Third Letter from Nazareth, 2015

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

This Sunday marks the beginning of the final week of the dig.  Crews will focus on ending excavations, cleaning their squares for final photography, and completing their field books. Students will take a field exam (I set them loose in an unexcavated site and let them tell me how they would excavate it), enjoy a final graduation party, say goodbye to the site and hotel, and head to Jerusalem for three days of respite before flying home or to their next summer adventure.  I say “respite,” but in the past, students have filled the days in Jerusalem with shopping, camel riding, sight-seeing, restauranting, and talking late into the nights.  I remember doing the same.

I failed to mention something important in my previous letter.  This year, my Dean, David Chapman, had the idea to use the Arts and Sciences portion of Samford’s “Big Give” fund drive to fund student scholarships for next year’s Samford Summer in Israel.  The Give lasts for 36 hours and aims to give alumni and other friends of the university an opportunity to support various projects.  We called our piece of it the “Big Dig,” and we raised around $7,300.  That will provide at least 5 students with between $1,000 and $2,000 to participate in the dig next year, and to receive 4 or 8 hours of course credit.  Thank you to all who gave, and to David for the idea.

Early last week, a film crew from Faith Life, a company associated with Logos Bible Software, came to the site to get some footage and to interview me.  They flew a drone over the site and filmed the extraction of an oil lamp from the soil, among other things.  They didn’t realize they had hit the jackpot until they learned that Abuna was here, along with Motti Aviam, Dennis Groh, and David Fiensy, all known scholars in the fields of archaeology and early Judaism and Christianity.  I declined to be interviewed during the work at the site, so they came to the hotel later to get some footage of pottery reading, after which they interviewed me on the rooftop of the hotel.  One of their questions was whether or not I thought it likely that Jesus handled pottery from Shikhin.  The answer is yes, I do, but this kind of question always makes me uncomfortable, because it reduces the work that we do to its association with Jesus.  On the other hand, I understand the awe and devotion that our work can foster because I feel it myself.

An old friend of the Strange family, Gayle Bone, has arrived with seven men to work with us the final week and to see some sites as well.  Yesterday I took them to Nazareth Village, which is sort of a local Colonial Williamsburg, but the ancient-looking houses were built in the late 1990s, using construction techniques and materials of the first century.  They seem to have consulted with every available archaeologist, including Abuna.  From there we went to two sites that the group has already seen this year: Caesarea and Yodfat.  Today we’ll see Khirbet Ḥuqoq, which Jodi Magness is excavating, and then Magdala and our own site of Shikhin.

As we begin to close things down, I cannot help but be reminded that, as I’ve said before, this dig survives and thrives on the generosity of many.  Volunteers pay a lot of money to do hard labor in the dirt for four weeks, all while sleep deprived.  People in nearby villages and even National Park employees in nearby Sepphoris, out of their own goodness, offer whatever assistance they can.  The hotel staff apparently has mistaken us for the extended royal family of America.

We are visitors here, no matter how at home we feel.  And when we leave, the banality, joys, and heartbreaks of everyday life will continue.  People will have to negotiate how to live with people they merely tolerate, or despise.  The issue of violence and how to resolve the Palestinian problem will persist.  All of this will require efforts of genuine goodwill, because we know what hatred will do if unchecked by our God-given knowledge of what is right.

Pray for peace in Israel.

James

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