New Testament World

Every day is Christmas in Bethlehem

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Bethlehem has been so crowded of late that it has been difficult to get groups into the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity. Yesterday we got in without a hitch. Yay!

The grotto has been the focus of Christian worship for almost two thousand years. Here, a humble stable-cave became a birthing place.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no space in the room above for them” (Luke 2:6-7).

The cave pictured above is swathed in tapestries and covers. The focal point at the far end is marked by lights and a star. It represents the place where Jesus was born. To the right is a niche associated with the manger.


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It’s time for you to experience Christmas in a new way. Will you consider joining us on a future trip to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other sites connected with the ministry of Jesus? Find a trip by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com. We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.



The crypt of John the Baptist

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Mark the Evangelist describes how John the Baptist was beheaded by the order of Herod Antipas. The site where this happened seems to have been a mountain fortress in modern Jordan (μάχαιρα or Mukawir).*

When John’s disciples heard of this execution, they “came for his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:29). Several early Christian sources claim that John’s remains were eventually transferred to the site of Sebastiya, some 12 kilometers northwest of Nablus in the heart of Palestine.** John’s crypt is still there (preserved as part of a mosque), not far from the palace of ancient Israelite kings.

We visited Sebastiya and the keeper of the key was kind enough to open the reliquary. Inside was a shrine marking the place where John’s remains were placed.


*See the link to Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2 here.

**A helpful article by Carla Benelli may be found here. Benelli describes the sources for this tradition as well as some detail about the structure in Sebastiya.


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This intrepid crew has not only crawled into the crypt of John the Baptist, they have witnessed how history and tradition have played out across the landscape of Israel/Palestine.

If you are interested in experiencing the Land of the Bible in a different kind of way, consider joining one of our trips scheduled for 2020 or 2021! Find a trip by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com. We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.

A slice of Jerusalem history

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The Tower of David Museum is a splendid place to consider the deep history of Jerusalem. Exhibits, both permanent and temporary, help tell the story of this iconic city.

The “tower” from which this picture was taken, however, has nothing to do with David, but everything to do with Herod the Great and the Romans. Herod’s Jerusalem palace once stood on this spot, and, according to Josephus, he built three towers here. They were named after significant people in his life: Mariamne, Hippicus, and Phasael. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, they allowed these towers to remain as testimony to the former grandeur of the city (See Jewish War 7.1.1. at the link here). Many scholars believe the present structure is the remains of the Phasael Tower.

The Byzantines likely gave the site the name the “Tower of David” under the mistaken belief that this was the palace of Israel’s famous OT king.

Other periods of history are represented here. The present shape was basically achieved in AD 1310.


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The flavors of Jerusalem are compelling to the senses. If you are interested in experiencing them personally, consider joining one of our trips scheduled for 2020 or 2021. These educational experiences operate as part of the ministry of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. Find a trip that works with your schedule by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com. We are currently working on customized group reservations for 2022.

Secrets known and unknown

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Capernaum has taught us much about Galilean life in the first millennium of the Christian era. We celebrate these finds but are convinced that what remains hidden beneath rock and sod may be equally astounding. Its secrets have not yet been fully revealed.


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Archaeological efforts were selectively devoted to Capernaum in the 20th c. Tour talks regularly focus on the “White Synagogue” and “St Peter’s house.” But there is much more to this important place than this.

If you are interested in experiencing the biblical Heartland for yourself, consider joining us in the future. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. We are booking new groups for 2022. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities at the link here.

What is big, white, ornate and late?

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The “white synagogue” at Capernaum (Kfar Nahum or “house of Nahum”), Israel, is an oddity.

It is constructed of imported limestone blocks that contrast brightly with the dark basalt stone used everywhere else.

Its scale is monumental. It stands apart in a village dominated by small single-story residential homes. Several rooms in the synagogue are noted: a pillared hall, a patio, a balustrade, a small room, and possibly a balcony (?).

The rooms were graced with ornate decorations on cornices, walls, and columns. These include geometric designs, stars, palm trees, and dedicatory inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek (as seen above).

The synagogue was excavated and reconstructed at the beginning of the 20th century. It was dated by the excavators to the Byzantine period (4th or 5th century). At this time the little fishing village, famous from the Gospels, demonstrates social stratification and visible weath.

This demonstration is a new thing; there is nothing like it from the known village of Jesus’s day. The synagogue of the 1st century remains hidden, perhaps beneath this big, white, late and ornate structure.

Photograph by Bible Land Explorer Mark Kitts.


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Interested in seeing Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee with your own eyes?

Seats are available on three different study-tours scheduled for Israel/Palestine in the coming summer. Dates of travel are May 25-June 4, June 4-15, and June 26-July 7. The window for sign-ups is closing, so move with speed.

