Day 1- Bethlehem and Surroundings

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

Most of our group connected first at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Little did we know that “Fat Stanley” would be joining our pilgrimage and reporting back to his friends in Monroe, Wisconsin.

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We flew to Israel via Turkish Airways with a brief stop-over in Istanbul. It was a very pleasant experience, as much as 10 or 11 hours in the air can be. The jet had fairly roomy seats (rows were 2x4x2 across), individual remote-controlled entertainment consoles (I watched “The Book Thief” and “World War Z”), and excellent food, including an appetizer of “Turkish Delight.” Every time the attendants gave us a piece, I thought of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Tasty as it was, I couldn’t imagine selling my soul for a piece of it!

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We arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel around 8:30 PM and boarded our tour bus to head for our first accommodation in Bethlehem — the St. Gabriel Hotel, which is a brand new facility on the outskirts of the city. Our charming guide, Foteh Mickel, immediately began to bond the group together by telling stories and assigning us to small groups. (Since I was nicknamed “The Queen of Small Groups” in a previous church I served, I fell in love with his leadership almost instantly — a deep respect that would continue throughout the trip.) The staff at the hotel held dinner for us, which was only the first example of their gracious hospitality. From its gleaming marble-clad lobby, to the spacious rooms with balcony views, to the excellent breakfast and dinner buffets, the St. Gabriel was voted the number one favorite by our travelers.

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Most of us were still bothered by jet lag the next morning, but we started our first full tour day bright and early in order to take full advantage of the glorious spring weather. First stop was the Herodian/Herodium, the archeological remains of one of Herod the Great’s fortress/palaces a few miles east of Bethlehem. The volcano-shaped hill was easy to spot from just about anywhere in the area, and I could easily imagine how intimidating it would have been in Jesus’ day.

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I posted about the Herodian earlier, so I won’t take up space describing all of it again. But since we visited four years ago, the site has added a really interesting explanatory movie and several 3-D models. (The film showed what it might have looked like with flags on top and banners hanging from the battlements. Quite impressive!) Herod’s tomb and the royal theater on the hillside have also been recently excavated.

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Our next stop was Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour is a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem, where 80% of the 12,000 plus residents are Christian. As with many areas of the Holy Land, two different areas claim to be the site where the shepherds heard the angelic message of Jesus’ birth. We visited the Franciscan site, which includes a beautiful church designed by architect Antonio Barluzzi.  (Dubbed “the architect of the Holy Land,” Barluzzi also designed the Church of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept) Church on the Mount of Olives, the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, among several others.) There is also a chapel in one of the large caves that commemorates where the shepherds were “abiding in the fields” and a peaceful outside devotional area that overlooks the fields where sheep are still grazed.

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After a tasty falafel (fried chick pea balls) or chicken shawarma sandwich at Ruth’s Field restaurant, we headed for the Old City of Bethlehem — always a challenge because of limited bus access and large crowds. In 2009 we couldn’t visit the birth grotto in the Church of the Nativity because there was an over-two-hour wait to go downstairs. But this time Foteh’s timing was perfect, so we paused before the 14 point star that commemorates Jesus’ birth, and also saw the Grotto of the Manger, the Byzantine era mosaics under special sections of the floor in the main building, and the cave next door where St. Jerome translated the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible into the Latin Vulgate, the language of the common people.

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(The 14 points of the nativity star refer to Matthew 1, where Jesus’ genealogy is broken down into 3 sets of 14 generations: from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian exile, and from the exile to Jesus.)

Outside in Manger Square, Foteh introduced us to one of the local craftsmen who makes olive wood figurines — Joseph. Joseph met us later at the Christian-family-owned store where we shopped, and he personally signed the pieces we bought. (I got one of the Holy Family and another of the woman washing Jesus’ feet.) I was glad to spend my money at an establishment that helped the local Christian community. On our drive back to the hotel, we viewed the shops and houses of two very large Palestinian refugee camps and saw some of the “outsider” mural art on the Separation/Security wall that surrounds the the residents of the West Bank (areas under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority.)

