Essenes and Zealots and Herodians, oh my!

RafaelBenAriNear the beginning of our time in the Holy Land, we take a full day to tour the desert area around the Dead Sea. This mini-break from Christian holy sites serves two purposes. First, we get to counteract any remaining jet lag with a more relaxed schedule and a number of fun activities, such as floating in the saltiest water on earth.

And second, we start to put Jesus’ life and ministry into a broader historical context. As I wrote in my last post, before I visited Israel for the first time I had a rather “monochromatic” picture of the folk who currently live there. And it’s all too easy to think the same way about Jesus’ contemporaries in the first century. We narrowly classify them as Jew or Gentile, or we might recall that the New Testament acknowledges competing groups of Sadducees and Pharisees, even if we can’t quite remember exactly what made them different from each other.

Many of our travelers are therefore surprised to discover that Jesus’ first-century world was almost as ethnically, religiously and politically diverse as today. And then, as now, the various distinctions sometimes overlapped or operated in tandem. For example, religious commitments also tended to determine social standing or the degree of national patriotism compared to loyalty to Rome.

220px-HerodtheGreat2But even within groups there were also subgroups. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were split between their two most prominent teachers — the liberal, Hillel, and the stricter, Shammai. (Jesus was contending with these two schools of thought when he was asked questions about divorce.) The Jewish people from the south looked down on people from the north because of their funny accents, and northerners themselves were suspicious of the “holy rollers” among them from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown.  And pretty much everyone ostracized the Samaritans and Idumeans for their ethnic impurity, though that didn’t stop people from declaring themselves Herodians if it suited their political purposes. (King Herod was an Idumean whose family had converted to Judaism.)

Rather than take the space to compare all of these differences in detail, let me refer you to several good articles about Jewish groups (here and here) and ethnic groups (here) during New Testament times.

There are two groups, however, that have unique ties to the Dead Sea area — the Essenes at Qumran and the Zealots at Masada. Both groups were unified in their strict adherence to Jewish law and their overt protest against Roman occupation and rule, but both went about it in radically different ways.

deadseascrollsThe Essenes were an apocalyptic sect that believed the end of the world was near with its epic battle between the “Sons of Light” (themselves) and the “Sons of Darkness” (pretty much everyone else.) By living lives of the strictest ritual purity (for example, they wouldn’t use toilet facilities on the Sabbath) they could also hasten the coming of the Messiah, who would overthrow the Romans and establish God’s Kingdom on earth. Some scholars believe there was an Essene community in Jerusalem, but many also sought refuge in the desert in order to escape the perceived corruption of the Temple leadership and practices. They may (or may not) have established a “monastery” at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. (You can read more about the Essenes here, here and here.)

The Zealots, on the other hand, preferred to utilize worldly — and more violent — solutions to the problem of Rome. (See here and here.) Operating under the principle that “God alone is King,” they readily took up arms against all identified enemies of Israel, including the Hellenizing Sadducees and Herodians. A subgroup called the Sicarii, which means “dagger-men,” even engaged in assassination if it was deemed necessary.

masada1The Jews, led mostly by the Zealots, openly revolted against Rome in 66 AD. Four years later in 70 AD, the Romans retaliated by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. (They left some of the plaza’s supporting walls — the Western or Wailing Wall, for example — as reminders.)

The surviving rebels fled south to the desert, overpowered the Roman garrison at Masada, one of King Herod the Great’s fortress-palaces, and took up residence with their families for the next three years. When the Romans — with help from Jewish prisoners of war — finally gained access to the top by building a siege ramp, the Zealots chose death-by-suicide over dishonor and deportation as slaves. Of the almost 1,000 inhabitants, only two women and five children survived. (You can still see the pale-colored siege ramp and the square Roman base camp in the lower right hand corner of the picture.)

Though there is no direct scriptural evidence, some scholars believe that John the Baptist, and possibly even Jesus, may have been influenced by Essene teachings or even were members of the sect. (N. T. Wright offers a good comparison and refutation here.) One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was a zealot (Luke 6:15), and there could have been others in the crowds that wanted to forcibly make Jesus king.

