RLST 201: New Testament Week 7: Prospect and Retrospect

Coming up on the halfway mark, and almost done with our first round of research lenses! I’m super proud of this class for the great work you are doing. I’ve seen a lot of growth in your research and writing skills as regards New Testament studies, and you’re only going to get more awesome as the semester continues!

Working on the annotated translation today took me down memory lane in many ways. I had the honor of visiting Palestine, Israel and Jordan a couple years ago on a tour guided by a friend and legit scholar. It was eye-opening in so many ways.

By the way, if you are interested in me having a special online session or two where I share memories, insights, and maybe even photos of my travels in the “Holy Land,” please reply and let me know, and I’ll put something together. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, there is no CSUF study abroad to the Middle East, but if that’s something you are interested in, let me know. I’ve been thinking about putting together a study abroad to the Holy Land with one or two other professors who work in History, Art, Architecture, Judaism, and/or Islam so that we could give an awesome tour with rich insights from multiple perspectives.

So, the reason my Holy Land travels came back so vividly this week is because of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Luke 8:26-39, a story that also appears in Mark and Matthew. Gerasa = Jerash, which happens to be arguably the best preserved Roman-era city in the whole Mediterranean. You can walk down the same streets, see the same pillars, survey the same hippodrome, venture up to the same (though broken) bridges, behold the same triumphal arches, test the acoustics in the same amphitheater, and dip your hand in the same fountain that people did 2000 years ago–people including Jesus himself, who may have visited this city. Do a Google image search for “Jerash” and you’ll see some of those sights for yourself!

Jerash in Jordan: Cardo
Jerash in Jordan

Jerash was supremely memorable because it felt like going back in time 2000 years, like very little had changed except for decay, crumbled walls and ceilings, and a few buildings that had been repurposed into Christian basilicas. Almost everywhere else that people commonly go in the Holy Land (Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Capernaum, and even the recently excavated Migdal/Magdala–where, by the way, a photo I took now sits in the Museum of the Bible in DC)–almost everywhere else has been built, rebuilt, and rebuilt more, until the 2000 year old layers are impossible to see. They are covered over by 4th-5th century Christian basilicas, by 7th-9th century Muslim mosques, by 11th-12th century Crusader fortresses, and by more modern construction, much of which is designed to allure ignorant religious tourists.

For example, in Jerusalem there are signs pointing you to an “upper room” where they say Jesus had his last supper with the disciples and where Pentecost happened. The only problem is, that building was constructed a hundred years ago, not two thousand years ago. Religious tourism is a racket in the Holy Land, and people are happy to make stuff up to get more money from tourists who don’t know better.

But Jerash was like a national park and time machine for scholars of the Bible and antiquity. No shops except at the entrance. No vendors bugging you to buy their crap. Just the amazing feeling of walking around a mile by half mile city whose foundations had been preserved by centuries of dust and neglect until they were unearthed.

That’s kinda how I feel about studying the Bible, too. When I hear lots of today’s sermons, read today’s books, listen to today’s music, etc., I see layers and layers of fluff, so-called knowledge and two-bit history in pious garb, and lots of ways to divide people, entertain people, control people, and make money off of people. But when I pick up a synopsis of the Gospels, when I translate ancient Hebrew and Greek texts, when I re-read passages in Homer, or Vergil, or Plato, or Josephus, or Musonius Rufus, or Tacitus, or many other ancient voices, they feel like a time machine that takes me back and lets me see Jesus and the New Testament with eyes that are new and strange because they are so very, very, very old.

May your studies in this class continue to give you very new, very old eyes. 🙂