Where Jesus Never Walked
Before his vocal cords rusted, Pat Boone used to sing a little ditty dealing with the thrill of retracing the steps of Jesus in theHoly Land. The song was titled “I walked today where Jesus Walked,” and it reflected the orthodox picture of the stage on which the drama of the ages is supposed to have played out. Unspecified hills of Galilee, Gethsemane,Calvary — all important places of the Jesus legend were there for Pat to croon about. Unknown to the wholesome Mr. Boone, however, the geography of that song was about as real as that which is reflected in the songs “Follow the yellow-brick road,” or “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Geography of Oz
There is considerable similarity between the geography of Oz and that of the New Testament, and a careful study of Ozography can prepare us methodologically for the great task of riddling out the mysteries of Bible geography as they relate to the career of the supposedly historical Jesus. But before we deal with the problem of where Jesus might have walked, let us consider the possible perambulations of the Wizard of Oz.
It is well established that Dorothy and Toto started from the center ofKansas– a geographic entity at least as well established asJerusalemor theSea of Galilee. Moreover, the land of Oz should be located at a distance of one cyclone-trip-without-transfer away from the center ofKansas. A careful study of meteorology, atmospheric physics, and mid-American cyclone trajectories shows that Oz’s capital, Emerald City, must have been located somewhere between Topeka and the north western part of Missouri, the part west of US route 35.
Lamentably, however, a careful scrutiny of all the Landsat photographs for the area in question turns up absolutely no trace of Ozian ruins. Exhaustive search detects no trace of Emeraldite buildings. Even a careful reading of the excavation reports made when theTopekaandKansas Citysubway systems were built reveals no evidence of Ozoid foundations or artifacts. We must conclude thatEmeraldCitynever existed — ever.
If the land of Oz is not real — a mere literary fiction — what can we believe about the Wizard of Oz? Is there any longer any point in trying to penetrate to deeper levels of the scriptural text to discover a historical kernel, some residue of an “Historical Wizard” underlying the legendary Wizard of Oz? Can we seriously suppose that a real Wizard, despite the fictive elements of Baum’s graceful gospel, might yet have foisted his foolery inKokomo or Cucamonga — even if not inEmeraldCity as recorded?
What are the implications of the discovery that Oz is a metaphor, not a place? For one thing, it throws the entire subject of Munchkin historical demography into total disarray. For another, it makes all but logically certain that the Wizard of Oz is mythical. It makes us realize that if the geography in which a character supposedly acted out his career is fictional, the character himself more likely than not is fictional as well. While such a demonstration falls short of proving a universal negative, it nevertheless is very compelling. At a minimum, it leaves one with the feeling that it would be quite irrational to continue believing in the historical reality of a character who lacked a real habitat. When Oz does not exist, is it rational to believe in the Wizard of Not-Oz?
Keeping the idea of the Wizard of Not-Oz in mind, let us now turn our attention to another character in another work of fiction: Jesus of Nazareth, the major character of the gospels of Luke, Matthew, and John, although is is completely unknown to the writers of the epistles supposed to have been written by St. Paul. (None of the saintly forgers called Paul ever refer to “Jesus of Nazareth.”) As the Wizard should have been of Oz, so Jesus should have been of Nazareth. But where was Nazareth in the first century C.E.? More fundamentally, wasNazareth in the first century?
Nazarethis not mentioned even once in the entire Old Testament, nor do any ancient historians or geographers mention it before the beginning of the fourth century. The Talmud, although it names 63 Galilean towns, knows nothing of Nazareth. Josephus, who wrote extensively about Galilee (a region roughly the size of Rhode Island) and conducted military operations back and forth across the tiny territory in the last half of the first century, mentions Nazareth not even once — although he does mention by name 45 other cities and villages of Galilee. This is even more telling when one discovers that Josephus does mention Japha, a village which is just over a mile from present-dayNazareth! Josephus tells us that he was occupied there for some time. Today, Japha can be considered a suburb ofNazareth, but in Josephus’ day, I’ll wager, the people of Japha buried their dead in the tombs of the unnamed necropolis that now underlies the modern city calledNazareth.
Although the new testament tells us very little about our mythical municipality, it does tell us enough to allow us to conclude that present day Nazareth couldn’t be the Biblical city referred to, say, the the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In that chapter we find a story about Jesus coming back in his “home town” about taking a turn teaching in the synagogue. (Keep in mind that no synagogue ruins datable to the first century have ever been found at the present site.) According to Luke’s tale, Jesus’ teaching riled everyone up because of its supposed blasphemy, and the natives were going to execute him for that awful crime. Instead of stoning him, the required penalty for blasphemy, verses 28-30 tell us the legally and culturally implausible story that “At these words, the whole congregation were infuriated. They leapt up, threw him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which it was built, meaning to hurl him over the edge. But we walked straight through them all, and went away.”
Although this is an obvious fairy tale, it does tell us that whereverNazarethwas located, it was on a hill and that the hill had a cliff high enough that a man falling off it would be killed. The town now calledNazareth, however, until just recently never occupied the top of a hill. Rather for a thousand years or more it has occupied a valley floor and the lower half of the hillside that bounds it on the northwest. Excavations of the top of the Nazarene hill show that it has never had buildings on its top before the twentieth century. Worse yet, there is no cliff which can be identified with the “brow of the hill” from which the Jews sought to cast Jesus down to his death.
