I have been writing about a trip I took in February to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The first-century religious structures that we visited were not Christian churches but pagan temples, since Christianity had not yet achieved the societal status that would make dedicated Christian worship spaces feasible. I wrote earlier about pagan temples, where the gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt were worshiped. Worshiping the Roman gods was considered a civic duty and necessary to maintaining good order. It was also a way to try to get the blessing of the god being worshiped. Many gods specialized in a particular type of blessing, and thus were sought out for that purpose. Most notably, one god was thought to provide insight into the future, and a related one was associated with healing.

Apollo was who you consulted if you wanted guidance concerning future plans–should you marry, take a journey, make an investment, or whatever. Our tour guide said that, besides the oracle at Delphi, there were three other main oracles in the ancient world, including the one we visited at Didyma. Here’s an article on the history of that site. The final temple to Apollo there (the Didymaion) was begun soon after a visit by Alexander the Great in 313 BC and was never completed, though work continued for hundreds of years.

The Didymaion

A Sacred Road led from Miletus, about ten miles away, to Apollo’s temple. Pilgrims coming to the Didymaion would offer a sacrifice at the altar at the foot of the temple steps. Then they waited until an opportunity was provided to ask a question to the oracle–or rather, ask a priest, since pilgrims weren’t allowed access to the adyton, or inner sanctuary. The Didymaion was unique among ancient temples in that the adyton was open to the sky and contained a sacred spring that was thought to be the source of the oracle’s power.

The Adyton

The pilgrim’s question was written down and carried to the oracle–one of several women who gave answers. It’s believed that the oracle would inhale fumes or chew some substance, inducing a trance that would facilitate communication from the spiritual realm. Whatever answer was given was then taken back to the pilgrim. The answers were sometimes subject to multiple interpretations and thus did not always provide clear guidance. I don’t know of any list of pronouncements by the oracle at Didyma, but here is a compilation from Delphi.

Healing was also associated with Apollo, but was even more associated with one of his children, Asclepius. Asclepius was said to be a demigod, having a divine father and a human mother. While he was in utero, an unfortunate love triangle developed, which Apollo resolved by killing his human lover and removing the baby from her womb, the first Caesarian section. As the myth goes, baby Asclepius was then raised by the centaur Chiron, who taught him the healing arts. He became a great physician–too good, in fact, for his ability to raise humans from the dead (with the aid of Medusa’s blood) evoked Zeus’ ire. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, but he subsequently became a god. Asclepions–places of healing–were established in several cities, and pilgrims came to these to be cured. The most prominent Asclepion was at Epidaurus in Greece, but there was also a major center in Pergamum, in Asia Minor. It was begun in the 4th century BC and reached its height in the 2nd century AD, when Galen was the chief physician there.

The Sacred Way to the Asclepion at Pergamum, looking back towards the Acropolis.

Pilgrims came to the Asclepion in Pergamum along the Sacred Way, a colonnaded street leading from the acropolis to the healing complex. They arrived at a courtyard containing an altar to Asclepius, where they made offerings to the god. They would stay for weeks or months awaiting healing. A library and theater were located in the complex.

From the top of the theater at the Asclepion, looking over the healing complex.

Our guide indicated that the books in the library and the performances at the theater were all designed to create an attitude conducive to healing. There were pools for bathing and for mud bath treatments. There was also a sacred spring, whose water was thought to have curative effects. Nearby there were sleeping rooms, where the pilgrims slept in expectation that Asclepius would appear in their dreams. Such a nocturnal visit would sometimes result in immediate healing, but in other cases the dreamed-about healer would prescribe some sort of treatment–baths, exercises, mud baths, massages, ointments, and the like. In the treatment center, there were tubes through the ceiling down to where the pilgrims sat or slept. Speaking into these, the priests offered words of encouragement, such as “Asclepius has heard your prayers.”

In the treatment center.

Ancient pagans believed that, by means of the oracles of Apollo and the priests of Asclepius, prominent gods concerned themselves with the affairs of humans. They did so in a way that wasn’t malicious or cruel, unlike the purported behavior of many other Olympian deities. (Not that Apollo always treated humans well; just ask Cassandra). This is not the same as having deities that actually care about the welfare of humans, though. Apollo and Asclepius both got something for their beneficent acts–the sacrifices made by those who came to them. Thus, it was an exchange relationship, not one based on affection or compassion. That’s one of the ways in which the Christian God and the pagan deities differed. And, as I’ll suggest in my next post, such differences in the nature of divine favor may have been a major advantage for Christianity.

