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Gethsemane: Holy Place of Prayer

Gethsemane– a word almost universally recognized and filled with meaning like few others—is the subject of the February video and blog.

Although mentioned only once each in Mark (14:32) and Matthew (26:36), Christians know it well as the place of Jesus’ difficult prayer prior to Judas’ betrayal and the Master’s arrest.

        They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

Its 1st century use as an olive orchard located on the Mount of Olives gave the garden its name and meaning, gath shemane being Hebrew for ‘oil press’.  While Luke’s Gospel certainly recounts this momentous night of prayer, he refers to the larger area, the Mount of Olives.

Luke also gives us a hint of how often Jesus must have gone to this peaceful garden, so close to Jerusalem yet with the Kidron Valley between to provide some distance from the urban clamor.

        He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him (Luke 22:39).

In fact, the frequency of Jesus’ retreats there to pray are why scholars believe Judas knew where to tell the Jewish authorities to find him later that night.

One can’t help but wonder if Jesus, on this night or previous ones of prayer, thought also of David’s experience on the Mount of Olives.  Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and identified as the prophesied Messiah and ‘Son of David’, Jesus must have been familiar with the story of David fleeing to this sacred place as he was forced to escape Jerusalem. Absalom was out to kill David and take the throne, so with family and loyal friends around him, the Bible relates David also paused here at a critical moment:

            David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill (II Sam 15:30).

The Gospels reveal Gethsemane as the lowest point of Jesus’ earthly career, evidenced by what Matthew relates he told his disciples:

            My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matt 26:38).

Yet Gethsemane also represents that consummate moment of self-surrender that shines as a model for all who want to yield to God’s will for their lives:

            My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away–unless I drink it, your will be done (Matt 26:42-43).

More than any place in Israel I’ve traveled, Gethsemane is ‘holy ground’.  A wall surrounding these ancient olive trees, still bearing fruit,  helps Christian pilgrims pray quietly where the Master prayed, look across the Valley to Jerusalem, and hope that their lives provide even a fraction of the healing oil of his.

 

 

 

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Debate over Jesus’ burial and resurrection site: The Holy Sepulchre or The Garden Tomb?

Visiting Jerusalem as a Christian pilgrim and searching for the site where Jesus was buried and arose can be a conundrum.  Why?  Because tour guides take you to two sites, not one!

First is The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the second is known simply as ‘The Garden Tomb’.  Both are beautiful and moving in their own way yet Christians for centuries have tried to determine which is authentic.

To solve the mystery, it’s helpful to get grounded in the Gospel story and the facts it relays:

  • That Golgotha, Hebrew for ‘the place of the skull’ (Luke 23:33) was the site of the crucifixion and near the city (John 19:20). This means it was not IN the city walls.
  • Three of the gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was the site of Jesus’ burial and that the tomb was carved from rock. See Matt. 27:57, Luke 23:50-51; and John 19:38.
  • John’s gospel explains the tomb was new and describes its location in relation to the crucifixion: “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before” (John 19:41).
  • All four gospels concur that a large round stone was rolled to block the entrance to the tomb and seal it. See Matt. 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 24:2, and John 20:1.
  • A verse in the book of Hebrews reiterates that Golgotha was outside the city walls:  Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood ( 13:12, NRSV, emphasis added).
    During Constantine’s reign (306-337), the Emperor’s mother, Helena, traveled to ancient Palestine to locate sacred sites of Christendom.  After all, her son was the newly proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor.  The 4th century tradition claims that she located the site of Jesus’ tomb with the help of locals whose families had always lived in that area.  The result?  The first building of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The problem scholars began to identify in the 19th century, however, was that the Biblical accounts told the story in such a way that both Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb had to be located outside the walls of 1st century Jerusalem. The problem was that The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been found to be inside city walls archaeologists found in the 19th century.  Was one of the most holy sites of all of Christendom a topographical and historical error?

The May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has shed new light on the controversy, and very convincing light to many.  Two scholars* report that the wall discovered in 1893, believed to be the ancient city wall of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, was is in fact too small for a city wall and also not built until the 4th century A.D.  This meant that The Church of the Holy Sepulchre could indeed have been located outside the city walls, since both Roman and Jewish custom conducted crucifixion and burial outside such walls.