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After another tasty buffet dinner at our hotel, we enjoyed our first evening Bible study, sharing highlights of the trip so far and learning about Jesus’ birth and childhood. All told, we had a very good — and very full! — first day!

Click here to see additional group pictures of Day 1.

Day 2 – The Wilderness and the Dead Sea Area

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

Way back in October, I blogged about this particular day in our pilgrimage itinerary, so check there for all the details about Qumran and Masada. I always look forward to this day because it’s a great opportunity to teach and learn about the political and religious context of Jesus’ time. Groups like the Essenes (Qumran) and Zealots (Masada) had such radically different ways of understanding and responding to the world around them, especially the Roman occupation. No wonder so many people had trouble understanding what kind of Messiah Jesus would be!

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But I also love this day because it’s just a lot of fun. It’s always such a hoot to watch people you know from your local church flop around in the Dead Sea until they get the hang of it. (Not so funny though when I got stuck on my knees in the mud this time and couldn’t get enough traction to stand up and get out — at least not gracefully!)

And covering yourself with mud until you’re almost unrecognizable makes for a great photo op. Even if there weren’t some health benefits — skin temporarily as soft as a baby’s and muscles and joints that feel like butter — it would still be an awesome experience.

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Make sure to check out the pictures in the “gallery” on a separate page for more shots of our “mud worshipers.”

Our day started out with a memorable drive on the back roads between Beit Sahour and the major Jerusalem-to-Jordan Valley highway. On previous visits we’d always stayed in the Jerusalem area for this part of the trip, so it was pretty much a “straight shot” down through the wilderness to the Dead Sea. Not this time! We got a good sample of our bus driver Walid’s maneuvering skills as he tackled the hairpin turns along the way.

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I didn’t feel unsafe for even one minute, but it sure was easy to imagine what sheep (and shepherds!) must feel like meandering up and down the rocky valleys. Along the way we also crossed the borders from the tribe of Judah to the tribe of Benjamin (the road signs changed from lion to wolf), and we left the lush greenery of the hills around Bethlehem for the rocky wastes of the wilderness. And we got several glimpses of Bedouin communities, too.

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In the afternoon we also visited a new site to us — the oasis of Ein Gedi, which is part of Israel’s national park system. Rich in Old Testament history, it is part of the area where David (before he was king) hid out from King Saul. Those that did the Nahal David hike were rewarded with a fine view of the stream and waterfall. And those of us that “sat out” (mainly because of “bum” knees) at the concession stand enjoyed the cool breeze, observing the other tourists and locals, and reading our Kindles.

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Click here to view additional pictures of Day Two – The Wilderness and Dead Sea Area.

Day 3 (Part 1) – Wadi Qelt and the Jordan River

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

Flopping and floating in the Dead Sea the day before rewarded most of us with a good night’s sleep, and with jet lag beginning to diminish we started the morning bright and early with bags packed and waiting to board the bus. Today was our first “transit day,” when we transferred from one area to another — in this case from Bethlehem, which is southeast of Jerusalem, to Tiberias, which is north (about 90 miles as the crow flies) on the Sea of Galilee.

Our first stop was a partially “new to us” site — the Good Samaritan Inn and Mosaic Museum. We’d been there before during our earlier trips when it was a run down and slightly tacky combination of rest stop and souvenir store. The site itself has a pretty substantial claim to be at least near the place where the “good Samaritan” story might have occurred. A way station or “kahn” was located there from as early as the Second Temple period, which was rebuilt and served as a pilgrim hostel during the later Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman periods.

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But little was done with the current facility until an Israeli concern revamped it and opened the Mosaic Museum a few years ago. The mosaics there are both originals and reconstructions from Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches, a diverse collection that is unique to Israel. The exhibits themselves were quite beautiful and the accompanying information fascinating — for example, many of the mosaics were constructed like quilts by using standard pattern books.