Pictures courtesy the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (


A Smorgasbord of Faiths, Cultures and Customs

wwwm0400.gifOn our last pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, our bus driver was an Arab-Israeli Muslim and our tour guide was a German-Israeli Christian. Both were fluent in English, Arabic and Modern Hebrew, and Maria probably spoke German as well. Guides from previous trips have included a Palestinian Muslim, an Armenian Orthodox Christian, and an American Jew who is a permanent resident of Israel. Bus drivers have been exclusively Arab — and probably Muslim — as far as we know.

During our ten-day tour we listened to a children’s choir from a Scandinavian Messianic Jewish community near Jerusalem, met with a Palestinian Christian professor from a college in Bethlehem, prayed at the Western Wall alongside ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews dressed in European styles from hundreds of years ago, observed the living quarters of Ethiopian Orthodox monks on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and mingled everywhere with believers from just about “every tribe and nation.” One of my fondest memories from that time is when a Syrian Orthodox nun sang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, an ancient language that was Jesus’ native tongue.

TWO SAMARITAN ELDERSOn previous trips we have strolled through the artist colony of Safed, which is also the spiritual center of mystical Jewish Kabbalah, and viewed the monument to the founder of the Baha’i faith from an overlook above Haifa. We’ve eaten kosher meals in Arab guesthouses and marveled at (and complained about) the Shabbat elevators in Jewish hotels. We’ve shopped for local handicrafts in a Druze village and stood on the outskirts of a Bedouin encampment. And on this upcoming tour in March we hope to visit the Samaritan Museum and Center near modern-day Nablus. (Yes, there are still Samaritans living in the Holy Land!)

Before my first trip in 1994 I had a naive and stereotypical understanding of the residents of the Holy Land. If I thought of them at all, it was as a fairly homogenous conglomeration of Christians, Jews and Muslims — with their population sizes in that order. The reality “on the ground” was quite different, and I quickly learned just how wrong I was. But unpacking and understanding this really non-homogenous mixture of people, faiths and customs took time and serious thought.

wwwm0377.gifTake the designation “Israeli,” for example. The common definition has to do mostly with nationality: “a person who was born, raised or living in modern Israel, or a person living elsewhere who is of Israeli descent.”  But people are also often referred to as “Israeli” if they are citizens of the State of Israel — even if, like our German tour guide, Maria, they come from a different national background. Since the term “American” shares this same kind of double meaning in our culture, that wasn’t too hard to grasp.

It makes sense, then, that individuals who were born and live in the immediate area outside Israel are called “Palestinian.” Most Palestinians hold their citizenship in the State of Palestine, which is also called the West Bank or the Occupied Territories. But a minority of Palestinians live in, and are citizens of, Israel.

BEDUIN WOMEN protesting for peaceIt took me a bit longer to figure out that “Arab” and “Jew” refer in the narrowest sense to ethnic groups. Most Arabs, including the Druze and Bedouin subgroups, trace their lineage to somewhere in the Middle East.  Jews, on the other hand, hail from all over the globe — in addition to the Middle East, from America, Europe, Asia and Africa. (Both Arabs and Jews share a broader, common ethnic heritage as Semites.) Samaritans are also native to the Middle East, though they are neither Jewish nor Arab and practice their own unique form of religion.

Contrary to my earlier assumptions, the three major religious groups — in order of size — are Jewish (75% in 2011), Muslim (17%) and Christian (2%, and declining). The majority of ethnic Jews are also Jewish in faith, though not all are equally observant. About 20,000 of them are Messianic believers in Jesus. Arabs are mostly Muslim, a few are Christian, and LP2even fewer still practice one of the minority faiths. Christians share the same world-wide ethnic heritage as the Jews, and primarily belong to one of the ten officially recognized “sects.”

The resulting smorgasbord of faiths, cultures and customs — even though sometimes in tension with one another — make Israel and Palestine two of the most enticing and memorable places that I have ever visited. Just go back and re-read the first three paragraphs, counting the various nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, races, religions and languages mentioned, and you’ll see what I mean. Each visit brings a wealth of new people to meet and new lessons to learn.