In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.

 

I have been posting recently about my recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Asia Minor–modern day Turkey. I wrote most recently about the apostle Paul’s efforts to explain to the Jews living in that part of the Roman empire that Jesus Christ fulfilled the promises made in the Jewish scripture. Paul was also interested in bringing the Christian gospel to Gentiles. That means that he had to address not only Jewish concerns but those pertinent to Greek and Roman culture. This post will discuss that portion of his message.

Whereas Acts 13 shows how Paul spoke to Jews, Acts 17:22-31 shows how he approached a skeptical gentile audience. Paul is in Athens, where he has been conversing with the locals in the marketplace. Some of his hearers bring him to the Areopagus to hear what he has to say. Unlike his approach with Jews, he says nothing about Hebrew history and doesn’t quote scripture. He begins instead connecting to the world of his hearers, noting how religious they are and commenting on an altar that had been dedicated “to an unknown god.” He uses this to discuss religious matters with his audience. As Ben Witherington notes, “what we see here is not an attempt to meet pagans halfway, but rather a use of points of contact, familiar ideas and terms, in order to make a proclamation of monotheism in its Christian form.” (The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary).

The Athens Acropolis as viewed from the Areopagus.

God doesn’t live in human temples, says Paul with a good deal of temerity, speaking as he is in the shadow of the temple-studded Acropolis. God doesn’t need anything from us–contrary to the Greek myth that humans were created in order to offer sacrifices to the gods. And it’s wrong to think of God in terms of statues made of gold, silver, or stone. All this seems to directly contradict Greek and Roman religion. This was a fairly sophisticated audience, though, and as such they weren’t mindless adherents of the traditional belief system. Among his listeners are Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He was expressing agreement with some of the ideas of each, and disagreement with others.

The Epicureans would agree with Paul’s critique of pagan sacrifices, for example, but not with his reason for the critique. As N.T. Wright says,

“For the Epicurean, the gods were far away and so didn’t want anything from us; for Paul, God is very close to us, the giver of everything to us, the passionate seeker who wants us to seek him in return—and therefore doesn’t want animal sacrifices from us.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

As for the Stoics, Paul’s allusion to the oneness of all humans in verses 26-8 would have gotten their approval. In verse, 28, he quotes the Stoic philosopher Aratus on the subject of humans being God’s children: “We are his offspring.” For the Stoics, our kinship with God would have been understood pantheistically, but Paul would have meant something different: that God had created all of us in his image. Witherington, who discusses the above points, says this about what Paul was doing:

“Familiar ideas are used to make contact with the audience, but they are used for evangelistic purposes to bolster arguments that are essentially Jewish and Christian in character.” (The Acts of the Apostles: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary)

Paul goes on to speak of a day of judgment presided over by a man that God raised from the dead. That was all that his listeners could stand, and they interrupt. Had he been able to continue, he probably would have continued his same strategy of repurposing concepts familiar to Greeks and Romans to explain what God has done in Jesus. In fact, such repurposing can be found throughout Paul’s writings. Here all some examples of concepts Paul repurposed; I’ve adapted ideas from essays by Richard A. Horsley, Dieter Geogi, and Helmut Koester in Paul and Empire, edited by Horsley (Biblical passages cited are illustrative, not exhaustive; my knowledge of Greek is quite limited and corrections by those who know the language better than I do are welcome):

  • euangelion (gospel) had been used in proclamations about the achievements of Caesar such as the Priene Calendar Inscription; Paul used it in I Cor. 4:15, 15:1, Eph 1:13, 3:6 to refer to what Christ accomplished in behalf of his followers.
  • soter (savior) and soteria (salvation) had been used to refer to what Augustus Caesar and his successors had accomplished; Paul used in Rom. 1:16; 10:11; Phil 1:28; 3:20 to refer to who Christ is and what he has accomplished.
  • pistis (faith or faithfulness) was used to describe the loyalty of Caesar, to be reciprocated by his subjects; Paul used in Rom. 3:3 and Gal. 3:23-25 to about God’s faithfulness and our response.
  • eirene (peace) had been used to refer to the quelling of conflict under Roman rule; Paul used it in Rom. 2:10, 5:1, 8:6, 14:17 to describe a state that God brings in the lives of believers.
  • parousia (arrival or visitation) was used to describe a visit by the emperor; Paul used it in I Thes. 3:13, 4:15, 5:23 to refer to Christ returning to earth in glory.