Like the White Queen whom Alicemet in Through the Looking Glass, Christian pilgrims have always been able to believe six or more mutually contradictory, impossible propositions every morning before breakfast. Unlike the White Queen, however, the Christians have been able to maintain such belief after breakfast as well. Thus, since there is no place suitable for dwarf-tossing let alone messiah-chucking on the hill at present-day Nazareth, entrepreneurial priests, monks, and native guides have staked out other places to show gullible tourists as the place where the Jews tried to jettison Jesus — while still maintaining the city itself as Nazareth.
Although Jebel el-Qafzeh, a small mountain 2.5 km SE of Nazareth, is believed by the Greek Orthodox to be the site of the attempted deicide, another mountain, several catapult throws west of Qafzeh is believed by the Roman Catholics to be the exact spot. Some people probably believe that both sites are correct, although for some centuries, there has been a tendency to reconcile the contradiction by invention of a new, improved mythology. It seems that Luke was a bit vague and imprecise when he claimed that Jesus walked right through the crowd of Jews and thus escaped precipitation to the ranks of flattened fauna. What really happened, it was discovered, is that Jesus jumped into the air to evade the mob. It is a pity that this took place before the broad jump became a part of the Olympic games, since this jump of Jesus was a doozie. You see, he jumped all the way from Qafzeh, the mountain in the east, onto the mountain several catapult-throws away in the west. Thus, we have the Mount of the Lord’s Launching and the Mount of the Lord’s Landing.
I’m not making this up, you know. We have written records to prove it. In 1336 Sir John Maudeville checked out the site where Jesus landed after jumping from the crowd. “and soone after he was founden at the fote of an other Mountayne therby where yet the prynte of his holy stappes are sene” — Maundeville’s very words. (Of course, these fossil footprints are at the foot of the mountain rather than on the top. But only a hopeless skeptic would think this a discrepancy.)
Even before Maudeville, in 1283 Burchard of Mt. Sion, a German Dominican (and thus especially trustworthy), certified that “Lord’s Leap — the place where they tried to deject Jesus — but [where] he slipped out of their hands and suddenly found himself an arrow’s shot away on the flank of a mountain across the way — where this is pointed out, there you can see the imprinted outline of his body and his clothes.” As far as I can tell, it’s not too far a hike for pilgrims between the footprints and the body print up the hill!
We have already noted that the town today called Nazarethdoes not fit the place implied in Luke’s gospel. Moreover, archaeological excavations at present-day Nazareth– even though carried out by Franciscan monks and priests who must always be aware of the tourist significance of the real estate owned by their order — have failed to show the remains of a single building credibly datable to the first century B.C.E. or the first century C.E. The oldest buildings found seem to date from the last half of the third century, and there is no information to indicate what the inhabitants of those buildings called their village.
To be sure, the Franciscans have pointed to crockery, coins, and other artifacts excavated from beneath the various shrines atNazarethas proof that the place was inhabited during the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. But all these items are compatible with the idea that they were associated with burials, and most items are dated vaguely (deliberately, in my opinion) as from “the Roman period” — to conjure up images of Pontius Pilate and the first century, even though the Roman period lasted into the fourth century C.E., and even I accept the possibility that the site was settled as early as the end of the second century.
Before the second or third century C.E. — going back to the Middle Bronze Age — the site now occupied byNazarethwas a necropolis, a city of the dead. The hillside underlying part of the present city is riddled with tombs and natural caves which for over a thousand years were used for burials. Since Jewish law prohibited cemeteries from being in the midst of inhabited sites, we can be quite sure that there was no Jewish city at the present site in the days when a supposedly Jewish Jesus is supposed to have been running loose there.
Despite these facts, a visitor to today’s Nazarethcan be treated to a visit to the room in which the Virgin Mary “received” the angel Gabriel. (Now though the perch upon which he roosted is still there, the window through which he flew was blocked up by 1666.) Both the kitchen in which she cooked the meals for the family and Joseph’s carpentry workshop are displayed. The room in which Jesus lived after his return from Egyptcan also be visited, as well as the places where the Blessed Virgin was born — there are, of course, several of them, not counting her birthplace file miles away in Sepphoris or her birthplace in Jerusalem. The peculiar thing about all these sacred spots, however, is that they are all in grottoes or caves. My old German Lutheran pastor never told me that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were troglodytes! Perhaps a branch of the Flintstone family! Another peculiar fact about these sites is that they are all within a few yards of cave-tombs, or were themselves used as cave-tombs at one time or another, or both. Since Jewish law prohibits habitation within 150-200 feet of a grave or tomb, we must conclude that the “good Jewish family” into which Christ was born were perpetually in a state of ritual uncleanliness!
That the holy family were cave people is only fitting, however, when we note that Jebel el-Qafzeh, the “Mount of the Lord’s Launching,” is less than two miles away from the Christ cave. A cave at Qafzeh has yielded a series of Neanderthal-like skeletons dating to the Ice Age, 100,000 years ago. So the Flintstone connection might not be too wide of the mark after all!