Our next stop was the Wadi Qelt overlook about half way down the mountain on the north side of the highway. “Wadi” is an Arabic term for valley, and it usually denotes a dry ravine or stream bed that contains water only during seasons of heavy rain. (Here’s a neat video about a flash flood in a wadi in the Dead Sea area.) Wadi Qelt is long and deep, and parallels the old Roman Road that runs from Jerusalem to Jericho — another exciting “hairpin turn” ride!

As with many sites in the Holy Land, this one is also completely “commercialized” — this time by the local Bedouin! To get to and from the overlook, you have to maneuver your way through a half-dozen or more very aggressive vendors selling men’s kafiyas, women’s fashion scarves and fake camel bone jewelry. But the view at the top is worth the climb and the hassle. Reciting the 23rd Psalm while that close to the wilderness makes it “come alive” in a new and memorable way.

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Many scholars believe that Jesus probably “hiked” this valley during his time of temptation in the wilderness. And throughout the years, hermits and monks have followed his example of spirit-led introspection by removing themselves from society to live in the caves surrounding the valley. (It was also a great place for robbers to hide out — think “Good Samaritan” story.) St. George’s Monastery is an ancient Christian center that clings to the steep cliffs along the Wadi Qelt. But that hasn’t stopped them from installing the latest solar panel technology.

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Along the banks of the Jordan River east of Jericho is Qasr el Yahud (“Castle of the Jews” in Arabic), the traditional site of John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. (It also commemorates the area where the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.) The area surrounding the site was “no man’s land” between the nations of Israel and Jordan, complete with barbed wire and land mines. When we visited five years ago, it was only open two times a day and you had to make a reservation and follow an army escort to the river. (There’s still a military presence, however, because the platform on the river is only a few yards from Jordan.) Now Qasr el Yahud is open all day with newly built facilities, including changing rooms and the ubiquitous gift shop. The Israeli concern that opened the facility has even supplied a handful of white doves to dwell there! And there was a professional photographer on site to take group photos.

Some people are disappointed when seeing the Jordan River for the first time. Shallow and muddy, it doesn’t seem to fit the image of our Bible stories and hymns. But wading in and initiating or renewing our friends’ baptismal vows is one of the most meaningful events on the pilgrimage for me.

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Click here to see additional group pictures of Day Three, Part 1.

Day 3 (Part 2) – Jericho and Beit She’an

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

The second part of Day Three was spent visiting the ancient cities of Jericho and Beit She’an and then traveling north to our hotel in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.

Leaving Jesus’ traditional baptismal site at Qasr al Yehud, we drove through the eastern side of Jericho past an ancient sycamore tree in the compound of the Russian Museum. The tree certainly isn’t the one that Zaccheaus climbed in order to see Jesus, but it could be a younger offshoot. (Some sycamores have lived to be over 500 years old.) The tree used to be accessible from a narrow street and the local kids would climb it for a photo-op; now it’s surrounded by a protective fence and wall.

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Other things in the town have changed as well. During our last visit in 2009, relations between Israel and the West Bank/Palestine were strained and we had to stop and change buses at the check point in order to enter the city. We didn’t have to do that this time (nor did we have to do it in Bethlehem, either), but I don’t know if that’s because we used a different tour company or because both governments are committed to improving tourism in the region. We ate lunch at the Temptation Restaurant and Tourist Center. The buffet salads were good and plentiful, and Randy thinks they have the best lemonade of anywhere in the Holy Land. The super-size gift shop was awesome and stocked a large supply of dates, fruit, and souvenirs, including Hebron glass.

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The afternoon was personally a tough one for me because it included four things I really do not like: hot weather (about 96 Fahrenheit), crowds (more later), being in high places, and being in high places in a conveyance that dangles and sways. Several years ago the Jericho Cable Car Center opened as one of the premiere local attractions, and it can transport over 600 people an hour from a base near the old city ruins to the top of the Mount of Temptation. Here there are shops, restaurants and cafes, along with terraces that can accommodate “up to 350 people.” And from there it’s an easy walk up to the Greek Orthodox Qurantal Monastery, which boasts a cave where Jesus purportedly stayed during his 40 day fast.