In the Roman context, such words were political in nature, but also religious, in that they were used in the cult of emperor worship. Paul, an astute observer of his cultural setting, appropriated them to refer to Christ and his accomplishments. Reading Paul today, we tend to limit them to their religious sense. But these words were political as well. Paul was announcing the reign of God, his rule over the powers of this earth. Roman rulers who heard him as challenging their dominion were probably understanding his meaning more clearly than we do today. “May your kingdom come, your will be done,” we pray, as Jesus taught. We might tremble were we to consider what that would do to the kingdoms now in place.

View of the Areopagus from the Athens Acropolis.

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. The power of architecture to shape is evident in the movie “Columbus” (2017), set in Columbus, Indiana, a small city which has numerous buildings designed by major modernist architects such as I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Weese. In the film, Jin, a resident of Seoul, South Korea, has been called to Columbus to be at his father’s bedside. Jin meets Casey, a recent high school graduate who is an enthusiast of the town’s architecture. Casey takes Jin around to her favorite buildings and tries to explain how living in proximity to them helped her deal with the hardship of having a drug-addict mother. Jin, who is estranged from his architect father, dismisses the effect that buildings have on us. “That architecture has the power to heal — that’s the fantasy architects like to tell themselves,” he says derisively. Yet the architecture that they walk and talk and sit by has a simplicity and stability to it that works on both of them.

Casey and Jin looking around.

The structures we frequent elicit reactions in all of us. A cozy cabin gives a sense of comfort, a quirkily painted house brings out whimsy, big-box stores and malls evoke consumerist trances. Following a recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Turkey, I wondered how the citizens of ancient Greek and Roman cities were influenced by the architecture of those cities. I’ve written about some of the structures commonly found in those cities. In one post I wrote about agoras, baths, and theatres. In another I wrote about temples. The activities performed in each of these structures affected the lives of the local residents. What about the style of the buildings, though? What message was conveyed by their form, as opposed to their function?

I don’t have any definitive conclusions to offer here, but I do have a few ideas. Here are three features  Greek and Roman architecture that I imagine shaped the populace.

First, most structures were symmetrical. From whatever side it was viewed, the typical temple had rows of identical columns spaced (or at least appearing to be spaced) equidistant from each other. Colonnades used columns in the same manner. Theatres (such as the one at Aphrodisias, below) typically had seats in neat semicircular rows, each row looking just like the next. In many cases, platforms were constructed so that buildings could be built on perfectly flat, even surfaces. The message conveyed by such symmetry was one of imposed order. Chaos and confusion had been banished by the establishment of the Pax Romana. Subjects of the empire likely sensed that, just as slabs of marble had been tamed to create well-proportioned columns, arches, and pediments, so Roman ingenuity would insure order in all of life.

Second, cities for the most part eliminated nature from the architectural space. Most modern cities have green spaces included as an important feature of their geography. Urban parks are a welcome bit of nature in an otherwise man-made environment. Often, streets are lined with trees and homeowners landscape with bushes, flowerbeds, and lawns. Nothing in the Greek and Roman cities we visited was comparable. When visitors entered the gates of a city (as in Hieropolis, below), they often saw nothing but stone and the sky for blocks at a time. The only possible exception to this were agoras, open public spaces that served as marketplaces or civic centers. It seems that the only natural feature here was an expanse of grass in the middle. We saw trees in a few agoras; I suspect that they grew after the cities they were in were abandoned, but I may be wrong. In any case, the minimal presence of nature reinforced the notion that city planners had tamed and controlled even the elemental forces of the cosmos. Each city appeared to be a self-contained world, and the Romans made sure that cities were quite similar to one another (as discussed here; thanks to Cheryl Matthews for the link). Such control even over nature suggested that Roman power was limitless. This must have disheartened those who hoped to resist that power and reassured those who favored it.

Third was the grand scale of many buildings.  The bath/gymnasium complex in Sardis, for example, was huge. The stadiums were typically also mammoth (as was the one at Perge below), though they were probably given such scale not just to impress but also as a result of their function. Chariot races took a bit of space! Such large structures conveyed majesty and grandeur. This was particularly true of temples. Not only did many of them have a large footprint, they also extended upward. During my visit, I was amazed again and again by the sheer size of these places of worship. It must have taken thousands of workers laboring for decades or even centuries to build such mammoth structures out of marble!