To sum up the archaeological evidence from so-called Nazareth, no remains of actual buildings datable to the turn of the era have ever been uncovered, despite the immense amount of excavating and building that have taken place there during the last century. What have been found, in mind-boggling plenty, are cave tombs and grave sites. Until the site was settled some time after the expulsion of the Jews fromJerusalem in 135 C.E., our would-be holy city was a burial ground, a veritable city of the dead, or necropolis. In the first century, the major town of Japha was only a little over a mile away, and it is likely that its inhabitants found the natural caverns and grottoes of the Nazareth hill an ideal place to bury their dead.
Given, then, that the place now calledNazarethcannot be the biblical site, is there any other place for which tradition from very early times could nominate for the honor of being the childhood home of Jesus? Given the seemingly inexhaustible capacity of religious entrepreneurs to multiply sacred sites and holy relics, it is startling to discover that there really aren’t any other candidates.
In this regard, it is extremely interesting that the church father Origen, who lived from 182? to 254? C.E. gave no indication of knowing where Nazarethwas, even though he lived in Caesarea, a seaport town just thirty miles from present-day Nazareth! Mind you, it is not that Origen had no opportunity to mention the city. In fact he mentions it a number of times in his attempts to reconcile the contradictory accounts of the gospel stories impacting on the passage just quoted above from Luke1. Curiously, Origen doesn’t quite know whether the town should be called Nazareth or Nazara. If there actually had been such a town close-by, when Origen was writing, he could simply have walked over to it and asked the inhabitants how they spelled the name of their town. But it seems clear that Origen didn’t think there was such a town at all. To save the gospels from their many mutual contradictions, he had to propose a “mystical” method of interpreting them, and argued that they could not be interpreted literally. Almost certainly, to Origen the geography of the gospels — including the supposed town of Nazareth — was just as mystical and insubstantial as the events of the gospels. The first supposed solid reference to Nazareth as a geographical reality is given by the church father Eusebius, also of Caesarea, who wrote during the first decades of the fourth century. His Onomasticon, a geographical listing and description of all the holy places mentioned in the Bible, is often cited as proof of the Existence of a city calledNazareth at the present location at the end of the third century. A careful study of the Greek text of Eusebius’ brief and confused mention of Nazareth leads one to conclude that he had never been there himself (even though like Origen he lived only thirty miles away) and was not at all sure just where the place was.Nazareth might as well have been inMongolia, for all the first-hand information we get from Eusebius!
If there never was a place called Nazareth in the first century, how did the name get into the Bible? We have already noted that the name is unknown in any of the epistles, those of Paul being the oldest parts of the New Testament. The city is named only in the gospels and the book of Acts. The oldest of the gospels is that attributed to a certain Mark, even though the authors of its various components are utterly known. Mark, unlike the later gospels, mentions Nazareth only once; in chapter 1, verse 9, which tells us that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee.” It is of more than a little interest to learn that scholars suspect this verse to be a later addition just like the last twelve verses of the gospel. If this is true — and I am quite certain that it is 2— this leaves the oldest gospel without any knowledge of a place called Nazareth. 3OnceNazareth found its way into the gospel of Mark, it grew in importance in the later gospels. One might say that for Jesus to make a mark in the world, it was necessary to make a word in Mark!
The way in which the nameNazarethcame into existence is intimately related to the process by which Jesus obtained his biography, and so we must digress from pseudogeography to pseudobiography.
Before Jesus could be given a biography, he had to receive a name. Actually, he received several names, but all of his names were really titles. Thus the name Jesus of Nazareth originally was not a name at all, but rather a title meaning (The) Savior, (The) Branch. In Hebrew this would have been Yeshua Netser. The word Yeshua means ‘savior,’ and Netser means ‘sprout,’ ‘shoot,’ or ‘branch’ — a reference to Isaiah 11:1, which was thought to predict a messiah (lit., ‘anointed one’) of the line of Jesse (King David’s father): “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots…” (You’ve all heard by now of the Branch Davidians! They take their name from the same idea.)
While this reference to a branch from Jesse will doubtless seem obscure to modern Atheists, it would not have been obscure to ancient Jews such as those who composed the Dead Sea Scrolls (and wrote a commentary on Isaiah 11:1); nor would it have been obscure to the early Christians. According to the church father Epiphanius, who was born on Cyprusin 367 C.E. and wrote a treatise against “heretics,” the Christians originally were called Jessaeans, precisely because of the messianic tie to Jesse. 4
Although for speakers of Hebrew and its close cousin Aramaic the meaning and prophetic significance of the title The Savior, The Branch would have been clear, after it had been wrestled into greek as Iosous Nazoraios or Iesous Nazarenos, its titular significance must soon have been forgotten. The Iosous part came to be a simple name (Iesus in Latin) of the Tom, Dick, or Harry sort. The Nazoraios part, however, was misperceived as being derived from the name of a place — the imaginary village of Nazareth — much as the word Parisian can be derived from Paris.
