(Impressions of Nancy and Buck Weaver)




Initiation to Israel

When sober-faced El Al security personnel mingled with our group of about 150 people gathered at Newark International Airport to set off for Tel Aviv, we gained a more realistic sense of Middle East tensions that have gripped the area from ancient times and continue today.

The leader and organizer of our tour group had advised that special security precautions by El Al Airlines to head off Arab terrorism were a major, positive reason for his choice of that carrier and airport. Pastor Lon Solomon of the McLean Bible Church in northern Virginia also had cautioned us against flippancy and had indicated this would be no-nonsense process. And so it proved: a screening well beyond our experience during years of international flight while in foreign service. As it turned out, peace of mind ultimately made up for the temporary inconvenience.

Instead of the usual blase passenger approach directly to an airport counter for check-in, Israeli security personnel meandered through our waiting lines, selecting individuals at random, for a fairly stiff Q and A. It was quite thorough: who packed your bags, did they ever leave your presence, has anyone approached you and asked you to deliver anything, are you carrying any weapons, etc? These experts watch closely for reaction, we learned, checking for any suspicious fumbling or evasive answers. In at least one case, a young lady in our group was taken aside for even more intensive grilling, but was approved for boarding. She was singled out for similar treatment on the return trip from Tel Aviv.

When we were queried, there was a discussion about my name, which for some reason appeared on my ticket as "Buck Weaver" instead of the "Donald" on my passport . I tried to explain how I got the nickname "Buck" from a priest who coached my baseball team in school. (He dubbed me that because I reminded him of a player by that name who was involved in a Chicago Black Sox scandal many years ago). The young security lady eventually dismissed that line of investigation with the admission that "I don't know anything about baseball." She warmed to us somewhat, and wished she could go home to Israel with us.

At any rate, our group was cleared and proceeded on our long-anticipated red-eye flight to the Holy Land. When I noted to a male steward that the huge 747 plane seemed crowded, he replied with a grin, "500 passengers, it's totally full. We are Jewish--we do good business."

The flight, through seven time zones, went smoothly. Our airliner sometimes approached speeds of 750 miles per hour, partly because of 175 mile per hour tailwinds. One novelty was salted fish for breakfast, which was to be daily offering in Israel. Another on the upscale aircraft was small screens on the back of seats, which permitted close-in film showing and geographical maps indicating exactly where the plane was at any given time. So during mostly sleepless hours, we observed our course past such landmarks as Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and on into the Mediterranean, skirting France, Italy and Greece before settling down at the modern airport of Tel Aviv.

Without any fuss, we were speedily escorted through customs by Monty, our tourist company agent. We were assigned in groups of about 50 to three sleek, air-conditioned buses marked with red, white and blue signs, which were to be our chariots throughout the stay in Israel. Our guide, Abner Ben Uzial, would frequently summon us by calling, "blue bus, blue bus!"

A whimsical, somewhat dour, low-key Jew, Abner would reel off a steady drumfire of information that kept us occupied constantly with recorders, video cameras and note-taking. Twenty years in the profession, he was to thoroughly brief us from a boundless fund of Biblical, historical, archeological, political and cultural highpoints as we cruised through areas of Israel over the next week. Most of our guides and bus drivers were Jewish, but depending on the site, they usually highlighted the life of Jesus and his ministry. Needless to say, we also had a generous undergirding of Old Testament scripture and background.

As we passed through Tel Aviv (tel means old; aviv, spring), one of the nation's two major ports, Abner mused about how that city, with 350,000 people is now surpassed by Jerusalem, with 600,000. Israel's population is about six million, including 800 thousand Arabs. The tiny country, surrounded by belligerent nations numbering many millions more of Arabs, only encompasses some 15,000 square miles. The observer has to admire the courage and resiliency of Israelis. They have gathered the diaspora from afar and melded its disparate peoples into viability, to stave off Arab attacks and remain an independent and thriving nation.

We threaded our way through the Valley of Sharon, paralleling the original route of the Via Maris (Highway of the Sea), through which armies of many nations have marched during invasions, conquests and retreats down through the ages.

