Stories and Photos from Israel

Jerusalem: The Biography

No other city of the world has been at the center of history for four millenia.

Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac there (Gen. 22).

Adoni-bezek lost his thumbs and big toes right before being buried there (Judg. 1:6-7).

David established it as his new capital after becoming king over both Judah and Israel (2 Sam. 5).

Solomon built the temple there (1 Kgs. 5-8) which lasted for four hundred years.

Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 BCE destroyed the city, including Solomon’s temple (2 Kgs. 25).

The saga of Jerusalem continues into the New Testament and beyond.  Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 650 page Jerusalem: The Biography (2011) retells the city’s fascinating story over the course of almost 4000 years.  Readers will learn about the corrupt and incestuous family of the Herods (three of which appear in the NT) and the tragic destruction of the city in 70 CE by Titus.  Montefiore recounts the nations and empires who ruled and fought over Jerusalem: the Byzantines, the Persians, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Crusaders, the Ottomans.

I wish I had read this book before visiting Jerusalem in the spring of 2014, but reading it has helped me remember and process my trip in retrospect.

The style is academic (40 pages of endnotes, 20 pages of bibliography and a 20 page index, all in small font), but the writing is quite readable, filled with stories (Abd al-Malik’s construction of the Dome of the Rock completed in 691 CE) and entertaining details (Jerome, the Latin translator was not particularly pious).

Montefiore’s background is Jewish, but his take on the New Testament is sympathetic, even though he clearly doesn’t write as a Christian. I’d be curious to hear what Muslims think of the book.

I found it particularly interesting in areas that I don’t know much, but wish I did (the Maccabees, the Herodians, early Muslim history). I still haven’t finished the book, but I’m about to arrive at the Crusades (about 1000 CE), where I expect to be enlightened about many things.

I have one major problem–the names get quite confusing, even overwhelming at times, so I have found myself frequently flipping back a few pages (“Who is this guy?”  “When did they take over the city?”). But that may be inevitable for a tale of this magnitude.

I’ll point out a few minor, nit-picky problems (because that’s the sort of guy I am, ask my family).

1) David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1) is not formatted poetically (p. 26), which makes it less understandable and harder to appreciate.  Always format poetry poetically, not like prose.

2) He calls the Jehoiakim the brother, instead of the son of Josiah (p. 46).  OK, this part of Judah’s history is really confusing and 99.9% of his readers are going to miss this one.  I wrote an article on Jehoiakim for the Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary (see also “Other Books“).

3) He misspells Absalom as “Abolsom” (p. 204).  I mean, come on, that’s not even close.

Despite, the name confusion, and the minor flaws, I’d highly recommend it.  If you love Jerusalem, history, and good non-fiction, it’s a great read.

The book was not given to me, I bought it at Costco.




The Pope, the Patriarch, and the Professor in Jerusalem

Church of Holy Sepulcher Vid from David Lamb on Vimeo.

Tomorrow (May 25, 2014) at about noon ET in the US, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church will meet in Jerusalem.  Pope Francis of Rome and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will meet at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Professor David of Hatfield wasn’t invited, but I did visit the church two months ago.  For an eighteen second video of the outside of the church click above (ignore my sarcastic commentary).

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the supposed site of Jesus’ death and burial, the site is also called Golgatha (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17), or Calvary (based on Calvariae the Latin for skull).  This particular site was chosen three hundred years after Jesus’ death while Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  She became aware of a pagan temple devoted to Venus and Jupiter that was built in 135 AD at the site supposedly to discourage Christians who had been worshiping there.  Graves were found which were assumed to belong to Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea.  People who doubt this site was the actual location of Jesus’ death and burial point out that the location would need to be outside the city wall, not in the center of town.  It’s hard to say definitively either way, but if you’re interested in reading more, click here.

While it’s very possible Jesus died at that very spot, it was still hard for me to connect to it spiritually.  Part of the reason for my lack of connection was the uncertain nature of a decision about a precise location 300 years after the event occurred. But the main thing that made it hard was the crowds.  My guess is that the crowds may be bigger tomorrow for the Pope and the Patriarch.