And so, Yeshua Netser came to be Jesus of Nazareth — a name thought to contain information about a person’s place of origin.
As we have already seen, at the turn of the era, there was no place calledNazareth, and we do not know when the place now called by that name became so identified. As far as I can tell, the place presently calledNazareth received its name from an imaginative Branch Jessaean some time at the end of the second or early third century. At the turn of the era, however,Nazareth was as mythical as the Mary, Joseph, and Jesus family that was supposed to have lived there.
So Jesus never walked in Nazareth. And Jesus never walked in Hobokenor Hamtramck. And he probably never walked on 42nd streetin Manhattan. But what about Capernaum, Bethany, or Bethphage? And wasn’t he betrayed in Gethsemane and crucified on Calvary? and didn’t he have a girlfriend who came from Magdala, and didn’t he compete with a guy who baptized people at a place called AEnon? If he didn’t walk in Nazareth, where, if anyplace, did Jesus walk?
SinceCapernaumis supposed to have been the site of Jesus’ second home, the home of St. Peter, and the site of some of the most impressive miracles, we need to take a look at the evidence forCapernaum.
At first glance, Capernaumdiffers from Nazarethby virtue of the fact that it is said to be mentioned by Josephus, both in his Life (72:403) and in his Jewish War (III:8:519). But the sites mentioned in Josephus’ Life and Jewish War are two different places, and neither is the equivalent of theCapernaum of the gospels.
The Jewish War passage describes a spring, not a town, name Kapharnoum or Kapharnaoun and tells about the odd fish that lives in the spring. Josephus says that Kapharnaoun has been imaged to be a branch of the Nile! If this were the Capernaum of the gospels, JC and St. Peter would have been walking on the water all the time — and sleeping on it as well.
The passage in Josephus’ Life mentions a town called Kepharnokon, not Kapharnoum, and it is only a blinding bias induced by Christian ganglion-washing that makes almost all scholars suppose that Josephus is talking about the biblical town. But Kepharnokon clearly is notCapernaum, andCapernaum, likeNazareth, is unknown outside the gospels before the end of the first century.
The most common meaning given to the name Capernaum as it appears in the gospels is City of Nahum, although whether it refers to the prophet Nahum or some other Nahum is not agreed. Origen, like nearly everyone else up to the present, derived the second part of the name from the same root as that for the name Nahum, but arrived at ‘place of consolation’ as the meaning of Capernaum. It is important to note that Origen understood clearly that the name Capernaum — as other sacred names — had a symbolic meaning that befitted the stories in which it was embedded.
While most scholars are correct in tracing Capernaumto the root from which Nahum derives, I think they have all missed the crucial nuance in the root’s meaning which caused the evangelists to choose it as the symbolic name of the place where their nascent cult’s most important progress should occur. When we see how this Hebrew word was translated into Greek in several ancient versions of the Old Testament, we find that it could be translated as Paraclete, or Comforter. It is this possible link to the Paraclete, I believe, that reveals the symbolic intent of the New Testament writers when they createdCapernaum. As ‘the village of the Paraclete’, Capernaum would focus the idea that the Holy Spirit was guiding the early church, as well as the idea that the early church (as symbolized by the Jesus character) was fulfilling the role of intercessor or advocate.
Capernaumis mentioned sixteen times in the gospels and nowhere else in the New Testament. Despite the importance ofCapernaumduring the alleged ministry of Jesus, the Apostles seem not to have returned to the place, if one may judge from the silence of Acts. Certainly this is curious. One would suppose that organizational ties would have required at least some of them to return to maintain the enterprise. Of course, ifCapernaumwere merely symbolic, and not a geographic entity, and if the apostles also were symbols rather than people, this peculiar circumstance is easily understood.
Exhaustive analysis of all occurrences of the nameCapernaumwith regard to the geography and topographic setting produces no convincing picture of a specific site. Not one of the evangelists could have directed a tour to the place. In the oldest gospel materials, even the location ofCapernauminGalileeis not certain.Capernaumcould be located anywhere around theSea of Galilee. Both Mark and John indicate that the city is located not too far from a shore of theSea of Galilee, and it contains a synagogue. That’s it.
The lack of any clear indication of where we should look to find the ruins of Capernaum, combined with the fact that there is no site anywhere that has a tradition unbroken from even the second century of having been calledCapernaum, indicates that all the archaeological ballyhoo about “discoveries atCapernaum” is of no importance. When they dig up the sign reading “The Capernaum Chamber of Commerce Welcomes You,” we will reconsider the claims.
That a site so important in the birth of Christianity should have been lost to knowledge for several centuries immediately after its moment of glory is rather astonishing and requires an explanation from those who suppose Capernaum to have been historical. The silence of Origen concerning its location and physical features must be explained also. For Origen lived at Caesarea, only 45 miles from the site modern maps callCapernaum, and he traveled widely and frequently and records that “We have visited the places to learn by inquiry of the footsteps of Jesus and of his disciples and of the prophets.” Despite extended discussion of the chronological and geographic contradictions concerningCapernaumin the gospels, never does he even hint that he actually knows where the place is to be found.Capernaum’s unknown physical location clearly is a major factor in Origen’s argument that the gospels and the gospel place names must be interpreted mystically, not historically.
