Where Jesus May Have Walked

Today’s touring focused on sites connected with Jesus – and one strikingly unconnected. We began in Nazareth, whose Church of the Annunciation is the key location.


I may have more to say on a later occasion about why I sought permission of the priest in charge to get access to a locked stairwell, and what I saw there when I did, but for now, it is more appropriate – and much more fun – to be allusive and mysterious.


Next, to Sepphoris, the former capitol of Galilee, and interestingly not mentioned in the New Testament. This in itself is noteworthy – the importance of what is not said sometimes being as great as the importance of what is said. Jesus’ focus lay elsewhere – among the ordinary Jewish populace of towns and villages, not the urban Hellenized elite.


We also passed through Cana. This led to a thought about mythicism: The likelihood that Christians in some other part of the world decided to turn a belief in a purely celestial figure into a narrative about a historical one, set it in this part of the world, and got so many place and people names authentic and accurate would be nothing short of a miracle. And so historical study prefers a more probable scenario, that there is some genuine reminiscence of actual events this part of the world in the origins of Christianity. Everyone gets some things wrong, and many of the stories told are at best highly mythologized developments from stories about things that happened. But this is only one part of the picture. Getting details right in a time before accessible written records or encyclopedias was far more difficult than mythicists seem to realize, and so when it happens, it often reflects access to accurate information, whether oral or written.


The next stop was Tabgha, the site traditionally associated with the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. This perhaps illustrates the reverse process: when a historical figure is believed to have lived in a certain area, many places will claim some connection to him.


Eldad kindly illustrated walking on water there.


Then Capernaum, with its well-preserved synagogue.


After returning to Tiberias, I spent some time seeing the remains of the old city and then walking through the new – along the promenade, then up the main street in the direction of my hotel.


Let me conclude with some photographic evidence of something I mentioned in a previous post. I was not exaggerating or making things up when I referred to sarcophagi simply lying on the side of the road beside the highway. Today we stopped just long enough for me to take a few photos.


If you are an archaeologist or a historian hoping to make some noteworthy discovery, it seems that there are plenty of places where there are visible opportunities. Documenting and exploring them might not lead to fame and fortune as you overturn long-established assumptions, but you can certainly find something that has not been written up and thus turns easily into a publication. And we all know that discoveries made in this part of the world sometimes do turn out to be of unimaginable historical significance.

To do that shouldn’t take much – just a careful eye, attention to detail, and slowing down and focusing in one place more than I had time to on this visit. Tomorrow will be my last day here. It is hard to believe that my first visit to Israel is almost at an end, and yet it has had so much packed into it that it seems like it has been longer than it was. I am looking forward to returning with students, and at some point with my family, and perhaps also to spending some time involved in something more archaeological in nature.

  • Geoff Hudson

    James wrote: “If you are an archaeologist or a historian hoping to make some noteworthy discovery”

    Isn’t one trouble that archaeologists and historians who are interested usually come from a background of faith, either Christian or Jewish.  Thus they view what they see or write about in a biased way. Now I for one, see much of the history as handed down in the literature as a fabrication. In turn, that literature has coloured the views of interested archaeologists.  Qumran is a good example. A biblical story or history agreeing with the archaeology or geography, in many cases, arises because of the knowledge of the writer, who for his own reasons, has woven the information into the text.     

  • CH

    Funny to read that you was in Tabgha, James. Yesterday I was in Tabgha too. I am participating here in an archeological expedition of the Kinneret Regional Project. Maybe I will (as a reader of your blog from Europe) never be so near to you again… ;-)

  • Anonymous

    “… and got so many place and people names authentic and accurate would be nothing short of a miracle.”

    I would conclude that the likelihood that the accuracy of the geography expressed in a gospel is a function of the location and background of the author, whether or not it is mythologized history of historicized myth.  This certainly the conclusion one would reach in reading a modern novel.  It is the underlying assumption when one reads claims concerning the location of the production of the canonical gospels based on the level of geographical knowledge on display in each. 

  • Anonymous

    Dr. McGrath, it strikes me that the argument that the gospels got a lot of stuff right is challenged directly by the fact that the wedding at Cana is singly attested. If this event is not historical (and nobody I have read — mythicist or not — seems to think it is) then this argument fails. 

    Additionally, further up in the OP the fact that Sepphoris, a major city in Galilee is never mentioned is mentioned as being evidence of authorial intent. The location of Bethsaida is disputed, as is that of Bethany, and this argument seems weaker, the more geographical error there is in the gospels. Yet the most concerning geographical blunder in the gospel are things like calling it the “Sea of Galilee” which is a neologism never before used to describe any body of water in Galilee as well as Mark’s curious route in 7:31, which seems to be based on Isaiah 9:1.There are fictional works written today that get the geography of their settings perfectly with no errors at all, yet the topic of the work is a character who does not exist (Ignatius J. Reilly for example). Additionally, Chariton, Homer and Apuleius get lots of geography correct. Does this argument also work for their literary efforts?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Evan, perhaps you could clarify the following: First, are you saying that something singly attested is by definition non-historical, as opposed to being insufficiently attested to be historically confirmed? Second, how do you envisage a Gospel author writing pure fiction doing research for their novel?