In addition, archaeological work in the 1970’s revealed that underneath The Holy Sepulchre Church was a rock quarry that had been in use since before the 1st century BC.   This fit the Biblical description of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb carved from rock.  Such a quarry would have been located outside the city walls.

Also discovered were traces of gardens dating to the first century A.D., supporting Mark 15:21, Luke23:26 and John 19:41 that indicate the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was surrounded by gardens and fields.

There are other hints, but suffice it to say that all this work has done much to convince rigorous investigators that today’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher appears to be the location of Golgotha and the Master’s tomb.

Why tourists appreciate seeing both The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and The Garden Tomb is their vast difference.  For all the ritual, tradition and ceremony of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Garden Tomb is quiet, modest and seems unchanged in two thousand years.  One can go inside to see the rock-ribbed walls surrounding a single slab of stone where a body would have been laid.  It feels sacred and holy yet as their website explains, ‘where Jesus died is of little importance compared with why”.

As archaeology continues to find reason to believe The Church of the Holy Sepulchre might indeed be the authentic site of Jesus’ tomb and therefore the crucifixion and resurrection, organizations like The National Geographic are taking notice.

The National Geographic Society has recently opened an exhibit on the tomb that you can explore here for a virtual tour.  Fascinating!

Video from National Geographic of virtual exhibit of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Jerusalem: City of David – part 1

Jerusalem–the holy city for the world’s three monotheistic religions.  It evokes life-changing events for millions and history unparalleled for centuries with political,  religious and archaeological claims to every holy square inch.  To see it for the first time, perhaps standing on Mt. Scopus at sunset, is to have a moment forever etched in memory.

 

Byzantine mosaic map in St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan.

The city’s importance through the Byzantine period, in the 6th century CE, is tangibly seen in Madaba, Jordan.  Here a mosaic map, created to show not just locations of sites, but their importance by size, reveals Jerusalem as the center of the world.  As the photograph reveals, “The Holy City of Jerusalem” contained six gates and twenty one towers surrounded by city walls, all displayed in stunning mosaic that covers 15′ square feet of floor in the St. George Byzantine church.

Today, 3000 years later, the City of Jerusalem, working capital of the country of Israel since its founding, continues in daily news headlines as a center of political and religious controversy. Whether it is the potential relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, or the response of Palestinians to sharing their beloved city with others, Jerusalem seems anything but the city of peace.

Bible Roads will be sharing four brief videos from a recent trip to Jerusalem, each one explaining a different facet of the city.  This current vlog (video blog) highlights the Dome of the Rock, that iconic gold dome in virtually every city skyline photograph of this ancient capital city.  It serves as a sacred destination for Jews since it is thought to be the rock on which Abraham started to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  It also is thought to be the site where the holiest of holies was located for both the Temple Solomon built in the 9th century BCE, and the second Temple built after return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

For Muslims, this site is a shrine — not a mosque–for those pilgrims who want to commemorate where Muhammad was supposed to have ascended, and was built in the 7th century CE.

The Dome of the Rock sits on what is known as The Temple Mount, which rises above the Kidron Valley and sits directly across from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Following his night in the garden praying, Jesus was taken to the Temple Mount where the palace of Annas, the High Priest, was located.  After his questioning, Jesus was transferred to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, nearby.   As mentioned, every square inch:   holy ground.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran: Why they’re important

Most Bible students are familiar with the archaeological discovery in 1947* of the Dead Sea Scrolls but may not be clear as to why this was such an important find.   It’s because this discovery – called the greatest manuscript uncovering of all time — provides a priceless look into the history of Judaism, how the Hebrew Bible developed and the beginnings of Christianity.

After Bedouin shepherds happened upon some of the jars containing the papyrus and leather scrolls (primarily written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and Greek), the manuscripts went through a process of being authenticated.  Now most scholars tend to agree that they date from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. , and their thousands of fragments are still being poured over with the latest scientific techniques, to learn their content.

