to go back to the Damascus Gate anyway, this was an interesting way to get there. By the time we got back to our hotel everyone seemed exhausted (I am told we walked 6.6 miles). But they were also excited for the pool and (more importantly) for the dessert bar at dinner.

Tomorrow we start at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum, then on to the Israel Museum and the Western Wall Tunnel tour.