This morning our first stop was the Garden Tomb – a location believed to have possibly been the burial site of Jesus. From the garden you can see what is believed to have been Golgotha or the Place of the Skull – which would lend credence to the belief that Jesus is buried nearby. Down below the Place of the Skull is a wide open space (nowadays a bus station) which could have been where Jesus was crucified, contrary to the assumption that He was crucified on a hill. Perhaps we only think that because we sing songs like ‘On a hill far away’….?
Although we had our own excellent guide, Josh, with us, we were shown around the Garden Tomb by a man originally from N.Ireland, who is a volunteer for the Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association which owns the site. The garden is beautifully maintained and contains an old tomb hewn out of a rock, which could have been something very similar to where the body of Jesus was laid by Joseph and Nicodemus – with a large stone which, although smaller than what would have been used, is apparently something like what may have been used to seal the tomb. Rather than being a globe shape, it is the shape of a disk – yet another childhood illusion shattered.
Sitting reflecting in these beautiful surroundings, it is not hard to imagine Mary meeting the man she believed to have been the gardener and asking him where he had laid the body of Jesus. Of course, he was Jesus for the tomb was not able to hold him. Death could not hold its prey. As you leave the tomb itself, you see the resurrection message written on the back of the door.
From the Garden Tomb, we set off in the car and drove to Massada, the site of an amazing story recorded for us, not by any of the biblical writers, but by the historian Josephus. Built by Herod the Great, the ruins still today show the opulence and extravagance of his lifestyle. In 73AD, under threat of destruction by the Roman army, the 100 Zealots who lived there decided that, rather than give themselves up to annihilation or slavery under the Romans, they would kill themselves. The men killed their own wives and children and then the last 10 men killed one another before the only man left fell on his own sword. A gruesome story of needless violence? Or a story of a nation’s refusal to go into servitude again? As with many things here in this fascinating land, it depends on how you look at it.
On the road again, we drove to Qumran, 10 miles south of Jericho and the location of the Essenes sect. These men chose to live in the desert in such an isolated place in order to flee from the evil of the world and to purify themselves. They spent much of their time writing down the scriptures – even to a third of each night. When they fled their site, they must have hidden these scrolls in the nearby caves, for it was there they were found centuries later – among them, the Dead Sea scrolls.
Our last stop for the day was at the place where it is believed that Jesus was tempted by the devil after having spent 40 days in the wilderness. A Greek Orthodox monastery has been built there. Seeing the barrenness and ruggedness of the place brought us a new understanding of what it must have meant for Jesus to have been tempted to command that the stones turn into bread, or how it must have felt when the devil brought Him up to a high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4).