Fourth Letter, from Jerusalem
Dear Family and Friends,
Today is our second full day of three in Jerusalem. We arrived Friday evening—the beginning of Shabbat—as we usually do and ensconced ourselves in rooms at St. George’s Cathedral guesthouse. We had a few minutes to take in the attractive dining room and bar with the lovely garden, then we hiked down Nablus road and through the Damascus Gate until we reached the Western Wall.
Up to this point the experience has been full of novelties and adventure for our first-timers, but Jerusalem multiplies the exotic encounters. On these hikes I wear my big white hat (a gift from David Johnson at Samford) so that those at the back can keep sight of me, and I give a brief lesson on how to move through a crowd like a Middle Easterner. But the sights, sounds, and scents allure, and the group slows like rubberneckers on a highway. Well I can’t blame them. They are seeing architecture that dates from the Crusades to the 16th century; smelling spices, coffee, and unpleasant odors; and hearing vendors call out in Arabic and English. It’s a bit much to expect them to ignore all of that for the sake of reaching a destination.
Saturday was a day of touring the Old City: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the fourth-century remains of the Sepulchre in the Russian Alexander Nevsky church, down the Via Dolorosa to the Church of St. Anne and the Pool of Bethesda, then back across nearly the whole Old City to the Byzantine Cardo and the “Broad Wall.” All of these things should show up in your study Bible maps if the publishers are worth their salt, and of course there is far more to see than one can take in during a morning.
Today most of the group left for the annual trip to sites along the western shore of the Dead Sea. I stayed behind and accepted James Tabor’s invitation to tour the UNC Charlotte excavations at Mt. Zion, just outside the city walls southwest of the Old City. They have structures dating from the Early Roman period—including three stories of a Roman house!—through the Ottoman Period, and it’s quite a puzzle. But they are sorting it all out because the previous excavator, Magen Broshi, left some unexcavated soil. That was a real favor to the current team.
Tonight we’ll have our final, farewell meal at a local restaurant, then tomorrow at various times people will begin heading for the airport and several of us will drive back to Nazareth to finish working at the site. This year we have a kiln to preserve and some balks to draw, then most of us will head home on Friday. I have been ready for about a week and am hoping this week will fly. Daily Facetime chats with Laura have blunted the pain of separation, but, you know, I will be very glad to be home and returning to our routine of morning walks and breakfast with an evening hour of a good Netflix T.V. series.
I told the group in our final lecture what I think we learned this year. Here’s a digest of what I said. Our westernmost Square, 25, found what we interpret as the furthest extension of a stylobate foundation for the synagogue. The ancient Shikhinians made things a bit difficult for us by building on exposed bedrock rather than digging foundation trenches. So the team of 25 dismantled a section of the wall in hopes of getting solid dating evidence for the synagogue. What they got was enough for us to say, “The evidence doesn’t contradict the picture we have been forming of a synagogue built in the late first or early second century A.D.” Well that’s okay. We can only say what the data will allow. Nearby Square 2, reopened after six years, confirmed the extensive robbing of stones that happened after the synagogue was abandoned. But they also found a capstone for what is probably a grain silo still sitting in the silo’s top. Maybe a narrow person can excavate that next year (the opening is only 37 centimeters/15 inches in diameter).
In the eastern part of the field, Squares 20 through 24 confirmed that great disturbance happened in the 4th century after the village was abandoned. Better than that, from a pool—perhaps for levigating clay—in 23 and from the kiln in 24 we are confirming that Shikhin produced pottery and lamps for export during the period the synagogue was built. We have no evidence for lamp production after about the middle of the second century, but wasters of second, third, and fourth-century pottery forms confirms that they continued to make jugs, jars, cooking pots, bowls, and just about all the familiar Galilean forms along with many unfamiliar ones. Square 20 gave us our first soil layers that pre-date 37 B.C., the year we usually say begins the Early Roman period. It is the year Herod began to rule as a client “King of the Jews” for Rome. That team recovered at least two surfaces, one on top of the other, from which no pottery or other artifact dated later than Late Hellenistic. So we have our first solid evidence of the expansion of Shikhin during the second century B.C.E., probably due to the annexation of Galilee to Judea by the Hasmonean dynasty. That is a common enough phenomenon in villages of the Galilee that we should be surprised if our evidence showed otherwise. It is unusual only because we have not found many other layers that we can date cleanly to the next archaeological period, when we are fairly confident another expansion happened when people moved north from Judea. Evidence of Jewish refugee communities fleeing Judea, settling in Galilee, and integrating into the economy and other systems would back up our assumption that this must have happened. That claim mostly rests on a few literary references and some logical inferences. I am also anticipating what we’ll learn from the work of my colleagues Betsy Dobbins and Brian Gregory (see the letter from Week 1).
Thankfully this year we haven’t learned of any violence in the country during our stay. But the past has made us cynical, and we anticipate more rather than hoping for its end. God forgive us for a complacency that adjusts to reality rather than working to change it, with God’s help.
Pray and work for God’s peace in the world.