First Letter from Nazareth, 2015
Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,
It’s 6:30 AM on Sunday the 31st of May. It’s Trinity Sunday, my automatic calendar alert tells me. The late hour pushes a little needle of shame into my conscience, as on most days the work at the site is well underway by this time. The birds outside my hotel window have been singing since daybreak.
Much has happened ever since I and the advance crew landed in Tel Aviv on May 23. Most of it, however, barely rises above the mundane. It is difficult to get across what I feel when I land at Ben Gurion, and even when I make way through the airport to passport control, baggage claim, and the arrivals hall. Maybe if you imagine flying into your home airport you’ll get a sense of it, but only if you regard that as a positive experience. It feels like coming home. And it feels exotic. That’s an odd combination.
We have a good crew this year. There are some health issues: a couple have come down with bronchitis, so remember them. Everyone seems to appreciate the work with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A few apparently tolerate it, but with cheerful countenances and neighborly manners. This is important, for those who do not grasp the significance of work that can range from strenuous to tedious, and who do not form connections with their peers, often will simply lose—or even toss aside—the data, and it is the data that give voice to the people who once raised their families, worked their industries, built their homes, and prayed to their God on this hill.
This year we are concentrating on finishing squares that we have been digging for more than one season. In many, we hit ancient structures after one or two strokes of the pick, and that suggests that we should finish quickly, but many new volunteers can’t bring themselves so blithely to discard the ancient debris, so they carefully comb through the dirt before dumping it. I don’t suppose I blame them. I wasn’t famous for speed when I was doing the real work of digging either.
We are working to disclose buildings used in the manufacture of pottery and oil lamps at Shikhin. Already we have an impressive number of wasters (fragments of pots ruined in the kiln or before firing), and of unfamiliar forms. We don’t expect much innovation from the ancients, but here at Shikhin, the potters experimented. This week Jeff Lowe, a pastor and enthusiastic archaeologist, found a complete cup. The rim had cracked and flaked in the kiln, and the potter had tossed it out 2,000 years ago. It remained buried until Jeff held it in his hand. That probably explains the grin on his face.
We are also working in what we think is the interior of the synagogue building. Abuna (my father, James F. Strange, whose Arabic nickname means “Father,” as in a priest; some Arab workers years ago learned that he is an ordained Baptist minister; they were Muslims who didn’t make much of the distinctions among Christians) drew up a hypothetical floor plan of the building, and we are using it to form testable hypotheses. Here’s what the hypotheses sound like: “The wall might run here.” Here’s how we test them: “Let’s dig and find out whether we’re right or wrong.”
Yesterday was a long day of touring. We began at Yodfat, a site made famous by the Roman massacre of the Jewish population at the start of the Great Revolt (66–70 CE). They had a defensive wall but no real army, and after a 47-day siege, the Romans came in and simply killed everyone they found: men, women, and children. They also apparently punished the Jews remaining in the area by leaving the corpses where they fell to be eaten by scavengers. When they finally left one or two years later, people came to collect the remaining bones and bury them in the town’s abandoned cisterns. The ruined site is now a memorial to the massacre and a tomb for the dead.
From Yodfat we went to Magdala, famous among Christians as the home of Mary Magdalene, but remembered among Jews for being another town the Romans besieged. Here there was an army and a pitched battle, but the Romans were successful, and the surviving residents were either executed or sold into slavery. There is a very important first century synagogue at the site.
We ended at a little resort on the shore of the Sea of Galilee called “Bora Bora Beach.” It costs 20 shekels per head to get in, but it’s relatively clean, they planted real grass in one spot, we can buy food and drinks, and those who wish can take a dip. The music, however, insulted my middle-aged ears. Then, just as we left, they played Barry White, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” then Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Dang. I hummed that one all the way back to Nazareth.
But before we swam we toured Capernaum, known in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the home of Peter and Jesus’ headquarters during his Galilean ministry. In the fifth century, both the Christians, who now were in charge of the city government, and the Jews built new houses of worship within a block of one another. Abuna confessed that he imagines that when the local Jews approached the Christian town leaders and asked for permission to build, the Christians responded, “It is illegal for Jews to build synagogues, we would be breaking the law to permit it, and we expect an invitation to the dedication.” That is, in the name of being good neighbors, Capernaum got its white synagogue. However it happened, and however they felt about one another in the fifth century, these folks figured out how to get along, probably with varying degrees of success. That model is still followed today, also with varying degrees of success.
So pray for better success at making peace in Israel.