Contextual Reflections: Newsletter

BiblePlaces readers may be interested in signing up for the Contextual Reflections newsletter published regularly by Preserving Bible Times (producer of the Above Israel DVD set).  These Reflections are rooted in a strong knowledge of biblical geography and history and are thought-provoking as well.  I cited the December issue in the discussion of “No Room in the Inn” and have frequently found the insights to be beneficial and challenging. 

The signup sheet is rather intimidating, but you can check what you want.  The signup sheet may lead you to believe that you’re in for frequent mailings and sales pitches, but I have found neither to be true.  As a subscriber, I get good, helpful content about biblical matters.  I recommend it.


Book Review: Going Places With God

The problem with studying the geography of Israel is that it can quickly become divorced from the life-changing truths of Scripture. After all, how do hills and valleys help you grow closer to God?

Wayne Stiles has the answer to that in his new book, Going Places With God: A Devotional Journey Through the Lands of the Bible. I am often asked what is the perfect follow-up to a trip to Israel. My typical answer (“read a Bible atlas”) just got better: read and meditate on the truths of this devotional guide. What makes this book so good is that it takes “boring” details of Scripture and shows how they are profitable for life and godliness.

Here’s an example: Stiles shows how the geography of Joseph’s brothers tending their sheep brought Joseph to slavery in Egypt and ultimately Israel’s deliverance from famine. Unless you understand the geography, you won’t fully appreciate God’s sovereignty. The author draws from that just how we should relate to our sometimes bewildering circumstances. In another story, Israel has to travel all the way around Edom, and Stiles explains that in God’s plan, sometimes the long way is the best way.

I love too the way that Stiles draws beautiful word pictures. With him as guide, I picture myself one day walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and another day watching the sunrise from the Mount of Olives. A pastor for fourteen years, Stiles is a truly gifted communicator with a knowledge of where people are hurting today. One devotional will encourage you to increase your
trust in the all-powerful God, and another devotional will challenge you to take heed lest you fall.

Familiar lessons some, but brought to life from places in the Bible that you would never otherwise look.

I love the geographical nuggets contained in this book, but the reason that I am recommending it is this: Going Places With God will challenge you to live a radical, Christ-centered life. The book came
out a week ago: I encourage you to buy it, read it, and buy a couple for friends.

You can see more about the book and its author at this website. The book lists for $15, but Amazon has it for $10.

[Update: The free copies have all been claimed.]


City of David: Updates for Visitors

From a notice received today from the City of David visitor’s center:

Here are some very important updates for all travel agents, tour guides and trip organizers.

City of David Presentation – from 1.01.07, there will be a charge of NIS 5 per person for entry to the new 3-D presentation at the City of David. You can book a presentation together with a visit to the City of David, for preset times (only by making a definite booking, approved by the booking system). Due to the high demand, cancellation fees will be according to the price of the presentation itself (NIS 5), and the cancellation fees will be charged for any cancellation made within one week of the visit.

Set daily guided tours  – please note – we offer daily tours accompanied by a guard (registration in advance, available to individuals). There is a set tour in Hebrew, and a set tour in English, starting daily at 10 a.m. (duration of guided tour about 3 hours).

The Shiloah Pool (Pool of Siloam) and Herodian Street – as of 1.01.07, this  site (from the Second Temple era) will become a closed site of the Nature and Parks Authority. All visitors to the City of David will, of course, continue to enjoy this impressive site. The ticket to the City of David will continue to include entry to the Shiloah Pool. Visitors who only want to visit the Shiloah Pool will be able to purchase a ticket at the entrance to the pool, at the foot of the City of David, near the Kidron ravine. Entry fee to the Shiloah Pool and Herodian Street will be NIS 6 per person.

