It started cool, warmed up, rained for a bit, got toasty, then turned downright chilly — that’s what happens when you travel from Capernaum on the north side of the Sea of Galilee to Beth Shean, then on down to Jericho (1,000 feet below sea level), and end the day with a climb to Jerusalem, at 2,600 feet or so above sea level.
The 25 intrepid folk traveling with the Campbell Divinity School’s 2015 Bible Lands Study Tour did all of that and more on Thursday, beginning with a quick stop at Peter’s Primacy (traditional site of Jesus cooking fish for breakfast after the resurrection), and a thoughtful devotion led by Lacey Davis beneath a tree by the Sea of Galilee.
Capernaum (Kephar Nahum, meaning “Village of Nahum”) was the home of the Apostle Peter and Jesus’ adopted home after he began his active ministry. We saw the old octagonal church built over the traditional site of Peter’s house (and the totally-out-of-place UFO-styled Catholic church built above it), as well as a 4th-5th century synagogue that was presumably built over the synagogue where Jesus would have taught: the basalt foundations of a first-century building are still visible.
A drive down the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and then a bit further south brought us to the tell of Beth Shean, with the Roman city of Scythopolis built around its base. We ran into another surprise rain cloud, by some reports the latest it has rained in 25 years. By the time everyone who wanted them had purchased rain parkas, however, it had stopped. More than half of us trekked to the top of the tell, where survivors of the long climb viewed ruins of a 13th-15th century Egyptian outpost city and posed by a movie prop used in the 1970’s version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
South we continued, all the way to the northern edge of the Dead Sea and the important site of Qumran, where a strict Jewish sect known as the Essenes are thought to have lived in the first century, and where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves, beginning in 1947.
We made a quick stop at Qasar el Yahud, near the presumed site of Jesus’ baptism, where we watched as a group of Ukrainian Orthodox believers were baptized. The priest in the picture, with a Ukrainian flag around his neck, is holding a woman’s head under water: they dunk three times. The water in that part of the river is shallow and highly polluted, composed mainly of agricultural runoff, but many Orthodox prefer it.
At Tel es Sultan in Jericho we viewed the oldest remains of a city that claims to be 10,000 years old, based on the dating of an ancient watchtower discovered by British Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s.
We closed the day with a stop for shopping and a drive up the long hill to Jerusalem, 20 miles to the west and 3/4 of a mile higher. It was nearly 8:00 p.m. before most of us got dinner, so it was a long day, but one we’ll remember for a long time.