It’s a warm, sunny day in northern Israel, and I am sitting on the railing of a fishing boat from Kibbutz Ginosar as we slowly make our way along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Behind us, on the burnt-brown hills that rise up sharply from the lake, we can see the resort town of Tiberias, originally built by the first-century Jewish ruler Herod Antipas, with block after block of new condominium developments climbing like ivy up the ridges behind it.
In front of us, the Sea of Galilee remains the same as I remember it when I lived here decades earlier. In fact, the Kinneret, as it is known in Hebrew, looks like it couldn’t be all that much different from what it was like in the time of Jesus, although the shoreline of the lake has changed and some archaeologists claim the region was once much more lush than it is today.
The biblical village of Bethsaida, for example—the hometown of the apostles Phillip, Andrew, and Peter, now being excavated by Israeli and American archaeologists—was discovered about a mile inland from the Sea of Galilee’s current shoreline. No one realized the shoreline had changed that much.
In fact, the discovery of Bethsaida happened almost by accident. On the other hand, Capernaum, Jesus’ adopted hometown (Matt 9:1), is still found right on the shoreline of the lake. A new church (nicknamed “the spaceship” because of its ultramodern design) has been built directly over a first-century house that archaeologists are confident was the home of the apostle Peter and his mother-in-law, and where Jesus stayed on occasion (Mark 1: 29-30). Archaeologists have unearthed the rough stone insula, or housing blocks, where dozens of extended families lived, as well as a well-preserved synagogue from the fourth or fifth century AD.
I walk to the stern of the boat and talk to the captain. He is a wizened old kibbutznik with skin the color of saddle leather, dressed from head to toe in royal-blue work clothes.
“Mishahu amar lee shay-ain harbay dagim be-kinneret achshav,” I tell the captain in my rusty Hebrew. “Someone told me that there aren’t many fish left in the lake.”
He snorts derisively in traditional Israeli fashion.
“Whoever told you that doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” the captain curtly replies. “As the lake recedes, the fish move into deeper water. The Kinneret is full of fish.” He adds that only two hundred fishing licenses are given out at a time, and that fishing is heavily regulated to maintain the fish population.
The Sea of Galilee is a decent-sized lake, about seven miles across and thirteen miles long, with a maximum depth of about one hundred thirty feet. The air is warm but the winds are remarkably strong, with small whitecaps buffeting the shoreline.
I can’t help but think of the scene in the gospels where the apostles are out on the lake, Jesus falls asleep, and a storm threatens to capsize the boat. At Ginosar, they’ve built a modern museum just to house the ruins of a first-century fishing boat, known as the Jesus Boat, discovered in the lake mud in 1986.
Looking back at the lush shoreline, I marvel at how much of the gospel story took place in this small, still quite rural area. The Mount of the Beatitudes, the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount, looms directly above us, a small clump of trees on a brown ridge. Below that is Tabgha, the meadow area where local Christians believe Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Coming to Ginosar, I passed the new development of Magdala, likely the hometown of Mary Magdalene and where a first-century synagogue was discovered in 2009. Just north of the lake, up the Wadi Kerazeh, lies the biblical town once known as Chorazin, which Jesus denounced for its rejection of his message (Matt.11:21–24).
And across the lake, the Golan Heights loom. In the northern Golan lies Caesarea Philippi and the enormous rock cliff that was once the shrine of the Greek god Pan, where the gospels suggest Jesus proclaimed Simon bar Jonah the “rock” (Aramaic kepha) upon which he would build his new kingdom community.
Discovering the Carpenter of Nazareth
I’ve been fascinated by the person and adventures of Jesus of Nazareth my entire life. I always felt that there must have been a lot more to the story than we read in the gospels, not less. Whatever else Jesus may have been, I recognized a figure of enormous power and influence. When I was young, what I admired about Jesus more than anything else was his raw guts and fundamental decency.
I was particularly struck by the way he stood up to an angry mob that was about to stone a woman to death for adultery. I read this passage over and over, imagining the scene in my mind. I now know that this pericope (passage) is not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts we have of John’s gospel, and some translations, such as the scholarly New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), now include it only in brackets (8:1-11).
