Josephus

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.

"If not for this site, you wouldn't be here."

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I utter these words every time we settle into this Roman theater. The phrase is awkward by itself. But if you put in context, it makes perfect sense.

The theater is located at a site known as Caesarea-by-the-Sea. It was a wind-swept rubble pile when archaeologists began restoration efforts in the 1950s. Today the place has been wonderfully restored and is visited by millions every year.

One can sit on the sandstone seats of the theater and gaze toward the Mediterranean. It is the perfect spot to imagine how astounding this city must have been in its prime. According to Josephus, this provincial capital was built by Herod the Great (“the baby-killer” of the Christmas story) in the decade between 22 and 12 BC. It has all the accruements of a first-century Italian transplant.

According to Luke the Evangelist it was here that a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius had a vision (see Acts 10). This revelation prompted “Pentecost II,” the spark that leaped over the fireline and out of the Jewish circle. Christianity moved with speed and force from “Caesar-city” into the non-Jewish world.

That’s why I say it. If not for Caesarea-by-the-sea and the events associated with this place, I doubt that Gentiles like you and me would be sitting here. But because it did, the world as we know it has been profoundly changed.


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Caesarea-by-the-sea is a highlight on nearly all of our study-tours in the Israel-Palestine. We stop at the theater, visit the promontory palace, walk the hippodrome, explore a Crusader fortress, and imagine the harbor at the center of it all.

You really should consider joining us this summer. We have spaces available on three different trips. Find the dates here and email me at markziese@gmail.com for details.

Like a stag

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Thick vegetation crowds the path of the Jesus Trail as these Bible Land Explorers approach the Sea of Galilee. There is topsoil and water in abundance on the Plain of Gennesaret. Three streams, the Amud, Tzalmon, and the Arbel run through the plain and bequeath it with gifts. Areas dedicated to agriculture today produce bananas and mangos.

In the time of Christ, Josephus suggests a different set of crops were found here. Walnuts, dates, figs and olives occupy his list. His description (War 3.515-518) is one of exuberant fertility. Rabbinic texts echo his lead. Ber. Rab. 99.12 says of the Genesseret, let “her fruit ripen as swiftly as a stag” (cf. Gen. 49:21).*

Jesus was familiar with this area and passed through it repeatedly. See Mark 6:53, Matt 14:34, and Luke 5:1-3.


*See Zangenberg’s article on the Gennesaret in Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity (2008: 454).


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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. The Trail crosses the Plain of Gennesaret as it approaches Capernaum.

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

Don't let this happen to you

This rubble ramp thrown against Masada was the means by which Lucius Flavius Silva and the Roman Legion X Fretensis gained access to the mesa summit in AD 73-74. An ironclad seige tower was dragged to the top of the ramp and a battering ram was used to breach the perimeter wall. This story, and the subsequent mass suicide of the rebels on the mesa, is told by Josephus in his Jewish War (here is a link to an English translation). 

The account of the breach is described by Josephus in this way: The Romans set fire to a wooden wall erected by the rebels to stop the battering ram sitting atop the ramp. The wind blew the fire back toward the siege tower and threatened to undo everything the Romans had so far accomplished. But then "the wind changed into the south, as if it were done by Divine Providence, and blew strongly the contrary way, and carried the flame, and drove it against the wall, which was now on fire through its entire thickness. So the Romans, having now assistance from God, returned to their camp with joy, and resolved to attack their enemies the very next day" (War 7:304).

The narrative functions as the closer for the account of the First Jewish Revolt. For Josephus these rebels are not heroes, but tragic individuals responsible for the destruction of their own country. They fought against God himself and offered testimony to the danger of radical nationalism. 

By the way, it is much easier to walk down the ramp than it is to walk up. Just sayin'.