    It is relatively straightforward to dismiss the miraculous element in stories, but to dismiss geography as well even when historical reminiscence is simple and geographical research is complex seems an odd choice. And as I said before, getting things wrong is not surprising, if we accept these works were written far from the places by people who had never been to them. Accounting for the things they got right is the challenge.

    • Anonymous

      Dr. McGrath, the argument that the gospels got something right presupposes the historicity of whatever correct statements are made. You seem to be using the Reimarus method of gospel explication, where we assume the historicity of the text but remove all the miracles.

      So the question is whether that event attested in John is historical. What evidence is brought to bear to show that the water to wine miracle in John has a historical antecedent, minus the miraculous (a la Reimarus)?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @CH, sorry to have missed an opportunity to meet. Hope you had a wonderful experience. As I write this I am at the airport and so, assuming I am allowed through, I will be leaving soon.

    I wish I had worn an “Exploring Our Matrix” T-shirt to single me out, in case we were there at the same time… :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Evan, no, I am not assuming anything. I am arguing that not only accurate historical information but also accurate geographical information requires an explanation. I cannot write a story in a place I have never been, without access to encyclopedias or other sources, and get the names of people and places accurate or authentic. And so my question is how mythicists account for accurate information of this sort on a mythicist scenario.

    • Anonymous

      So the argument would be that because someone knew there was a place (or two) named Cana in Galilee (which is mentioned in Josephus), this means there must have been a pre-70 CE tradition regarding Jesus in this location. Yet, it seems that simple knowledge of Josephus would suffice. The case seems unsupported by the evidence brought forward here.

  • Geoff Hudson

    I wrote: “A biblical story or history agreeing with the archaeology or geography, in many cases, arises because of the knowledge of the writer, who for his own reasons, has woven the information into the text.”
     
    My statement agrees with what James has written, except he has added the idea that because the geography is true, the history must be true.  Clearly that may no be the case. A ‘historical’ account could be deliberately false, but the writers of it could be giving a true account of geography, because they knew about it by virtue of having been there, or they knew someone who had been there.  This would then be an attempt to deceive, which was quite in keeping with the writers of the day. I find it hard not to believe that Jotapata was not Qumran, or Japha was not Masada, or Gamla was not Machaerus.  The geographies or structures of the pairs are all similar. Thus I see the actual history in these instances, as different from that received in the writings attributed to Josephus.      

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    All details, historical, geographical or otherwise, need to be assessed on their own merits. My point was the more modest one that sometimes geographical details may suggest the presence of earlier tradition, even if we have separate reason to doubt the historical veracity of details or even the account as a whole.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It might. Do you have any evidence that would support a date and location for the composition of the Gospel of John that would allow for the author to be familiar with Josephus? Any actual evidence of dependence? Does this proposal work equally well for all similar details?

    • Anonymous

      Josephus’ works were written before 96. The standard dating for the gospel of John is 90-100, although the terminus ad quem is between 120 and 130. Thus, there seems to me little difficulty in postulating knowledge of Joesphus on the part of the author, regardless of location of composition.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

        I don’t think we can assume John’s author read Josephus without evidence. That he mentioned a town from Josephus doesn’t cut it since a lot of people would have been familiar with Israel’s geography, especially a group involved with a Jewish cult. The nature of ancient literature publication is such that it is likely for a work to be released but unknown to most people. To show dependence you have to do more than demonstrate a work existed at the time but that the author was actually familiar with its specific content. We simply have no reason to believe that John likely got Cana from Josephus, at best maybe.

        • Anonymous

          Michael, wonderful, assume using your own logic here that John didn’t read Josephus. He was familiar with Israel’s geography from someone else. None of this means that the story of a wedding at Cana reaches back to a historical event, which is the point of the original post. Also, as far as I know the author of the gospel of John is not widely considered to have been the disciple John. So I am curious as to whether you are implying that in your final sentence.

    • Geoff Hudson

      I just happen to think that the original Antiquities was written before CE 62, when James was executed.  Josephus never existed.  He wasn’t captured in such a ridiculous manner, as described at Jotapata – another indication that Jotapata was fabricated.  Here we have a false geography and a false history.

