Sunday, March 27, 2016

Some Thoughts and a Story for Easter Sunday . . .

    Easter is every pastor's challenge.  How to make the most important and timeless doctrine of our faith new and fresh again?  Sometimes we use dramatic monologues or straight reading from the Scriptures, sometimes we try to hit new heights of oratory as we strive to bring the story of the Passion and the Resurrection to life once more.  Today I got up around 6 AM and wrote this little nugget on my Facebook page, I was pretty pleased with the way it turned out:

All the services, all the hymns, all the Scriptures and all the rituals stem from this one simple fact: Two thousand years ago a man who was thoroughly and completely killed walked out of the tomb and triumphed over death. In so doing, He purchased our salvation, He reconciled our sinful human souls with a holy God, and He crushed the Serpent that seduced mankind in the garden. Songs have been written, masterpieces painted, majestic statues sculpted, books written, symphonies composed, all to celebrate this great and central mystery of the Christian faith. Cultists have twisted it, skeptics have denied it, and libertines have ignored it - but the truth remains, as bold as the break of dawn and as naked as Adam in the garden. For two thousand years men have tried to put the stone back over the simple burial cave, but it remains rolled away and the graveclothes remain empty.  May this day be filled with God's blessings, and in the sweet air of the empty tomb may your faith be revived and your sins forgiven.
   But of course, I am a novelist as well as a pastor.  In THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, I tried to tell the story from a very different angle, and in the process produced what I think may be my best novel.  Last year about this time, as the release date for the story was looming nearer and nearer, I wrote this short story in an attempt to gin up interest in my new novel.  It's an interesting appendix to the story, and if you like it, I highly recommend you buy the book.  But in the meantime, here is how the events of that day might have looked to the soldiers assigned to guard Jesus' tomb on a cold overnight shift one Saturday in 33 AD . . .
A Short Story by
Lewis Smith
          It was April in Judea, and the nights were still cool in the foothills around Jerusalem.  Three Roman legionaries, each a veteran of ten years or more, sat by a small fire under the shade of a grove of olive trees.  It was dark and quiet, and they talked quietly among themselves to fend off sleepiness.  At dawn another trio of soldiers would come to relieve them, and none of them wanted to face the flogging that sleeping on watch would cost.  Pontius Pilate was a good prefect, who had whipped the Judean Legion into shape when he arrived several years earlier - but he was also a strict disciplinarian, and since being wounded in a battle with Zealots earlier in the year, he had developed a wicked temper.
          A short distance away, a larger group of men were camped in front of a sealed cave.  Members of the elite Temple Guard that worked for the High Priest, they had been given the primary duty of guarding the tomb of the eccentric preacher who had been crucified that Friday.  Caiaphas had detested Jesus of Nazareth and seemed convinced that someone was going to try and steal his body if the tomb was left unguarded.  He had approached Pilate and asked for a guard, but the Prefect was still in a foul temper over being manipulated into crucifying the strange Galilean. He had told the High Priest to see to the matter himself. But then Pontius Pilate had second thoughts, and told his primipilus centurion, Gaius Cassius Longinus, to dispatch a few legionaries to keep an eye on the tomb and its Jewish guards in case anything untoward happened.   Decius, Tiberius, and Carmello were given the thankless task of guarding a grave all night long.
          So now the three soldiers sat and stared at the fire, occasionally standing and walking to the edge of the light to stare at the Jews, who were numerous enough to rotate shifts, so that five or six could remain awake while the others slept.  The two groups did not acknowledge each other in any way; the Romans regarded the Jews as uncouth, fanatical barbarians, and the Jews regarded the Romans as a brutal occupying force in the employ of a foreign government that they hated.
          “I’ve been here five years,” said Carmello Antonius, “and this was the strangest Passover I’ve ever seen.  I know that this Jesus wasn’t a bloodthirsty Zealot like Bar Abbas, but he scared me.  I’ve never seen anyone that could draw bigger crowds.  If he had ever given the word, he could have had all the Jews in the province out for our blood.”
          “I think that is why he had such a huge following,” Decius said.  “I went with Longinus when Pilate ordered us to go hear this Jesus last year and make sure he was not a threat.  Anyone can scream ‘Kill the foreigners!’ around here and get a few people to listen.  Jesus challenged the Jews to love each other and love their enemies.  It was a much different message from the usual rabble-rousing tirades they are used to.”
“But what about the miracles?” Lucius Tiberius asked.  “I keep hearing these stories about lame men walking and blind men receiving their sight.  Was there anything to that?”
“I know that Stichius, Longinus’ manservant, was at the point of death and this Jesus supposedly just said a few words from miles away and the man was back on his feet again the next morning,” Decius replied.  “All the other stuff I don’t know about, but I know Longinus was convinced Jesus had performed a miracle.”
“I knew that old beggar that used to sit by the pool of Siloam,” volunteered Carmello.  “He’d been paralyzed for years, legs like little sticks, completely useless!  But I saw him after that Jesus fellow healed him, and his calves were as big and strong as mine!”
