Religion Today

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Enigma of Bethsaida

On the road around the north end of the Sea of Galilee, just east of the Jordan River’s mouth, stands a sign pointing to the location of Bethsaida. It recalls the town mentioned in the gospels that was the home of the disciple Philip and a fishing community on the shore of the fresh-water lake.
Bethsaida is less than five miles to the east of Jesus’ headquarters at Capernaum, and the gospels imply that he visited often. Mark 8 places Jesus’ healing of a blind man there and hints at several other miracles. Nevertheless, Jesus’ parting shot is a curse: “Woe to you Bethsaida! ... For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.” (Luke 10:13)
But Bethsaida has long been an enigma. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Bethsaida was in the kingdom of Herod Philip. In 30 A.D., he rebuilt it as a city and named it Julias after Caesar Augustus’ wife.
Despite its importance, the location of Bethsaida/Julias has long been unknown. No ruins large enough to be a city lie along the shore in this area. In 1987, Rami Arav, an Israeli archaeologist, led a team from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other schools to the site of et-Tell, which he identified as Bethsaida.
There was one problem. This large hill was two kilometers from the lake shore. Shouldn’t a fishing town be on the shore? The excavation team made two discoveries that supported its claim.
First, they found the remains of fishing gear, such as nets and hooks, along with boat implements from the first century. Second, et-Tell sits near the Jordan, and geologists determined that the river began silting up in the fourth century. Over centuries, the river created the flat, alluvial plain that sits between the site and the present shoreline.
Despite 28 years of excavations, the teams working with Arav have uncovered only about 3 percent of the site. In addition to some first-century houses, archaeologists have uncovered some Roman-era temples from the time of Herod Philip and later.
But the main discoveries come from the 10th century B.C., long before it was called Bethsaida. This was the city’s heyday. The entire hill was carved into a series of terraces upon which to build houses, and its crown was surrounded by a solid stone wall.
Approaching the city, the main road led to a large gate, with tall towers on each side. Just inside the gate lay the city’s main courtyard. This is the only large open area, and everything from trading to trials to worship took place here. A four-chambered inner gate separated the court from the residential area.
The gate’s chambers, two on each side, stored foodstuffs purchased from farmers who brought them to the market in the courtyard. Archaeologists found wheat in two of them, used in bread baking, and barley in a third, probably for brewing beer.
So what was this large ancient city? This was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur. Up to the 11th century B.C., this had been one of the many tribal areas with which the people of Israel interacted. King David interacted with it, marrying the daughter of one of its kings.
This was the point at which the site’s monumental fortifications were erected. The kingdoms around it were building or rebuilding fortified cities: the Israelites, Philistines and Phoenicians to the west of the Jordan Valley; the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites to its east; and Damascus, Tyre and Sidon to the north. The Geshurites followed suit.
Bethsaida’s walls and gates protected it for two centuries, until the armies of the Assyrian Empire arrived under King Tiglath-Pileser at the end of the eighth century B.C. His forces destroyed the city, burning the gate and then leaving a garrison to pull down any remaining fortifications. It remained unoccupied for many centuries afterward.
So perhaps Bethsaida has now been found. But decades of excavations have revealed less of the first-century Jewish city of the New Testament, and more of its foundations and importance from a millennium earlier as the non-Jewish kingdom of Geshur.

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City Lights at Night: What Did Jesus See?