For more information on pricing, itinerary, or other details of these educational tours, drop me a line at markziese@gmail.com. For a full list of future travel opportunities, see here.

Her name is there

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For Bible readers the site of Magdala is forever linked to its most famous resident: Mary Magdalene.

It is appropriate that the developers of this site on the edge of the Sea of Galilee built a spiritual center that is dedicated to the women who supported Jesus’s ministry. In the center of the building is a dome supported by columns. Inscribed on each column is the name of one of the women mentioned in the NT as a supporter of the ministry, e.g. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, etc.

One column in the array was left uninscribed. It provides our ladies with the opportunity to use their fingers to add their names to the list. They are a beautiful legacy, don’t you agree?

The center at Magdala is named Duc In Altum. It draws its name from Luke 5:4 where Jesus instructs his followers to “launch into the deep.” Read the story here.

Photograph by Bible Land Explorer Seth Tinkler.


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The residency program of Johnson University leads to a Master of Strategic Ministry degree. It involves a collaborative relationship between Johnson University and local churches. This accredited program equips students for effective, strategic Christian leadership and includes a study-tour to Israel/Palestine.

To learn more about residencies, see the link here.

Inside joke

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We visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the Sea of Galilee today. The memory of the story of John 21:1-14 (see here) is embedded in the place. Then we went down to the beach.

Nick found this sign and thought it was hilarious.

One must be cautious with graduate students.


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There’s some fish-eaters in this crowd. Today our crew enjoyed St Peter’s fish and visited the sites of Magdala, Tabgha, and Capernaum.

If you’d like to join us on a study-tour of your own, recognize that there are openings right now for trips departing this summer. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.




News moves here

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News travels fast in Beit Sahour. I received a message yesterday asking if I had arrived in-country. Within an hour this young man was sitting outside my hotel with a car and an evening invite. I know his extended family well. They have been dear friends of ours for more than a decade.

On the way to his place we stopped at this circle. Michael wanted me to see the statuary in the center honoring the Christmas shepherds. He and his team of Palestinian Boy Scouts collected the funds to make the display possible.

Beit Sahour is a Christian village and home to the memory of the nativity shepherds. It is located just east and downslope from Bethlehem.

Michael told me that God chose the shepherds from Beit Sahour to be the heralds of Christ’s birth because news travels quickly here. He laughed and moved his fingers like a talking mouth: “We know how to gossip!”


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Today I meet a group of resident ministry students in the graduate program of Johnson University at the Tel Aviv airport. I am looking forward to spending the next two weeks with them visiting sites and regions of biblical relevance.

You too are welcome to join us on a future trip. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.


Far and away

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The rugged region between the Cendere Bridge and Nemrut Dağı conceals the residues of many cultures. One of interest to Bible Land Explorers is Commagenê. In the time of Christ this tiny Hellenized kingdom of the East (Βασίλειον τῆς Kομμαγηνῆς) was positioned between the overlapping orbits of Rome, Parthia, and Armenia. Its strategic value lay in this nexus and in its control of crossing points along the Upper Euphrates.

The geographer Strabo refers to Commagenê as a small but fertile place, naturally fortified, and connected to the great river.* He considers it in the context of greater Syria, and, as some have suggested, its inhabitants may have been as comfortable working in a dialect of Aramaic as they were in Greek.**

At one rest stop, our local guide pointed out the ruins of “Old Kahta” above our heads. I fired my camera. While the Romans and Mamluks built here in later periods, it was originally a fortified site of the Commagenê.

Ancient Commagenê corresponds roughly with the Turkish province of Adıyaman.


*Geography 16.2. See the link here.

**Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East 31 BC – AD 337 (Cambridge: Harvard, 1993): 454.


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Travel in Eastern Turkey is tough these days, but trips to Israel-Palestine are in full swing. We have openings right now for trip scheduled May 25 through June 4, 2019. Inclusive price out of Washington Dulles is $3,963. Other departure cities are possible. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.



Get out of town

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Getting out of Nazareth is one of the first obstacles for the Jesus Trail walker. Several colluding conditions make this challenging: the urban maze, steep stairs, and, at some times of the year, the heat.

The first time I hoofed it out of Nazareth (2013) was in the depth of the summer. I couldn’t do anything about the stairs, but I beat the heat by starting before sunrise. Somewhere along the way I turned around and clicked this picture.

Modern Nazareth is a community built in a geographical “bowl.” At the center of the bowl (like the omphalos of a ceramic vessel) is the Latin Church of the Annunciation. Here, according to tradition, was the boyhood home of Jesus. The hills of Galilee rise on all sides.


