Day 2 – The Old City, Western Wall, Gabbatha, Bethesda, and Dead Sea Scrolls


Today we entered the Old City. The map above should give some idea of how the walls enclosing the Old City have shifted over time. If you see a scenic photo of Jerusalem the odds are good you will notice a big wall. This is either the wall built a few years before Jesus was born by Herod the Great surrounding the Temple Mount, or it is the much larger wall built in 1535–1542 by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent surrounding what is now called the Old City. As you can see there were other walls throughout history that were built as the city was expanding, but for the most part those walls are gone.

The Old City does not equate to the city limits that Jesus knew, it’s just a designation for the area inside Suleiman’s wall, and it includes the Temple Mount and a significant part of ancient Jerusalem.

Anyway, to get into the Old City you need to go through one of the 8 gates that are built in the wall. There’s a longer history of the gates, but today there are 8 open gates and at least three closed gates (closed meaning sealed up). We entered through the Dung Gate (you can imagine what the gate may have been used for) which is right near the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount has a long history and much but not all of it is narrated in the Bible or by an historian named Josephus. I’ll summarize. When Moses led the people out of Israel he was directed by God to build the Ark of the Covenant (see this Wikipedia article for more info – Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the List Ark got the look and power narrated in the Bible pretty right on). The Ark eventually held the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff, but those items were not really the point. The main feature of the Ark was the Mercy Seat on top which was where God could sit – it’s really important that the seat is empty because the Israelites didn’t worship an idol or the Ark itself, just God who had chosen his people Israel and would be present with them on the seat. The Israelites took the Ark with them throughout their wilderness wandering, keeping it in a tent that was called the Tabernacle and carrying it before them whenever they marched to a new place. The exact dimensions of the Ark and Tabernacle are all in Exodus so do yourself a favor and read that if this is all new to you. The tent Tabernacle had a holy place in the imiduare entrance area, and a most holy place further in called the Holy of Holies and that is where the Ark was kept. Moses, Aaron, and the priests would offer sacrifices at the Ark inside the Tabernacle and consult with God by visiting the Ark.

The Israelites took the Ark with them into the Promised Land, and it was carried into battle as they conquered various towns and peoples (This is all in Joshua). After a convoluted history (read Judges and First Samuel) King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and set up the Tabernacle on Mt Zion.

Around 957 BC David’s son Solomon built the first Temple to house the Ark. The Temple basically copied the style of the tent by having a Holy Place and a Holy of Holies (you can read all about this in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. This Temple was destroyed in 586 BC (or 425BC depending on who you ask) by the Assyrians. There is no record in the Old Testament of what happened to the Ark. There is a rabbinic story that King Josiah hid the Ark somewhere on the Temple Mount. Other rabbis suggest it may have taken to Babylon. 2 Maccabees 2 (Deuterocanonical Scripture and part of what we call the Apocrypha) states:

The Prophet Jeremiah “having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.””

A Second Temple was built (read Ezra-Nehemiah) in 515BC on the same spot and featured the same design (though apparently not as grand as the Firsr Temple) of a Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Ark was never restored to the Second Temple and it isn’t clear (at least to me) what (if anything) happened in the Holy of Holies at the Second Temple.

Herod the Great (who was renowned for his building programs) renovated the Temple and expanded the Temple Mount by building a massive wall around it around 20BC. The wall made possible several courtyards and areas for money changers, etc.

The Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans after a Jewish Revolt. The Romans built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. The Emporir Julian (the Apostate) allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple but an earthquake in 363AD and the death of Julian in the same year meant plans to build a Third Temple never got going.

In 691 AD Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount to commemorate the traditional location Mohammed’s ascension into heaven with the Angel Gabriel (part of Muslim tradition but not the Koran). The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque which was built around the same time are on the Temple Mount today.

Parts of the walls of Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount are still visible and have been excavated so that Southern Wall and a part of the Western Wall are accessible. The Western Wall, as it is called, is only a segment of the whole unexcavated Western Wall. Wikipedia notes: “The term Western Wall and its variations are mostly used in a narrow sense for the section traditionally used by Jews for prayer; it has also been called the “Wailing Wall”, referring to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. During the period of Christian Roman rule over Jerusalem (ca. 324–638), Jews were completely barred from Jerusalem except to attend Tisha be-Av, the day of national mourning for the Temples, and on this day the Jews would weep at their holy places. The term “Wailing Wall” was thus almost exclusively used by Christians, and was revived in the period of non-Jewish control between the establishment of British Rule in 1920 and the Six-Day War in 1967. The term “Wailing Wall” is not used by Jews, and increasingly not by many others who consider it derogatory.”

