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, ...

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