Day 7 - History

Day 7: The little village of Bethlehem near the Herodion, where our visit to the Sacred Land begins, was the hometown of the heroic king of ancient Israel, David, the giant-slaying shepherd boy who captured Jerusalem and made it Israel’s sacred center. It was also known to followers of Jesus as his birthplace (Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:4). The date of Jesus’ birth, fixed for us by a chronographer of late antiquity, was understood by the Gospel of Matthew to have taken place before the death of Herod in 4 B.C.E.  Luke’s reference to a census that took place after the deposition of Herod’s son Archelaus in 6 C.E., seems to suggest a somewhat later date. While the date of his birth is uncertain, the emergence of Jesus onto the stage of history took place under the regime of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate around 27 C.E. (Luke 3:1-2). For the next year or three – the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, is significantly shorter than that of John – Jesus was active in Galilee in the north, although his life would end in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Galilee, where we shall spend several days in the middle of our trip, had been part of the kingdom ruled by Herod the Great.  After his death the kingdom was divided among three of his sons. Galilee fell to Herod Antipas, who ruled the territory during the life of Jesus.  Herod Antipas continued some of the policies of his father, modernizing the territory and bringing it into the larger cultural and economic system of the Empire. An important part of this policy involved the urbanization of key centers, one on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, named after the Roman emperor, Tiberius, the stepson and successor of Augustus.  Another site was Sepphoris, a short distance from the town of Nazareth, where Jesus lived as a boy.  It is possible that Jesus, whose father Joseph was a carpenter, was employed in the construction operations at Sepphoris, although the city would not in his day have had the level of development evident from the recent archeological discoveries of late antique mosaics and architectural elements.

As his ministry developed, Jesus apparently was headquartered at Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he found his first followers, who were involved in the fishing business. He also encountered women who apparently had means to support him, such as Mary of Magdala, another fishing town, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward (Luke 8:3). His movement, proclaiming the “Reign of God,” a hoped for reality making itself present in his word and deed, gathered momentum and eventually brought him south to Jerusalem.  There the Galilean prophet confronted what he took to be the corrupt administration of the Temple.  Such confrontation was not favored by the powers that be, neither Judean nor – especially --  Roman, and Jesus was soon arrested and executed as a political threat, a pretender to royal status.

As we know, the story did not end there. Followers, who experienced him alive and exalted to heavenly status after his death, continued to spread the Good News of God’s coming Reign over humankind. As the movement spread through the Judean diaspora and soon into Gentile populations around the Mediterranean and beyond, the political situation in Judea deteriorated.  Revolt against Rome broke out in 66 C.E., which the Romans crushed with typical brutality.  The city of Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed.  The last holdouts among the revolutionaries committed suicide at Masada rather than be taken by the Roman legionnaires.

Followers of Jesus were caught up in the turmoil.  Jesus’ brother, James, leader of the community in Jerusalem, was slain on the eve of the revolt.  Other followers fled Judea.  Legend has it that many went to Pella, in Jordan.

Political tension continued in the Land, leading to another revolt against Rome in 132.  The revolt, led by a charismatic Messiah, Bar Kochba, was crushed by the forces of the emperor Hadrian. After the revolt, the emperor made Jerusalem a Roman city, banning Jews from it and building on the Temple Mount a shrine to Juppiter/Zeus.  As Jerusalem became a Roman city, with the name of Aelia, Jews, under increasingly influential Rabbinic leadership, rebuilt their society in Galilee.

The Roman domination of the heart of the sacred Land, Jerusalem, underwent a significant change in the fourth century, when the empire became Christian.  The process of Christianizing began soon after Constantine, who had been ruler in the west, assumed control of the eastern empire in 324 C.E.  His pious Christian mother, Helena, visited Jerusalem and found wooden beams that she identified as fragments of the true cross.  Her son soon financed construction of a new basilica at what was identified as the site of the burial place of Jesus.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which several different Christian churches, east and west, preserve in uneasy harmony, will be a major destination in our visit to Jerusalem.

In subsequent centuries, under Byzantine rule, the sacred Land had a decidedly Christian character.  Although the situation changed in the seventh century, Christians have been a presence in the Land, both in the state of Israel and in the Palestinian Territories until the present, bearing continuing witness to the life and ministry of Jesus in the place where he first proclaimed his good news.

--by Dean Harold Attridge