The City of David “Segway” – special trips in an up-to-the-minute, ingeniously designed two-wheeled vehicle. The tour lasts about an hour and a half, along the Armon HaNatziv (Commissioner’s Palace) pr omenades – the eastern Goldman Promenade, the Sherover Promenade, and the Haas Promenade. An impressive and scenic tour, accompanied by an official tour guide, with breathtaking views and an “action” ride in the state-of-the-art vehicle. NIS 150 per person for the trip!

Temporary closure of the Shiloah Tunnel (Hezekiah’s Tunnel) for routine
maintenance – between 14.01.07 and 28.01.07, the Shiloah Tunnel will be closed for two weeks for ongoing maintenance work and restoration of the plaster on the floor of the tunnel.

We will be happy to help you with any clarifications and inquiries –

City of David Booking Center – *6033

At your service


Shahar Shilo

Marketing director, City of David


Top 10 and Qumran Latrine Response

Haaretz has a very one-sided article on Israeli archaeology in the West Bank.  Somebody should write an honest response to what’s essentially a mouthpiece for the opinions of one Rafi Greenberg.

Archaeology magazine lists the Top 10 Discoveries of 2006.  Nothing of biblical significance is included, but the #1 discovery is the tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.  KV63 is the first tomb excavated here since King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

Hardly a week goes by when some argue is promoted or dismissed on the basis of logic rather than evidence.  In this Haaretz article about the Qumran latrines, Yitzhak Magen responds to the recent proposal by Zias and Tabor that only Essenes would have ventured outside the camp.

“In addition,” Magen says, “the Qumran area and particularly the caves surrounding the site, are full of predatory animals and animals that consume carrion, like foxes, hyenas, and leopards. People who lived in this area for years were well aware of that. They feared these animals and certainly would not leave their camps to relieve themselves. Thus, it is unreasonable to assume that the camp’s latrine was located at such a distance.”
“It was not the Essenes who buried the scrolls in the caves near the Qumran ruins,” Magen adds. “The scrolls were buried by Jews who escaped from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple.” One of the main escape routes from Jerusalem passed through Qumran. Jews, who were somewhat unfamiliar with the area and had no knowledge of its predatory animals, did not fear entering the caves to bury the scrolls, he proposes.

So it’s unreasonable that Essenes walked a few dozen yards to bury scrolls, but it’s reasonable that people came dozens of miles and hid them there (but only because they didn’t know about the foxes!).

Magen does not respond to the ancient texts which specify the Essenes should travel 1,000 or 2,000 cubits (1,500-3,000 feet) outside of the settlement to relieve themselves.

Whenever you hear that something is “unreasonable,” that should alert you to the likelihood that there’s no good evidence to support the proposed conclusion.


Western Wall Excavations (photos)

About a week ago, there were reports that excavations at the Western Wall prayer plaza had “uncovered the remains of Jewish homes from the Second Temple period as well as a Herodian water conduit.”  

In the photo below, you can see the relation between the excavations and the Western Wall.  While we were there, the crane moved the white container (middle) from the area at left, suggesting that excavations will be extended in that direction.  In fact, you can see the tractor beginning to break up the ground.

In the close-up below, it looks like large hewn slabs (paving stones?) have been removed in order to excavate beneath them. 

My guess is that those large paving slabs are part of the Byzantine “Valley Cardo,” which has been discovered to the south. 

(Yellow box = present excavations; red box = Byzantine Valley Cardo previously revealed)

Tabor on the Megiddo "Prayer Hall"

Too often new discoveries are sensationalized, and after things are sorted out and more rational conclusions are made, the story doesn’t make the news again.  For this reason, anyone interested in the “Megiddo church” would do well to read the book, or at least James Tabor’s helpful comments about it.