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From the pictures on the website, I had envisioned a restful, after-lunch Bible study with some quiet time for reflection on the deeper meaning and personal application of the passages about Jesus’ temptations. But when we got to the top, we were greeted by hundreds and hundreds of Palestinian school children — mostly girls — who were on spring break. Many of them followed us around like we were rock stars, taking our pictures and practicing their conversational English on us. One sweet little pipe-playing girl was an especially capable “flirt.” It wasn’t hard to imagine the same kind of beauty in the Biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca or Rachel.

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There were a few times I was “tempted” to start tearing out my hair when my “perfect” itinerary was frustrated, but once I calmed myself down, I have to admit that this “spontaneous” afternoon ended up being quite delightful. (Sometimes God has to knock me upside the head to get my attention!) While some of the group ended their time in Jericho by exploring the archeological excavations of the “oldest inhabited city on earth,” others of us got in another spot of shopping, a much-needed sit in the shade, and a cool drink at “Elisha’s Spring.”

We left Jericho late afternoon and drove north to Beit She’an for an “after dark” tour of the archeological ruins in the national park. Situated at the crossroads of the Jordan and Jezreel valleys, the city was strategically located to control both the east-west and north-south travel routes. About 1000 BC, King Saul lost a nearby battle with the Philistines and they hung his beheaded body on the city walls. A military stronghold for the victorious Kings David and Solomon, the city was later destroyed by the Assyrians and did not flourish again until the Greco-Roman period (roughly 300 BC – 400 AD) when it was renamed Scythopolis. Though there is no indication that Jesus ever visited the city, is was the most prominent member of the Decapolis (Matthew 4:25, Mark 5:20 and 7:31) and a center for pagan culture. The movie and lighted tour gave us some great context for understanding Jesus’ time and surroundings.

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A late supper and comfortable rooms were waiting for us at the Royal Plaza Hotel, which is located on the southern end of Tiberias just a block from the Sea of Galilee. After an eventful and somewhat surprising day, we all wondered what tomorrow held in store.

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Click here to see additional pictures from Day Three, Part 2.

Day 4 (Part 1) – Nazareth

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

I love to wake up early in the morning when we’re staying in Tiberias, especially when we’re close to the lake. In my post last July about Henry Van Dyke’s travels to the Holy Land, I quoted his poetic description of camping alongside the Sea of Galilee. Though we were staying in a modern hotel instead of tents, his words beautifully capture the essence of our first morning there:

In the freshness of the early morning the sunrise pours across the lake into our tents. There is a light, cool breeze blowing from the north, rippling the clear, green water, (of a hue like the stone called aqua marina), with a thousand flaws and wrinkles, which catch the flashing light and reflect the deep blue sky, and change beneath the shadow of floating clouds to innumerable colours of lapis lazuli, and violet, and purple, and peacock blue.

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After a hearty Israeli breakfast, our group headed up the hill and west to the city of Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home and the place where he preached his first recorded sermon. Nazareth in Jesus’ day was a small village — depending on which scholar you believe anywhere from under 100 to a couple thousand residents. So it can be quite jarring to make your way through the bustle of the modern city, complete with its crowds of people on the sidewalks (about 80,000, not including tourists) and all manner of vehicles on the extremely crowded, nightmare-for-parking streets.

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Nazareth is also where Jesus’ mother, Mary, was living when the angel Gabriel greeted her and announced the coming birth of her son. There are two churches that claim the honor of commemorating that special angelic visit: the Church of St. Gabriel (Greek Orthodox), a church with roots to Crusader times that was built over the site of an ancient village well, and the Basilica of the Annunciation (Franciscan), which we visited.