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Seats are available on three different trips scheduled for Israel/Palestine in the coming summer. Dates of travel are May 25-June 4, June 4-15, and June 26-July 7. The window for sign-ups is closing, so move with speed.

For more information on pricing, itinerary, or other details of these educational tours, drop me a line at markziese@gmail.com. For a full list of future travel opportunities, see here.

Gazing across Lower Galilee

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I stand on the edge of the ancient site associated with the prophet Jonah. Today the hill holds an Arab village by the name of Mashhad.

In the distance, beyond the immediate lines of trees, a dark hill rises with a square structure near the summit (look toward the upper left side of the image, about one-third of the way in from the margin). That dark hill and the slope that runs toward us is the site of Sepphoris. During the time when Jesus was growing up in nearby Nazareth, Sepphoris was being rebuilt as the urban center of all Galilee.

Sepphoris and Mashhad are both sites along the Jesus Trail.


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Our most recent group of Bible Land Explorers just completed a walk along the Jesus Trail, a 65 km trek across Galilee. In addition to exploring Sepphoris, we visited Nazareth, Capernaum, Magdala, and Tiberias.

For a list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details.


Upgrades

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If it has been more than five years since you have visited the Roman Catholic portion of the site of Capernaum, you will be surprised to see it today. The entry area, the plaza, the waterfront have all undergone significant renovation. The primary structures on display—the “White” synagogue and the House of Peter—appear as before, but other upgrades are striking. The entry area, the plaza, the waterfront provide improved accessibility, seating, garden, and devotional areas.

The site has an occupation history stretching from the 2nd century BC to the 13th century AD.

The name of the site originates in the Aramaic, Kefar Nahum, or “Village of Nahum” (but not that Nahum!).

It was a significant center in the Galilean ministry of Jesus. As the Gospel of Mark records (2:1), when he “entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home.”


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Our most recent group of Bible Land Explorers just completed a walk along the Jesus Trail, a 65 km trek across Galilee. In addition to exploring Capernaum, we visited Nazareth, Sepphoris, Magdala, and Tiberias.

For a list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details.

Doused by sun and rain

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The city of Sepphoris was splendidly restored by Herod Antipas. According to Josephus, Herod “built a wall about Sepphoris, (which is the security of all Galilee) and made it the metropolis of the country” (Ant 18.27). Antipas renamed it Autocratoris, a term that may suggest the title of the emperor or the fact that the city was somehow politically autonomous.

As I hiked by the site I was alternatively doused by sun and rain. Galilee in January can be that way.

In this shot, the acropolis of Sepphoris rises on the left. The summit is marked by a Crusader-era stronghold. Buildings of the modern kibbutz spread in the foreground. Upper Galilee looms in the distance, wet and purple.


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Our most recent group of Bible Land Explorers just completed a walk along the Jesus Trail, a 65 km trek across Galilee. In addition to exploring Sepphoris, we visited Nazareth, Magdala, and Tiberias.

For a list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details.


Taking a pounding

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There was a break in the heavy weather yesterday. The sun broke through to illuminate waves crashing against the breakwater at Caesarea.

It is hard to imagine that the artificial harbor engineered in the time of King Herod went out another quarter of a mile.

Read about Herod’s magnificent Mediterranean harbor in the Jewish War of Josephus. Find a starting point here.


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Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal to the Lands of the Bible in 2019. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details. We make learning fun, eat good food, sleep in some respectable places, and send you home with memories for a lifetime!

Right, here

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Most of the time. Except when I’m wrong.

And there is plenty of room for fussing over who is right and who is wrong. Excavations on and around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount have been a lighting rod for controversy and criticism for years. Between Captain Warren’s burrowing in the late 19th century (curious read here) to Elad’s nasty “City of David” land-grab (don’t read this for sure!) there is enough mischief to go around (try not to think about this or this either). Don’t kid yourself; archaeology is a powerful political tool.

It’s almost 20 years old now, but Silberman’s Between Past and Present (1990) is still a valuable read. If you want to learn more about the politicalization of the discipline (find it here).


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A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.

Double-barreled

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The “High Aqueduct” that carries freshwater to the site of Caesarea Maritima is not a single system but two. The side that faces the parking lot is the older member of the construction; it corresponds to the birth of the city in the time of Herod the Great (late 1st c BC). A single canal carried water along the top of an elevated arcade. It is visible only in the upper right corner of this photograph.

Abutting the first system is a second. This side faces the Mediterranean Sea and is largely visible here. It has been suggested that this addition was built shortly after the first. Soldiers from the Second, Sixth, and Tenth Legions assisted in repairs carried out in AD 130 according to inscriptional evidence.