  • Eldad Keynan

    To Geoff Hudson. You say: “I find it hard not to believe that Jotapata was not Qumran, or Japha was not Masada, or Gamla was not Machaerus.  The geographies or structures of the pairs are all similar.” Geoff – this is exactly why we can not debate anything. Prof. McGrath toured the Land and saw things with his own eyes. I live here many cecades. The geographies and stuctures of the pairs are completely different; sometimes to the degree that one might believe that the sites are in different planets. Yet you claim what you claim. Thus there is simply no base for any debate. Sorry.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    What, if anything, makes this scenario more likely than one in which the Gospels contain some historical reminiscences about an actual Jesus, however minimal? You seem content to have a scenario supporting mythicism about which the best one can say is “It isn’t impossible” and yet when at least the very same can be said about the mainstream historians’ position, you seem to consider it not good enough. Is there any rationale to this, other than preferring mythicism to anything else?

    • Anonymous

      Dr. McGrath, nothing makes it more likely than another scenario. Yet the argument of the OP uses the presence in John of the name of the town of Cana as evidence against the myth hypothesis. If there are two equally likely competing hypotheses, then there is certainly no compelling reason on the basis of that datum alone to prefer one over the other.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

        I’m not sure about equally likely, we don’t have a good idea of how many people had read Josephus by the time John was written. We do know that many thousands lived in Galilee so if a text pertaining to that part of the world emerged from Jewish influenced writers, there isn’t a lot of need to speculate that he got his geography from a book. It doesn’t prove Jesus really did anything in Cana, only that John has some common knowledge of the area. Of course the more reliability that can be demonstrated, the more confidence we can place in what can not be confirmed or unconfirmed. If John had Jesus walk from Cana to Petra in an afternoon, then we would have a problem.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    What, if anything, makes this scenario more likely than one in which the Gospels contain some historical reminiscences about an actual Jesus, however minimal? You seem content to have a scenario supporting mythicism about which the best one can say is “It isn’t impossible” and yet when at least the very same can be said about the mainstream historians’ position, you seem to consider it not good enough. Is there any rationale to this, other than preferring mythicism to anything else?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @beallen0417:disqus  Then why are you a mythicist rather than an agnostic when it comes to the historical Jesus?

  • Anonymous

    Dr. McGrath, I believe that the character of Jesus as depicted in the gospels is a literary fiction. Whatever term you feel best describes that position, feel free to use. The argument I have seen on EOU is that this position is ludicrous. So therefore, I try to point out when it is in no way ludicrous to think this.

    The OP brings up one position — that the mention of Cana in John is an argument for the historical Jesus. I am arguing against that single position.

    Michael, correct. It doesn’t prove Jesus did anything in Cana at all. The statements made in the OP do not affirm or disconfirm the existence of a historical Jesus. Thanks.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Evan, it is never ludicrous to explore the possibility that someone may not have existed even though it was long thought that he did. What is ludicrous in my opinion is to claim that that person most likely did not exist when the evidence does not support that stance. In your case, you acknowledge that it is within the realm of possibility that the Gospel of John was written before the works of Josephus, and may alternatively have been written not long after, at which point the question of how widely distributed Josephus’ works were becomes important, as does the evidence that the author of John knew them. I asked whether all accurate names and geographical details in John can be explained in a similar way from Josephus, but you did not address it. I suggested that, without addressing such issues the appropriate stance would at best be agnosticism about whether Jesus was a historical figure, but you did not address it. You think Jesus was definitely or most likely a literary creation because of personal preference and/or lack of consideration of the reasons why historians think otherwise, and yet no matter how many times I point this out, you seem not to understand what my point is or why I consider it important. Do you get it now?

  • Joseph Wallack

    “We also passed through Cana. This led to a thought about mythicism: The
    likelihood that Christians in some other part of the world decided to
    turn a belief in a purely celestial figure into a narrative about a
    historical one, set it in this part of the world, and got so many place
    and people names authentic and accurate would be nothing short of a
    miracle”

    JW:
    You, I and Bob Dole know that “Mark”, the original Gospel has a reputation for bad geography. I fear though that the Christian American public does not. I have faith that you have also heard of Origen, whom I consider the outstanding Christian Bible scholar of all time, who confessed how reMarkable it was that so many place
    and people names were inauthentic and inaccurate.

    To make atonement I have created a Thread at FRDB:

    http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?t=303923

    Kartagraphy Markoff, Missing the Mark. Did “Mark” Get Any Geography Right?

    to discuss whether “Mark” got any of the geographical relationships correct. Everyone is welcome to comment except for Harvey Dubish.

    Joseph

  • Gary

    @ Geoff, “Josephus, the complete works”, Translated by William Whiston, pg 30, states, “Those books of the War were published about A.D. 75; and these Antiquities, A.D. 93; about eighteen years later”. What basis is the thought that Antiquities was written before 62 A.D.? Obviously War was written after 73 A.D (Has to be….correct history described). So if Josephus never existed, what’s up? I can certainly believe as “weasily” as Josephus was, he was a surviver, he could have been caught as described. As I remember, Sadam Husein was found in a hole in the ground, looking like a homeless person. Best approach to survival, kiss up to Vespasian. What’s unbelievable about that?