In November, 2005 the news spread quickly around the world: Oldest “church” ever found has been discovered near the biblical site of Armageddon! The site was uncovered on the grounds of a modern Israeli prison near Megiddo. It gives us a precious glimpse into early Christian worship and devotion before the time of Constantine (325 AD), for it is only after Constantine that structures we can definitely identify as “Churches” began to spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Yet this site can not properly be called a church. So what is it? Scholars are just beginning to try and access the impact of this precious discovery. What we appear to have here is what the authors have called a “Christian prayer hall.” It is a room, complete with mosaics containing art work and inscriptions, dedicated to “the god Jesus Christ,” with obvious ritual functions and symbols, but quite different from later Christian churches of the Byzantine period. The structure appears to date to the early 3rd century, making it by far the most important early Christian archaeological site of its kind ever discovered in the Holy Land. In their book, excavation director Yotam Tepper, and epigraphic expert Leah Di Segni, throughly explore the textual evidence for “sacred meals” from sources such as the Didache, the fascinating early Christian document discovered in 1873 that I discuss in The Jesus Dynasty. Our evidence for pre-Constantinian “Christianity” is almost wholly textual. It is rare to find any kind of material evidence that might shed light on the practices of early followers of Jesus, particularly in the Holy Land. To have found at Megiddo this evidence for liturgical activities that seem to link to rites and practices we read about in ancient texts is something of which we normally can only dream. But there is more. One of the three inscriptions mentions four women, singled out as having special importance to the community. This is clear evidence, echoing what we find in our earliest gospel sources, of the vital importance of woman as leaders and even patrons in the earliest days of the movement. Now that the dust has cleared a bit, literally, the story of this most extraordinary archaeological find has just become available in an attractive, lavishly illustrated, full-color booklet published by the Israel Antiquities Authority titled, A Christian Prayer Hall of the 3rd Century. The authors, have provided us with a fascinating but authoritative, account of the excavation and its significance narrated in an accessible style for the non-specialist. I recently heard both Tepper and Segni lecture on the discovery at the annual meeting in D.C. of the American Schools of Oriential Research, the preeminent gathering of archaeologists working in areas related to the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Their presentations were riveting and thought provoking and the substance of those lectures, plus much more, is provided in this richly illustrated volume. This little book is a model for publications in the field of archaeology. It is beautifully done, reasonably priced, and as readable as it is informative. It is a must for anyone interested in the earliest archaeological records of the spread of Christianity in the Holy Land. The IAA has printed a limited but reasonable number of copies. It can be conveniently ordered in the U.S.A. from the Web bookstore: I urge anyone interested in the material evidence related to earliest Christianity to get a copy of this book while they are still available. Dr. James D. Tabor
Chair, Dept. of Religious Studies
UNC Charlotte
Charlotte, NC 28223

For earlier BiblePlaces posts about this place, see here and here.


Updates: Paul’s Sarcophagus and Western Wall Ramp

Yahoo has a photo that shows the alleged sarcophagus of Paul underneath the altar.  Something we didn’t see before:

Filippi said the decision to unearth the sarcophagus was made after pilgrims who came to Rome during the Roman Catholic Church’s 2000 Jubilee year expressed disappointment at finding that the saint’s tomb — buried under layers of plaster and further hidden by an iron grate — could not be visited or touched.

All we need now are some pilgrims who want to see inside the sarcophagus and our questions will be answered.

In Jerusalem, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch and others are unhappy with the delay in building a new bridge for non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount.  The pile of earth likely is not very important archaeologically, but Muslims claim its removal will damage the Al Aqsa Mosque. 

The rabbis want the temporary bridge removed because it is cutting into the women’s prayer area at
the Western Wall.

The removal of the earthen embankment will not only allow more of the Western Wall to be seen, but the large lintel stone of Barclay’s Gate will be visible in its entirety for the first time in modern history.  This is the second of four monumental entrances to the Temple Mount on the western side.

We’ve commented on the ramp before here and here, and the sarcophagus here.  These posts have photos.


