04 June 2004
One of the interesting oversights made throughout the Bible is the almost total absence of the physical description of people and things. The height and weight of Jesus was not recorded, let alone his eye color. The same goes for Moses and all the other prophets. When it comes to geographic locations, no picture is painted regarding colors of the landscape, weather conditions, or approximate distances between settings of major events. It is on this last point—the issue of distance—on which I will focus.
Growing up as a kid, I imagined that “the greatest story ever told” unfolded across a nearly infinite landscape. In my mind, the Sea of Galilee was as big as the Pacific Ocean and the Plains of Moab were as big as the Mojave Desert. Even now, authors and commentators often use the phrase, “on a Biblical scale.” As I have learned over the past year or so crisscrossing the Holy Land, the Biblical scale ain’t that big.
Let us take Jerusalem as an example. Jesus preached, was tried, and was executed in Jerusalem--on the temple mount, in Pilate’s courtyard, and on a hill named Golgotha respectively. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, walked his last steps along what is now called the Via Dolorosa, and ascended into heaven from atop the Mount of Olives. That’s a lot of activity taking place in palaces, along avenues, and on hilltops. Naturally, my mind spreads this stuff out a bit. Surely the larger than life Jesus walked the floorboards of a larger than life stage.
But strange as it may seem, the Old City of Jerusalem, the city of breathtaking Sunday school tales told with much emotion by men in dark suits and women in flowered dresses, is smaller than Castle Rock, Colorado. Much, much smaller. The Old City of Jerusalem, still very much visible to the modern traveler, is only one square kilometer in size. Castle Rock occupies 81.9 square kilometers of the good Earth. Pause to consider that for a moment.
In one afternoon, a comfortably-shoed pedestrian can walk the stations of the Cross, visit the western wall of the old temple, peer inside Christ’s garden tomb, pop over to the building where the last supper took place, catch one’s breath on a bench in Gethsemane, visit the Virgin Mary’s grave, and climb the Mount of Olives. One can do all this and still have time to visit some interesting non-Christian holy sites, such as the tomb of King David or the Dome of the Rock. You want to see the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after you’re done with all that? It’ll take you longer to drive from McDonald’s to Walmart. (Of course, you won’t have to pass through an Israeli army checkpoint along Wilcox.)
The truth is, at the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was a remote, hard to get to, hardly important outpost. It is estimated that only 25,000 people lived in it at the time of Christ. Surely Pilate wished he’d been appointed proconsul somewhere a bit more cosmopolitan and connected. The big stories of the Gospels occurred in very small places. (The nearby Sea of Galilee, along the shores of which Jesus did most of his teaching, is hardly a sea at only 14 miles long and eight miles wide.) This is an important insight as one seeks to further their understanding of the power of Christ’s message. That such a tiny patch of dirt would become the launch pad for something so enormous is also due in large part to the apostolic work of men like Peter, John, James, and Paul. Their dedication and effort took what was an off-off-Broadway play and made it one of the longest running productions in history, beloved by billions around the world.