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Off to Israel

I’m off to Israel first thing tomorrow morning, and will be gone for ten days.  I’ll be on email most days; I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to blog, but I’ll do my best.

So this is an alumni tour for UNC, just over 20 people going (they limited it to that size), along with Sarah and me.  It’s a great deal for me.  On these things the university will send a faculty member who gives a few lectures, hangs out with the people, answers questions, engages in conversation – and gets a free trip out of it!  Things could be worse….

This will be my fourth time in Israel.   The first time I went was in 1993, and I remember quite vividly thinking before that that it was not a place I much wanted to visit.  That seems weird – and seemed weird to me even at the time – since obviously a good deal of my research has to do with Israel 2000 years ago.  But I think that I had this kind of bias against people who thought that if they just saw the “Holy Land” they were somehow qualified to make pronouncements about who Jesus was or what life was like in Israel back then, and so on.  And it always thought that this was silly – like thinking that if you visited North Carolina today you’d have some kind of special insight into what native Americans were like 2000 years ago.

The other prejudice I had against Israel is that it seemed, from what I could tell, to be a dry dusty place with a lot of barren land and tons of rocks.

But I went to Israel, because I had one of these alumni gigs.   And was I ever glad I did.  I thought it was absolutely spectacular.   The topography does involve a log of barren stretches and incredibly rocky terrain.  But the terrain, for all that, really is incredible, with a very different kind of beauty from what I was accustomed to.

The historical character of the region simply can’t be denied or underplayed.   It’s true that the Israeli tour guides tend to be heavily nationalistic; and they cater to what they perceive to be the evangelical Christian character of all Americans (“this is where Jesus turned the water into wine.  Really!”); and they talk about history more than they know about history.  Or at least all that has been my experience so far.  But the tour guides are really, really interesting anyway, and when they start talking about the modern state of Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and their own experiences (they all, of course, have been in the army, and I think all the ones I’ve had so far have all been in combat), it’s fascinating.

I do end up having to correct a lot of the historical “information” that the tour guides give out.  They, of course, are not trained scholars.  They’ve learned a lot, but it’s all from books training tour guides.  They quote Josephus a lot, but at least with the ones I’ve had so far, they’ve shown no evidence of actually having read Josephus.  And they make tons of mistakes.  But that’s OK.  That’s why I’m there.

On our trip we will spend a couple of days in Tel Aviv, which has no importance for ancient history, but I’m looking forward to it, as it is a cultural center for modern Israel and there is a lot going on there.   We’ll spend a night on a kibbutz.  Two nights in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee (which is not a sea, of course, but a lake).  We’ll be doing day trips to places like Nazareth (which was a tiny hamlet in the days of Jesus, but now is a real city, with lots of tourists!).  And then six nights in Jerusalem, an amazing city for all sorts of reasons.  We’ll do the typical touristy things there, but the highlight, in my judgment, comes near the end, when we have a day trip to Qumran, Masada, and the Dead Sea itself.

Qumran is the community (now it’s just ruins) where the Essenes lived who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.   Masada is a place of national pride, the last hold out in the war with the Romans (66-73 CE), on a plateau west of the Dead Sea, which held out against a siege for three years, and right before it fell, everyone inside took a suicide pact rather than fall in the hands of the enemy.  Amazing.  And the Dead Sea itself is a marvel.  I’ve swam in it before and will probably do so again this time.   It really is so thick with salt that you literally cannot sink.   Quite an experience.

Anyway, my plan is to move on from Christology blogs to Israel blogs over the next couple of weeks.  So keep posted.

Caesarea Maritima



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  April 30, 2013

    I mentioned previously that I was there in 1962…a pre-seminary trip. It has changed much. Jerusalem was divided and under Jordan’s control except for the Jewish city. So much new archaeology since that time. I would like to visit again. Have a great trip. I look forward to any blot entries you have time to post.