“That’s impossible!” snapped Tiberius.  “I can’t believe you would fall for that!”
“I didn’t fall for anything; I saw it with my own eyes.  I knew the old man; his legs were withered and useless one day, and as strong as mine the next!” Carmello insisted.
“If you insist,” Tiberius said, his tone still disbelieving.  “But here is what I don’t understand – how could the Jews turn on the Galilean so quickly?  When he rode into the city a week ago, they were ready to crown him as their king.  I was near the city gate, and I have never seen a crowd so worked up!  Then, by Friday, the same crowd was howling for his blood!”
Decius snorted in derision.  “Who knows why Jews do anything?” he asked. “We’ve had this province for nearly a hundred years, and they are no closer to being civilized than they were when Pompey Magnus decided the Republic needed this gods-forsaken place.”
Carmello nodded.  “They are a fickle lot, true enough.  I don’t know what Longinus sees in them, to be honest,” he said.
“Longinus is a good soldier, but he ain’t been right ever since he married that Jewish girl,” said Decius.  “And Cornelius is just as bad!”
“How long until dawn, you think?” Tiberius asked to no one in particular.  “I want to get back to the barracks and get some sleep.”
“Another hour at least,” Carmello said.  “So, what did you make of all the goings-on Friday when they nailed this Galilean up with those two Zealot bandits?”
“An earthquake and an eclipse the same day,” said Decius.  ‘Ill omens, according to all the ancients.”
“That was no eclipse,” Carmello said.  “The sun wasn’t obscured a bit at a time – the whole thing grew dark all at once.  I’m telling you, I think it was related to this Jesus’ death.  The gods were not happy to see him killed!  I was out there on the crucifixion detail with Longinus, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared.  I thought the earth was going to tear itself in two right there at the foot of the cross!”
“One of the Jewish merchants I know – fellow by the name of Asher, a decent sort as Jews go – told me that the big veil in the Temple that hides their Holy of Holies from prying eyes, was torn in two from top to bottom at the same instant!” Decius interjected.
“An earthquake could do that naturally,” Tiberius said.  “But some of the other stories – why, I heard people saying they had seen men who died years ago up and walking around Jerusalem!”
“That’s what you get for listening to these superstitious barbarians,” Decius said.  “It was an earthquake, nothing more.”
“Yet it started at the moment that Jesus character died,” Carmello said.  “He threw his head back and hollered ‘It is finished!’ at the top of his lungs, then slumped down dead.  Then suddenly the ground was shaking so hard I couldn’t stand up, and lightning was striking everywhere, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – the sun was black, but I could see every star, just like we can right now.  Old Longinus was even more scared than I was – he’d been keeping tabs on this Jesus for a while, and I think he more than half believed some of the stuff Jesus said about himself.  He started sobbing that we had killed the Son of God!”
“Well, he is killed, that’s the main thing,” Tiberius said.  “Whatever or whoever he was, he’s food for the worms now.  You fellows did make sure he was dead, didn’t you?”
“I drove my spear clean through his heart before we let his friends take the body for burial,” Carmello said.  “He didn’t even twitch, and the blood that came out was all mingled with water.  No doubt he was dead.  I don’t even know why we are out here.  Is old Caiaphas really afraid he might come back?”
“He thinks this man’s disciples will steal the body, and then say that he’s come back – which would be just as bad, from the priesthood’s point of view,” said Tiberius.
“Since when are you privy to the Jewish High Priest’s council chamber?” asked Decius.
“I was in the Prefect’s office when Caiaphas’ messenger asked for a guard,” Decius said.  “Those were his exact words.”
“Is that a shooting star?” asked Carmello suddenly.  A bright ball of light was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and brighter as it drew near. The Jewish soldiers near the tomb saw it too, and were pointing and jabbering in their native tongue.  The ball of light didn’t flicker out, like most shooting stars – it grew bigger and brighter, lighting the entire garden in an eerie whiteness.
“It’s going to hit us!” shrieked Decius, covering his eyes.
Over their heads, the ball slowed down, and then suddenly split in two.  Instead of a blinding white globe, two oblong shapes slowly lowered to the earth at the tomb’s entrance.  When they touched the ground, they began to assume manlike forms.  As the two sets of guards watched in wonder, one of the white figures reached out and touched the massive stone that covered the entrance to the Galilean’s tomb. A pulse of light so bright that it obscured all else shot outwards from the tomb, and all the guards – Jews and Romans alike – collapsed to the ground like dead men.
The garden was silent.  The stone now lay flat, ten feet from the entrance to the tomb, and the figures, now resolved into tall men wearing robes of blinding white, positioned themselves at either side of the door, like an honor guard. As the sky began to lighten in the east, a third figure emerged blinking into the garden.
Decius, Carmello, and Tiberius lay still on the grass, unmoving, breathing softly.  A pair of bare feet, deeply scarred above the instep, stepped over them as the owner of those feet stepped forth into a new day – and a new age.
If you enjoyed this story, read the full account in THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

