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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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Mt. Nebo and Moses’ Lessons in Obedience

If you’ve ever looked forward to something, really wanted it, strove for it but in the end didn’t realize it, you can identify with Moses as he gazed across at the Promised Land from today’s Jordan, realizing he would not enter.

This month’s video blog takes place at this special site, Mt. Nebo, the place in ancient Moab where Moses got only to preview Canaan from a distance before he died and was buried.

Did you wonder why such a faithful follower of God didn’t get to realize his dream? I did. The book of Numbers has answers, but first some context.

In that first month of the Exodus, the people had started murmuring about why Moses brought them up from Egypt only to die of thirst in the desert, their initial provisions having run out.

Anyone who has served in a position of leadership can identify with the frustration and end-of-his-rope feeling Moses must have experienced. Doing what he had always done when in trouble, the great leader turned to God for answers, retreating into the ‘tent of meeting’ constructed for the worship of God. There, Moses and Aaron experienced a theophany, a divine appearing, as recorded in Numbers 20:6, 8 –“They fell on their faces and the glory of the Lord appeared to them” (Common English Bible).    The continued instructions are clear: “You and Aaron your brother, take the staff and assemble the community. In their presence, tell the rock to provide water (vs. 8, emphasis added).”

Instead of following divine instructions, however, we learn: “Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice Numbers 20:11, emphasis added).“

It’s a subtle difference and the end result seemed not to matter: the people got their water.

But that moment of disobedience revealed far more than how water was extracted. It was about Moses either trusting God fully to obey His commands, or determining he had a better way. And in this case, that ‘better way’ appeared to be filled with anger (Moses striking the rocks), something that was completely contrary to the loving provisions that God was supplying.

Once again the Bible illustrates that the best leaders are those who follow the leadership of God.  It’s somehow a bit reassuring to realize that even history’s greatest leaders, like Moses, have their moments of doubt or ego.  Yet Moses seems to have learned a significant lesson at this early stage of the Exodus:  we don’t find another example of him choosing a way other than how God has directed him.  That is a leadership example we can all follow.

Sitting on an ancient wall at Mt. Nebo overlooking Roman milestones and the valley below where Moses is thought to have been buried. The view is tremendous!

The video blog from Mt. Nebo is an example of where the Bible’s physical geography teaches us spiritual lessons. Israel is so close, the promised land right there to enter.  Yet it wouldn’t be for Moses.   Mt. Nebo’s high ground overlooks nearby Israel, just West of the Transjordanian River Valley which serves as the border between Israel and today’s Jordan. Much of Israel spreads out before you like a vast desert carpet. Here Joshua would, as Moses’ first lieutenant, take the leadership command and begin his mission of conquering Canaan, but only after burying the great leader that had given Israel so much.

Deuteronomy sums it up: The Lord spoke to Moses that very same day:  “Hike up the Abarim mountains, to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab opposite Jericho. Take a good look at the land of Canaan, which I’m giving to the Israelites as their property.  You will die on the mountain you have hiked up, and you will be gathered to your people….You can look at the land from the other side of the river, but you won’t enter there” (Deut. 32:48-50, Common English Bible).

Another Biblical lesson in obedience.

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Why Jesus’ baptism is told differently

The Baptism Site on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. (Picture from Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

The fact that our New Testament contains four Gospels by four writers with four viewpoints can sometimes be tricky to navigate when some events of Jesus’ life are told differently.  Yet there are substantial blessings in having these four accounts for Bible students twenty centuries later:  we gain a fuller picture and understanding of Christ Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Master’s baptism is one of a number of examples where there is diversity in the four accounts.  This video blog tells the story of two versions of the baptism, one from Matthew and the other from Luke, that will perhaps shed light on some discrepancies you’ve no doubt noted.

Before reading further (spoiler alert!), you might want to reread Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:4-8, Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:29-34, the four evangelists’ versions of the baptism of Jesus.

The video below was taken on a recent trip to Israel, standing at the traditional site of the Jordan River where historians believe this pivotal event of Christianity took place. (The picture above is from the Jordanian side of the river where new excavations are occurring.)  Christian tourists travel from every continent to be baptized as was the Master Christian.  Here are the hopes of a lifetime to experience the purification that this 2000-year-old immersion in water symbolizes for believers.

Since Mark is believed to have been the first Gospel written, we see how significant the baptism is to the early Christians as Mark chooses to open the story of Jesus not with his birth, but his baptism.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:9-11).”

John baptizes Jesus as he has so many others but this time a sense of God’s presence is so vivid that John hears a voice claiming Jesus as God’s son and identify Jesus.

But in the Luke version, John is not even at the baptism.  He is miles away imprisoned in one of Herod’s fortresses, just before his death.  Again, by rereading the Luke version below, you’ll see the writer is telling us John is well off the scene so that Jesus is known to be unmistakably the Son of God.  There would be no confusion, in Luke’s relating of the story, which figure was the son of God.

20 “…he shut John up in prison.  When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened”  (Luke 3:21,22).

One baptism.  Two versions.  Each writer had his own reasons…thus the beauty of four distinct gospels.

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