Following in the footsteps of Jesus felt both comforting and confusing. I booked the trip hoping to shed light on the events of 2,000 years ago; however, upon finishing the Israeli leg of the tour, I found myself asking more questions than had been answered. Sorry, this will also be a long one…
In my lifelong search for truth, I often get hung up on the facts, or rather, the lack-thereof. Most people simply make guesses. Some educated, some not so much. The truth is nobody really knows anything and oftentimes, they make it up. This was, unfortunately the case when visiting many of the places Jesus lived, preached, and died. I’ll go in chronological order according to his life.
In the beginning… there was Bethlehem. The small city is located in the West Bank – on the Palestinian side of the border and therefore, we had to cross through a heavily secured military checkpoint and pass through a great fence. Once inside, our journey was brief. There’s not much to see in Bethlehem anymore. Our singular stop was the Church of the Nativity – the supposed location of the birthplace and the manger. While inside, it is possible for visitors to descend to the cave and touch the spot where the infant baby emerged into the world.
The original basilica was commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine, about the same time he commissioned the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, on top of the cave that tradition states used to be a domicile for people as well as a stable for livestock in the cold, winter months. So if you happen to subscribe to the literal translations of the Bible stories and actually believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem and in a stable due to lack of room at the inn, then you’re in luck because all the pieces seem to wrap up with a tidy, little bow.
Currently, Bethlehem (approx. 7km south of Jerusalem) is predominantly Muslim and is also home to a shrinking Christian population. Our guide was a very enthusiastic Christian Arab who at one point in the tour, asked our group for an ‘Amen’ and was met with a few elongated seconds of one of the most awkward silences I’ve ever experienced (note: Jen stood front and center of the unimpressed group of tourists). He must be used to working for large groups of Christian pilgrims.
The next stop was Nazareth, known as the Arab capital of Israel. Walking around, the city felt similar to cities in Turkiye (and Egypt, though I hadn’t experienced those at that time). Biblical tradition states that Jesus was raised here for most of his life though there is a lot of controversy about this fact since there is no documented proof the town existed in the 1st century. Nazareth may not have been founded until hundreds of years after the birth of Christ (note: Jesus the Nazarene may in fact, be a reference to his political persuasion and not the region of his hometown).
Here, we doubled the number of churches we saw in Bethlehem. St. Joseph’s Church and the Basilica of the Annunciation are next-door neighbors to one another. The former is a Franciscan cathedral, traditionally said to be located over a cave that was the home of Joseph – Jesus’ dad. Looking down into the cave, its hard to imagine Jesus having been raised in such tight and rocky quarters.
The latter, was established as the location where Mary received the news from the Archangel Gabriel that she would become pregnant with the Son of God. Similar to the previous two churches, this one is also built atop a grotto said to have been the childhood home to Mary. How Mary and Joseph lived so close, without knowing each other is a bit of a head scratcher; however, as I mentioned previously, all of these are simply educated guesses. Nobody really knows anything.
After leaving the somewhat disappointing Nazareth, we traveled east toward the Sea of Galilee and three additional sites: The Mount of the Beatitudes, the small fishing village of Capernaum, and the River Jordan. Located along the northern shore of a very large, yet peaceful body of water, the area surrounding the mountain and the town is said to have been the place where Jesus conducted most of his three-year ministry.
It was in the River Jordan where John the Baptist dunked Jesus in the waters to purify his soul and prepare him for his quest.
On the mountain, overlooking the serene water, Jesus delivered the most famous of his speeches: The Beatitudes. It was also for this massive crowd – people who walked days simply to hear him speak – that he performed the miracle of the fish and loaves, feeding them all until they had their fill.
And Capernaum was home to most of his disciples. He found some of the 12 fishing in boats and along the banks of the sea when he exclaimed, “Come with me and I will make you fishers of Men!” It was also on the Sea of Galilee where he supposedly walked on water. We toured the remnants of the town, although there’s not much remaining, and took a boat cruise around the sea (on which the operators insisted on playing contemporary Christian praise band music at high decibels – good music, but very out of place on a wooden boat modeled after the kind 1st century fishermen would’ve used).
The centerpiece of Capernaum is the traditional home of St. Peter – over which an octagonal, Catholic church was constructed – nothing much remains than a crumbling pile of rocks. Additionally, the ruins of one of the oldest (and largest) synagogues in the world lie at the northern-most edge of the town. It was in this synagogue that Jesus, at the ripe age of 12, quoted the scripture to the Jewish elders while both impressing and scaring them; however, much of the structure has been dated to be only as old as the 5th century.
From Galilee, Jesus and his followers marched into Jerusalem during Passover. Most Catholics remember the stories about Palm Sunday when people threw down palm branches for the King of the Jews to triumphantly ride (on a donkey) through the city gates. The Holy Week events – aka the Passion – take us from that very Palm Sunday entrance to his burial and resurrection.
The outer walls of Old City Jerusalem were built by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, so it’s unclear just how much of the current old city existed in Jesus’ time. That fact in and of itself is part of the reason so much speculation exists regarding what happened where. King Solomon’s Temple was destroyed many times over and the only remaining, original, temple wall is on the western side, smack dab in the center of the Jewish Quarter.