Our journey through the Valley of Armageddon, with its 6,000 year history, had special significance. It was known in ancient times as the Valley of Jezreel. Scripture says the final battle against the antichrist is to take place there after the second coming of the Messiah, prior to the end of the world and establishment of Zion.

For now, the valley is a lucrative farm belt. Cotton bales the size of autos dotted the landscape, with its many patches of lush greenery, even though our stay coincided with the dry season.

Among Biblical references Abner cited were Afula, hometown of Judge Gideon, and the hills of Gilgal, which King David cursed after the death of his son, Absalom. They remain barren. .And we passed by Mt. Tabor where the Transfiguration of Jesus took place, not far from the Hills of Gilead. That's where his brothers kidnapped Joseph before he went on to be designated a top Egyptian leader under the Pharoah Ramses. We also sped by Magdala, Mary Magdalene's town.

Some economic marvels emerged as we glanced at abundant croplands, orchards and forests that Israeli farmers and horticulturists have coaxed from former deserts and dusky, stony hillsides. Agriculture was Israel's number one source of income following independence in 1948. Much is for internal consumption now, but fresh vegetable production nationally still generates more than one billion dollars yearly from exports, largely to Europe. Times have changed and farming is now relegated to fourth in line, behind diamond and other jewelry fabrication, tourism and high tech.

We learned that agriculture got a boost early on from a government program to reforest swamplands and other long-stripped areas. Under the project, thousands of eucalyptus trees from Australia have been planted to absorb and drain water and rejuvenate unproductive land. Even so, it's estimated that up to 55 percent of Israel is desert, ultra visible in the Judean wilderness to the south of Jerusalem. But in what has been the culmination of Biblical prophecy that "the desert will bloom," we viewed groves of pine, olive (two million nationwide, which take five years to bear, but can last hundreds of years), citrus, date and fig trees. Banana plantations have also sprung up, along with vineyards, to add to harvests reaped from conversion of large blocks of once-barren land into food and shekels for the economy.

Our destination from Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean, was inland, northeast, to the Gai Beach hotel at Tiberias. The town of 45,000 is located on the southwest shore of the Lake of Galilee (known in Hebrew as Kinnaret). The lake is bordered by three fertile valleys: the Ginosar in the northwest; Beit Zida in the northeast and the Jordan River Valley, which drains from the southern shore of the lake and ambles 50 miles into the Dead Sea.

It was from Tiberias that we launched our excursions for three days, and witnessed there the Jordan River baptism, or re-baptism, of many people in our large group.

Economic and Strategic Breakthroughs

Designated as a five-star, our Gai Beach hotel was a pleasant place, right on the lakefront in the spa and resort area. The grounds, with palm trees, the lake view and an enormous swimming pool, were certainly eye-catching. Accommodations didn't quite live up to top billing in terms of luxury, and it was hard to sleep because of loud music and drumming at late-night bar or bat mitzvahs and parties. But who cared? It gave us a marvelous springboard to rove around where Jesus ministered and performed dramatic miracles.

We gained many fresh insights into pages of the Bible. So much so that reminded of tableaus from scripture, and with Lon's excellent lectures filling out the picture, people were perceptibly touched. It was unique to personally experience neighborhoods where Jesus had been present in the flesh.

For example, we followed His footsteps through several such communities, even taking to boats to sail across the Galilee waters on which He and Peter walked, scripture says, and where Peter netted miracle fish at the suggestion of Jesus. As a matter of fact, we lunched in a restaurant, where the specialty was "Peter Fish."

Though somewhat tired from a day of trekking, and a combination of jet lag and close concentration to miss no relevant fact, we could retreat at night to a chaise longue on the water's edge. One could view with clarity in the pure air the stars and the twinkling lights of kibbutzes and villages nestled around the lake. In such a relaxed mood and peaceful setting, it was natural to reflect on how the Messiah had lived out part of his three-year ministry in the locality and had so dramatically proven his divinity.