I visited the church with a group from BTS on March 25, 2014 and we tried to get to the crucifixion location, up the narrow stairs, but the crowds were outrageous.  We stood and waited, and waited, and waited, slowly pushing forward. Then suddenly an older Russian lady cut in front of us, pushed us back and informed us that she was trying to keep her group together.  I’m thinking, “Yes, but you joined the mob after we did.”  I got mad, indignant really, that her group was going to get to be at the right and left side of Jesus in his glory before I was (Mark 10:35-45?).

Something about the situation just didn’t seem right.  People pushing and shoving to get near the place that Jesus died for my sins.  The next day we visited another possible burial site, and that was a different story which I’ll talk about in the next blog.  I never made it to the burial spot for Jesus, the crowds were too big and we didn’t have enough time.

I wonder if Francis and Bartholomew will have the same problem tomorrow.

The two leaders are commemorating the 50th anniversary (1964) of a meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, which was the first time a pope and patriarch had met since the 15th century.  Odds-makers think this time Francis and Bartholomew will hug, more likely at least than a hug between me and that old Russian lady.

We’ll just have to wait and see about those hugs.

The split between the two churches occurred in 1054 over the filioque, Latin for “and the son” an expression that the Western church added to the Nicene Creed without consulting the Eastern church.  (Twenty years ago I wrote a paper on the filioque for my Systematic Theology class, but I won’t make you read it.)

Staying awake in the Garden of Gethsemane

Garden of Gethsemane and DaveI was speaking at the InterVarsity group at the University of Maryland on God Behaving Badly a few weeks ago, and I got to the end where I talk about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32; Matt. 26:32) and I couldn’t resist the temptation.

“The Garden of Gethsemane, I was just there just a few weeks ago.”  It was too good to pass up.  (No, this image isn’t a selfie, my arms not quite that long.)

On a first day in Israel, we started out on the top of the Mount of Olives, looking over Jerusalem.  As we walked down the Mount of Olives toward the city of Jerusalem, we passed through the Garden of Gethsemane.  It would be foolish to assume that the garden hadn’t changed much since Jesus’ day, but it was great to imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago.  Apparently some of the world’s oldest known olive trees are located there, approximately a thousand years old.

While it’s impossible to say exactly where Jesus prayed the night before he died, the Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches all disagree (slightly) about the garden’s location on the slope of the Mount of Olives, but let’s hope we can agree on a few things about what happened in Gethsemane.

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” Mark 14:32-42

First, notice that even Jesus’ disciples fell asleep while praying, actually three times (Mark 14:37, 40, 41).  No, I don’t think that’s something to emulate, but it’s still good to point out.  (Although, when I visited Gethsemane, I stayed awake. So, I’ve got that over the disciples.)  Also, if you doze while praying, expect Jesus somehow to wake you up and harass you.  How does Jesus wake you up when you’re supposed to be praying?

Second, Jesus was brutally honest.  He first tells the three disciples that he’s depressed—sorrowful to the point of death.  I hope I would do the same to my framily (according to commercials that’s what we’re suppose to call our friends and family), but I doubt it.  Then Jesus asks his father to remove the cup that he knows he’s supposed to drink.  How honest are you with your friends and with your God?

Third, Jesus prays the same thing three times.  Jesus prays the same thing three times.  Jesus prays the same thing three times.  Do you ever repeat your prayers?

Garden Gethsemane

Walls, Tombs and Rocks: BTS Visits Jerusalem

Dome on Steps

Here is the first of a series of blogs about our trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey and Greece, with folks from BTS:

Walls, Tombs and Rocks: BTS Visits Jerusalem.

In this post from the BTS faculty blog, I talk about our first full day in Israel, walking down the Mt of Olives, past the Garden of Gethsemane, sitting on the steps near the Dome of the Rock (pictured above, listening to our guide, Nathan), praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and at the Western Wall.

Dome of Rock and Dave