I grew up fairly religious in the Southern Baptist Church. I was the youth minister my senior year of high school, preaching a sermon on the conversion of Saul and his epiphany after being blinded on the road to Damascus.
In Acts 9:4 we read: “And he fell to the earth and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul why persecutes thou me.”
Saul is later healed, the scales falling from his eyes, and he becomes the disciple Paul.
On a trip to Israel last week, our group traveled along the road to Damascus, venturing just a few miles from the Syrian border.
I no longer consider myself a religious person nor do I believe the literal truth of the Bible, but the messages, particularly in the New Testament, are foundational to the person I am.
Outside the Church of the Beatitudes, which was built in 1938 near the Sea of Galilee, Ian Stern, an archeologist and scholar who acted as our tour guide for our trip through Israel, described the history of the location.
While there’s no archeological evidence to confirm the location, tradition has it that the church is built upon the hill where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount.
It’s a beautiful, simple church, small and resting upon a hill overlooking Galilee, not far from the town of Tiberius.
As our group stood there, Ian asked Frank, one of my fellow travelers, to read from Matthew 5: 3-11, the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek and the poor, those who mourn and those who make peace; the merciful and the persecuted.
The Beatitudes were a revolutionary repositioning of ideas in the Old Testament, and they carry with them a profound underpinning of social justice.
Walking into the Church of the Beatitudes, snapping pictures the whole time, a choir – visitors like us – sang a hymn, filling the small sanctum.
In that moment, the emotion of the place, the early lessons in Sunday school and church, the people from those times in my life, came rushing back.
The scales did not fall from my eyes, no conversion is eminent. But my heart was swelled by the power of history and faith through the ages. I understand why millions of people of all faiths travel to the Holy Land in the hopes of being closer to God.
The Sea of Galilee
I imagined it would be bigger. And it’s not really a sea.
The Sea of Galilee is just 13 miles long and eight miles wide, smaller than Moosehead Lake and similar in size to Sebago Lake, though bigger.
By size alone, it would be right at home in Maine.
The fresh water lake is a significant source of water for both Israel and Jordan, but it’s more famous for its Biblical history as the site of much of Jesus’ ministry, including the Sermon on the Mount.
Not far from Nazareth, Galilee is also the site of two of Jesus’ most famous miracles: walking on water and the feeding of the multitudes. He also appeared there as a vision after his crucifixion, according to the Bible.
At Tabgha, there’s small church that was built to mark the location where traditionally the feeding of the multitudes with two fish and five loaves of bread is believed to have occurred. The story is told in Mark 6:30-46.
“And they did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men,” Mark 6:44.
We walked to the sea behind the small church, each of us, and dipped into the water a hand or a foot. Some folks filled a bottle to take home, a special connection to Holy Land for the faithful.
As our guide, archeologist Ian explained, when you talk about the “traditional” location of something from antiquity, it means there’s no archeological evidence to support the assertion.
A short distance from Tabgha is Capernaum, or Jesus’ Village. Here, the archeological record does support a story from the Bible, while not actually confirming the miracles that are said to have occurred.
The village is mentioned in the Gospels and was the home of a number of disciples and the location where Jesus healed several people, including the servant of a Roman soldier and the mother-in-law of a disciple.
“And he arose out of the synagogue, and entered into Simon’s house. And Simon’s wife’s mother was taken with a great fever; and the besought him for her. And he stood over her, and rebuked the fever; and it left her,” Luke 4:38-39.
The ruins of a synagogue from Biblical times stands next to a house consistent with a story.
It’s similar to what was described in the Bible, whether or not the sick were really healed is a matter of faith.
I traveled to Israel from Feb. 12-18 with the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AIPAC. The foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite. Traveling with me was a group of 12 other people from New England.