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    FrancisDunn  April 30, 2013

    …looking forward to it…keep safe

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    David Chumney  April 30, 2013

    Many years ago, my Hebrew professor told our class that when God created the world, he had two huge bags of rocks left over. He took the first bag and spread the rocks evenly over the face of all the earth. Then, he took the second bag and spread those rocks all over Palestine. Have a great trip!

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    maxhirez  April 30, 2013

    See if you can find the “eye of the needle Gate” that Jesus was supposedly talking about when he said a rich man couldn’t get through it. That’s always a fun one. (Do we know who started that one?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 4, 2013

      Don’t know who started it, but yes, it is a later legend, since Jesus really was talking about the eye of a real needle — the kind you sew with….

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    Jim  April 30, 2013

    Your upcoming schedule seems reasonably hectic so on your trip to Israel I’m just asking for an answer to one of the following two questions (your choice):
    (1) Why is the NT so Sepphoris-phobic (other places in the region like Cana are mentioned)?
    (2) Which Israeli wine do you recommend (after sampling studies)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 4, 2013

      I wouldn’t say the NT is Sepphoris phobic. I would say that Jesus avoided all big cities (Tiberius, Caesarea, Sepphoris) until the last week of his life. I’m not sure why, other than to say he was a rural fellow, not a city person.

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    Dennis  April 30, 2013

    Stay away from disco’s and don’t buy a bus ticket. 😉

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    natashka  April 30, 2013

    LOL! I pity the poor tour guide who has you in his troupe!
    Swimming in the Dead Sea…wow. And such a great exfoliant.

    Are your lecture audiences there much different in their beliefs and attitude than elsewhere? Do they ask any different questions unique to someone who lives there that you wouldn’t usually be asked?
    How do they react to your lectures? (are there fistfights? 🙂

    It’s very odd to imagine you someplace like The Wailing Wall. I can’t help but want you to stand in the middle and hold up a big banner that says: “THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE ACCOUNTS ARE PROBLEMATIC!”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 4, 2013

      Yeah, I think I’ll forego the sign this time….

      It’s a great group of 23 people. Probably half or so are Christian, but I don’t think anyone is a very conservative evangelical. Virtually everyone is open minded and interested in historical approaches to the material, very congenial over all. And the tour guide, as it turns out, is absolutely terrific.

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    samchahal  April 30, 2013

    enjoy Israel Bart, I went in 1995 and I was a evangelical Christian then (well knew nothing else of the world aprt from that!) and yes I agree a great place to visit for the experience and the sites!

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    Ronck1  April 30, 2013

    Bart, I’d love to hear you explain what Jesus saved us from. “Jesus, Symbol of God” by Roger Haight has a couple of chapters on this subject. I’d like to hear your take on this subject. The adage “Jesus died for our sins” doesn’t seem to make much sense to me today. Thanks, Ron C-K

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    proveit  April 30, 2013

    Eat lots of olives for me! Their olives are wonderful. There was a store in Jerusalem where you could walk in and see all these different kinds in big open bins. Yummy!

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    toddfrederick  April 30, 2013

    Go see the “Gabriel Stone” in Jerusalem…just got info that it is being exhibited starting Wednesday. And take photos if you can.

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    donmax  April 30, 2013

    Good Luck & Traveling Mercies — FYI, Biblical Tamar Park is just a stone’s throw from the southern tip of the Dead Sea. It’s one of the most important historical sites in all Israel, certainly in the south of the country, an active dig being excavated as you travel through the area. Drop in, if at all possible. Of course, I understand that being part of an organized “tour” limits one’s flexibility, but it’s just off highway 90, right next to the Crocodile Farm. D. C. Smith 🙂

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    timber84  May 1, 2013

    I remember watching a mini series long time ago on Masada starring Peter O’Toole as the Roman commander laying siege to Masada. Perhaps you remember it too?