So What Have We Learned?

 I've been back home for nearly 48 hours now.  The raw exhaustion of 25 straight hours in transit has faded a bit, although I am still pretty tired.  I had a lot of nervous energy left over at work Monday, but by the time I taught my Monday night class I was fading fast.  Today I've just been low-level tired all day, approaching comatose tonight.  But as this marvelous trip of a lifetime fades into the rearview mirror, I ask myself the same question I frequently ask my students -

      What did we learn from all this?

  Small lessons first.  I learned that typing blog posts from a smart phone is a royal pain, particularly when your autocorrect has a mind of its own - for example, believing that any 's' which follows an apostrophe must always be capitalized!  So I apologize here and now for all the typos in the previous two weeks of posts.  Another small lesson:  Watershoes are not appropriate footwear for descending a long, steep, and winding trail like the infamous "snake trail" at Masada.  Also, after wearing damp swim trunks on a long mountain hike, jumping into the Dead Sea will set any chafed regions on fire. Maybe not literally, but it sure felt like it!  I learned that Israeli lizards are too quick to be caught by middle-aged reptile enthusiasts, and that pottery shards double as road fill in the Holy Land.

  But what were the big lessons learned?

  I have always known that Christianity, more than any other faith in the world, is deeply and intrinsically linked to history.  Real, actual events form the core of the Gospel narratives.  For most other faiths, you can take away the actions of their founders and still have the core of the faith intact.  Whether Moses led a million Jewish slaves to escape from Egypt 1400 years before Christ or not, most Jews would say that the Torah still contains a timeless message from God.  Take away the deeds attributed to Muhammad in the Hadith, and his revelations from Allah would still form the inviolate core of Islam.  You can take away virtually all the stories about Prince Gautama, and the religion of Buddhism would be left intact.  Every other faith is more about the message than it is about the messenger.  But Christianity is different.  The Messenger is the Message.

   If Jesus of Nazareth was not born of a virgin, if He did not perform mighty signs and wonders in the sight of His disciples, if He did not physically die on the cross, and, above all, if He did not rise again from the dead on the third day, then Christianity becomes a dead letter.  Without the Resurrection, as Paul said, we are of all men most to be pitied.  In short, if the Jesus of the Gospels is not the Jesus of history, then our faith is based on a lie, our Savior is a fraud, and our hope is a delusion.  So the ultimate question is, did He?  Did He live and die as the Gospels say, and was He resurrected on the third day?

   Being in the land where Jesus walked, seeing the places He lived and taught, seeing the artifacts that are associated with His time on earth, drove home to me more clearly than ever that our faith is based on something real.  Archeology and history will never be able to conclusively prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  Accepting that truth will always come back to the issue of faith.  However, that being said, as history and archeology have proved and continue to prove with each dig conducted in the Holy Land that the Gospels and the rest of the Bible are accurate in the small things, it gives us that much more confidence to believe they are also accurate in their greater claims.  If Luke could be so careful as to use the right title for the right official in the right place at the right time on over 40 occasions in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts, then we can be all the more confident that he was just as careful and accurate in the central claim of his Gospel - that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of God, and that he demonstrated this with many 'convincing proofs' in the sight of His disciples.

   In the last two weeks, I have seen the lake where Jesus and his disciples sailed and fished, and what might very well be the boat they fished from.  I have seen the flagstones of the house where Jesus ate and slept and healed all the sick and crippled who were brought to Him.  I have seen the arch which Pilate stood before when he presented the tormented Christ to a howling mob and said "Behold the man!"  I have touched the slab in the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus' body once lay, and the pinnacle of Golgotha, where He was crucified.  I've literally walked in his footsteps, driven through the villages where he once preached, and seen the many remaining buildings and ruins of buildings that were standing in His time.  As a result, I am more convinced than ever that He was indeed exactly what John said He was - "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. and we beheld His glory, glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father."  In short, the simplest and best explanation for all the stories about Jesus returning from the dead two thousand years ago is that He actually did it, as a very good friend of mine pointed out to me in 2010.

   Thank you, Israel, for strengthening and energizing my faith.  It was the journey of a life time, and I will not soon forget it.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

All Good Things . . .

Isn't that how the old saying  goes?
A year ago I had no idea I would ever get to visit Israel. It was one of those things on my bucket list that I figured I'd never get to do.  Then I went to the local rotary club and spoke about my books,  and Randy Daw heard it, and next thing you know, i'm waking up in a convent guest house in Jerusalem and realizing my odyssey is nearly over.  

I got up around 5 and emailed back and forth with my wife and best friend back home for awhile. Then I ate breakfast and packed out my room, and at 9:30 we all loaded up to go and visit the Israel Museum. This place was simply amazing - and, yes, I've overused that word a bit this trip, haven't i?

From the sarcophagus of Herod the Great to the "Pilate inscription " to the oldest inscription reference to David ever found, to the Dead Sea scrolls, to a fantastic scale model of First Century Jerusalem over fifty feet wide, it was almost too much to process.

  After that we came back to the convent and we were given the afternoon to roam the streets of Jerusalem. I took off with my friend Andrea, and we we walked thru the bazaars and shops, stopped at an Armenian pizzeria for a late lunch, and then slowly walked back to the convent yo wait for the ride to the airport. We boarded around midnight and, after a twelve hour flight, landed here in NYC this morning.   Now I am waiting for the flight that will take me to Austin and then the long drive home, to see my wife and daughters again, and sleep in my own bed. It'S been a remarkable, faith-affirming, life -changing journey, but it's nearly done now. Thanks for coming along, and keep on reading!

Friday, March 18, 2016

In the Steps of Pontius Pilate

When this marvelous adventure began, last Thursday, our first stop on the Holy Land was supposed to have been the Roman ruins at Caesarea Maritima.  But, due to airport and traffic delays, the historical park was closed when we got there. Mark said we could take a half day during our time in Jerusalem and make a return trip. Today was the day, but due to a marathon that was going to close down the street outside the convent where we are staying at 6 AM, we had to get up at 5 and leave no later than a quarter till six. So Randy Daw volunteered to drive us, and all told, five of us got up crazy early to make the trip.

The traffic was light,  the drive decent, and after breakfast at Cafe Aroma (I'm going to miss that place!) We arrived just as the park opened.  What a morning! Features included a huge, well-preserved Roman  Ampitheater, a marvelous hippodrome, the only surviving inscription of Pontius Pilate's name carved during his lifetime, and the remains of  King Herod's fabulous coral palace.  On a personal note, I found the remains of a tavern that featured prominently in my novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, and it was pretty much exactly as I envisioned it. On a very funny note, we found one house ruin had a very nice, marble-lined tub in the center of the room, fancier than any we'd seen anywhere else. In the next room adjacent to the bath was a very well-preserved mosaic floor. There was a large inscription in Greek. Randy is our resident Greek scholar, and he translated it: "Enter Here Ye Men Who Love to Fornicate".  That's
right, we found a 2000 year old brothel! So of course we had to pose for a picture in the bathtub - never let preachers go out unattended!