The Western Wa is important as a prayer location because it is the closest possible place one can be to where the Holy of Holies is. People (mostly Jews) bring there prayers (usually written on small scraps of paper) and leave them in the Wa as close as possible to where God dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

I should admit that though the Temple is an essential part of the Gospel narrative and I was not unenthusiastic about visiting the Western Wall, still I was far more enthusiastic about visiting specific Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I really didn’t know what to make of this transition of the importance of praying near the place where Holy of Holies had been 2000 years ago.

When we arrived at the Wall we encountered a jubilant atmosphere. There were numerous bar mitzvahs going on with drums, trumpets, and singing. I wonder now if that was the spirit and feeling of Palm Sunday. We made our way to security with a great throng and once through, the atmosphere changed dramatically. I felt what I can only describe as a holy somberness. We were given instructions about proper etiquette: men on one side, women on the other, wear a hat or covering, back away from the Wall, and take as much time as you wish at the Wall in prayer.

I approached the Wall, placed my hand on it and got walloped by the presence of God in a way that I have rarely if ever felt. I began to weep as I offered my prayers (I prayed for my wife and children, my sister and her family, my parents, my church, and parishioners who asked to be remembered at the Wall) and placed my written prayers in the Wall. Tears are flowing as I write this and I rarely get emotional like this. The experience in those few moments was so intense and overwealming that I had to draw back and move away from the Wall. After about ten minutes I approached the wall again and offered the same prayers, but the overwealming awesomeness and “Fear of the Lord” that I had had before was replaced with a knowledge that God was present in that place in a way that I cannot explain other than to note that thousands of people are drawn each day there to pray. The experience puts the entire narrative about the Ark, Tabernacle, Temple, and the Wall into a new light. “Holy and awesome is this place.” I understand now why people fell flat on their faces before God throughout the Scriptures. I left the Wall feeling shattered by the presence of God and made whole at the same time.

We headed into the winding streets of the Old City, and my main memory from the walk was feeling incredibly thirsty. I bought a liter and a half of water and drank it immediately. At one point we stopped to get out of the way of a car driving down the street – the street is no wider than a car and I cannot imagine that cars should even be there. I looked up and saw that we were turning onto a street called Via Dolorosa (this is the traditional Way of the Cross).

We walked up the Way and entered a small building to “see excavations”. Our guide Iyad explained that we were now on the site of Antonia’s Fortress. This is where Pilate would have stayed when he was in town. This is where the prisoners (Jesus too) would have been kept if they had been sent to Pilate. The Roman soldiers had a game they would play. Every week one prisoner on death row would be chosen to play “King”. The soldiers would stand the prisoner on a stone and dress the prisoner up as a king (stuff like a robe or a crown of thorns). Then they would mock the “king” and beat the “king” and finally they would execute the “king”. An excavation at some point had unearthed the “King Game Stone”. I was amazed. I had never heard that what happened to Jesus on that stone by the Roman soldiers was a game that had happened to countless other prisoners. We went down into the excavation where there was a cistern and a series of rooms with stone floors. And among the stones was a large, square, flat stone with a crown carved into it and a B for Basileus or King in Greek. Jesus had not only suffered, he had suffered as many had before and many had after, and yet this cruel game also, ironically, revealed the truth about Jesus. I prayed on that spot that I might be accompanied by Christ in any suffering I might ever have as Jesus accompanied all who suffered such merciless cruelty. Be present Lord Jesus be present.

Our next stop was the Church of Saint Anne (Mary’s mom), and Bethesda. Bethesda is a pool/bath area that includes a place of ritual cleansing for healing. It is where Jesus healed a man who had been lame for over 30 years. There are numerous photos in my album (link at the end) of the excavations of these pools (they are deep!).

Father Randy Alexander, Mother Rosemary Sullivan (a priest who is part of our group) and I offered prayers for healing and anointing with Holy Oi which I was honored to bless at Bethesda. I will continue to keep all who came to me for prayers in my heart and in my prayers. May God bless them.

We entered Saint Anne’s and sang Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God. I lit a candle at the Shrine to Saint Anne and said a prayer for my mother Nancy (which is a form of the name Anne), my wife, and my sister. May God bless their motherhood as Anne and Mary were blessed.

We headed out of the Old City and grabbed lunch back at the guesthouse. After lunch we bussed to West Jerusalem to the Israel Museum to see a scale model of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus. It was really cool and helpful to see the nearness of the different places events in the Bible happened. Check out some of the photos. The Museum houses a shrine for the Dead Sea scrolls which was fascinating to walk through.

After a long day I am ready for dinner in the grotto. I’m also ready for a good night sleep (I went to bed too late yesterday but enjoyed the late conversation with other Pilgrims).

Tomorrow we visit the Holy Sepulcher.

Photos from today are here.

(Photo link and edits for typos will be done after dinner).