With the absence of a continuous Capernaum tradition connected to any site, nowadays only one site is considered a candidate for the gospel village; Telhum, 2.5 miles SW of where the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee. Indeed, Israeli maps call the place Kfar-Nachum (the Hebrew equivalent ofCapernaum), and both Catholic and Israeli tourist agencies are absolutely delighted.
The Telhum site has never contained a spring, however. This rules it out as the site of the place mentioned in Josephus’ Jewish War, (the place which in some Greek manuscripts is spelled exactly the same way as the Capernaum of the gospels) but not the place mentioned in the Life (the place called Kepharnokon instead of Capernaum). Nor could it be the site mentioned in Mt 4:13, which requires Capernaum to be both in Zebulon and Naphtali! While Telhum may be within the ancient territory of Naphtali, it most assuredly is not in Zebulon. Just possibly, the Franciscans have found the place mentioned in Life (the place called Kepharnokon instead of Capernaum). If so, it would rule out the place as the site of the gospel Capernaum.
The fact that the site is owned and operated by religious organizations — organizations that have a vested interest in the results of archaeological investigations — does not allow one to read excavation reports from ‘Capernaum’ without healthy doses of skepticism. Indeed, the reports generated by these motivated parties must be scrutinized the way one deals with the works of fundamentalist “creation scientists.” The Israeli archaeologists Baruch Sapir and Dov Neeman 5 have given a revealing critique of the type of ‘science’ that has been done at the Telhum site — beginning with attempts to relate the remains of a synagogue found there to the synagogue in which Jesus is alleged to have taught. Their criticism deals with the work of Dr. Gaudence Orfali, a Christian excavator whose digs up to 1926 perhaps made it forever impossible to recover the archaeological truth concerning the Telhum site:
Dr. G. Orfali… Concentrated on an altogether different research method, characterized by its singleness of purpose and inspired by the Franciscan Fathers, whose sole aim was to rediscover the synagogue of Kfar-Nachum. … Their one and only goal was to unearth the edifice which, according to the Gospels, was the earthly scene and backdrop for the greater part of Christ’s Galilean ministry. … their aim was to prove … that the synagogue they excavated was the building, built on the very place and in the proper historical setting.
… both the dig and the very thorough report on it as published by Dr. Orfali … lost the impartial and unbiased power of scientific analysis, both of finds and results. …
Therefore the report does not contain even the slightest hint at an effort to establish stratification through modern methods… Instead of relying on actual archaeological evidence, Dr. Orfali chose for his report a much simpler method: he either ignored completely or suppressed anything discovered on the site that was considered irrelevant to the main purpose of the dig or liable to disprove the underlying theory of the building date. … Orfali thereby withheld information which might have changed the preconceived official theory and carefully avoided any statements contradicting the accepted date of the building.
Sapir and Neeman also tell how more than 2000 coins found in the Capernaum dig were hidden away and suppressed for over 40 years, apparently because they did not accord with Orfali’s expectations.
Although finding the remains of a first-century synagogue is a prerequisite for establishing any site as a candidate for the biblical Capernaum, no one except for some Franciscans any longer thinks that the limestone synagogue ruins shown to tourists at ‘Capernaum’ date to the first century. However, the Franciscan Virgilio Corbo, claims to have found the remains of an earlier synagogue, the basalt walls of which lie almost exactly aligned beneath the limestone walls of the synagogue now on the surface. 6 The implication, of course, is that Corbo has uncovered the remains of the first century synagogue. But Corbo has not proved that the basalt “walls” he found immediately under the limestone walls belonged to a separate building, let alone a synagogue. It is most probable that the basalt “walls” are merely the massive footings for the limestone walls.
Thus, the presence of a synagogue dating to the first century at Telhum remains to be proved. We must remind ourselves that hundreds of synagogues existed in Palestine during the first century, and successful demonstration of the existence at Telhum of a synagogue from that time is necessary, but not sufficient, to identify the site as Capernaum. No inscriptional remains capable of showing what the place was called have ever been found.
The most outrageous claim made by the Franciscan excavators of Telhum is that they have found the actual house of St. Peter beneath the ruins of the fifth-century octagonal church. 7 They claim that the remains they found of a plastered room with Christian graffiti, some perhaps pertaining to St. Peter, shows the site was venerated from the first century on. Non-Franciscan authorities, however, do not believe the evidence shows Christian activity before the fourth century. Certainly, by that time, we may expect that enterprising tour-guides had learned that they could get money from credulous Christian pilgrims by showing them the places where St. Peter’s mother-in-law slept when she had a fever, where Jesus stood when he handed her the aspirin, where St. Peter tied up his boat, and where Jesus had his picnic with the five thousand. But there is no reason to suppose Franciscans at Kfar-Nachum own the remains of St. Peter’s House than to suppose that reliquaries inSwitzerland contain splinters of the True Cross.