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Perched on one of the highest points in Nazareth, the Basilica dominates the city skyline and is the largest Christian edifice in the Middle East. It’s also stunningly beautiful, both inside and out. We entered through the lower courtyard, which gives entry to the lower floor of the church. The courtyard is chock full of multicolored mosaics of the Virgin Mary that have been donated by almost four dozen countries. Each one has a unique depiction of Mary (and sometimes the baby Jesus) that reflects the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the sponsoring country. One near the street, for example, includes the colorful folk costumes of Ukraine. (To see all the mosaics from both the lower courtyard and inside the church click here.)

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The courtyard is spacious and peaceful, a perfect spot to pause, read Scripture and reflect on the good news of Jesus’ predicted birth. And other parts of it are just as lovely as the mosaics; the decorations on the facade and the figures on the three massive metal entry doors all tell the story of God’s plan for salvation from Adam and Eve to the cross, emtpy tomb and beyond.

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The lower church is built over the remains of older buildings that date back to the Byzantine (330-1453 AD) and Crusader (1099-1291 AD) periods. The simple, almost stark, architecture and dim lighting help pilgrims to focus their attention on the sunken altar area, which leads down even further to the Grotto of the Annunciation. We waited in line with several dozen other pilgrims to get a quick glimpse of the Grotto, which was purportedly the home of Mary when Gabriel delivered his startling message. The small altar in the Grotto reads “Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est” – “here the Word was made flesh.”

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The upper church is much more ornate with an impressive cupola ceiling, more art work honoring the Virgin Mary, and a gilt touched mural over the high altar. Even though it was full of worshipers, they were quietly respectful. What a great setting to sit, pray and think about Mary’s faithfulness and trust in God!

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The Church of St. Joseph is next door to the Basilica across the upper terrace, but it’s smaller and plainer and draws less of a crowd. According to tradition, it is built over the Roman-era cave that was the home and carpenter shop of Joseph and the Holy Family. As with the Basilica, there are remains from earlier worship centers that go back to Byzantine times, including a mosaic-decorated baptismal pool in one of the rock cavities of the lower area. This church and the Basilica were good reminders of the historically significant Christian presence in this town where Jesus grew from boy to man.

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What a contrast it was afterward to be confronted by several Muslim men on the walk back down to the bus. They were proselytizing and offering free copies of the Koran to the tourist groups leaving the Christian area. Though not as aggressive as some of the vendors we’d already encountered on the trip, they loudly argued that the Christian understanding of God in Three Persons (Trinity) didn’t make logical sense and wasn’t really “One God” as we claim. One of our guys engaged them in brief conversation, but it was clear that neither was going to convince the other of “the error of his ways.” This experience was also a “first” for one of our pilgrimages.

Our next stop for the morning was at Nazareth Village, which I am going to write about in a separate post. So let me end this one with a description of our last site in Nazareth — Mt. Precipice, which was also new to this tour. According to the gospel account in Luke 4, Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his local synagogue caused such a stir that his neighbors tried to kill him by throwing him off the brow of a hill. Sometimes it’s much the same today — the gospel message is least welcome in the neighborhood where it all started.

Though archeological remains nearby point to a Christian presence on the mount from Byzantine times, it’s doubtful that the site is exact because of its distance from what would have been the town of Jesus. Still, since it’s the highest ridge in the area you get a magnificent view of the Jezreel Valley and the mountains of Samaria.

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Click here to see more of our group pictures from Day Four – Nazareth, Cana and Capernaum – Part 1.

Day 4 (Part 2) – Nazareth Village

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

Since our pilgrimage in 2000 we have tried to plan itineraries that include at least one activity or site that is a “re-enactment” kind of experience — something that gives our travelers a “hands-on” encounter with life in various Bible times. One time it was a Greco-Roman style dinner complete with costumes and pretend swordplay. Our last trip it was a camel ride and Bedouin heritage dinner at Genesis Land/Abraham’s Tent. (I was excited to learn recently that Genesis Land now also includes a Bedouin style camping experience among its possible activities. Maybe next time?) And on this trip we spent several delightful hours at Nazareth Village, a Christian educational center and open air museum that is a few blocks from the Old City area of Nazareth.