The Wailing Wall, as it is unofficially known, is the most sacred site recognized by the members of the Jewish faith and has been a site for pilgrimage and prayer for hundreds of years. Most of the still buried wall, is divided into a section for women and another for men. Men are allowed entrance through Wilson’s Arch – inside which is a library of scholarly Jewish tomes and dozens of men studying and praying.
The wall borders the Temple Mount (now home to the Dome of the Rock), the courtyard where Jesus and his followers incited a riot, overturning money-changers’ and vendors’ tables in an attempt to cast them from the holy site. It was this act of defiance against the Roman Occupation of Judea that led directly to Jesus’ arrest in our next location.
The Garden of Gethsemane is perhaps the only 100% proven location for Jesus’ time in Jerusalem. According to the Gospels, Jesus and the 12 retired to this grove of olive trees following their ‘Last Supper’ and it was here that he prayed, asking God to take away his burden, and was arrested by a legion of Roman centurions. The word Gethsemane literally translates to ‘oil press’ and many of the olive trees are thousands of years old and may be the exact trees Jesus walked between and sat beneath.
Adjacent to the garden, and resting at the foot of the Mount of Olives, lies the Cathedral of Agony, built by Italian designer and architect Antonio Barluzzi, which is said to house the section of bedrock where Jesus cried and prayed prior to his arrest. I became very emotional while wandering around the garden (mostly because I kept hearing ‘I Only Want to Say’ from Jesus Christ Superstar on repeat in my mind), but was disappointed by our guide’s tendency to brush quickly through the most important spots (including the garden) without much knowledge or care about what happened here. I longed for a moment of reflection; a moment to simply sit with my thoughts and absorb as much of it as possible.
This point in the tale is where the wheels fall off the rails. There is a lot of debate between the various sects of Christianity regarding the precise location of Jesus’ trial by Pontius Pilate where he was presented to the crowd who condemned him to death by crucifixion. This event is the pivot by which the rest of the quest balances, and I was disappointed to find my concept of the tourist area rapidly unraveling.
Traditionally, the Church (and when I say church, I mean the Holy Roman Catholic Church – that controlled most of Christianity for the first 1,500 years) placed the spot of the trial just across the street from the Temple Mount. It is the first stop along the contemporary Via Dolorosa. The Way of Suffering begins here and heads west, turning and bending slightly, until reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – located just inside the current outer walls. If you follow their tradition, following in the footsteps of Jesus is easy and without question.
However, I found it very hard to believe – from what I’ve studied – the this very straight and short, cobblestone road, which is within the city walls entirely, could be the path Jesus carried the cross. Without any understanding about where Pilate’s trial took place, there’s no way to accurately map the true Via Dolorosa! Perhaps it runs east to west, but it could just as easily run south to north. Instead of ending near the Jaffa Gate, it could end near the Damascus Gate. Nobody really knows – a recurring fact I found very frustrating.
As for the Holy Sepulchre, the Gothic church was constructed in an overdone and gaudy way. The location as a whole is said to contain three important sites:
- Golgotha (place of the skull) – the hill on which Jesus was crucified
- The Stone of Anointing – where Joseph of Arimathea cleaned and dressed the body of Christ
- Jesus‘ Burial Tomb
The problem, as far as I’m concerned, is the geographically close proximity all these sites have with each other. I’ve read dozens of books (as well as the Gospels themselves, hundreds of times) on the subject, and from what I can tell, Golgotha would’ve overlooked a major intersection outside the city walls (again, not knowing the 1st century dimensions of Jerusalem hinders historical fact-finding missions).
Likewise, the burial tomb was a cave in a garden not far from the crucifixion site, yet far enough away to be private land owned by Joseph of Arimathea. Standing inside an overtly Gothic cathedral in the center of Jerusalem hardly filled me with the solemn reverence it should have. Joseph wouldn’t have owned such a large and public section of the city. My gut told me something was off.
And I’m not the only one. Over the past few hundred years, many scholars have rejected the Holy Sepulchre as the final resting place of the Son of God. In the 1880s, a protestant general in the British Army located a spot outside the city walls he believed to be a much better fit for the place of the skull. Today, the Garden Tomb is home to both a rocky hill that resembles a skull and a subterranean, rock-cut tomb unearthed in 1867. This place definitely felt more Biblical, though nobody can agree which is the true location – to repeat myself, because nobody really knows anything.
In spite of all my reservations, I really enjoyed the trip as do millions of pilgrims who flock to the Holy city every year. While we didn’t see any re-enactments and processions taking place, they occur weekly (particularly near Christmas and Easter) depicting Jesus’ fateful walk with the instrument of his own demise. Needless to say, celebrations follow.
While I was disappointed with the lack of concrete evidence along the tour itinerary, I got very emotional more than once. Even though it’s not known for sure what happened where, as you stroll along the streets of the old city, you’re easily overwhelmed with wonder and awe that Jesus and his followers also walked these streets (today, littered with cars). I recommend everyone travel there once in their lives, for even if you’re not a Christian by faith, it’s impossible to downplay the importance and impact Jesus has had on our civilization over the past two millennium.
Until Next Time…