A CNN article about the neuroscience of holy places talks about the feeling of “elevation” evoked by ancient and modern temples and cathedrals. Such a sense of elevation, awe or exultation comes from having our eyes drawn upward. The architect Louis Kahn remarked upon visiting the Roman Baths of Caracalla that “There’s something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man” (quoted here). To be specific, it makes a man (or woman) religious. The intense devotion to the gods prevalent throughout the Roman empire was certainly fostered by visits to the buildings that were dedicated to those gods. And, once temples were being built to worship emperors, it’s not surprising how quickly emperor worship became a powerful force in the society.

So the Roman political and religious systems were bolstered by Roman architecture. Yet Rome faltered, while a religious movement that had no permanent worship spaces for the first three centuries of its existence grew ever more powerful. How did Christianity spread so effectively? In my next post I’ll turn to the apostle Paul, who did more than anyone except Christ himself to disseminate the Christian message.

 

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

The last several posts on this blog have been reflections on my recent trip to Israel. Among other things, I’ve talked about my efforts to approach the trip as a pilgrim, the context that I gained from visiting Biblical sites, and the insights the trip gave me into the Israelites and their God as well as the son of God, Jesus. Where does all that leave me, though? It was a great trip, but, what difference did it make in my life?

I went on the trip hoping that it would benefit me spiritually. I wanted more than just feeling God’s presence now and then while traveling; I hoped to change something in my thinking or behavior so that I would consistently be close to God. In my first post, I talked about going on the trip as a pilgrim, that is, as one who travels to a sacred place as a devotee, someone seeking spiritual benefit from the voyage. Ideally, I would not only go as a pilgrim but return as one. Pilgrimage, after all, doesn’t have to end just because travel has ended. What’s most important is not the physical journey but the journey of the soul, as portrayed in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Traveling back home can be an extension of the pilgrim journey, as T.S. Eliot alluded to in Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

When I returned home, I think that I stayed in the pilgrim mindset for a month and a half, possibly two months. During that period of time, many people asked me about the trip and I was writing regularly about it. Talking and writing about Israel kept me focused on the lessons I learned and helped me partly transcend time–my mind was to some extent in first-century Palestine even while my body was in 21st-century America. That level of heightened awareness couldn’t last. After a while, I had written pretty much all I planned to and didn’t have as many opportunities to talk about the trip. I started to lose the sense of being a pilgrim.

I did continue to ask the key question that I began asking during the trip, though: What was I doing that kept me from becoming more like Jesus? I realized that I was spending too much time on the internet, so I tried to cut back some on that. I thought I might need to plan another pilgrimage and started to look at places to which I could travel. After a few days, though, I decided that was a false step. Making travel plans kept me from being fully present at home. Such focus on one’s immediate surroundings seems a precondition for remaining on pilgrimage–pilgrims fully inhabit each step they take rather than mentally jumping ahead to somewhere the road may eventually lead.

While I was trying to figure out ways to stay on pilgrimage I received an issue of Christian Reflection on the topic of “Traveling Well” (all issues are available here). I found several helpful references (including the above quote from Eliot). John Gatta quoted NT Wright’s  The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today: “it is not we, ultimately, who are on a journey for God in the face of Jesus. It is God who is on a journey looking for us.” God on pilgrimage! Doesn’t that describe what Christ did when he lived among us? How much God must love us to set out in search of us! Knowing of his ongoing pilgrimage helps me continue my pilgrimage.

Also in that issue, Christian T. George cited Lauren Artress’s Walking a Sacred Path, a book on labyrinth walking. Artress describes three stages in walking a labyrinth: purgation, illumination, and communion. George suggests that pilgrims pass through the same three stages. During the trip I tried to shift from being a tourist to being a pilgrim, using fasts to do so. That was the stage of purgation. I did get some illumination, I think, during those days of fasting and during my months of reflection following the trip. As I prayed over these bits of illumination, I sometimes experienced communion.

