Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Jordan River and the Dead Sea

On December 31, we used our hotel in Jericho for our visits to important sites at the Dead Sea and finally on the Jordan River that feeds into it. We then drove up to Jerusalem for a brief visit to the olive wood shop, though our real visits to Jerusalem still lay ahead.


As we drove from Jericho down to Masada on the west side of the Dead Sea, Grant Belnap gave quite a nice devotional on the bus, after which we sang “He Sent His Son.” After the long drive, we arrived at the visitors center, watched the cheesy historical video, a then took the tram up to the top of the plateau, where Herod had built a virtually impregnable fortress and two palaces in the middle of the Judean desert.

The site was later held by Jewish rebels, and it was the last place they held after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Romans built a large siege ramp up the western side of the plateau, but the zealots committed suicide before the Romans broke through.

Some fresco from the Herodian bath
The Roman siege ramp
One of the Roman military campus below
Part of our group in Herod's northern palace

Remains of a later Byzantine church


Qumran is the site of an ascetic group of Jewish sectarians who had withdrawn into the desert to worship the Lord apart from the world and the rest of Judaism. Most scholars think that they were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves nearby.

The sectarians at Qumran were very preoccupied with ritual purity, so they immersed themselves in miqveh baths several times a day

The Baptismal Site of Jesus

We ended our day by driving to Qasr al-Yahud, the Israeli-controlled Palestinian side of the traditional baptismal site (an older site is maintained by Jordan on the east side of the river). 

We had a very special devotional at or near the place of Jesus' baptism. I talked about Joshua and Elijah before moving to the baptism of Jesus, reading from Mark 1 and Matthew 3 and then bringing in 2 Nephi 31. We sang the children’s song baptism, after which I offered a prayer

Because it is winter and rainy season, the river at the baptismal site was about as high as I ever saw it
Looking across at the Jordanian side of the baptismal site
Our great group right after our devotional

The Dead Sea

We next took a swimming---or better, "floating"---break at the Dead Sea, which is the lowest place on earth. The water is so saline that one easily floats.

Jimmy's Bazaar

We ended our day by a trip to Jimmy's olive wood shop in East Jerusalem. This quick trip was our first "visit" to Jerusalem, although we did not stop to see any historical site at that time. I played the Tabernacle Choir's version of "The Holy City" as we dove up to Jerusalem and through the tunnel in Mount Scopus, which have us our first views of the BYU Jerusalem Center, the Dome of the Rock, and some of the Old City. The couple of pictures I took through the bus windows are not particularly good but might remind some of our group of the excitement of those first views of Jerusalem.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

Galilee and Northern Israel, Day 2


We began our second day in Galilee at Magdala. Situated where the Via Maris exited the Valley of the Doves at the Sea of Galilee, Magdala was ideally situated to be a commercial center. Known in Greek as Tarichaea, it took its name from the word meaning "pickled fish," because this is where much of the fishing industry of the Sea of Galilee processed its fish by salting, drying, and pickling. We had a tour of the site by a sweet Mexican volunteer, who showed us the archaeology of the site, especially the first century synagogue, where Jesus almost definitely visited and where he probably read, worship, and preached.

Our group under the canopy protecting the remains of a first century synagogue at Magdala
The synagogue with the central stone, that may have held Torah scrolls during services

The central reading stone carved with symbols representing the temple
Mosaics on the synagogue floor with a rosette and squares
Fish processing center

A miqveh, or "ritual bath"
 Magdala's most famous citizen, of course, was Mary Magdalene. When we got to the Christian Spirituality Center, I asked for permission to have our devotional in the Pro Dignitate Mulierum rotunda, which has columns with the names of all the women in Jesus’ ministry. I read Luke 8:1–3 and talked about the importance of Jesus’ women disciples and then had the sisters in our group sing “As Sisters in Zion.” It was nice.

The women of our group singing "As Sisters in Zion"
Column honoring Mary Magdalene. There are other columns for each of the women in Jesus' ministry.

The main sanctuary, dedicated to the Twelve Apostles, has an altar shaped like a boat with a framing window that makes it look like it is floating on the Sea of Galilee.

We then went downstairs to the chapel that is designed to look like the first century synagogue. It features a lovely mural of the women with the issue of blood as she reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe. There our guide bore lovely “testimony” of how Jesus heals us today.


Peter's Primacy

Our next stop was St. Peter’s Primacy, the traditional site of the appearance of the Risen Lord to seven disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. I read and taught from John 21, after which we sang “My Redeemer Lives.” The site takes its name from Jesus commission of Peter to "feed his sheep." After the usual pictures next to, and some wading in, the Sea of Galilee, we looked into the small chapel that features the mensa Christi, or "meal of Christ," rock which is said to be where Jesus fed the disciples.



Our next stop was Capernaum, which was the headquarters of Jesus' Galilean ministry. When Jesus came to it, it was the headquarters of the fishing operations of both Peter and Andrew and of Zebedee and his two sons, James and John. It became so closely associated with Jesus that Matthew 9:1 calls it "his own city."

There I read from Mark 1 and talked about the miracles that Jesus performed there. We then sang “Our Savior’s Love.”

Diagram of the first century house identified as being that of Peter and the churches that have been built over it since
Remains of the Byzantine octagonal church built over the House of Peter.
A modern church has built straddling and over the House of Peter
We left the Capernaum dock for the traditional boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.


When we stopped mid-lake, I read Mark 4:35–41 and also recounted “Our Galilee Miracle” story about Samuel. The pictures below are from our 2012 experience on that Galilee boat ride. After I told that story and bore my testimony, we sang “Master the Tempest Is Raging.

Talking to Samuel about the miracle of Jesus.

Both Elaine and I had flashbacks at the `En Gev fish restaurant! We always brought our students here when we were posted at the Jerusalem Center 2011-2012.

Beit She'an/Scythopolis

Beit She'an was an important Old Testament site where the Jezreel Valley meets the Jordan River Valley near Mount Gilboa. Before the Israelites, it was a Canaanite city which the Egyptians had controlled (some of their remains are on top of the tel, or high archaeological mound that some of our group climbed. It later became an important Greek city named Scythopolis in the Hellenistic Period until it was destroyed by the Jewish Hasmonean family that ruled the Holy Land after the Maccabean Revolt.

The Romans refounded the city after Pompey's invasion in A.D. 63. As a reestablished Greek city, it was separated from Jewish territories and was part of the Decapolis, a league of ten Hellenized cities. Still, its importance on the routes through the Jezreel and Jordan valleys make it likely that Joseph and Mary would have gone through here on their way to Bethlehem, and Jesus probably passed through it frequently as well.

Most of the remains below the tel are from the Roman period, and the straight streets flanked by colonnades, the baths, theater, and other public buildings are some of the best preserved in the Near East. It remained important in the Byzantine (Greek-speaking, Christian Roman) Period and the early Islamic Period, but it was destroyed in the great earthquake of A.D. 749 and not rebuilt.

When we got the Beit She’an, it was the first time that I had visited the site of Greco-Roman Scythopolis when it was not beastly hot, which made it the most pleasant visit that I have had there.

The green tell looming over the Greek and Roman city

One of the colonnaded streets of Roman Scythopolis

The hypocausts are part of the heating system under the floor of the caldarium or "hot room" of the baths

Fallen columns from the A.D. earthquake. Christian Scythopolis did not recover

Group members MUST watch the video of the Belnaps dancing above!

We drove from Bet She'an to Jericho, where we checked in to the Jericho Resort Hotel, where we stayed the next two nights.