Lecture hall learners


Sometimes I wonder how effective the big lecture hall lectures are.

I try to channel my inner undergraduate as I wax eloquently on narrative construction techniques, explore the interplay between history and language, and rise to the challenge of hearing God in the text. Sometimes the feedback suggests “I get it.” Those are moments of celebration! At other times I just get stony stares.

Oh well. We keep at it.

The stony stares pictured above are not coming from lecture hall learners but from third-century (AD) funerary busts recovered at the site of Beth Shean (Scythopolis). This Heartland site was the leading city of the Decapolis and a real treasure trove of Late Roman life in the Lower Jordan Valley.

In this case, we are learning from them.

Funerary busts were erected over tombs across the Greco-Roman world, but they are rare in this part of the world. Carved in soft limestone, they display a mix of traditions, east and west, local and imported. Hair styles, jewelry, and clothing suggest a measure of personalization. Names in Semitic and in Greek languages are engraved on some and give flavor to the cultural blend that marked life in ancient Scythopolis.

You can find this display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


If you are a museum-lover you really can’t miss the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It contains a treasury of cultural artifacts from thousands of years of history.

We’ll visit the IM several times during our 2019 travel season. If you would like to join us, there are seats available. Find the dates here that fit your schedule and shoot me email me at I’ll do my best to work you in.

Toilet humor

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From the looks on these three faces someone is about to get in trouble.

These very public toilets were found in the ruins of Scythopolis (Beth She'an), Israel, just outside the theater area. Beth She'an was a leading city of the Decapolis, a league of Gentile cities mentioned in the New Testament.

I can't remember any details of the conversation captured here but it likely involved flatulence, circumcision, or sponge-sticks. Possibly all three.

Photo by YoungLan Ye.

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Interested in visiting Israel/Palestine at a deeply discounted price? Pastors, professors, and their spouses are invited to participate in a unique experience for less than $1,500. Join us on January 8-15, 2019 for a rich engagement that introduces leaders to the potential and pitfalls of group travel in this exciting part of the world. Contact me at

It requires a certain constitution

Culture and comedy are on display in the Roman theater; the Roman amphitheater, on the other hand, is a place of bloody spectacle. Tiered seating allowed thousands and even tens of thousands to watch gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, chariot races, and public executions. The term amphitheater is drawn out the Greek language and suggests "a theater in the round." The Colosseum in Rome is perhaps the most famous of these.

Some 230 amphitheaters are known across the Mediterranean world (see a third-century distribution map here). Three are found in the Heartland: Caesarea Maritima, Scythopolis (Beth Shean), and Eleutheropolis (Beth Guvrin). Of the three, the smallest is pictured above. The venue at Eleutheropolis (reconstructed seats shown in this case) is thought to have had between 9 and 11 rows that seated about 5,000 persons. Tammie joins the throng and does her best to share in this urbane expression of life in late antiquity.

To learn more, see Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles in Roman and Late Antique Palestine (Harvard, 2014).

A path between the testaments

The wooden stairway cut into the slope of Tel el-Hisn transports the explorer from the base of the site, where the Roman-Byzantine city sprawled, to the top of the mound, where the ancient site was located. The lower city was known as Scythopolis and was a member of the Decapolis league. The settlement on the mound above preserves the Old Testament name Beth Shan. According to the text of 1 Samuel 31, it was here that the bodies of Saul and Jonathan were hung from the city wall.