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I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical about this site and not really expecting the best. (Part of that is my “just in case” familial upbringing — expect the worst and then be pleasantly surprised when things turn out well.) Even though I’d checked out their website and read some of the feedback on TripAdvisor, I wondered if it was going to end up being some kind of hokey, sub-par theme park.

But Nazareth Village was absolutely awesome. And if the number of group pictures taken of an individual site is any indication of its popularity, then this one wins without a doubt. I think I speak for all of us when I say that Nazareth Village was the highlight of our pilgrimage, and for many different reasons.

First of all, we had an engaging guide, Danny, who is a Messianic Jewish believer. Not only was he well-informed and articulate, but his commitment to Jesus, his passion for sharing the gospel, and his love of his work at the Village were shining examples of the real meaning of evangelism. I couldn’t have handpicked a better individual to show us around — another “God thing” for which I am very, very thankful.

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Second, the history and design of the Village was intriguing. The surrounding area had been an open field connected to Nazareth Hospital, one of the last undeveloped areas in Nazareth. When some visionaries started to explore the grounds archaeologically, they discovered quarries and farmland (vineyard terraces, watchtowers, a wine-press carved into the bedrock, and a spring-fed irrigation system) that had existed during Greco-Roman times — roughly 200 BC to 100 AD. Since growing grapes and making wine was one of the main industries of ancient Galilee, it’s quite likely that some of Jesus’ neighbors lived and worked on this land. (I wondered if they could have supplied the wine for the wedding feast in Cana.)

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As the Village website puts it, once these treasures were discovered beneath the ground “the dream of showing the world what Nazareth was like in the time of Jesus was born.” Our group appreciated the painstaking detail and historical accuracy evident in each of the reconstructed locations. Starting from the welcome center, we walked downhill past a number of family groupings — three children playing a game of “catch” and a father pushing his daughter on a swing. 

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A bit further down the hill there was a large old olive tree. It was a nice shady spot for a stop and a lesson about olive cultivation.

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At the bottom of the hill there was a large enclosure where a shepherd watched his flock. And off to the side was a replica of a tomb with a circular stone covering the entrance — a typical example from Jesus’ time and the kind probably used for his own burial.

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Halfway back up the hill near the ancient wine-press was the reconstructed watchtower. Since the image of the watchtower was used by both the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-3) and in one of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 21:33-41), this was great addition to the Village.

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Buildings at the top of the hill included the typical home (with living area on the roof) and workshop …

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an olive oil press …

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and a synagogue, which was amazingly cool on this warm, sunny day.

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I had a profound spiritual experience during our time in the synagogue. While Danny was teaching about Jesus and his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, he read — as Jesus did — from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1-3). As he got to the part about “freedom for the captives” and “release of prisoners from the darkness” his voice cracked. I imagine he was remembering his own conversion to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, just as I was remembering my own release from the bondage of long-standing sin when I was in my early 30s.

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But it also hit me — and hit me hard — in another way. I have always pictured Jesus in this scene reading this Scripture passage with holy conviction, boldness and authority. But this time I saw Him reading it humbly, realizing the enormity of the task He had been given and knowing He could only accomplish it by relying, as we do, on the presence and power of His Father. Since I have a tendency to sometimes be arrogant in my “rightness,” I really needed this particular lesson.

Finally, all of us were so impressed by the ministry that is accomplished at the Village. For example, not all of the kids that volunteer are Christian; many of them come from Arab Muslim homes. (Here is a sweet video in which some of them share why they have volunteered.) They are provided not only with a day of fun and godly fellowship, but they are also exposed — gently — to the true story of Jesus and the gospel message.

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Thousands of school children in the region and visitors from all around the world have also visited the site since it opened in 2000. We were happy to support this vital outreach by spending our money in the gift shop, which included many crafts handmade by local residents, and we also made a sizable group contribution that has been recognized with a “builders brick” on one of the public walkways.

nv33We’re hoping that on the next pilgrimage we can spend even more time here and enjoy one of the authentic meals or Seder celebrations.

Click here for more group pictures of Nazareth Village.