Such an opportunity packs a powerful impact. We came away with an extra dimension of comprehending the message of the Gospel. Our respite from secularism and focus on spiritual matters in "Bibleland," along with learning more about the profusion of continuing archeological finds that prove out scripture factually, are persuasive instruments of faith. The result is also a plausible eye-opener for skeptics who would put down the Bible as fiction and myth.

In terms of comfort, after dressing for approaching winter back home, it was a delight to bask in the climate of Tiberias. Except for rainfall beginning for three months in November, it's usually balmy. Daytime temperatures ranged to the middle 70's during our stay in early November. We were favored with sunny days throughout our odyssey, around the lake and elsewhere in the Holy Land.

The Galilee area, we came to know, is extremely important to the very survival of Israel. It borders the Golan Heights on the lake's eastern flank, which used to separate the nation from Syria, an arch enemy. The Galilee is Israel's only freshwater lake. Not especially large, it measures about 15 miles north and south, and about seven east to west.

At various sites in the nation, oases have sustained Bedouins and other ethnic groups for thousands of years. But the Lake of Galilee has been the nation's main source of fresh water since 1964, when an ingenious distribution system was devised, with American technical support.

Utilizing contemporary technology and carrier methods that date to ancient times, Galilee water is pumped to upward elevations where a system of above-ground viaducts transports it by gravity to critical points around the country. Even a few salt springs feeding into the bottom of the lake are separately pumped out for distribution and irrigate distant croplands.

Viaducts, of course, are not a new idea. The vestiges of some of them, like at Caeserea on the Mediterranean, date back thousands of years. At several sites we visited, cisterns, various channels and springs illustrated the critical nature of fresh water for survival and the establishment of communities.

Tap water in the hotels where we stayed were considered healthy enough, although it was recommended that we generally imbibe bottled water elsewhere, at about a dollar a liter. With my record of dysentery in developing countries in the past, we generally kept bottles handy.

During a visit to the Golan Heights, whose tawny slopes were visible from our Tiberias hotel, it was pointed out that the main source for the lake is springs at the foot of Mt. Hermon to the north. There was deep concern in past years when Syria attempted to curtail Israel's water supplies by diverting upland tributaries. Moreover, among aggressive moves in the past, Damascus authorized gunners in hillside bunkers on the hills to randomly rain down shells on kibbutz farmers and fishermen along the eastern shoreline, causing deaths and injuries.

Israel had enough, and during conflict since independence, its troops invaded the strategic sector, and penetrated 27 miles deep into territory formerly held by Syria. Today garrisons remain entrenched and some 15,000 Israelis have established about 50 settlements in the region. Comparatively small sections of land, seized in warfare, have been conceded to Palestinian control in the West Bank and Gaza strip through a series of agreements aimed at establishing peace in the troubled Middle East But it's considered certain that it would be political suicide and sheer foolishness for the government to surrender the Golan Heights region, and place a potential chokehold within the grasp of an implacable foe.

After our rundown on bloody military clashes and the vagaries of war and dictators, we welcomed a change in mood. We found it a short distance away at the Jordan River near Tiberias, where many of our pilgrims chose to be baptized by immersion. Lon may have gotten more than he had bargained for. He had a good workout in ministering to nearly two-thirds of our number, who accepted his invitation for first-time baptisms or recommitments.

Nancy was among those donning bathing suits and long white robes for submersion in the murky waters of the river, undeterred by tiny fish nibbling harmlessly at heels, as larger ones circled nearby . The site of most baptisms is at that specific point in the southern Galilee where the river begins draining and meanders south to the Dead Sea. The Jordan is sort of a scrawny little river, more like a creek in most places

There have been some claims that Jesus was baptized at this site, but that is considered doubtful since the Bible indicates that John the Baptizer did the job in the Jordan near Jericho.

Meals, Forts and a Pair of Boats

An early visit on our tour was to "Mensa Christi" (Meal of Christ), which is on the Galilee Shore, and marks the site where Jesus prepared food for his disciples after His resurrection. The Bible recounts how Jesus had urged Peter, who had come ashore with empty nets, to try again. This time Peter was shocked to net exactly 153 fish, numbered in scripture.