Nevertheless, it is so characteristic of Jesus that some experts believe it reflects a genuine event that was perhaps part of the Lukan source material and added to the text of John in the early third century. There are many learned monographs written on just this subject.
When I was twelve, however, I knew nothing of all that. I was just impressed by Jesus staring down the mob with the sheer force of human decency. So much of Jesus’ character, as revealed throughout the New Testament, is encapsulated in this brief passage: his concern for the oppressed and scorned, his willingness to forgive “seventy times seven times (Matt 18:22),” his courage, his readiness to stand up against unjust authority, his defiance of legalism.
This passage also had everything a young boy’s imagination could want: Sex (a woman caught in the “very act” of adultery). Defiance of authority. The threat of violence! Also, it made me curious. This wasn’t some boring minister droning on. Whoever this Jesus was, he was definitely different. What else did he say? What else did he do? I began to pay more attention—and I began to read. I wanted to know more about Jesus’ life and times—how he lived, where he lived.
I turned, first, to a sensationalistic novel by a writer of historical fiction named Frank Yerby. I am not particularly proud of the fact that my introduction to critical biblical studies came through the work of a pulp fiction writer, but God works in mysterious ways, so they say, and that was how he worked in my case. The name of the novel was Judas, My Brother. Published in 1968, when I was only eleven, Judas, My Brother was part of a century-old genre that attempted to reconstruct the events of the New Testament on purely naturalistic terms and to tell the reader what “really” happened. Around the same time, Irving Wallace published the steamy novel The Word, about the discovery of a “lost” Gospel that would ostensibly, as its cover jacket proclaimed, “blow the lid off orthodox Christianity.” It was The Da Vinci Code of its day.
Rather strangely for a novel, Judas, My Brother actually came with footnotes, and went out of its way to ground its many dotty historical assertions on something like scholarship—or what seemed like scholarship to a bright-eyed twelve-year-old. The book relied rather uncritically on the work of the early-twentieth-century Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner, but it introduced me, for the first time, to scholarly books and ancient sources about the life and times of Jesus—including the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the Mishnah, Emil Schürer, and even, I am amazed to see now, the respected Jewish New Testament scholar Geza Vermes.
My fascination with the character of Jesus, as well as his life and times, continued throughout high school and into college. That is probably why I never really rebelled against Christianity, as is common among teenagers. How could you rebel against someone willing to stand up to a mob that is about to stone a woman to death? Rebelling against Jesus would be like rebelling against Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg. You might decline to follow their example, to be sure, but who would rebel against what they stood for?
My path to the academic study of the New Testament was thus the opposite of many popular writers today, such as Bart Ehrman and Reza Aslan, who embraced fundamentalist Christianity as teenagers and then lost their faith altogether when they studied the New Testament as adults.
In contrast, I just accepted as a self-evident truth that at least some of the New Testament was legendary, that the tale grew in the telling, and that as the great German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann said, it was virtually impossible to know what really happened behind the preaching—the kerygma—of the early church.
I was taught in high school that the infancy narratives were theologoumena—legendary stories that conveyed important theological but not literal historical truths. I considered myself a faithful Christian, to be sure, and still do to this day. But the historical-critical study of the Bible that Ehrman and Aslan found so shocking in graduate school I just considered, well, standard operating procedure.
In the Land of Israel
All that changed for me when I moved to Israel to learn Hebrew after college. At that time, anyone could come to Israel and study Hebrew for free, provided you were willing to work a little. In exchange for four hours of work per day, usually on an agricultural settlement known as a kibbutz or moshav, the Jewish Agency would provide professional teachers and you would receive four hours of intensive Hebrew language instruction six days a week for five or six months. I did two Hebrew courses, first level Aleph and then, a year later, level Gimel. You didn’t have to be immigrating to Israel to participate; in fact, you didn’t even have to be Jewish. In my class of about thirty students, however, I would say only about four or five were not making Aliyah (immigrating). The rest were Jewish, moving to Israel permanently, and the ulpan course was the first stage of their new lives.
For the first time in my life, the world of Jesus and the gospels was not something I read about in books, but something I could see with my own eyes and feel etched in stones. The Bible really comes alive when you’re living right where it all happened. As I wandered the stone alleys of Jerusalem on my days off, or explored archaeological ruins in Caesarea or Nazareth, I felt like I was stepping back in time.