"No Room in the Inn"

In the typical Christmas pageant, one of the children will be cast as the heartless innkeeper who refuses lodging to Joseph and pregnant Mary.  Most know that there is no innkeeper mentioned in the Bible, but fewer are aware that there is not even an inn described.  The view that Joseph and Mary simply arrived late to Bethlehem and accommodations at the local hotel were full is incorrect.  The word translated as “inn” is the word kataluma, which is used elsewhere by Luke and translated as “guest chamber” or “upper room” (Luke 22:11; cf. Mark 14:14).  When Luke wants to speak of a paid establishment (i.e., an inn), he uses a different Greek word, pandocheion, as in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34).  Unfortunately, of the dozens of English translations that I’ve checked, all translate kataluma as “inn” in Luke 2:7 and not as “guest room” (that includes the recent ESV and NET; apparently they are unwilling to buck tradition in favor of accuracy).

The result of this mistranslation leads to a different understanding of the story.  It’s not that Joseph and Mary were late to town, but it’s that they were rejected by their family.  Clearly they had family members in town, as that was the reason they returned to Bethlehem for the census.  That there was no room in the guest chamber for a pregnant woman indicates that they chose not to make room for this unwedded mother.  The birth of Jesus in a room where animals lived suggests shame and

Most of what I have described above is the general view of scholars and I find it compelling.  But some scholars err in arguing that Bethlehem could not have had an inn.  This view has been repeated enough for me to address it.  Ben Witherington, for instance, says this:

It can be doubted whether there would have been an inn in Bethlehem in Jesus’ day since it was not on any major road, and inns normally were found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 69).

Doug Greenwold, in the December 2006 Preserving Bible Times Reflection, writes:

These pandoxeion inns were typically located 16-18 miles apart on major trade routes, the average daily distance traveled by a caravan. Since Bethlehem was five miles south of Jerusalem, it was far too close to Jerusalem for the placement of such an inn. Furthermore, Bethlehem was not on a major trade route so there was little need for a pandoxeion.

I’m not sure what qualifies as a “major trade route,” but if there was any trade route in the hill country of Judea, Bethlehem was on it.  The only way you can say that there was no “major road” near Bethlehem is by saying that there were no major roads in the hill country.  But were there no travelers in this area, and were there no traders bringing supplies to Judea and Samaria?  Certainly there were. 

An understanding of the topography of the hill country will help here.  The Judean hills are very rugged as they are divided by deep wadis (canyons) on the eastern and western slopes.  Consequently, travelers have always preferred to stay on ridges, to avoid frequent ascents and descents.  For this reason, travelers have moved along the watershed ridge, from the time of Abraham until the present. 

About a decade ago, Israel decided that for political reasons they needed to build an alternate road to bypass the Arab population of Bethlehem.  They built a road less than 2 miles to the west of the watershed ridge.  Even such a small deviation required that they spend millions of dollars in the construction of tunnels and bridges.  Today we can do it; in ancient times, they did not.  In short, there can be no doubt that historically any north-south traffic in the hill country passed near to the town of Bethlehem (cf. Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:783).

Modern Israeli road that bypasses Bethlehem, with bridge and tunnel

Furthermore, the argument that Bethlehem is too close to Jerusalem to warrant an inn presupposes that all travelers left from the same point and had the same destination.  Jerusalem may have been a major destination of travelers in the hill country, but it was not the only destination.  Travelers could have been going to and from countless villages in the hill country.  Some known settlements in the 1st century B.C./A.D. include Hebron, Gabath Saul, Ephraim, Gophna, Sychar, Sebaste.  That travelers might stop at any point along the major north-south hill country route is illustrated well by the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19.

In the end, the argument that there was no inn in Bethlehem in the time of Jesus falls short.  Luke, however, says nothing about an inn.


Herodian Remains near Western Wall

Excavations at the Western Wall have proceeded and now remains from the Herodian period have been discovered.

Excavations at the Western Wall have uncovered the remains of Jewish homes from the Second Temple period as well as a Herodian water conduit and arches from various eras, Army Radio reported (JPost).

I suspect that the water conduit mentioned is part of the Lower-Level aqueduct that brought water from Solomon’s Pools to the Temple Mount.

See this previous post for photos of the excavation area.

UPDATE (12/21): New photos here.