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.