Nancy had this journal entry:

"When they returned to shore with their huge catch, Jesus had a fire ready and fed them. We stood on that very spot. Awesome!

"This is also the place where Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and told Peter to 'feed My sheep.' It was in this area that Peter was strengthened and was a changed man; from one who was sinking after following Jesus as He walked on Galilee water to an apostle who was powerful and effective in preaching God's word and eventually surrendered his life for the faith. Peter denied Jesus three times and was forgiven. Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him--maybe once for every denial?"

A nearby church displays a large stone commemorating the statement of Jesus to Peter (whose name means "rock"), "Upon this rock I will build my church." A bronze sculpture in a shady church garden showed Jesus reaching a hand out to a child, with an inscription at the base, "Feed My lambs," as Christ had instructed Peter.

Here Pastor Lon gave a talk with a personal angle, in which he said Jesus had spoken of the legalisms of the Bible, but had declared to his followers and to us: "My gospel is that I love you. I just love you because I love you." This, he added, was "the greatest freedom, just knowing that someone loves you." Lon recalled how he had been raised in a dysfunctional family, and his manipulative mother would not speak to him directly for long periods. He related how Orthodox Jewish relatives had turned him away from his mother's funeral because he had left the faith for Christianity. When he had come to know that God loved him unconditionally, Lon said, it changed his life. "You do not have to wait around for the hammer to drop...we need personal connectedness to Jesus Christ."

Our next stop briefly on a busy whirl of activity was within walking distance: the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, situated on a shoreline of large rocks. Called Ein Sheva in Hebrew and Tabgha in Arabic, a courtyard signboard identifies it as an area of several Biblical events, including the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by Jesus to feed thousands of people. The church featured a fifth century art object depicting the miracle of the fish, which Lon described as perhaps the most famous mosaic in Israel.

"The Bible says in Matthew that Jesus went here alone at first and this place is still lonely if you discount the tourists," Nancy observed. That was hard to do though. In virtually all of the holy places we were privileged to visit in Israel, the number of tourists and pilgrims that we encountered--international visitors for the most part--was astounding.

Then it was on to the town of Capernaum, which some call the "Town of Jesus." A former customs station on the Via Maris, it is described as the base of operations for the public ministry of Jesus. The grounds have several historical treasures, including ruins that are supported by the black basalt foundation of the same synagogue where Jesus worshipped. It was at Capernaum that Jesus healed the centurion's servant after an appeal from Jews who said the officer had "built" the synagogue, according to scripture. We stood in the remains of the synagogue, where scripture says Jesus silenced the troublesome demoniac, who tried to disclose Jesus' messianic mission.

Called the "White Synagogue" because of the color of limestone with which it was rebuilt in the fourth century, it was destroyed by a seventh century earthquake. The remnants were discovered in the 19th century, and have been partially reconstructed by the Franciscan fathers.

Nearby are the rundown foundation of what is called "Peter's House," a stone carving depicting the Ark of the Covenant on wheels, and a mosaic showing the design of a boat at the time of Christ.

Nancy said later that the depiction closely resembled a now-famous fishing boat of that era, recovered from the Galilee shoreline at the time of a drought 12 years ago. She, like others, was duly intrigued by the story of that boat, which we saw on display at a kibbutz farm on the lakeshore. Reporting that the mosaic "depicts a fishing boat giving us a clear understanding of the type of vessel used by Peter and his peers," Nancy continued her narrative.

"This was the only visible clue to these vessels referred to in the Bible for some 2,000 years until a relatively-recent drought affected Israel. Following a two-year dry period, the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee had receded to unprecedented low levels.

"One morning in January, 1986, two brothers from Kibbutz Ginosar were walking along the shore by Migdal. From the time of childhood until into their thirties, they had been obsessed with the idea of finding a shipwreck on the bed of the Sea of Galilee. Experts told them that nothing could have survived that long, but they persisted in believing and searching.

"One day they spied pieces of wood peeking out of the muddy sea bank. Within a matter of days, it was ascertained that these were remnants of the hull of an ancient boat. The clay seabed at the bottom of the freshwater lake had protected the hull from deterioration. However, it was in danger of disintegrating further once exposed to the air.