This cache of scrolls, now referred to as “The Dead Sea Scrolls”, has come from a number of caves in the area and simultaneously gone through a circuitous journey of ownership.  A number of them are now safely ensconced in museums such as Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The over 900 manuscripts are divided into three major categories:  those that are part of the Hebrew canon (or Old Testament to Christians);  the sectarian, applying to those peculiar to the residents of Qumran in terms of their doctrine; and other texts that range from legal documents to prayers to comments on Biblical books.

Entrance to Cave 11, Qumran. Photo courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

Who were the people of this Qumran area?  Many scholars believe they are the Jewish religious group, the Essenes, such as those two Biblical Jewish groups: the Pharisees and Sadducees.   The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of them in the 2nd century A.D., explaining they were a celibate people but that is still debated.  The longer both the Essenes and these manuscripts are studied the more questions arise, such as were the Essenes’ beliefs similar to those of early Christian groups?  Or were they more devoted to legal rules focused on cultic purity?

One of the outcomes of all this scholarly debate is a new field called ‘social archaeology’ which, according to the Bible History Daily, is ‘an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.’

Some of the scrolls’ titles include:   the Rule of the Community, the War Scroll, a copy of the book of Isaiah, Thanksgiving Hymns, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Copper Scroll and a number of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophetic books such as Nahum and Habakkuk, and more.  And a majority of scholars believe the scrolls to have been written by those living at Qumran who placed them in local caves, vs. being brought from Jerusalem, for example.

An international team of Biblical scholars and linguists have worked decades to make them available now in various published editions.  The main ones have been brought together in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book but are also occasionally part of traveling exhibits.  I recall the moment I stood in front of my first glimpse of a scroll at the San Diego Natural History Museum and read the translation of a line from that fragment that exactly matched a Bible verse I had read that morning.  Wow!

The Scrolls reveal how much humanity longs to understand God, writes about God and our experience with the Almighty, encouraging us to acknowledge an unseen Creator who men and women have long recognized and yearned to know, for centuries.

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Masada: Herod, Heroes and Sacrifice


Masada, the Hebrew word for “fortress,” is a perfect description of the Biblical site where Herod the Great had one of his summer palaces. If you’ve traveled to Israel to stand on this dusty summit and know what’s behind the historical mountaintop, the site grips your imagination like few others.

Located in the East Judean desert close to the Dead Sea, Masada served Herod’s concerns for protection during his 33-year reign (36 BCE -4 CE). The Jews would rather have killed him than be ruled by him so building a desert fortress high on a rocky mountain made sense for a king consumed by fears of angry subjects.

But Masada’s roots began a century earlier (c. 100 BCE) when Jews newly liberated from the Greek Seleucids, began building its initial structures. Herod knew from his experience as a general sent to recapture the site from rebels, just how impregnable this mountain could be.

When Herod took Masada for his own, he focused first on ensuring a water supply by building twelve huge cisterns carved into cliffs. Designed to capture potential floodwaters that flowed through nearby wadis, the cisterns made Masada possible. What a sight to glimpse this Northern Palace constructed on three natural terraces that included storehouses, a bathhouse, shaded courtyards, staircases and colonnades –all revealing Herod’s almost obsessive concern for security.

By the time Herod completed his building project, Masada was fortified with a wall almost a mile long and 30’ wide, 70 rooms embedded within the wall, 30 towers and two gates. A defensive infrastructure indeed!

But the history that has filtered into the collective memory happened 75 years after Herod’s death when the first Jewish revolt against the Romans began for the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Jewish Zealots fled to Masada with their families and held out three long years as Rome’s Tenth Legion found increasingly clever ways to penetrate the fortress.

Using thousands of Jewish prisoners of war, Roman General Silva constructed a rampart and finally a battering ramp that breached the walls, only to find the rebels had just died. Jewish leader, Elazar ben Yair, convinced the men to kill their wives and children, then commit mass suicide themselves, related by two surviving women. As ben Yair told them:

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom (Jewish Virtual Library).

Mini-series starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss.

A 1981 television mini-series, “Masada”, captures the conflict movingly. But best of all is a bonus feature at the film’s beginning of an officer’s swearing-in ceremony for those serving in today’s Israeli military.

Masada continues to symbolize the ultimate Jewish resistance.

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