How wary must we be with regard to work done by the Franciscans at Telhum? In 1964, in an unsuccessful effort to beautify the spot for the visit of Pope Paul VI, a resident monk decided to make it look as though St. Peter’s basilica was really there, so the octagonal structure was somehow done up to resemble a basilical apse. The Israeli Department of Antiquities put a stop to that!
Bethphage, Bethany, and Bethabara
A careful study of the names of other places of importance in the gospels shows that many of them have highly symbolic meanings, are unknown in the Old Testament and in pagan geographies, and — as was the case with Nazareth and Capernaum — archaeological evidence for them is unconvincing or even counter indicative. Three such places, Bethphage,Bethany, and Bethabara, can be considered together because of the intimate textual interrelations in the gospels.
Bethany, allegedly less than two miles from Jerusalem, nevertheless is unknown in the Old Testament; nor is it known to Josephus or any other ancient geographer or historian. According to John 1:28, however, Bethanyis located “beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing” — i.e., Bethany is east of the Jordan River, in contradiction to the statement in John 11:18 that it is west of theJordan. While this is confusing enough, some ancient witnesses (including Origen) indicate that the name of the Transjordan town ofJohn 1:28 should read Bethabara instead ofBethany. Not surprisingly, ‘Bethabara’ also is unknown in the Old Testament, Josephus, and other ancient authors.
It is sometimes claimed that the Talmud contains evidence of the existence of a place called Bethany, but careful study forces one to reject the claim.
Considering the confusing condition of the evidence, it is no wonder that Michael Avi-Yonah, in his Gazetteer of Roman Palestine, 8 had to indicate three different possible sites for ‘Bethany’.
As would be expected if the nameBethanywere a geographic fiction coined by New Testament authors as a literary device, the first known appearance of the name is in the New Testament, and the use of the name is confusing and contradictory. We have already seen according to the Gospel of John,Bethanymust lie on both sides of theJordanat once. The confusion only multiples when we examine the other New Testament occurrences of the name.
Mark and Luke relate the position of Bethanyto Bethphage, another town of gospel significance which was unknown to the rest of the world. They imply that both cities were located along the Roman road running from Jerichoto Jerusalem, and that Bethanywas closer to Jerusalemthan was Bethphage. In the parallel passage in Matthew, however, only Bethphage is mentioned, and it appears that Bethanywas a later addition to the text of Mark and Luke. Not surprisingly, there are also biblical reasons to put Bethphage close to Jerusalem, and so biblical maps show Bethphage as a dot closer to Jerusalemthan is the dot for Bethany. Where were Bethany and Bethphage located? You can’t tell from the Bible, but I can tell you that the Roman road from Jericho ran 2km north of, not through, the town now calledBethany!
We should note that Bethany and Bethphage are related to the tale of the miraculous cursing of the fig tree. What better place for this to take place than at The House of Figs, the literal meaning of Bethphage in Hebrew?
It would appear that the original version of this story in Mark mentioned only Bethphage (as symbolic setting for the cursing of the figs which was to follow). This was copied with little change by Matthew. Later,Bethanywas added to the story. Since ‘house of figs’ is a possible etymology for Bethany as well as Bethphage, no damage was done to the symbolism of the story. I believe, however, thatBethanywas meant to mean “house of the poor” — alluding to the term by which the early Christians as well asQumrancovenanters referred to themselves. In any event, the symbolic — not historic — use of the names Bethany and Bethphage seems established by the evidence.
Origen expressed the opinion that the site of John’s baptizing in the Transjordanshould not be called Bethany, but rather Bethabara. In Origen’s Commentary on John we read that (emphasis mine): 9
‘These things were done in Bethabara, beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.’ We are aware of the reading which is found in almost all the copies, ‘These things were done in Bethany’. … We are convinced, however, that we should not read ‘Bethany’, but ‘Bethabara’. We have visited the places to enquire as to the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples, and of the prophets. Now, Bethany … is fifteen stadia from Jerusalem, and the river Jordan is about a hundred and eighty stadia distance from it. Nor is there any other place of the same name in the neighborhood of the Jordan, but they say that Bethabara is pointed out on the banks of the Jordan, and that John is said to have baptized there. …
Origen points out that the etymologies of the names of the places are appropriate for the activities supposed to have taken place there: “House of preparation” for Bethabara and “House of obedience” for Bethany. He argues that an understanding of the etymologies of toponyms is important for understanding the deeper meaning of the scripture stories. Most significant for us, however, is the fact that Origen — despite his long residence in Palestineand his extensive travels “to enquire as to the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples, and of the prophets” — had himself seen neither Bethabara nor Bethany. In the case of Bethabara, our text is explicit: “they say [Bethabara] is pointed out” — i.e., no one pointed Bethabara out to Origen. With regard to aBethany nearJerusalem, there is nothing in Origen’s account to make one suppose he had seen it either. Nor had Origen ever seen Bethphage. Thus, at the beginning of our inquiry into the written history of Bethany, Bethabara, and Bethphage, we find them utterly unknown as actual sites and considered to be symbols.
