Category Archives: Tuesday’s Travel Tips

Tombs in the Kidron — The Arrival of the Greeks!

When Christian tour groups are in Jerusalem usually they will visit the Mount of Olives and some of the churches on it.  However, they often will not have an opportunity to visit or reflect upon the monumental tombs from the Second Temple Period that are located in the Kidron Valley—on the lower, eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley with Monumental Second Temple Tombs

Often a guide will refer to these tombs from a moving bus as being in existence in Jesus’ day and some reference will be made to Matthew 23:27–32—Jesus’ condemnation of the hypocrisy (whitewashed tombs) of some of the leadership of his day.

However, it seems to me that these monuments deserve more than just a glance from a moving tour bus.  If one stops in the vicinity (see below) it is really a great place to share with your group how Greek influence in the land was introduced by Alexander the Great (332 B.C.) and increased during the days of the Seleucids

So-called “Pillar of Absalom” with Syrian Style “Hat”

Upper Portion of the “Pillar of Absalom”

(Seleucids: Greeks ruling from Syria; note the “Syrian style hat” on the “Pillar of Absalom”) and Ptolemies

Tomb of Zechariah” with Pyramid Shaped top and Ionic Capitals

(Ptolemies: Greeks ruling from Egypt; note the pyramid shaped top of the “Tomb of Zechariah”).  Greek culture in general had certainly affected the lifestyle of the Jewish Jerusalem elites that probably had built these tombs — note the Ionic columns on “Absalom’s Pillar” and the “Tomb of Zechariah” and the Doric columns on the “Tomb of the sons of Hezir“).

By the days of Jesus the arrival of Greco–Roman culture  had rewritten, and was continuing in the process of rewriting, the cultural landscape of the peoples of the land.  All of this may seem to be a bit “technical” for a typical tour group but what better place to visually introduce your group to the fact and importance of  the arrival of Greco–Roman culture than here?

This rewriting of the cultural/religious landscape certainly had a very significant impact on the outlook of the people living in the land—including the Maccabees/Hasmoneans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Herodians, etc.  How did these various groups deal with these powerful external influences?  Adopt the new culture?  Reject it?  Fight against it?  I believe that these are powerful questions that should be taken into account not only when discussing Second Temple Judaism, but also when expounding upon the ministry and message of Jesus.

#2 = a wonderful seating area to view the tombs, Kidron Valley, and Mount of Olives
#1 = a view down on Eilat Mazar’s Excavations (Travel Tip #8)

One great place to view and discuss the monuments and their significance is from viewing point #2 above (as a bonus the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount towers over you, and the famous “seam” in the eastern wall is clearly visible).  Another way is to actually visit the monuments.  A walk from the Pool of Siloam north in the Kidron Valley will take you to these tombs.  This walk provides an interesting opportunity to get a good “feel” for the Kidron, the location of the Gihon Spring, the City of David, and the Arab neighborhood of Silwan (check to see if local conditions are “calm” before taking this walk, and I do not suggest walking alone).

Click Here to view 12 high resolution images of these monuments in the Kidron Valley.

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Worshiping the Roman Emperor

After preparing for, leading, and reflecting on some twenty trips to Turkey and Greece that emphasize the development of the early church there, it has become more and more evident that one of the “cutting edges” of scholarship has to do with how the Early Church came into contact and conflict with the common practice of “worshiping” the Roman Emperor.

This conflict has been examined extensively in connection with the New Testament book of Revelation, but it is now more evident that Paul and others interfaced with this cult to a much greater degree than was previously emphasized.

Questions such as to whom did early Christians owe their allegiance arose?

The Roman Emperor Claudius (nude as a deity in a divine epiphany with drapery billowing above his head; A.D. 41-54) portrayed as a deity receiving homage from the earth (cornucopia on the lower left) and the sea (ship’s steering oar lower right)
Claudius is presented as a “universal saviour and divine protector”
Original from the Sebasteion (below) now in the the museum at Aphrodisias

To the Emperor?  To a crucified peasant from a far eastern Roman province—namely Jesus?   How could these “Jesus is the King” people be loyal subjects to the Kingdom of the Emperor while at the same time being loyal subjects to the Kingdom of God?

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The Roles of the Roman Emperors

Groups traveling to Turkey will often fly into Istanbul and spend a day or two there before continuing on to other parts of the country.   One of the stops in Istanbul is typically the world-class Archaeological Museum located near the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace.  For students of the Bible it houses some extremely important artifacts.  The main ones are located on the top floor of the museum including the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, The Second Temple Warning Inscription, and the Gezer Calendar (the first two from Jerusalem).