  After prowling the ruins for a couple of hours we got in the van and headed back to the convent. Everybody else was out exploring the Old City, so we took off to do some exploring on our own.  I did some shopping, and then went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again. It was much more crowded than before, so I did not enter the tomb, but i did do one thing  I didn't do last time: i knelt at the altar that stands on the pinnacle of Golgotha and reached through a hole in the altar to touch the very stones on which, according to a ttadition thar dares back over 1700 years, Jesus was crucified. It was a powerful moment! I also like the lesson it teaches:  that we must all approach the cross on our knees.
 I then exited the Old City through the Damascus gate and visited the Garden Tomb. While it is much less likely to be the actual site of Jesus' burial than the Sepulcher tomb, it does give a much better sense of what the real tomb was probably like before it was built over and wrapped in centuries of tradition and ritual.

Finally, I toured the Church of the Redeemer, built by Germans and dedicated by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1893. One interesting note: excavations under this church have shown that the Sepulcher church was indeed outside the city walls of Jerusalem during Jesus' time.  It's also just a magnificent example  of  Romanesque revival architecture.

Done sightseeing and shopping, i ate supper in the Armenian quarter and then I returned to the Convent around four-thirty. I have five shekels in one pocket, $1.65 in change in the other, my wallet is empty, my heart is full, and my feet are sore! One more marvelous day in the Holy City. Tomorrow, sadly, will be my last. Thanks for following me on this adventure!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Perfect Day in the Holy City

It has been an altogether WONDEFUL day here in the holiest city on earth!

I got up very early and sat out here in the quiet hallway of the convent, thinking, reflecting on the day to come, and emailing wife and friends. We ate breakfast at 7:30 and got some welcome news:  since our trip was under budget, we each got a $100 refund.  Mine did not survive the day, but more on that later.

  We set out at 8:30 for the Old City of Jerusalem,  but it started raining almost right away.  I bought a cheap umbrella in a shop, but soon it was coming down so hard we all took refuge in a Cafe Aroma just outside the Jaffa Gate till it quit a half hour later. Then we headed into the Armenian Quarter, to see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

  I am a tactile person. I appreciate things by touching them. To be able to touch the stone bed where the body of my Master was laid was one of
the most profoundly moving experiences of my life. It was, in a way, made even more special by the fact that modern excavations beneath the Church have actually confirmed that this is most likely the actual place where Jesus was crucified and buried. I lit two candles in this church. While I am not Catholic, there was something profoundly satisfying about doing so.  Sometimes I think we evangelicals, despite being far closer in doctrine to the earliest Christians, lose sight of how majestic ritual and tradition can be.

  The next stop was the Ecce Homo Basilica, a church built over the arch where Pontius Pilate presented Jesus to the mob with the words "Behold the Man!" This was moving for me both spiritually and personally, since that dramatic scene is the cover art for my book, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE. It was easy for my mind's eye to strip away the trappings of twenty centuries of faith, and see that scene played out before my eyes.

From there we went to the Western Wall, where faithful Jews by the thousands pray every day. I approached the Wall and said a prayer, and imagined the magnificent edifice that once stood on this foundation. Next to it is the Davidson Archeological Park, an excavation of much of First century Jerusalem there in the Temple precincts. This area has only been uncovered in the last 20 years,  and you can actually walk on streets where Jesus and His disciples walked on the way to the temple.

  Next, we walked to the Pool of Bethesda,  where John's Gospel describes Jesus' healing a lame man.  This story was once thought to be purely legendary by skeptics, since there was no the record of this site, but modern archeology has found the pool exactly where and how John described it, and there was even some graffiti there alluding to its healing powers. Next to the pool is St. Anne'S church, which has some of the most perfect acoustics imaginable. The folks I am traveling with are nearly all Church of Christ, and they are EXCELLENT a capella singers. We all sang several hymns together, then descended into the Garden of Gethsemane. This is another spot identified with some certainty, and it is beautiful. A gorgeous church has been built over what is supposed to be the very rock Jesus prayed on. This site is less certain, but still in the right vicinity.

That was the end of the day's tour. I walked back alone, doing a little shopping (OK, a LOT of shopping!) And just soaking up the ambience of this marvelous place. I hope my wife and family like the gifts I got them!

Tonight, we had a great dinner at the Armenian Tavern, and Dr. Mark Shipp gave out the 2016 Archeological Study Tour Awards. I won several, most notably the "I Hugged a Crocodile, I Chased a Lizard, and I Dug Up a Pillar" award, and also the "I Dressed for a Flood But Ran Down a Mountain and Now My Feet Hurt Award."

After that, it was a brisk walk in the chill evening air back to the Convent, and I did actually get to call home and talk to my daughters, but not my wife, before bed this evening. Tomorrow, back to Caesarea Maritima,  then more fun, facts, and faith in Jerusalem!   Shalom!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

THIS Year, in Jerusalem!

Just another magical day in this beautiful, Holy Land where my faith was born.  We weren't going to leave Tel Tamar until 9 AM today, but I woke up bright and early this morning - by 6:0
, so I climbed the guard tower atop the Tel and snapped some pictures of the beautiful desert vista that surrounds this place.  Then I walked to the nearby Cafe Aroma to post some pics to my FB page and enjoy one last cup of this marvelous concoction I've come to enjoy so much.

