Our Holy Land tour guide from the Ministry of Tourism had no interest in Nazareth Village. The site is billed as a "living museum" where tourists, mostly Christians, can see an ancient Middle Eastern farm, with locals decked out in beige robes working the land and herding livestock. The decade-old ministry had some of the trappings of Sunday school flannel boards and 1950s Jesus films, going more for the picturesque than the living past.

Our guide, Karl—a secular Jew with a master's degree in archaeology—was having none of it. He kept to the back of our group, waiting for the closing evangelistic message to end so we could attend to weightier sights, like Masada and the Qumran Caves.

A first-time visitor to the Holy Land, I was prepared to share Karl's distaste for quaint depictions of Jesus and his home. Even Karl, with seemingly no interest in getting to know the Man from Nazareth, at least recognized that man as a person who lived in time and space. He knew we were dealing in historical meat, not myth.

Yet something happened as we toured the Village that snuffed out my snobbery and mistrust of marketed experiences. The millennia-old olive trees, the dust in my nose, even the garbed employees—they all helped me to see Jesus as a man deeply acquainted with the essentials of human life. And they unearthed the fact that I was the one who had turned Jesus into a nice story.

Text Meets Topography

As it turns out, I was not the first to think of Jesus more as a compelling concept than as a Jewish rabbi preaching throughout ancient Palestine. Not even 200 years after Jesus' birth, Gnosticism threatened to unmoor the budding church from its earthy roots. Disdaining physical reality in favor of esoteric, inner knowledge, Gnostics could not conceive of a Messiah who assumed human flesh yet maintained divinity. They believed the supernatural Christ must have escaped before the physical Jesus died on the cross. Marcion—an early heretic whose ideas overlapped with the Gnostics'—believed the Old Testament God was a demiurge, for only a lesser god could be responsible for creating the material world. Marcion thus opposed Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, preferring a mystic Christ divorced from historical messiness.

Early Christian apologists, particularly Irenaeus of Lyons, recognized that the true God had always been present with creation, as the Scriptures revealed. This God, wrote Irenaeus (to Gnostics' supreme offense), "mingled with his own creation," willingly inhabiting a human body and having that body die and rise again so as to "raise up all flesh." Irenaeus recognized that caro cardo salutis—"the flesh is the hinge of salvation." It was only through a real earthly ministry and a bodily death and resurrection that redemption was won.

Thanks to this and other theological defenses, today most Christians know we are to celebrate living in a material world. Surely we are not so spiritual as to disdain the kind of body Jesus had. Still, my snobbery reared its ugly head again, even after my Nazareth Village moment.

The next day, our group descended a lattice-lined hill to the Church of the Primacy, a Franciscan chapel on the Sea of Galilee's north shore. It houses the Mensa Christi, a rock slab on which it is believed the resurrected Jesus dined with his disciples. It also memorializes Peter becoming the petra of Christ's church. Twelve feet long, the slab dominates the chapel interior. Germans, Latinos, and Australians jostled alongside our group to touch the slab, to pray kneeling in front of it. In touching, they wanted to connect to this moment in Jesus' resurrected life.

Except for me. Nothing in me compelled me to touch this rock, invested with import indiscernible to me. Couldn't I just as well grasp Jesus' visit to the disciples by reading Luke 24? Was the slab supposed to "do" something—to reveal spiritual truth unavailable in another, more cerebral way? As a fellow traveler sitting next to me said, "I already have something tangible—I have my New Testament." Surely Scripture, illumined by the Holy Spirit, is the best insight into Jesus' acts and their significance. And unlike this rock, it's open to those who cannot afford to travel to the Middle East. No one must go to the Holy Land to know Jesus of Nazareth.

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But going sure does help. Even before Egeria—a fourth-century Spanish woman recognized by historians as the first Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land—believers from the beginning have known that something happens when word and image collide, when text meets topography. Our five senses take us where the imagination, poring over pages in a study, cannot. There's good reason so many Christians return from tours to Israel saying, "The Bible came alive for me. I'll never read it the same way again."

Surveying the Roman port city of Caesarea, with its opulent bathhouses and columns, one sees anew Paul's courage in defending the gospel there (Acts 24). Walking down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, perhaps the world's most religious yet most divided city, one grasps why Jesus wept over its inability to accept his peace (Luke 19). And dipping fingers and feet in the Sea of Galilee, one sees the Eleven and their joy upon towing a miraculous catch and eating fish with their risen Savior (John 21). Traveling helped our group see; and seeing helped us believe again.

Jesus the Jewish Pilgrim

"The Word did not simply become any 'flesh,'" wrote Karl Barth. "It became Jewish flesh. The pronouncements of New Testament Christology … relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel."

I remembered the Swiss theologian's words as our group trekked to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, this was the nexus of heaven and earth, the place where King David had housed the ark of the covenant, the center of the holy metropolis to which Jewish pilgrims traveled for days to worship Yahweh.

Our guide beamed as he led us up the Temple Mount's southern steps. "This is one of the few places we know for sure Jesus walked," Karl explained. "These steps are from King Herod's era. Jesus would have taught here the same week he was crucified." He noted how the steps alternated long and short lengths, matching the cadence of the Psalms of Ascent. Pilgrims slowly treaded the steps singing, "My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me" (Ps. 131:1). And Jesus was the only pilgrim who could both worship at the temple and claim to be the temple, God's dwelling place (John 2:19). In taking on human flesh, Jesus chose to take on the long, chaotic history of a particular people following God in particular places and ways.

This, I realized as our group rested on the steps, is what most compels us to follow the Man from Nazareth. We don't recognize him as Lord because he's the bearer of timeless, practical truths, or the beautiful lynchpin on which our complex theologies rest, or the mystical Divine who perplexes everyone but us. We call Jesus Lord because only the true God would stoop low enough to wander dusty Nazarene farms, eat broiled fish by the Sea of Galilee, and ascend the Temple Mount as one Jewish pilgrim among many—all to raise us up higher than the top of Mount Zion.

Katelyn Beaty is CT associate editor.



Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles on Israel include:

Going Up to Jerusalem | Trying to retrace Jesus' steps by taking a modern Christian pilgrimage. (April 9, 2009)
'My Heart Is in Gaza' | A dwindling Christian population battles fear and economic hardship. (March 10, 2008)
Why We Dig the Holy Land | If biblical archaeology is not reinvigorated, Scripture-illuminating evidence will remain buried in the Middle East. (September 1, 2003)