Day 1: Sun 11/16/08
The first stop on our journey through the Holy Land was Caesarea Maritime, the famous port city established by King Herod the Great, as well as the location of Paul’s trial before being sent to Rome (Acts 25).
We learned a lot about Herod the Great. As far as his kingship goes, he was a very successful leader. He remodeled the Temple, he built great palaces and fortresses (e.g. Massada), and he also constructed the first and largest man-made port in ancient Rome in the city of Caesarea. Politically, he had a very successful run. Morally, however, he was a vicious man. After marrying his wife and bearing two sons with her, he decided that anyone in the bloodline of the previous royal family had to die because they were seen as threats to his throne. Thus, he had his wife and sons murdered. When Caesar Augustus heard this news, he is recorded as saying, “It is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”
This is the same king, as you might recall, that had all the baby boys in the Bethlehem region killed when he heard that the new “King” of Israel had been born. He was both paranoid and power-hungry…not a good combination.
We also learned that he may have had leprosy (a conclusion reached based on the number of bathhouses in the areas he lived) and possibly even some sort of elephantitis (speculation drawn from the asymmetrical shape of his thrones).
Caesarea is a beautiful city located directly on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, it was the largest coastal city in the Roman Empire. There are still remains of a Roman hippodrome, a good size theater, Herod’s palace, a Byzantium church, and a mosque, just to name a few of the highlights.
We were able to stand in the place where Paul gave his defense in front of Governor Felix and Herod Agrippa, after which he made use of his Roman citizenship and appealed his case to Caesar in Rome. He didn’t have to do this. In fact, Governor Felix would have set him free. But by appealing to Caesar, Paul got a free trip to Rome, by way of shipwreck in Malta, and was able to plant seeds of the gospel in the very heart of the largest empire the world has ever known.
By the time we actually got to Nazareth, it was already dark, and we were very pressed for time. But we did have a chance to walk quickly through the Church of Annunciation, at least one of them. The Greek Orthodox have one and the Catholics have another in a different location. I believe the one through which we walked belonged to the Greek Orthodox. It is a massive, beautiful structure built on top of the ruins of the supposed home of Mary where the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would conceive and give birth to the Messiah.
We didn’t get a chance to see many of the ruins of the ancient town, but from what our guide told us, there isn’t a whole lot to see anyway. The main remnants of the town consist of cisterns, wells, and storage rooms dug into the ground and into caves. Archaeologists suspect that there would have been no more than about 800 citizens of Nazareth in Jesus’ day – talk about a town where everyone knows everyone. This is the town where Jesus lived, played, worked, and built his first relationships. It’s no surprise that when he came back after the start of his ministry that his own people had a hard time accepting what he had to say. He was nothing special, at least in their minds. He was the son of a carpenter and a woman who, to the best of their knowledge, had an affair before she was officially married. His family wouldn’t have been the most well-respected, and he was the laughingstock of the community when he came back and tried to preach to them.
One thing I find amazing, though, is the fact that Jesus is from the lineage of King David. When Philip asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he was unaware that the seed of King David had come from the small town in the middle of no where.
It’s not that Nazareth was a “bad” town, it just wasn’t strategically located, to say the least. There is no major trade route around, there is no great source of water nearby, and virtually none of the surrounding land is good, fertile soil for growing food. It couldn’t have supported a large population, and the only reason it has grown so much in recent years is due to the Christian influence in the city.
It was a great experience to be able to worship at the Church of Christ in Nazareth. The minister, Maurice, opened the building for us, prepared the Lord’s supper, gave a fifteen minute talk, and even had a Q&A session at the end. It was incredible to hear his testimony. When he converted from the Greek Orthodox Church, his entire family turned their backs on him. He lost his job, he was out on the streets, and the church took him in. He has a great passion for the scriptures, for God, and for Christ. It is his goal to reach out to his neighbors in the community, even in the face of persecution from many of the Muslims in Nazareth. (FYI: Nazareth has the largest Arab/Muslim population in the entire state of Israel)