Come 9 AM, we were loaded up and on the road again.  Our first stop was Arad, which features prominently on the Book of Exodus.  When Moses first reached the Promised Land's borders, the spies he sent out returned a grim message: the land was too well-defended, its people too strong,  and the city walls too high for them to take.  At that point God told the people He was sick of their grumbling and complaining and ordered them to wander in the Wilderness for the next forty years. The Israelites then said "No, we're sorry, we'll go attack them right now!"  God replied, "Go ahead, but I will not be with you."  So they attacked Arad, this very Canaanite fort whose walls I stood on this morning, and the Canaanite handed their rear ends to them.  So the Children of Israel headed off into the Wilderness for a 40 year humility lesson, and when they came back after it was done, they easily captured the mighty fortress of Arad and built their own town over it.

Today there are two distinct ruins visible : the Canaanite Arad,  a truly impressive fort with massive gates, and then the even larger and more impressive Israelite city built just up the slope from it. It was fun just wandering over the site, trying to imagine how it looked in its glory days.  I also had fun chasing Israeli lizards around here; the buggers are very fast, even on a cold day.

Next up, we went to the ruins of ancient city of Beer Sheba, another site prominently mentioned in the Old Testament.  It was near here that God spoke to Abram and gave him his new name; it was here that Isaac dug the well that gave the city its name.   This place was smaller, but still quite impressive.  The ancient water works undeneath the city are huge and cut very deep into the bedrock below.

After this we stopped for lunch (McDonald's in Israel has a HUGE burger they call the Big America!), and then we headed up to Jerusalem - and I do mean UP! We climbed higher and higher into the Judea mountains, until finally this marvelous city, sacred to three faiths, appeared on the horizon.

So what is Jerusalem like? First off, it is COLD. It was fifty degrees with a chill west wind. It's crowded, and the traffic is insane.  But it is also magical and wondrous and its walls glow at night. We are staying at a hostel run by the Rosary Sisters, a Catholic order.  It is just a few blocks from the Jaffa Gate, and once we got unpacked and settled in, five of us headed into the Old City for a quick look around. We entered by the Armenian Quarter, then stopped and ate at a lovely little restaurant. By the time we were done, it was dark and rainy, so we headed back to the convent and settled in for the night. Tomorrow we REALLY get to see the sights!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Finally - A Day of Digging!

Today was the day I've looked forward to ever since I heard I was coming on this trip, five months ago. This was the day we got to take part in an active archeological dig.  The site is called Horvat Rimon, and it was a Jewish community first established during the Hasmonean Era (about 150 AD). We were excavating a Jewish synagogue from the Byzantine Era.
  I got to meet Dr. Ygal Israel, a legendary excavator with the Israeli Antiquities Authority. He walked us thru the site and showed us where to dig, and pretty soon we were swinging picks and moving dirt. I got really excited when the partially exposed giant rock in my sector turned out to be one of the synagogue's columns!  Then Jim Bob Holley, who was digging next to me, uncovered the base of the column with some very nice details preserved, right next to it! There were lots of pottery shards recovered also, including one nice jug handle and  a broken figurine. We dug for about four hours totaled, but I would go back and do it all again in a heartbeat. Uncovering real history was the high point of the trip!

On the way back to Tel Tamar, we drove down the most terrifying road on earth - the "Descent of the Scorpions," nearly 2000 feet down a narrow, one lane road with lots of very steep curves and switchbacks. But oh my! The views were absolutely gorgeous! We stopped at one wide spot and took a ton of pictures. There were several neat little hilltop forts built by the Romans to protect caravans along the spice routes.

  We got back to Tel Tamar and got cleaned up, then had a nice supper of shepherd's pie. After that we went down to the couches by our caravans to sit and talk, reflecting on this marvelous journey we've been on. Tomorrow, it takes us to Jerusalem!

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Busy Day in the Desert

For the first time since arriving in this marvelous country, we stayed in one place all day.  We worked our tails off, but in a way, it was pretty relaxing.  But i'm getting ahead of myself. Let me fill you in on what's transpired since we got here last night. Oh, and about last night - after we got here and had supper, we had a great worship service and took communion here in this 3000 year old  Israelite city.

  Tel Tamar is an ancient city with eight levels of occupation, from at least 1000 BC till the Ottoman period ending in 1918. The archeological camp here has a mess hall, numerous mobile homes ("caravans" they call them over here), and various utility buildings. There's also a marvelous open air cabana with a fire pit and a bunch of comfy old couches where I'm sitting and writing this.

We got up around 7 AM and I took a walk down the old Roman road that lies south of the camp. Many Roman coins have been found along it, but all I found were a few pottery shards (those things are EVERYWHERE here!).  We had a nice breakfast waiting for us, and after it was done, Dr. Shipp did an interpretive walk-thru of the site with us, showing us the gates built by Solomon, the "high place" destroyed by King Josiah (they found 75 idols tossed in the corner there, all smashed to pieces!), and finally, the Roman bath house where we would be working. Our job today was "archeological restoration", which meant re-mortaring the walls and stabilizing them so that they will still be standing for future generations. It was hot, dusty (VERY dusty!) Work, but we stayed hard at it all day. While cleaning one seat out in the ancient bath house, I found a piece of Roman era glass - my coolest find of the whole trip!

  After we knocked off, I went next door to the crocodile farm - yes, I said crocodile farm! - where I got to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams and hold a crocodile. It was a very small one, but they wouldn't let me touch any of the big ones!

  After that, I walked down to the nearby Cafe Aroma and got one of those signature lattes. I've never liked coffee in any form before, but this stuff is YUMMY!  Of course, it's also about a teaspoon of coffee with a cupful of cream and chocolate, so maybe I haven't strayed too far off the coffee haters reservation!

This evening we had a nice supper and I gave the devotion - from Psalm 37 - after which we sang some songs and now I sit here in the desert night, typing up this blog and looking forward to tomorrow.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

I feel great! (Except For My Feet!)

