On the Jesus Trail
The land around Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, was remarkably beautiful one October morning last fall. Green vineyards and silvery olive groves added patches of color to the brown hills. But my blistered feet were aching for a rest, so I was glad when I saw a man picking dates from a tree in front of his spacious house. Marwan, a 41-year-old lawyer, invited us to join him and his wife and brother for coffee.
Before his family arrived, Marwan told us that when he was very sick as a boy, his Muslim mother promised God that she would make him a Christian if he would heal her son. Marwan got better, and his mother regularly took him to church. "I now believe," he told me, "that Jesus will return one day and save everyone. But I am not a Christian."
When his wife and brother joined us, they explained that another man had been crucified in Jesus' place, and that Jesus was taken without dying to heaven. Marwan quietly disagreed: "Jesus was crucified and then rose from the dead."
As my photographer son, Ross, and I discovered on the new Jesus Trail—a 40-mile path from Nazareth (Jesus' boyhood home) to Capernaum (Jesus' ministry headquarters) that winds through Jewish and Arab villages—Nazareth's most famous citizen still attracts disciples and divides families in the land of his birth. We wanted to ask Jews, Muslims, and Arab Christians what they thought about the man from Galilee.
What we found surprised us. In this ancient place dominated by Jews and Muslims, Jesus exerts extraordinary power. Just as he did 2,000 years ago, he continues to fascinate the masses, inspire persecuted disciples, and split families and communities.
Maoz Inon, the secular Israeli who co-founded the Jesus Trail, is a good example of those who are moved by Jesus even if they are unsure he still exists. Like many young Israelis, Inon backpacked around the world after leaving the army, and saw how tourism brought together people from different cultures. When he walked the 580-mile Israel National Trail, he had a vision.
In the Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath, the now-34-year-old entrepreneur could see in his mind's eye David charging Goliath, with both men's armies behind them.
"I am not religious or even romantic. But this vision showed me that there is a special power to this land," Inon told us. He then realized that a trail retracing Jesus' steps in Galilee, where Arabs compose the majority, could not only revive tourism in Israel but also help Israelis and Palestinians understand each other better. Now, two years since starting the trail with David Landis, an American Mennonite, Inon says, "I believe in the power of Jesus. In our day, he can still change the world and make it a better place for us and our children."
The Jesus Trail is starting to bring new life to the once-abandoned old city of Nazareth. New businesses have sprung up around the Fauzi Azar Inn, a mansion owned by a local Arab Catholic family, who has loaned it to Inon in exchange for his refurbishing it as a guesthouse. International hikers searching for Jesus and his path now spend money at local restaurants and grocery stores. Arab families are moving back to the old city and renovating its homes. Meanwhile, Arab Christians and Muslims work together amicably at the guesthouse run by Inon. "It's a miracle," he smiles. "People of different religions and cultures in this land show respect for each other."
Muslims and the Virgin Birth
In Jesus' day, Galilee was famous for its religious and ethnic diversity, which helps explain Jesus' popularity among Gentiles. This is still true: Galilee has a majority of Arabs (640,000 vs. 530,000 Jews), and Gentiles (Arab Christians) far outnumber Jews who follow Jesus.