For more photographs and explanations of the water system at Caesarea Maritima, see the link here.

For our previous post on the “High Aqueduct”, see here.

Photograph by Bible Land Explorer Melinda Lee.


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A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.

Then and now

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Jerusalem’s el-Ghazali Square doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t smell too good either. Today it is used as a car park and as a temporary storage place for local garbage. However, thousands of years ago this area contained a large water reservoir. The reservoir was likely built (or improved) in the second century after the time of Christ. Some would date its original construction still earlier.

The reservoir is often called Birket Israel or “Pool of Israel” although it has been confused with the nearby Pool of Bethesda.

el-Ghazali Square is located immediately to the left as one enter’s the Lion Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

Bible Land Explorer Patrick Furgerson took the photo above on our recent visit. Compare it to this one taken in the 19th century before the pool was infilled.


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I’m in Israel-Palestine right now with a group from Chantilly, Virginia. Today we visited Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, sites associated with the story of the birth of Jesus.

Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our 2019 schedule here. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Getting ready for Christmas

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Holy space is strictly arranged in Eastern Orthodox churches. The center part of the building, where the faithful sit or stand, is distinct from the sanctuary, the place of the priests and the altar. Between the nave and the sanctuary is a wall-like structure or iconostasis. Lurking in the word iconostasis is the word icon, a term used of images or depictions. These are often attached to the wall and add to its ornate appearance.

Physically the iconostasis stands between these special spaces although theologically, the iconostasis is considered to be a point of connection. Icons depict saints, apostles, and Christ himself, personalities who unite believers to their God. Doors in the iconostasis allow passage for the priests. A gap left between the top of the iconostasis and the ceiling allows for the communication of words and song.

I’m thinking about such things today as I stand in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Palestine). Pictured here is the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox portion of the building. Just below the sanctuary is a cave. Reliable traditions suggests that Jesus was born in this cave.

It is a good place to be with Christmas around the corner!


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I’m in Israel-Palestine right now with a group from Chantilly, Virginia. Today we visited Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, sites associated with the story of the birth of Jesus.

Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our 2019 schedule here. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Herod the snowbird

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Snowbird is probably not the first word that comes to mind when describing Herod the Great. But it fits. This Christmas king enjoyed his escape from the cold. Pictured here is his winter palace on the banks of the Wadi Qelt in Jericho, Palestine. Only foundations have survived 2,000 years of history. It is enough to give us a sense of a colonnaded portico and a Roman-style bath: the perfect place to warm old bones.

We stopped at this Lower Jordan Valley site earlier today. The sky was spitting rain in Jericho and Jerusalem. Just in case you are wondering, it was fifteen degrees warmer in Jericho.


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I’m in Israel-Palestine right now with a group from Chantilly, Virginia. So far we have enjoyed a few good rains in Galilee. No complaints here. Temperatures are on the cool side as we circle the region. The winter has started; but so has the season of renewal.

Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our 2019 schedule here. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Name-dropping

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Yesterday I posted a view to the Messina Strait from the Roman theater in Taormina (see here). From this vantage point one captures the rugged beauty of Sicily’s northern coast as well as a view to the site of old Naxos (on the distant plain). Today I offer a second view.

The 5th century Athenian historian Thucydides suggests how Sicily got its name and how Naxos became its first Greek settlement.*

As for the island: its original name was Trinakia (Θρινακία) or “three-cornered” (consult a map of the island and you will see why). However, it was subsequently settled and renamed by peoples from Iberia (Spain or southern France). These settlers brought with them the name of their river, Sicanus. Hence, Trinacria became Sicanai or “Sicily.” See all this from Thucydides here.

Note 1: modern scholars are not so sure that Thucydides got it right. Archaeologists suggests that the culture connected with the Sicanai shows strong influence from southern Italy** and Mycenae.***

Note 2: The Apostle Paul sailed by this point on his way to Rome around the year 59. See Acts 28:11-13.

As for Naxos, Thucydides continues: This settlement was made by seafarers from the island of Euboea, just east of the Greek mainland. Their original home was Chalcis or Chalkida. Thucles is named as their founder. See the quote here.


*Thucydides was an historian and military man from Athens, Greece. His History of the Peloponnesian War is considered by many to be the first “modern” or “critical” history to be written. The quotes above are drawn from this famous 5th century BC work.

**The Late Bronze Age Fossa Grave culture. Read about this on pages 646-647 in the Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age (Oxford, 2013).

***See page 72 in John Fine’s The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History (Harvard, 1985).


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We are headed back to Tel Aviv in less than a week. I’ll be meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia to share with them a tour of Israel-Palestine. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our Bible Lands adventures. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.