This trip continues to be one of the greatest experiences of my life, and today was another amazing adventure.  I woke up at 4:15 or so and could NOT go back to sleep, so I lay in bed and emailed back and forth with my wife and with a dear friend of mine from Ohio till the sun rose. Then I got dressed for the day and went up on the solarium to look at the gorgeous view of the Dead Sea and the mountains all around it. Finally, at 7:30, the breakfast buffet opened.  The bread was delicious, the pastries ok, but I will never get used to having cold pickled fish served with breakfast!

At 8:15 or so we loaded up and headed to the springs of En Gedi for our first hike of the day. If you're not up on your Old Testament history, the story goes like this: after killing Goliath, David became Saul's most trusted commander, until the old king became so jealous of David's popularity that David gathered a crew of trusted men and fled to . . . The wilderness of En Gedi.  In fact, the wadi we hiked up is known as the "Wadi David" to this day.

It's a steep, narrow canyon, full of rock hyraxes (think jumbo sized brown hamsters) and ibex (goats with really long horns). Two of the younger guys in the group decided to climb up the 600 foot trail to the upper falls, and, not wanting to be shown up by two twenty somethings,  I joined them. 600 feet up a VERY narrow trail, in water shoes! I made it all the way up, with much puffing and blowing, and the waterfall and pool at the top was truly gorgeous.  Honesty compels me to admit that I did not climb down into the cave under the falls; I was really tired by that point and also concerned about getting back to the vans by 11:30 for our run up the road to Masada.

I made it back in plenty of time, and up the road we went. Masada is a sacred place for the Israelis. It was there that 300 warriors and nearly 600 of their wives and children held out for three years against a Roman army over 20,000 strong.  Unable to advance up the narrow,  winding snake trail, the Romans built six fortified camps and connected them by a stone curtain wall, completely encircling the vast plateau where this magnificent palace-turned-fortress stood.  Finally, when they could not starve the Jews out, the Romans built a huge ramp, over 200 feet tall, up to the citadel wall. Then they pushed a giant siege tower up the ramp and began the battery of the wall.  When the Jews saw the battle was lost, they decided not to die as slaves, or expose their wives to the ravages women endured at the hands of enemy soldiers. Instead, each man quickly and humanely killed his family. When all the women and children were dead, the men drew lots to see who would kill who, and then the last man standing killed himself.  When the Romans broke through the wall the next morning, they found a city full of corpses.

Seeing the massive fort, the siege camps still perfectly laid out, and the site where the wall was finally breached was deeply moving for me. The incredible courage of the doomed Zealots, and the remarkable skill and dedication of the Romans, were almost equally impressive.

My big mistake of the day, though, was deciding to descend from Masada along the steep, narrow, and VERY long "Snake Trail", when I had forgotten to change out of my thin-soled water shoes!  I felt every rock all the way down! But I did reach the bottom in one piece,  and our next stop was back at the Dead Sea for a nice therapeutic  dip.  I went out deeper this time, and discovered a cool phenomena - when you can no longer touch bottom, the water holds you upright, no more than chest deep.  It's the oddest feeling  - like standing on nothing at all!

After a quick shower and change, we waited at the Cafe Aroma for the rest of the group to finish swimming and shopping - and yes, I had another cafe Aroma special -the only coffee I've ever actually liked in my whole life!

Around 7 we drove over to Tel Tamar, where we will stay the next two nights. It's an amazing place, but this entry is too long already, so more on it tomorrow.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Another Awesome Day in the Holy Land!

This morning we got up bright and early, packed our bags, and enjoyed breakfast in the Leonardo Hotel's lovely dining room before loading the vans and heading out again.  Our first stop was Kenerath  (Biblical Geneserat ) to see a 2000 year old fishing boat that was discovered in the lake bed during a drought in 1986.  This would have been the same kind of boat used by Jesus and His disciples on the lake.

Next, we drove a short distance up the road to Capernaum, the home town of Peter, James,  and John.  There we saw the ruins of the Biblical town and the foundation stones of Simon Peter's actual house.  I got a chill down my spine thinking I was staring at the very stones my Master once walked on. I felt more connected to Christ than I have in years!  There was so much history made in this one tiny town.

Next, we drove up the road to the ruins of Bethsaida, another town where Jesus taught and healed. We were the only ones at this site, and nothing was roped off. We could wander through the ruins of ancient houses,  businesses, and gates.  There were shards of pottery lying everywhere.  It was easy to close your eyes and imagine Jesus and the disciples walking down these dusty streets.

After Bethsaida we dropped and ate lunch at a nice little Jordanian restaurant. They served some of the best chicken I have ever had, a variety of vegetables, sweet dates, and this rich, dark Arabic coffee. After my positive experience with Cafe Aroma yesterday, I was willing to give it a try. BIG mistake! It tasted like an oil slick seasoned with pine sap!

Next we drove down right thru the West Bank to the famous site at Qumran,  where the Dead Sea scrolls were found.  This was very exciting for me, since Qumran Cave #4 was used on the cover of my book, Matthew's Autograph  - and now I saw the site in person! I was also thrilled to see they sold Dr Pepper there, albeit for 14 shekels a can - over $3, but well worth it for a taste of home.

After Qumran, we drove down to our hotel here on the Dead Sea. Of course, I had to fill in a lifelong bucket list item by going for a quick swim before dark. It's true what they say - you CANNOT sink in this water!  I lay flat on my back and it was like lying on a very soft trampoline. I even raised my head, both arms,  and my feet up and STILL couldn't sink! The water does taste 1000 times worse than sea water though.

Back to the hotel, showered and changed, and another delicious supper. Once that was done, I came to my room to tell you all about it! Goodnight from the land where Jesus walked!