It’s not too late to join our group in March. I promise you it will be the trip of a lifetime!

Photos courtesy

The Three F’s of a Booth-hosted Pilgrimage to Israel

A visit to the Holy Land is usually a profound Christian faith experience. Considering there are over fifty sites we’ll visit that are connected to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, how could it be otherwise? But sometimes all of the new information and all of the spiritual “pondering” can be a bit overwhelming. So Randy and I make sure to build in numerous opportunities for the “Three F’s” — food, fun and frolic.

buffetThe food in Israel is plentiful, delicious and very healthy. Breakfast and dinner buffets at our hotels seem almost “endless,” chock full of whole grain bread and rolls, lean meat and fish, fruit and a variety of vegetable salads, fresh cheese and yoghurt. They’re a wonderful way to start the morning or to relax and bond with new friends after a long day of touring.

One of my all-time favorite meals was a lunch we enjoyed many years ago at a restaurant near the Sea of Galilee. It was during the local avocado harvest, and the all-you-can-eat super-chunk, home-made “guacamole” was to die for. Randy feels much the same way about the soft, warm, just-baked bread that is sold early in the morning on the streets of the Old breadCity of Jerusalem. Paired with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, it makes the perfect “fast food” breakfast. Both of us have enjoyed the traditional “St. Peter’s Fish” lunch in Tiberias, and we firmly believe that the Temptation Restaurant in Jericho more than lives up to its name.

Meals that are re-enactments of earlier cultures have also been intriguing and educational. During a Roman-era dinner, for example, Randy pretend “dueled” with a young Israeli and one of our female pilgrims got to play a flirtatious Cleopatra. It was a hoot to watch even our most staid travelers dressed up in togas and helmets, laughing and enjoying themselves. Only the Canadians at the next table managed to out-do us.

bedouin mealThis trip we’ll share an authentic Bedouin lunch when we tour the area of Mt. Tabor. The Bedouin are known for their hospitality, and so it promises to be a thoroughly enjoyable event. We’re also looking forward to one of our last nights in Jerusalem when our tour company treats us to an authentic mid-eastern dinner. George’s International is the first company we’ve used that’s ever done this, and for me it’s another indication of their commitment to providing the best pilgrimage possible.

For many visitors to Israel, “fun” means shopping. From modern gift shops to vendors on the streets, you’d be hard pressed to find a better variety of hand-crafted, ethnic and religious souvenirs: Palestinian embroidery, woven purses and tablecloths made by the Druze community, hand-painted Armenian pottery and tiles, and my favorite — jewelry fashioned from pieces of ancient Roman glass. On this trip we’ll also visit an artisan’s studio in Bethlehem for a close-hand look at olive wood carving — with the opportunity to make a purchase that we know will assist the local community. It’s quite a difference from the usual “packaged tour” practice of herding tourists into a large shop for a “feeding frenzy” of pressured, overpriced spending.

scarf1Bargaining in the souq — the traditional street market in the Arab and Christian quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem — is also an experience that should not be missed. But make sure you know what you’re buying. On our last trip I got hooked on “pashmina” scarves and came home with a half-dozen of them in a range of different colors and patterns. I was quite happy until I saw them here in the States at a Walgreens and discovered they were actually “made in China!”

Dscn0543“Frolic” is defined as moving about with playfulness, excitement and energy, and we’ll be doing plenty of that on the tour, too. We can hop on a camel in Jericho. We can climb by cable car to see some amazing vistas. We can sing praise music while sailing on the Sea of Galilee. We can walk the streets of some of the oldest spots on earth. We can float in the Dead Sea or wallow in the mud along its shores. And we can sift for treasure in the “garbage” from the Temple Mount.

Dscn0615And what other “frolic-y” thing do I intend to do? Why, I’ll add to my photographic series “Cats of the Holy Land.” (These two beauties to the right live somewhere in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. They were “shot” on our way to St. Mark’s Monastery, the alternative site of the Upper Room.)

Israel is just that wonderful — a land where delightful surprises await you each and every time you stop, look and listen. I can hardly wait to go!