Bronze Statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138)
In Toga depicting him as “the first citizen” of Rome
Archaeological Museum in Istanbul
For additional information about this statue Click Here

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Bulla of King Hezekiah Found in Jerusalem

Today it was announced that a bulla was discovered in Dr. Eilat Mazar’s excavation on the Ophel that mentions Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, King of Judah!

Seal impression of King Hezekiah unearthed in the Ophel excavations

Seal impression of King Hezekiah unearthed in the Ophel excavations. Photo: © Eilat Mazar, with Ouria Tadmor

Yes, the same Hezekiah as mentioned in the Bible.  The announcement can be found here and I will not repeat all that you can read in the press but I would like to alert you to two items:

The First is a 10 minute video describing King Hezekiah, the discovery, and a great explanation of the bulla.

At 5 minutes into the video there is a great graphic sequence explaining what is on this precious object—please don’t miss this part.

Second, if you are interested in images of the area where this bulla was found, please see my previous post that I have appended below.

Because of the extensive archaeological excavations in Jerusalem over the last one hundred and fifty years most tour groups to Israel will be introduced to, and ooh and ahh at, archaeological remains from the Second Temple Period—particularly from from the time of Herod the Great (37–4BC).

Some, but not all groups, will visit remains from the First Temple Period at the City of David’s Visitor center—including the water system from that and earlier periods.

Remains of a large “Royal Structure” with Storage Jars that was located right next to the Judean Gate.

However, this past year a new area has been opened up that also displays remains from the First Temple Period (ca. 1000 to 586 B.C.)—including the remains of a Judean Gate, a “Royal Structure,” and reproductions of the large storage jars that were found there.

Royal Structure Plus Artifacts

Royal Structure plus Judean Gate

Royal Structure plus Judean Gate

This area was well excavated by, most recently, Eilat Mazar and its reconstruction and signage are outstanding—including a helpful drawing by Balage Balogh.

The Judean Gate Complex
Click Here to view a larger version of the drawing without my markings.

The excavation is located in the southeastern corner of Jerusalem Archaeological Park that is south of the Temple Mount.  The path to it is now open.

#1 Marks the Location of the Remains of the Gate and Royal Structure

The excavation is also visible from the sidewalk along the road.  The remains are clearly visible from that vantage point and photographs from there are good.  But due to the traffic and limited space it is difficult to discuss the significance of the area with a large group.

For more images of this area Click Here.

Emperor Worship In “Israel” in Jesus’ Day

When Christian tour/academic groups visit the area of Galilee it is natural to ask “what was Galilee like in Jesus’ time?”  This is actually a tricky question to answer for what is meant by “Galilee?”  I think it is best to let Josephus define it (War iii.3.1-2 [35–43]) and if this is the case then it was very limited in size and actually surrounded by Gentile populations! (see for example the map on p. 212 of The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)

Foundation of the Temple to Augustus that Herod the Great built in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi—at Omrit
The southwest corner
Note the delicately carved molding and the remnants of fresco on the wall

Archaeological excavations in Galilee — Galilee as defined by Josephus, and pre- 70 CE — show that it was  Jewish in nature and was not yet greatly influenced by Greco- Roman culture (except for some frescos at Yodfat and Herod Antipas’ new city of Tiberias).  Indeed, the archaeological remains (ritual baths, stone vessels, lack of pig bones, shaft graves) at most sites in Josephus’ Galilee seem to indicate that Jews were living in small villages that were rural in nature.  Most tour leaders/guides will rightfully expound on the Jewish context of Jesus’ upbringing and focus of ministry, and will also reference the close proximity of Greco- Roman culture via the caravan routes that ran around and through Lower Galilee.

In two previous posts I have commented on the archaeological finds at Omrit and the Imperial Cult (worshiping the Roman Emperor) in Asia Minor.  IMHO we also need to give emphasis to the fact that Herod the Great had built  three Imperial Cult Temples — all less than 40 miles from Nazareth/Capernaum.  By the time that Jesus began his public ministry these Imperial Cult Temples (namely those at Caesarea Maritima, Sebastia, and the one near Caesarea Philippi [= Omrit])  had been in existence for over 40 years!

When tour leaders/guides expound upon “Peter’s Great Confession” at/near Caesarea Philippi — “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16; etc.) — usually the emphasis is upon “Christ” as the Greek word for Hebrew Messiah/Mashiach and Jesus as the fulfillment of the divine promise that had been made to David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7).  In addition, often reference is made to failed messiahs and rebel leaders that lived before, during, and/or after the days of Jesus — and that Jesus’ “kingdom” was of a different nature than the typical expectation of these folk.

