It was a heavy day. Watch the video and see for yourself. It doesn’t require much explanation. Today, our group mostly explored Old Jerusalem—the portion of the city inside the city walls, which mostly corresponds to the Bible’s boundaries.
We shared some very meaningful experiences: We visited the ruins of the Pool of Bethzatha, where Jesus healed a paralytic in John 5:1-18. As for authenticity, there is little doubt that this is the place described in John.
In the spirit of healing, Bishop Watson led us in a healing service at the pool, anointing us with oil. The experience inspired me to think of ways I can use or adapt this healing service in my ministry. As Bishop Watson said, we’re not performing magic. We’re simply acknowledging the mystery that God can use us to help make people whole. The practice of anointing the sick is biblical, as James 5:13-18 attests.
Add to the list of things I need to buy while I’m here: anointing oil. Nearly every gift shop around here sells olive oil from the Holy Land.
Next, we went to a place called Antonia Fortress. This was the place where Roman soldiers prepared convicted criminals for crucifixion. Here’s something I’ve never heard before: The soldiers likely subjected Jesus to a sadistic game called “The Game of the Kings.” No one knows for sure what the rules are, but the “game board,” if you will, is etched into the tile floor. The game indicates using a crown of thorns.
There’s a strong possibility that the soldiers were playing this game in Mark 15:16-20. If so, then we likely saw the spot on which Jesus stood as the soldiers mocked, beat him, and crowned him with thorns.
From the Antonia Fortress, we walked the Via Dolorosa and toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since the Via Dolorosa—the path that Jesus supposedly took to the cross—is highly disputed, and I don’t follow the stations of the cross anyway, this was less interesting religiously than culturally. We walked through crowded, narrow walkways surrounded by merchants selling and haggling various wares from every direction.
Along the way, Jimmy, our tour guide, bought the group a warm bagel. And I mean, he bought us one bagel. They make them very big in Jerusalem, obviously. It was the best bagel I’ve ever had! We also stopped at a coffee shop in the Christian district, where I had my first cup of Arabic coffee, which was great. I can’t tell the difference between Arabic coffee, Turkish coffee, and Cuban coffee. They’re all in the same ballpark—very strong with a gritty texture. They leave behind a thick layer of dregs in the cup. Yum!
We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—or Church of the Resurrection—and it was pretty much what I expected. My expectations were low: For me, the atmosphere was about as unconducive to having a deep spiritual experience as imaginable. See Day 4 (re: The Church of the Nativity) for my theological concerns with “touching” holy places.
In the video, you will see me touching the alleged place where Jesus’ cross stood. I’m skeptical that they know where it stood, but I am reasonably sure that this is Calvary, or Golgotha—so it was near the spot. Unfortunately, you can’t see the tomb or Golgotha because they built a church on top of it.
Tomorrow, we’re going to see another possible site for the tomb. Whether it’s the place or not, it will be nice seeing what such a tomb might have looked like. I don’t think it’s covered up by a church, but we’ll find out.
By the way, I pity the poor priest whose job was to usher pilgrims through the place underneath which Jesus’ tomb purportedly resides. That must be the lousiest assignment in all of Eastern Orthodoxy! But the church could have at least found someone who had a gift for hospitality and joy—or at least someone who could fake it. It should be part of the job description.
Onward to better things… We visited Caiaphas’s house. Caiaphas was the high priest mentioned in scripture who helped engineer Jesus’ arrest and later turned Jesus over to the Roman authorities. There’s a church on top of the site, but you can still walk underneath to the likely place where Jesus was questioned, beaten, and—I now believe—thrown into a dungeon.
The dungeon isn’t mentioned in scripture, but it’s strongly implied. As one example among all three Synoptic gospels, Matthew 26 has Jesus being mocked and spit upon by temple police. The next scene involving Jesus begins, in 27:1, “When morning came…” What transpired between Jesus’ being mocked and the next morning?
Since it’s clear that the house functioned in part as a prison, and prisoners were held in the dungeon, we can infer that Jesus was, too. He was probably lowered down into it through a hole (which can be seen in the video) by a rope harness. And then raised back up the next morning. A mosaic on the side of the church depicts this, as well.
Bishop Watson challenged us to imagine what Jesus’ experience of being abandoned in the utter darkness of a windowless dungeon must have been like. I found it deeply moving.
We stood in the courtyard and reflected on Peter’s denial of Jesus, as you can see in the video.
What you don’t see in the video is our trip to Bethany, the place where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived. The church has identified a traditional site for Lazarus’s tomb. I’m skeptical again, but who knows?
You may have noticed that I changed the title of this video from “Israel” to “Holy Land.” Someone helpfully reminded me that not a single country in the world besides Israel (including the U.S.) recognizes the expanded borders of Israel, post-1967, when Israel captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. (Israel has since returned the latter to Egypt.) The rest of the world believes, in other words, that these are occupied territories that belong to other countries.
Since we’ve spent much of our time in parts of “Israel” that are not within the pre-1967 borders, including Bethlehem, Bethany, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, I will now call it the Holy Land—like most people do anyway.