I have begun examining my daily experiences according to Artress’s scheme: am I in purgation, illumination, communion, or none of the above? I am starting to see the labyrinth/pilgrim walk as taking me in a circle: purgation, illumination, communion, then going out to the world to share God’s love, only to stray from the path and have to start again with purgation. Having this scheme in mind helps me know what to do next. Most commonly, I realize that I had gone out in the world with good intentions but got distracted. I need to get back on the pilgrim path, starting with purgation.

I’m pretty new to using this scheme of self-examination to guide my pilgrim journey. I’m sure I have lots to learn! I’ll use this blog to discuss any additional insights I discover along the way.

labyrinth

wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!

Paul Peterson, a co-leader on the trip to Israel that I’ve been blogging about recently, talked about his father’s reaction upon returning from Israel several years ago. “I get it,” he told Paul. “Old stones. Lots of really old stones.”

What’s impressive, of course, isn’t the stones themselves but how they got to where they are. Thousands of years ago somebody stacked them atop one another to make walls, houses, temples, and the like. I’ve been reflecting on all those ruins. What lessons do they have for us?

I’ve seen “old stones” before this trip–at the acropolis in Athens, the forum in Rome, and the excavations in Ephesus, to name three places that come to mind. The Levant contains ruins that are much older than those sites, though. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, first settled about 11,000 years ago. When we went there we didn’t visit the site of the ancient settlements, but we did see very old ruins in other locations. For example, at Tel Arad there are ruins of a Bronze Age Canaanite city that is about 5,000 years old. The site was abandoned for about 1,500 years before the Israelites settled nearby in the 11th century B.C.

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

This pattern of successive settlements at the same site made an impression on me. We saw numerous tels–hills consisting of layer upon layer of settlement, each abandoned, then built upon by the next occupants. At the first site we visited, Tel Gezer, we sat near the city gates in the 13th level; 12 more settlements had been built atop those ruins. This level is thought to have been the city built by Solomon mentioned in I Kings 9, so it dated to about the 10th century B.C. There are more levels beneath this one; no one knows how many.

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

Tels confound our simplistic historical schemes that divide all of human existence into just a few categories such as ancient, medieval, and modern. Even if we look at single tel, it’s quickly apparent that many different people groups once lived there and these residents were often separated from each other in time and probably in customs as much as we are separated from figures like Julius Caesar or Clovis. That way of looking at human existence challenges our tendency to privilege living in the present, in modern times. We moderns are just putting down one layer. With the passage of enough time, if anyone remembers the USA they will probably be hard-pressed to say how it differed from the Holy Roman Empire or the Hapsburg monarchy. That’s humbling.

For the most part, the ruins we saw were walled cities or fortresses. They were probably constructed out of stone because its sturdiness provided advantages when a neighboring king decided to invade. We learned something about what made for good fortifications. For example, the city gate was the most vulnerable point so a double wall was often built there, with a chamber between the walls to hold soldiers ready to fight anyone who breached the outer gate. Of course, even the most sturdy defenses could be surmounted. At Tel Lachish and again at Masada we saw massive siege ramps built by attacking armies (the Assyrians and Romans, respectively). At both sites the attackers were ultimately successful.

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Ancient Canaanites and Jews lived in a world much different from ours, but we can understand their impulse to protect themselves. Though we no longer literally wall in our cities, modern nations use munitions, firewalls, and border fences to protect against threats. On an individual level, we lock our doors and turn on our security alarms; some of us have guns to defend ourselves. We accumulate savings to protect our retirement, buy insurance to protect against loss, and limit our openness with others to protect our emotions.

City walls were for the most part a good thing, as are our modern forms of protection. Once we have such fortifications, though, we are tempted to rely entirely on them. Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judea:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh” (Jer. 17:5).

A couple verses later, he draws this contrast:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him” (v. 7).

Trust God. Do lock your door at night, though. None of the Old Testament prophets advised God’s people to dismantle the walls around their cities so that they would have to rely on God alone. There are a couple New Testament passages in which Jesus told his followers to dispense with ordinary precautions (e.g. Luke 10:4), but these instructions don’t seem to have been intended for everyone.

How do we insure that we depend primarily on God rather than turning to other sources of security? Jesus told stories about birds and flowers to help us with this (see Matthew 6:25ff). Birds and flowers don’t erect walls, but they’re doing fine. All the fortifications I saw on the trip are a good reminder that I, too, am prone to rely too much on my defenses. It’s important to remember that God is my source of security and only by trusting in him can I live in freedom, not in fear.