A friend at church recently told me that he would like to go with me to Israel, but he and his wife had been there in 2010, and thanks to a great tour guide, had seen everything. I chuckled to his face, but laughed hysterically once I reached the social safety of my Toyota Yaris. Long ago I lost count of how many times I have been in Israel and Jordan, yet on each new trip I manage to see many new sites.
In the months leading up to a trip, as I am doing my obligatory reading in the numerous popular and academic journals relating to archaeology in the Land of the Bible, I build a list of the new places that I want to see. With 30,000 archaeological sites in Israel alone, my quest to 'see it all' will obviously never end. I like that, because it keeps things fresh and exciting. I do not mind taking a group of ABR pilgrims to the famous sites like Megiddo and Masada, as long as we also get off the beaten path to Modiin and Magdala as well.
After the dig ended at Khirbet el-Maqatir in mid-June, I led 23 people on my typical 'old sites' vs. 'new sites' quest for adventure. Along the way, I often pondered one of my favorite New Testament verses: 'Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old' (Mt 13:52).
Here are some of the new experiences from this past season.
Omri and Ahab's Palace.
Somehow I had forgotten how awesome and important the ruins were at OT Samaria and NT Sebaste. We visited the palace of the Omride Dynasty (think Ahab and Jezebel), the pagan Temple of Augustus Caesar, and the tomb of John the Baptist (well, one of his tombs…). While exiting the large site, we stopped at the massive first-century towers in the gate complex. This is of special interest, since we have begun excavation of our own tower at Khirbet el-Maqatir.
Museum at St. Anne's
The Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the lame man, sits on the property of St. Anne's Church, just inside Lion's Gate in the Old City. This church has the best acoustics in Jerusalem, so it is required of my groups that we sing a worship song while there. Thanks to one of my key supervisors, Abigail Leavitt, I became aware that the church has a private museum, with many of the finds from the excavations housed there. Also thanks to Abigail, we were able to have a private tour, which was quite impressive.
High Place at El-Bireh
Many of us at ABR believe that Ras et-Tahunah, the high place at El-Bireh (due west of Khirbet el-Maqatir), is the most likely location for biblical Bethel. Unfortunately, it is in the middle of the modern city of El-Bireh and is hard to find. Matt Glassman, one of our supervisors-in-training, is a doctoral student at Yale. Matt asked to visit the high place as part of his doctoral research. I arranged a field trip for supervisors at the end of a dig day. As part of our investigation, we collected sherds around the property. Shockingly, a ceramic cultic bull was among the sherds found by Field Archaeologist Suzanne Lattimer. Remember Jeroboam's golden calf at Bethel...Suzanne will publish this important find in 2016.
City of David Labs
During my years as a supervisor at the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Jerusalem, I made a lot of close friends. Among them is Frankie Snyder, Israel's leading expert on ancient flooring. Frankie volunteers at Khirbet el-Maqatir on her day off each week and is a real asset to our project. She invited me to bring my supervisory team to see the project labs where the TMSP prepares their finds for publication. It was a great learning experience for us all. Opus sectile!!!
I have several connections with the oldest Protestant church in Jerusalem. A former student of mine from my days at International Bible College in San Antonio works at the front desk reception, and the pastor's son and one of the deacons worked with me on last winter's dig. However, I had never attended one of their Sunday worship services. It was one of the most dynamic spiritual experiences that I have had in Jerusalem, and it sits on the true Via Dolorosa, near the Armenian parking lot where ABR may excavate in the future. I'll be back.
Hebron Potter's Shop
My close friend Emmanuel Eisenberg recently finished a major excavation at biblical Hebron, so we went to check it out and to visit the tombs of the patriarchs. In the first century BC, Herod the Great built a huge complex over the tombs; it looks like a miniature Temple Mount. Although this was not my first trip to Hebron, it was my first time to visit the potter's shop across from the huge Herodian structure. The skilled potter was turning out a new vessel every 20 seconds. The Bible says that God is the potter, and we are the clay (Isa 64:8 and Jer 18:6).
Inside the Church of the Nativity, my dear friend Shimon Gibson's excavation has uncovered, for the first time, remains from the time of Jesus' birth, but unfortunately we could not gain access without him being present. From the church we toured an olive wood production factory and did some great shopping. The owner invited me to his sister's home to view a Middle Bronze tomb that was recently found by accident. Serendipity!
Modern highway follows ancient biblical 'pass' between Geba and Michmash.
IBEX director Bill Schlegel is the top geographer in Israel, so I arranged for him to give us a tour of the Benjamin Plateau. I had driven by Michmash hundreds of times, but had never actually climbed the hill to check it out. Bill explained to us several biblical events, including Jonathan and his armor bearer. I will be taking others back to experience this amazing view.
In addition to new places, I also made some new friends. While visiting Bethsaida, Maqatir Square Supervisor Boyd Seevers, who worked at Bethsaida for four seasons, introduced me to Dig Director Rami Arav. While Rami and I have many mutual acquaintances, I had never met him. He has spent almost three decades working at this large site north of the Sea of Galilee. In addition to Rami, I was invited to dinner with the brilliant but controversial archaeologist James Tabor, best known for his book The Jesus Dynasty. Tabor and Shimon Gibson are co-directors of the Mt. Zion excavation, which along with Maqatir were the largest digs in Israel this summer. Tabor was fascinated by my research on Khirbet el-Maqatir as Ephraim of John 11:53-54, and we talked long into the night. Finally, with our new dig headquarters at the Jerusalem Ritz being right behind the Albright Institute, I was eager to meet the new Director, Matt Adams. Unlike his longtime predecessor, Matt is eager to work with the Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation. Several of my staff used the Albright library for research, and Matt and I had a great visit. I was invited to dinner but had another commitment. Matt wants to visit Maqatir this winter, and I am excited about cultivating this relationship.
So, if you have been to Israel before, don't think that you have seen it all. Come join us for the experience of a lifetime. I am already working on my new list:
1. New Excavations in the Tower of David
2. Tel Burma (Libnah)
3. Tel Beit Mirsim