One of the effects of travel is that we make comparisons to what we know and with that which which we are familiar. Our travel to Israel & Jordan was the same thing except it was in two different dimensions as we were not only comparing and contrasting the present day in these areas with our own familiar surroundings of the United States but also drawing similarities and differences between the first few centuries of Christianity and our own day.
One of the similarities is we saw familiar names on restaurant – especially McDonalds. But occasionally we saw one that was labelled as a Kosher McDonalds – (you obviously could not get a cheese burger there) But our tour guide told us that McDonald’s is quite expensive – a kids meal is about $9 and there is nothing equivalent of the Dollar menu we see in the States.
One significant difference is that so many of the sites we are look completely unlike what would have been seen in the first or fourth centuries. The Sea of Galilee is smaller, for example, and the water does not come up to what would then have been shoreline communities. Sites such as the cave in Bethlehem; or the hill of Golgotha and the tomb nearby have had several layers of churches built over them and hundreds and hundreds of years of adornment, decay, building and rebuilding. What was at the time of Jesus outside the city is now part of what is known as the Old City. Other site in Galilee include places where Jesus taught; or where he fed the multitudes. What would have been a sea shore or a rock – now have churches built over them. This has protected the sites from development but has also changed the sites so we would not see anything that Jesus or early Christians would have seen.
In the Garden of Gethsemane there are old olive trees – some thought to be a thousand years old – so even the oldest trees are not ones Jesus would have seen – even when they are often portrayed as ones he prayed under.
We visited a baptismal site in Israel on the Jordan River. This is purely a tourist site. It has no historicity and was built so people could be baptized in the Jordan while visiting Israel. The most authentic site for Jesus Baptism is Bethany beyond the Jordan – in the country of Jordan near the Dead Sea. Across the Jordan River at that site (which is about as wide as what we would call a creek) Israel is building their own baptismal site to rival the Jordanian site so tourists do not have to leave3 Israel to vist an “authentic baptismal site”
One of the people in our tour group loved the Garden Tomb – a site in Jerusalem that was “discovered” in the 19th century as an alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which contains the site that has the most creditability as Golgotha and Joseph of Aramithea’s tomb.) She went on at some length about liking the garden atmosphere. She was able to see it “as Jesus would have seen it.” The problem is that she was wanting a Disneyland version of the Holy Land recreated to be as it was. The real land is living and lived in and we see it as it is now.
For me I appreciated that churches had been built through the centuries to commemorate and protect these sacred sites – even if in visiting them we cannot see them as one might in a more Disneyland-like re-creation. I trust second and fourth century traditions as to sites – though whether it was this rock or one a quarter of a mile distant that served as Christ’s table for the feeding – doesn’t matter that much to me.
To see the Judean wilderness and recognize that it is mostly rock and dust – with little water even in the winter’s rainy season – and even less in the health of summer means that in hearing of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness I don’t visualize a North American forest. (Which is our natural concept of wilderness.)
To see the twisting torturous route from Jericho to Jerusalem and to know that people travelled in groups on foot for 5 days to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem because of the robbers; and that for safety sake had a group of men first, followed by women and children; who were followed by another group of men. And learning that a boy of twelve on the verge of being considered a man – could have traveled with other the men or with the women and children – gives us a sense of how Mary & Joseph could have traveled a full day without knowing their son was not with them – but had stayed behind in Jerusalem.
Differences and similarities each illumine the Gospel stories and make them more real and more related to our life here and now.