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Wonderfully Perfect Day

I have had many good days in my 52 years, and some great ones. But today was one of the very few days in my life that I would call "perfect". Everything was awesome from start to finish!

After a very sound and restorative night's sleep,  I got up at 6 AM and went down to breakfast. Our morning and evening meals are prepaid here at the hotel, and have been delicious. We were heading out at 8 AM, so I went for a quick walk by the Sea of Galilee after breakfast, and then all 21 of us loaded up in the vans and headed out.

We actually stopped about a half mile down the road where there was a public beach and took several pictures of the water and boats, then off we went for our first stop of the day, the Biblical city of Dan.

The traffic was so much better than yesterday - no close calls, and we made great time! On our way to Dan, we drove past Migdal (NT Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene), the Mount of the Beatitudes, and Qurzin, called Chorazin by Jesus.

The Israelite city of Dan sits near the headwaters of the Jordan River at the base of Mount Hermon, the tallest peak in the Holy Land (you could see some snow at the top). The trails we hiked were lush, green, and incredibly beautiful. Dr. Shipp calls it "the jungle of the Jordan." The water was so clear and clean I even took a sip from it! At this stop we saw the "high place" built by King Jeriboam II, one of the few OT sites that can be identified with 100% certainty. Then we came to the ruins of Dan itself - very impressive, massively fortified gates with the "bema seat" just inside where the Elders would sit in judgment. About 100 yards away was the Canaanite ruin known as Laish, which the Danites conquered in the Book of Joshua.

After that, we drove 5 minutes up the road to Baniass, where the ruins of a magnificent Greco-Roman temple to the god Pan were built around a gorgeous natural grotto. There was also a huge Byzantine Era church there, with some of its original mosaic tile floor still intact. Across the street we saw the remains of Caesarea Philippi,  a palace built by one of Herod the Great's sons.  It was somewhere near here that Jesus told Simon "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." We ate lunch here at Baniass also, at a lovely little Lebanese restaurant with a balcony right over Hermon Brook.

Our last stop was at the ruins of Tel Hazor. This city was occupied by the  Canaanites, then the Egyptians,  and finally by the Israelites.  The huge gates built by Solomon were still quite visible, as were the earlier mud brick buildings of the Egyptians.  I climbed all the way down into the ancient water tunnel dug during the time of King Ahab. One thing that made this spot extra neat was the fact that we had it entirely to ourselves the whole time.

All the historic parks were  closing early for Shabat, so at that point we called it a day. On the way to Tiberias we stopped at a coffee shop called Cafe Aroma that Mark and Randy both love. It says something about this place that I, the original coffee hater, ordered and finished one if their signature coffees.

After that we drove back to Tiberias, and I was still full of energy when we got here.  I went out with Mark and three of the ladies on our team and we went shopping for souvenirs and a few small sundries we needed. After that it was back to the hotel for another delicious meal, and now a chance to sit here, update all you good folks, and get some rest.  Tomorrow: Capernaum, the home town of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and Bethsaida. I'll be walking where Jesus walked, taught, and healed. I never thought I would have a chance to do something like this.  What a narvelous, perfect day!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

First Day in Israel!

Boy, that trans-Atlantic flight was LONG!!  I haven't flown across an ocean in 30 years, so it felt even longer!  About half our passengers were Hasidic Jews - there must have been at least fifty of them. That actually worked to my advantage - I had an aisle seat and the window seat was taken by a very nice Jewish housewife named Leah. The middle seat was assigned to one of the Hasid, but he refused to sit next to a woman, so we got a vacant spot between us.  I tried to sleep on the way across, and managed some, but the plane was too hot and stuffy for any real rest.

We landed in Tel Aviv right on time, but clearing customs and getting our rental vans ate up a lot of time, and the traffic was downright awful!   By the time we got to Caesarea, the park with most of the Roman ruins was closed. We did get to go see the aqueduct, and I found a bunch of ancient pottery shards on the beach.

After that it was getting  dark, so we loaded up and headed for our hotel, the Leonardo Plaza in Tiberias. We ate a group supper and tomorrow we visit Dan and Caesarea Philippi. Going to be a great day, but right now I need some REST!!! Goodnight!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


We were supposed to get up at 3 AM to catch our flight out from Bergstrom Airport in Austin, but between the storm and my own excitement I was wide awake by 2:30. Packed up my toiletries and Dr. Shipp drove us to the airport in the rain. We boarded quickly and had a reasonably smooth flight to JFK international airport in New York.  It was awsome to see the famous Manhattan skyline as we flew over it, but that's as much of the city as I got to see. While we did have a fairly long layover, the time budget, margin for error,  and cost of a cab fare kept me in the airport.  I did have my first ever Reuben sandwich, now I'm typing this as we prepare to begin the lengthy boarding process for El Al airlines and the final leg of my marathon journey to the land where Jesus walked. If all goes as planned, my next entry will be made from the Tiberias hotel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


This is going to be a bit shorter than my usual entries, because a. I'm typing it on my phone, and b., I'm going to be updating daily for the next 11 days, as I take the trip of a lifetime to the nation of Israel on a ten day archeological study tour, led by Dr. Mark Shipp.

  Today I had to complete my usual day of teaching - well, almost usual. Since the high schoolers were all out for Enrichment week classes, I got to teach 7th and 8th grade, ALL DAY, seven periods in a row!