But when Peter’s confession is made within 5 miles (or less) of  one of the three Imperial Cult Temples that had been dedicated to Roman Emperor Augustus — who was to be worshiped as a god, or at least the “son of god”  — the confession takes on all kinds of additional overtones!  And one of the first thoughts of many of the hearers of the Gospels (living in a Greco- Roman context in Asia Minor, Greece, North Africa, and Italy) had to have been, how could anyone ever think that  a crucified Galilean Jew named Jesus could be “the Son of the Living God?”   There already was a “son of god!”  Namely the reigning Roman Emperor who was worshiped as a “son of god” by (almost) all his subjects at Imperial Cult Temples scattered throughout his kingdom—not to mention previously deceased emperors (and some family members) who had ascended to heaven and were worshiped “as gods!”

The above just hints at some of the topics that could be thought through and expanded upon, and what better place to do this than at Omrit—where the foundations and some artifacts of the Herodian Imperial Cult Temple are still there in all their glory!

Directions to Omrit
Left is north in the image.
The road running from left (north) to right (south) in the bottom of the image is Hwy 918

It is easy to travel to Omrit by driving south on Hwy 918 (from the junction of Hwys 99 and 918) and turning east on the paved road just before (north) of the Bezek antenna.  To visit this unique site you need to budget about 90 minutes or so once you turn off  highway 918, but IMHO it is well worth the time!

Why not visit a cave at Qumran?

Almost all tour groups will visit Qumran along the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea.  While Cave 4 is outstanding to see, photograph, and talk about–but it seems a bit commercialized given the character of the site as a whole (ice cream, coffee, huge overpriced gift shop, etc., etc.).

Descending From Cave 11

If you have an extra 45 minutes (a realistic time estimate), why not take your group to actually visit one of the caves?  The climb up to Cave 11 is exciting without being too difficult.  It was here that over 21 texts were found, including the Temple Scroll—the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls (26.7 ft. long)!

To get to Cave 11, from the junction of Highway 90 and the entrance to the site of Qumran, head north on the paved road in the direction of Kalya , instead of going into Qumran.  At the entrance to Kalya continue straight north—the asphalt changes to dirt, but it is a good road.  As you drive north, on your right (east) there is a fence.  At the north end of the fence stop the bus and “debus” (there is room there for the bus to turn around).

View to the Northwest from Bus Park
Cave 11 and the path to it are on the right side of the image

Look to the north northwest and you will see two huge openings in cliff—left side of above image).  Cave 11 is to the right of these large openings and there is a path that leads directly to it.

The opening just to the right of center is the Entrance to Cave 11

It is about a 10-15 minute walk from where you have parked the bus and is a relatively easy climb (I strongly suggest taking water and a hat, along with your camera).

View to the South from Cave 11 — The Green Oasis is that of the site of Qumran — The Dead Sea is in the distance

From the entrance to Cave 11 there is a great view south towards Qumran and the Dead Sea.  It is a wonderful place to relive the trill of the discoveries of the scrolls!  It is also a good place to visit if you arrive too early or too late at the site of Qumran (!#$@!).

To view additional images of Qumran and Caves 1, 4, and 11  Click Here.

Israel Travel Tip — Jezreel

Many tour groups to Israel will travel north to visit the Sea of Galilee via the Sharon Plain, often stopping at Muhraqa on Mount Carmel (Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal and Asherah; and for a view of the Jezreel Valley) and/or Megiddo before heading to overnight on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

After leaving Megiddo most participants have a good grasp of the Jezreel Valley, but a great addition (especially in the afternoon sun) is to actually visit Tell Jezreel (Tel Yizreel) along route 675 at the west end of the Harod Valley.  From the shaded visitors’ platform there are terrific views of the Hill of Moreh, the Harod Valley, and Mount Gilboa.

From Jezreel looking north northwest at the Hill of Moreh. On its lower left (west) slope the white buildings mark the site of biblical Shunem

From here the group leader and/or guide can discuss:

  1. The important route that leads from Ramoth Gilead in Transjordan to the port of Acco/Ptolemais via Beth Shan, the Harod Valley, and the Jezreel Valley.
  2. Gideon mustering his men at the Spring of Harod  (Judges 7)
  3. The “Spring of Jezreel” (1 Sam 29:1) northeast of the tel

    Saul mustering his troops at the Spring of Jezreel before battling the Philistines (1 Sam 29:1).

  4. Elijah and Ahab (1 Kings 18:45-46).
  5. Naboth’s vineyard and Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 21)
  6. Jehu’s coup and the death of Jezebel (2 Kings 9).
  7. Elisha helping the woman of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8-37).
  8. Etc!

All this will take a bit of time, but the learning experience and the views from the site of Jezreel are terrific.

For additional views from Tel Jezreel Click Here.