It is worth noting that Origen often says that
a certain place “is pointed out.” Pointed out by whom? By tour-guides, no doubt. It would seem that a tourist industry catering to credulous Christians was flourishing already in his day, and exploitation of gullible pilgrims was a thriving concern already before the end of the second century. Study of all relevant records surviving from antiquity turns out nothing to show that in very early times anyone knew where Bethany, Bethabara, or Bethphage were located or left any record of having been there. The literary record bears witness not to actual sites of gospel events, but rather to the willingness of people to deceive and be deceived.
While it is an obvious fact that no archaeologist has ever unearthed an ancient city-limit sign reading “Bethany, no gentiles allowed,” it is no less a fact that absolutely nothing has ever been excavated at any of the sites today labeled as Bethany, Bethabara, or Bethphage that could tie those places to the biblical texts. To be sure, numerous items are pointed out by tour guides as the tomb of Lazarus, the place where John baptized, etc., but no archaeological thread relevant to Christian tradition can be traced back to the first century at any of these spots. Nor any any of these sites be reconciled with the inferences one must draw from the various gospel accounts. So Jesus never walked in Bethany, Bethabara, or Bethphage.
The Town Dyslexia Built
Although the names of most gospel towns were chosen for their symbolic meaning, at least one place name got into the New Testament as a result of a misreading of a papyrus text written in Greek. It is quite probably that Aenon — the place where John the Baptist supposedly plied his trade — resulted from one of the authors of the gospel of John misreading a papyrus manuscript of Luke’s gospel.
In John 3:23 we read: “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.”
Where did “John” get this geographic information? Aenon and Salim are unknown in Mark, the oldest gospel. Did John just make up Aenon and Salim? Yes and No.
There is considerable evidence that one of the authors of John knew the gospel of Luke, and there are telltale signs that at times John took ideas from Luke. A peculiar case in point involves a rather strange manuscript of the gospels and Acts known as Codex Bezae. Although the actual manuscript dates from the fifth century, most scholars agree that it reflects a very early condition of the books it contains, perhaps having been copied from an extremely old papyrus text. Bezae is noted for the very great number of places in which its Greek text differs from the so-called Textus Receptus (the “received text”). D. Paul Glaue, formerly at the University of Jena, has argued 10 that the text of Luke 3:18 reflected in Bezae was the text read by John when he was making up his Baptist stories. Actually, Glaue argued that this was the text mis-read by John.
The revised Standard Version renders this verse as “So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.”
For this verse, Codex Bezae differs from Codex Vaticanus (one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible) in a single Greek word — the word rendered “exhortations” in the English translation just given. Where Vaticanus has parakalon, Bezae has parainon. The meaning of parainon is advising, urging, substantially the same thing as parakalon, which means urging, encouraging, summoning, comforting. Although the meaning of Bezae is substantially the same as that of Vaticanus and other manuscript texts of Luke 3:18, it presented a problem for John that he would not have faced had he been looking at a manuscript containing the word parakalon. We have to remember that Greek manuscripts of the early centuries were written all in capital letters and that words were not always separated from each other. What John actually saw when he looked at the text of Luke was something like this:
Where to separate words? When he came to the rather rare word , he apparently took it for two words, . To a person who thought in Hebrew or Aramaic, the letters making up would seem to be a Greek rendering of Hebrew or Aramaic words meaning fountains, or springs, a not inappropriate supposition, given the context of John baptizing people. Aenon might thus be the name of a place with springs. The would be interpreted as a shortened form of a Greek preposition meaning by, in the vicinity of, from, or something of the sort. John thought he was reading that the Baptist was “in the vicinity of Aenon.” So when John got around to writing his own account of the activities of the Baptizes [Jn 3:23], he placed him “In Aenon near to Salim.” Although Salim is itself unknown to ancient geographers, spelled with an e it is mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18) as the city of the fabled Melchizedek. 11 “And Melchizedek king ofSalem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.” There is no precise geographic contest forSalem in Genesis, and we must note that this Melchizedek, King of Salem, was the subject of an active fable industry at the time John was writing. The unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:1-3) tells us he went Jesus one better by having no mother as well as no father — and is still alive! (I have it on good authority the Melchizedek is indeed still alive and is hiding inArgentina.)
So John never dunked at Aenon, and Jesus never swam atSalem.
Madalyns and Magdalenes
Just as we began with Nazareth, a town whose name was made up under the false impression that it was the source from which a name or title was derived — Nazarene or Nazoree — we may end with another New Testament town which had no existence apart from the grammatical manipulation of a title. The town — rather the non-town — is Magdala, the supposed source of the supposed hussy Mary Magdalene. (I assume everyone here knows that the English name Madalyn derives from the name Magdelene. Hopefully, our Madalyn won’t be too upset to lose both her name-sake and her home-town.)