After that, a quick run to the bank, a farewell dinner with my wife,  and then my friend Ritchie Thompson met me and we headed south together. We arrived at Dr. Shipp's  house at nine. We have to get up at 3 AM for a 6 AM flight, so it's just about time to hit the hay.  Another update from New York tomorrow, and then the next time you hear from me i'll be in Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Giodnight!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

RISEN versus REDEMPTION: Hollywood's Movie versus My Book

  Well, this weekend I finally got a chance to see the new Bible movie, RISEN, starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, and Peter Firth.  Ever since I saw the poster for this film in December (while waiting in line for STAR WARS: EPISODE VII), I have been anxiously awaiting its release.  There were two reasons for this:  first of all, because I love Bible movies and I am always anxious to see if they get the story right or not, and secondly, because even from the poster I could tell this movie was going to cover some of the same ground that I covered in my novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.  I was very curious to see what the similarities and differences would be, and from the beginning I wanted to tell all of you about it.

   A word about the movie first:  Bible-based movies are always a risk for Hollywood.  Very seldom does a story lifted straight from the Scripture adapt directly to the screen in a coherent fashion.  The Apostles and prophets weren't writing a screen play, they were recording a message from God!  So, almost always, the screenwriter has to add characters and pad the narrative in order to make a Bible story into a watchable film.  But, when you do that, you are altering a narrative that is holy writ to a large percentage of your potential audience.  If you can do it seamlessly, weaving your characters and subplots into the Biblical narrative while remaining true to its message, you can make a movie that the faithful will flock to see - as evidenced by the financial success of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, PRINCE OF EGYPT, and ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING. 

    However, if you alter the narrative too much, or go overboard with artistic license, you may be left with a movie that is offensive to the very demographic you are trying to draw in - for instance, NOAH, which critics liked, was panned by most evangelicals and frankly, it looked to me as if the SyFy Channel had tried to make a Bible movie!  EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS was a little more faithful to the Scriptures, but it still contained significant departures and frankly was a rather bad movie that ran on too long and contained numerous "What were they thinking?" moments.

   So Hollywood was overdue for a GOOD Bible movie, and RISEN is it!  The plot is simple enough: Joseph Fiennes plays the role of Clavius, a Roman tribune tasked by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) with finding the missing body of the Nazarene, apparently stolen from its tomb.  But as Clavius searches for the body, what he finds instead is a strong core of believers in Jerusalem who firmly believe that there is no body to be found, because the Nazarene in question has really risen from the dead. Finally, Clavius himself encounters the risen Christ, and his life is forever changed as a result.  This was an excellent film, with an engaging plot, sympathetic characters, and a new take on the most important story of the Gospels.

   In my book, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, I took a similar premise - What would the origin story of Christianity have looked like to a skeptical Roman witness?  My story centers on the Prefect of Judea, Lucius Pontius Pilate, and tells his story from the beginning of his military career at age 20 until his death nearly 30 years later, focusing on his interactions with the Emperor Tiberius Caesar and his governance of Judea, specifically in dealing with the beginnings of the Christian movement.

   I thought I would take a moment to look at how each work portrayed the main characters of the story, starting with:

PONTIUS PILATE:  In my book, Pilate is a harder, leaner man - a soldier first and politician second, with a strong sense of Roman justice combined with a streak of ruthless (and sometimes reckless) cruelty.  He rises to the top of Roman society, and then is disgraced and banished to Judea as governor with one order: Keep the peace if you ever want to see Rome again!  There he encounters the beginnings of the Christian movement when John begins baptizing in the wilderness.  He doesn't act against Jesus for some time, because he doesn't see Him as a threat, instead struggling to put down the much more dangerous Zealot movement.  But then he is cornered and railroaded into sending the Galilean to the cross, and suffers recurring nightmares and a sense of guilt thereafter.

   In the movie, Pontius Pilate is older and softer - a bureaucrat with a military background who prefers to send other men to do his fighting for him.  He is not a bad man, but he is a demanding boss and a bit of a trimmer, more concerned with appearances than results.  His main concern is making sure the province is totally pacified before a coming visit from the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar (one of the movie's few historical errors - Tiberius never left the Isle of Capri after 26 AD, except to make an attempted return to Rome in 37 AD, and he died during that journey).

PILATE'S SUBORDINATES:  The movie is primarily about Clavius, Pilate's military tribune and trusted commandant and trouble-shooter.  He is the protagonist, and shares some of the qualities that I attributed to Pilate himself in my story - a brave soldier with a wry sense of humor and the absolute loyalty of his men.  In my story, Pilate's chief subordinate is the Primipilus Centurion, Cassius Longinus, a veteran Roman officer married to a Jewish girl, who acts as a go-between for Pilate with the Jews, who carries out the order to crucify Jesus, then abandons the army to become a Christian after the Resurrection.

JESUS OF NAZARETH: In my book, Pilate's only direct encounter with Jesus is during the infamous trial, although he does observe the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem from a distance.  In the movie, Clavius first sees Jesus dead on the cross, and then later encounters the risen Christ and speaks with him, thus becoming a convert to the nascent Christian faith.  I will say that Cliff Curtis' portrayal of Yeshua in RISEN is the most Jewish portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen, and he is totally believable in the role.

THE DISCIPLES: In the movie, the main two disciples Clavius deals with are Bartholomew, a very likable and joyous young Jew, and Simon Peter, older, more serious, and eventually more friendly to the Roman tribune.  In my book, the main disciple Pilate deals with is John, who heals his son from a severe sickness some time after the Resurrection of Jesus, and also has a couple of close encounters with James, the Lord's Brother, one very early in the story, and then again later on.

Overall, then - RISEN is a fantastic Bible movie that I highly recommend.  If you liked it, you will almost certainly enjoy my novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE - so please, buy a copy or download the EBook now!  And, if you have already read my book, by all means, go see this movie - it is TOTALLY worth the price of admission!  Now here's a link to REDEMPTION.  Buy it, read it, watch RISEN, and tell me how accurate my comparisons are!