The New Testament Gospels are so focused on Jesus’ teachings and miracles that they give few details of his life experiences. They do not mention that growing up on the ridge of Nazareth, he spent his childhood watching the reconstruction of Galilee’s first Roman-style city, Sepphoris, just five miles away. Or that during the years of his Capernaum ministry, he could see the ongoing erection of Galilee’s second city, Tiberias.
They also fail to mention Mount Arbel, a cliff-topped mountain that dominates the skyline on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, a peak which he would have seen every day from Capernaum. But what would Jesus have seen at night?
Capernaum sits at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, a large fresh-water lake in a geological bowl so deep that its surface lies below sea level. Today, the high hills around the lake are covered with towns and villages. At night, all of them are shining, like candles on a circle of cakes. The lights of the modern city of Tiberias cascade down the hillside, looking like a rock slide lit up like a state fair midway. The lake reflects a great deal of the light.
In Jesus’ day, it would have been much darker. There was no electricity, of course, so the only lights would have been fires, lamps and torches. The population of the region was lower than today as well, so fewer towns and villages existed.
Add to that the practice of farmers and rural people starting their day at sunrise and going to sleep after sunset, and you realize that at nighttime, much of Galilee would have been quite dark.
So, what lights would have shown out across the lake when Jesus looked south from Capernaum’s shore at night?
Close in, off to his left, he might have seen a few lights from the town (city?) of Bethsaida. To the right, there might have been some light from Magdala. This town of about 2,000 people formed the center of the Galilean fishing industry. Fishermen from around the region sold their catches there, and the fish were dried and salted for shipment. The Roman name of the town, Tarichaeae, translates roughly as “fish factory,” and it was known for its excellent fish sauce as far away as Rome.
Farther south, along the western shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, stood the new city of Tiberias. Founded by Herod Antipas in 19 A.D., it was under construction during most of the 20s. Antipas moved his capital there from Sepphoris and it became both an economic and political center, with a thriving port and all the accoutrements of a “modern” Roman city. These included a hippodrome for racing during the day and a theater for more sophisticated evening entertainment.
So, the ancient city of Tiberias, down along the coastline to Capernaum’s southwest, would have been a source of nighttime illumination.
But the brightest and most obvious city at night would have been the Greek city of Hippos-Susita on the lake’s southeast side.
Hippos was not a Jewish city. It had been built by Greek inhabitants many centuries before at the top of a high, narrow hill. This hill, a basalt plug, stood out from the limestone-based hills around it. The city towered high above the Sea of Galilee, but not too far from its shore.
During the first century, Hippos was an independent and powerful city-state, controlling the territory surrounding it. It had its own harbor and minted its own coins, a coveted right in the ancient world.
With its long-established Graeco-Roman temples, its large marketplace and its theaters, Hippos would have been the “city on the hill” for Jesus, the city whose light was visible across the Sea of Galilee and which was the brightest object in the night. It would have reminded Jesus, and all Jewish Galileans, that they did not control their world, but that they were controlled by the Romans.
Perhaps Herod Antipas’s new city of Tiberias would grow to rival the light cast by Hippos but, in the first century, it had not yet done so.

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Religion is Irrational. So what?

A common charge leveled against religion is that it is irrational. Although this charge has been around for centuries, it recently has gained new currency through proponents such as Ayn Rand, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and, more recently, Stephen Hawking.
What does it mean to say “religion is not rational?” That’s a good question, because rationality itself has many different definitions. They range from notions so vague that every thought not markedly insane is rational to formulations so strict that no idea is rational unless it meets several philosophical tests.
The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences gives its initial characterization of rationality as requiring “justified beliefs and sensible goals as well as judicious decisions.” The three criteria here suggest an answer to our question. Since most religions and religious people are capable of formulating sensible goals and making judicious decisions, it must be the justified beliefs where the problem lies.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century attacked religion -- Christianity, in particular -- for having “beliefs” that could not be justified or proven, such as the belief in a god, which it labeled as a superstitious fantasy.
On the one hand, this intellectual movement was highly successful, for it became the basis for the scientific and technological revolution that shaped and continues to shape our modern world.
On the other hand, although the Enlightenment demonstrated there was no rational proof for a god’s existence, it failed to prove there was no god or gods. It ran into the problem that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The Enlightenment showed by its criteria that religion was irrational, but it did not demonstrate that religion was wrong.
So, religion is irrational. So what? Do human beings live such rational lives that religion should be seen as a detriment?
Of course not. Humans base surprisingly few of their decisions and actions on rationality.
What is your favorite color or ice cream flavor? Which sports team do you root for or do you detest sports?
If you are married, did you pick your spouse on a rational basis or did you fall in love? Was it “love at first sight?” That’s not rational!
What about your friends? Did you rationally choose them out of a list ranking their best qualities or are they just people you happened to meet and hang out with?
What do you do as a hobby or when you are relaxing? What are your favorite TV shows? Are these rational choices or just what you enjoy?
You know you should lose weight, but just one more cookie …
Guys, what about your preference in cars? Or is it trucks or motorcycles? Do you lust after a Lexus or a Mercedes, or would you rather have a Ferrari or a Jag? Sure, you can debate their strengths and weaknesses, but (imagine a low, slow whisper here) what do you really want?
Think about the process of buying a vehicle. We select a few choices (rationally, of course!) and test drive them. We then pick the one we “like” or the one that feels “comfortable.” Hardly a rational decision!
Gals, what about your look? You know, the style of clothes you choose to wear, the way you put on your makeup (or not), your hair style? Are these simply rational decisions devoid of feeling and emotion or do they result from aesthetic choices? To put it more simply, do you wear what “looks good” on you?
These observations are all offered tongue-in-cheek and are not meant to offend, but they aim to make a simple point. Humans do not really lead rational lives. Many of our everyday thoughts, decisions and activities have little to do with rationality. Indeed, the real surprise is that we manage to think and act rationally as much as we do. So, the accusation that religion is irrational simply means that it is like most of the way we live our lives.

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