In the King James Version, we read of a place called Magdala only in Matthew’s gospel, in 15:39. In most modern versions of the Bible, however, we find no trace of the place. Instead, we find the name Magadan. Why is this? This is because all the oldest manuscripts of Matthew have Magadan, not Magdala. Where did Matthew get the name Magadan, which (as you by now may expect) is unknown in the Old Testament and in all pre-Christian literature, and why did it get changed into Magdala? The first place to look for a source is Mark’s gospel, the Greek text of which Matthew plagiarized, reworked, and inflated to produce his own infallible account of what we today might call the Branch Jessaean story. Amazing to say, however, Mark has Dalmanutha in the place of Magadan. You guessed it, Dalmanutha is just as unknown as Magadan or Magdala. It is interesting to note that Codex Bezae, which has so many important primitive readings that disagree with the so-called received text, renders the name Melegada, instead of Dalmanutha. In the margin of the text are instructions left by a later scribe telling how to alter the word Melegada — which already had been converted into the word Magada — to turn it into something more like Magdala. “Insert dal after g, erase the da.” 12 We seem to be witnessing the birth of a star’s hometown.
By the time Codex Bezae was being altered, Mary Magdalene had certainly become a popular symbol in Christian culture. If she was called Magdalene, people thought it must be because she came from a place called Magdala — just as a Nazarene must be someone who comes from a place called Nazareth. And so the name Magada, the closed thing to Magdala to be found in the gospels, was turned into Magdala. A thousand years later, careful searching and consorting with tour-guides located several sites for the non-city on the shore of theSea of Galilee.
Although I know what the word Nazarene was supposed to mean, and why the name Nazareth is silly, I must confess that I don’t really know what the word Magdalene meant to the early evangelists. It could simply have meant precious, and have symbolized the precious ointments with which Mary was preparing to anoint the body of the messiah. Or it could derive from the Egyptian town ofMigdol, the place where the Israelites are supposed to have encamped just before Moses parted the waters of theRed Sea.
Since the evangelists portray Jesus as a second Moses and structure much of their stories as a symbolic replay of the career of Moses, the probability that the title Magdalene was intended to refer to the Exodus story is rather good, but not at all certain. We must accept the fact that the fevered minds that made up the Bible may have thought thoughts that we could never experience — even with the aid of magic mushrooms or LSD.
The Jesus of Not
And so, we come to the end of our exploration of the Oz-like land of the gospels and our tour of the places where Jesus never walked — sad that we have not had time to show the mythical nature of other biblical biggies such as Gethsemane and Golgotha or Calvaryas well. Like the Wizard of Oz, Jesus of Nazareth has no real home. But whereas the Wizard can be shown to have not existed in only a single non-place — EmeraldCity– Jesus can be shown to have not existed in a goodly number of non-places. While one might be able to ignore as insignificant for historical Jesus studies the demonstration that a single gospel locality is fictive, the demonstration that as many as a dozen localities are mythical cannot be ignored and has enormously important implications. From now on, the supposedly historical Jesus must be thought of as Jesus of Not-Nazareth, Jesus of Not-Capernaum, Jesus of Not-Gethsemane, and not least, Jesus of Not-Calvary. The historical Jesus will have to be rechristened — I guess the pun was intended. Henceforth, he should be referred to as “The Jesus of Not.” The possibilities remaining that Jesus might have walked in Sri Lankaor Tibetwe shall not pursue.
1 Allan Menzies, Origen’s Commentary on John, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Original Supplement to the American Edition, Vo. X, reprinted in 1980 by W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, pp. 381-382.
2 When referring to Jesus, Mark always — except in a few cases where there are strong grammatical reasons to prevent it — uses the definite article with the name, referring to the Jesus, not just Jesus. In verse nine of chapter one, however, the name is “inarticulate,” unlike the more than 80 cases in Mark where it carries the article.
3 It should be mentioned that where the English Bible gives the name “Jesus of Nazareth,” no such thing is to be found in the Greek text. The Greek would better be rendered “Jesus the Nazaree” or “Jesus the Nazarene.” Only later was it falsely concluded that the Greek word involved was derived from the name of a place.
4 J.-P Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, etc., Series Graeca Prior, Patrologiae Graecae Tomus XLI, S. Epiphanius Constantiensis in Cypro Episcopus, Adversus Haereses, Paris, 1863, columns 389-390.
5 Baruch Sapir and Dov Neeman, Capernaum (Kfar-Nachum) : History and Legacy, Art and Architecture, The Interfaith Survey Of The Holy Land (Israel), The Historical Sites Library, Vol N1/9, Tel Aviv, 1967, pp. 36-7, 41, 42. Italics in original.
6 Virgilio Corbo, “Resti della Sinagoga del Primo Secolo a Cafarnao,” Studia Hierosolymitana III (SBF Collectio Maior, 30), Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 313-357.
7 Virgilio Corbo, The House of St. Peter at Capharnaum, Publications of the Studium biblicum Franciscanum, collectio Minor, No. 5, Jerusalem, 1969.
8 Avi-Yonah, Michael, Gazetteer of Roman Palestine, QEDEM Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 5, 1976.
9 Menzies, op. cit., pp. 370-371.
10 D. Paul Glaue, “Der alteste Text der geschichtlichen Bucher des Neuen Testaments,” Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kude der alteren Kirche, Vol 45, 1954, pp. 90-108
11Jerusalem may have been calledSalem (or Shalem) in Jebusite times, before Israelite occupation.
12 D. Paul Glaue, op. cit., p. 103.
Frank R. Zindler is a science writer. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Science, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the Editor of American Atheist.