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.