  • KevinC

    So, according to mainstream scholarship…

    Accurate geographical details = Evidence for historicity.
    Absence of geographical details (e.g. Sepphoris) = more evidence of historicity, and it even tells us new facts about Jesus, e.g., that he deliberately avoided big cities.*
    Inaccurate historical details = no problem for historicity/no effect on the historicist model.

    Since all of those possibilities favor historicism, apparently the only possible scenario that mainstream scholars would accept as favoring mythicism would be if the Gospels contained no geographical details (accurate or otherwise), at all.  This smells of “heads we (historicists) win, tails you lose” to me. 

    Is there a reason mainstream scholars do not apply this set of criteria consistently to all ancient narratives that are set in earthly locales?  I’m assuming they don’t, otherwise, wouldn’t historians have to acknowledge the historicity of pretty much every human character in “mythology?”  A historical Odysseus, Circe, Achilles, Osiris, Attis, Gilgamesh, Sinuhe, etc., etc.?  

    Now, maybe there are reasons historians assume the geographical details in the Gospels “count” as historical evidence in a way that comparable detail in accounts of other miraculous beings in earthly settings don’t.  Perhaps there’s such a rich supply of accurate details in the Gospels that they could only have originated from remembered traditions of people who actually “walked the path” with Jesus.

    But that’s not the argument you make in the OP.  Maybe the problem is that you’re just taking a very brief detour from your travelogue to take a quick swipe at mythicism, and consider the historicity of Jesus so self-evident that no case need be made for it.**  Rather than making an actual argument for Jesus’ historicity (such an effort being beneath you, since mythicism = Creationism), perhaps you’re choosing not to outline the overwhelming evidence in favor of Jesus’ historicity, unintentionally leaving the impression that historicism is all hat and no cattle.

    Reading your posts on this subject, I often find myself thinking, “This is the best historicists have?  Really?”  Being a resident of Camp I’m Not Sure on this issue, I would like to see a really good, knock-down, drag-out debunking of mythicism and presentation of the historicist case, if such a thing is possible.

    *One might wonder, if Jesus had such deep scorn for Sepphoris that he deliberately avoided it, why he did not at least pronounce a “woe” upon it while he was ranting against places he did visit, like Chorazin and Bethsaida.

    **IMO this post would have been better served by providing explanatory captions of the intriguing pictures, rather than bringing up mythicism.

  • KevinC

    This led to a thought about mythicism: The likelihood that Christians in
    some other part of the world
    decided to turn a belief in a purely
    celestial figure into a narrative about a historical one,

    From the OP, emphasis added.  Is there any reason mythicism requires that the channelers of a spiritual (“mythical”) Jesus would have needed to be residents of “some other part of the world?”  Is there a reason the first proto-Christian community could not have been located in Jerusalem, Judea, or some nearby cosmopolitan location (one of the cities of the Decapolis?)?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Kevin C, thanks for your comments, and yes, my brief swipe at mythicism perhaps would have been better served by a longer post. But a major city like Sepphoris, it seems to me, is precisely the sort of place one might have heard about in the region if one was setting it there, while other towns and villages are less likely to have been known.

    As for why I am assuming that mythicism involves writers in other parts of the world, it usually does in the views I have encountered, but I think the only reason it is natural if not necessary is that mythicism involves “Christ/Messiah” not meaning what it meant in Judaism, which is a savior expected to appear in human history and not in a celestial realm alone.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Now that I am back from my trip, I thought I would add another brief thought/analogy written less hastily than my comments while on the go.

    If someone told me that a friend of a friend of a friend worked at Area 51, and offered specific details, and them documents released subsequently confirmed a few very specific details precisely while also contradicting many others, I suspect that I would consider it more likely that the inaccurate details were botched in the process of transmission of reliable information, than that a completely fabricated story managed to get details right that were not readily available to just anyone. That was the essence of my point. What the Gospels get wrong can be explained equally well by fabrication (whether of that specific story or of the entire contents) and error by those who transmitted historical traditions without knowing geography and names themselves from their own experience. It seems that accurate details, however few, are not adequately accounted for by both theories in the same way. Does that make sense? Would those who are still following this thread agree or disagree?

  • Telson7

    When we begin to examine the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, we
    find that Jesus appears as the central figure in them. The four gospels tell us
    about His life here on earth while the epistles describe the meaning of His
    death and resurrection according to Christian belief. We can actually say, that
    if He hadn’t lived on earth, none of these would have been written.
    As we examine the historicity of Jesus, we can find proof of His life on earth.
    This proof has been preserved by His successors, such as the early church
    fathers, and also His opponents. Both sources refer to various parts of His
    life.

    http://www.jariiivanainen.net/historicityofJesus.html

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