Suddenly, these ancient stories, characters, battles, place names, foods, plants, animals, genealogies, and even obscure biblical laws took on real meaning. Israelis are fanatical tourists both at home and abroad, and even the most secular of them frequently go on field trips to visit the various locations mentioned in the Bible. They often begin to explore their country while in the army and just keep it up for most of their lives.
As a result, I spent a lot of time exploring the biblical sites I had once only heard about from the pulpit—Megiddo, Mount Tabor (the traditional site of the Transfiguration), Ein Gedi, Mount Carmel, the Jordan River, Tel Dan, Beit Shean, Mount Hermon. My Israeli friends and I would set out in cars, or occasionally in small buses, and explore the countryside. On my second ulpan, I even shipped a motorcycle to Israel from Los Angeles so I could better explore the Galilean countryside.
I quickly saw how the biblical heritage is woven into daily life in Israel through the myriad practices and traditions of Judaism, but also through the geography and the language. Even something as simple as the Kabbalat Shabbat, the welcoming of the Sabbath, was quite moving. I remember sitting at a big table in the heder ha-ohel, the kibbutz dining hall during my first ulpan, while the text of Genesis 2:1–2 was read by a teenage girl (in fluent Hebrew, naturally): “Vah-yehulu ha-shamaim veh-ha-aretz” (“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done”).
Even these nonreligious socialist kibbutzniks kept the Sabbath, honoring the ancient commandment handed down through generations for literally thousands of years. This naturally made me curious about the other commandments, all those dry and seemingly bizarre laws.
One of my Hebrew teachers gave me a book about the mitzvot, the 613 commandments the Jewish sages find in the Torah, and I spent hours in a nearby town library reading about them—and about how they are put into practice in modern-day Israel. I learned about the Mishnah and the Talmud, the great encyclopedic commentaries on these laws, and the Shulhan Aruch. I learned that, long before there was the Way of Jesus, there was the way of halacha—the way of Jewish law.
When I returned to the United States, I began to read Jewish writers who were then re-examining the question of who Jesus was and what his relationship was to the various approaches to Judaism that existed in his day. I eagerly followed the twisting turns and amazing discoveries in historical Jesus research that were then unfolding. In the 1990s, as a popular religion writer, I occasionally wrote about these developments for publications such as Christianity Today. I was particularly interested in the work of Jewish scholars writing about Jesus, such as the famous Talmud scholar Jacob Neusner, because during my time in Israel I had become fascinated by the Jewish roots of Christianity.
Eventually, I became so interested in the topic that I decided to pursue a graduate degree in New Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, an interdenominational evangelical seminary in southern California.
For eight years, after I had returned to the United States, I drove thirty miles two or three times a week to attend classes in Koine Greek, exegetical method, Near Eastern studies, systematic theology and other, even more arcane topics. My fellow students and I would struggle our way through large swaths of the New Testament, line by line in Greek, trying to untangle the meaning of these ancient texts.
Of course, all this only makes me a “semi-educated layman,” as my professors used to put it, not a real expert. However, in the past few years I’ve been amazed to discover that leading experts in the field of historical Jesus research have been drawing startling new conclusions that are dramatically at odds with the skeptical theories I was taught in college and then in graduate school – skeptical theories that often dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Even more startling to me was the fact that these newer conclusions were often not showing up in the media – even though in many cases they were being proposed by secular experts at top universities.
In the TV documentaries I watched and magazine stories I read, the reporters often seemed oblivious to these new developments and merely repeated the older, hyper-skeptical conclusions from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – for example, that belief in Jesus as a divine being only emerged very late as the Jesus movement spread out into the pagan Greek world.
Yet every month, it seemed, archaeologists in Israel and Biblical scholars at major universities around the world were announcing new discoveries that, rather than undermining the basic portrait of Jesus in the gospels, were actually confirming it.
Jesus of Nazareth may not have been an illiterate peasant who expected the world to come to an end in his own lifetime, as so many contemporary authors claim.
He may actually have been a well-trained Jewish rabbi who had a very specific mission—a mission to save the human race from itself.
And therein lies a very interesting story indeed.
This is an excerpt from the book, Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).
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