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    markchubik  May 1, 2013

    New Years of 2011 I spent 10 days in Israel and Palestine on a church trip. I had envisioned having my evangelical Christian faith grow by the experience, however the opposite occurred. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience for much of the same reasons as Bart, however, I was quite taken aback at the incredible tackiness of some of the “sacred” church places like the Church of the Nativity shared by diverse religious groups. I had envisioned having some “otherworldly” encounter with the Holy Spirit in such settings but actually I felt, when there, how it was just a very human experience. It sowed the seeds of skepticism which at that time I never would have believed would have led to my evolving to non belief in the God of the bible. After that trip, one thing led to another resulting in me reading Bart’s works, especially his books dealing with scriptural forgeries (pseudepigrapha) and his epic “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer.” I then began debates with theologian friends of mine, reading Pope Benedict’s epic theological works along with N.T. Wright and Alistar McGrath on the Christian side as opposed to the rabid new atheist and evolutionary biological works by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. This was a big turning point in my life as since I was a young child I aways believed deeply in God and even went so far as to register to be a Jesuit priest candidate briefly when I was 19. I will be turning 50 years old in May now. My desire to know the truth however won out over cherished delusions and I decided to embrace the harsh realities of life. Life has never been better. Sometimes when considering some of the more neurotic beliefs I once held by biblical faith I imagine becoming a sort of atheistic evangelist sharing the Gospel (Good News) that the God of the bible doesn’t exist and that blood sacrifice is not required to stay out of an eternal hell. That no child, even a cosmic God’s child, did not have to suffer horribly and die for my sins to propitiate the angry wrath of a Creator who I had to love and serve and be compelled to love at the risk of eternal torments. That is truly Good News indeed! If anyone stumbling across this comment is having doubts, read Bart’s works with an open mind and if you really want a challenge and good laughs, read Steve Well’s “Drunk With Blood; God’s Killings in the Bible”. If you can read that book through and remain having strong evangelical beliefs in the inerrancy of the bible and of a good, just and merciful God of the bible, then I guarantee that such a God should be indebted to make you a saint! lol

    • Avatar
      rhsondag  May 5, 2013

      Mark, I think it would be great to have you become an atheist evangelist! I have traveled a similar path to yours. From listening to various debates between believers and skeptics, I think that there is a need for a more “all purpose” skeptic. Bart is awesome on the Bible, but does not seem inclined to wander into the science (which is probably prudent, because why risk making a mistake on cosmology when one is invincible on the ancient documents). Dawkins really isn’t very good when it comes to the Bible (his books were okay, but he doesn’t handle the subject very well in debates). I think there is an opportunity here!

      I will have to get Well’s book.

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    RonaldTaska  May 3, 2013

    Egads! I just read the five amazon.com reviews of “Bart Ehman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth.” This book, containing the criticisms of your recent book by seven mythicists, who advocate that Jesus was a mythical rather than a historical figure, seems to be quite a personal attack on you. Having spent four decades in academia, I am use to such diatribes, but you are getting it from both sides, namely from both the fundamentalists and the atheists. To provoke both sides is no small trick. Maybe it suggests that you are writing and studying about a really important topic about which people have strong, intense feelings. In addition, some of the mythicists obviously do not like the implication that they are not really scholars in the “Christianity in Antiquity” field. You must get tired of all of these attacks. I certainly do not have the expertise to argue any of the points made by you or your critics (about the early first century existence of Nazareth or the art portraying a phallic Jesus in the Vatican), but you certainly don’t seem to be one who has the sense of “certainty” these mythicists critics claim you have. Quite the contrary. The review by Timothy Campbell on amazon.com is worth reading.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 4, 2013

      Thanks. Yes, I wish I had thicker skin sometimes. But I keep telling myself that it comes with the territory….

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    RonaldTaska  May 3, 2013

    My error: The phallic art, if it exists, evidently refers to Peter and not Jesus. This stuff gets complicated.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 4, 2013

      The art does exist. But it has nothing to do with either Jesus or Peter. The mythicists appear to have not taken that point….

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