"Dr. Wachsman, of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, launched an emergency rescue operation to extricate the boat. At the same time, one of the world's leading nautical archeologists, Professor Dick Steffy, flew in from the U.S. and confirmed that the boat was from the New Testament era. He even drew a sketch of what he estimated the original to look like. Coincidentally, while all this was happening, two Franciscan archeologists made public their discovery in Migdal of an incredibly detailed mosaic depicting a sailing vessel, which is eerily similar to the raised boat.

"The hull of the extricated boat was cleared of mud, packaged in polyurethane foam and floated up the shore a few hundred yards to Kibbutz Ginosar, where the waterlogged vessel was treated for several years in a special preservation pool. A few months ago, it was decided to drain the pool. The museum staff held their breath to see whether the wood, which had lasted 2,000 years in the mud, had managed to survive a further nine years of treatment. Incredibly, it had!

"We viewed this boat, which is behind a glass partition in Kibbutz Ginosar. This is the first-ever inland lake vessel ever retrieved in the entire Mediterranean region and is being protected under exacting, temperature-controlled conditions. It will eventually be on permanent display in its own wing in the museum."

Following our kibbutz tour, we split into two groups aboard motorized boats, then moored together in the middle of the Lake of Galilee. There, on a bright, sunny day, the American flag was hoisted as we sang the "Star Spangled Banner" with gusto. It was a moving time for some members of our group, distant as we were from our own homeland.

Lon delivered an inspiring talk on the power of faith. He cited the example of Peter stepping out on Galilee waters to follow Jesus after He had quelled a storm with His divine power and both of them walked on the lake. But Peter's faith failed him, he began to sink and Jesus rescued him. Later on when Jesus was arrested just before his crucifixion, Peter lost courage again and denied that Jesus was his leader. Despite his weakness in the face of adversity, Christ forgave him and raised him to great responsibilities as head of the church, an important lesson for us when we have doubts.

After connecting ashore with our buses, we journeyed on to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Lon surprised us. "Grab yourselves a rock," Lon said, and we found ourselves perched on individual stones while he demonstrated how Jesus could speak to thousands of people in this natural amphitheater. Nancy, for one, said she had "often wondered how Jesus could preach to multitudes in the days before amplification devices."

Lon cited a verse of scripture (Luke 6:12) on the incident of the Beatitudes, which says that Jesus descended and "stood on a level place" He explained how Jesus would not have addressed the multitude from the top of the mount but from lower ground. So Lon, too, descended to a level place well below us and demonstrated how it was indeed possible to clearly hear his recitation of the Beatitudes. We were impressed as, in Nancy's words, "The breeze behind him swept off the Sea of Galilee and carried his voice up the mountain to us. What a revelation!"

We managed to squeeze in a short visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There was a bright metal star on the floor which is supposed to be the spot where Jesus was born. On the way in, we halted our buses in some dusty hills to watch some shepherds guiding a flock toward a well, from which they hauled up buckets of water to slake the animals' thirst. We suspected that it was an event coordinated for our benefit. It did serve to remind us that it was somewhere on these hills that the angel announced to shepherds the birth of the Messiah 2,000 years ago.
We later returned to Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem, to shop at a store specializing in carvings of olive and other woods. Prior to the buying spree, the proprietor said the Lord's Prayer in Syriac-Aramaic (Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke). Then urging us toward the store, he said, "hava, hava, shake a leg a little!"

A few days later, we returned to the businessman's next-door restaurant for a banquet, band music with some local instruments, and dancing, which included the Macarena. We had a difficult time motoring out of Bethlehem that night because of buses debarking thousands of Orthodox Jews for a special service at Rachel's grave in the community.

One of the towns we had looked forward to visiting was Nazareth, where Jesus spent nearly 30 years of his life, with Mary and Joseph, the "First Family" of Christians. It was a village then and now has a population of 50,000, mostly Arabs.

Our main destination was the Church of the Annunciation, once a sort of oasis where the angel Gabriel may have informed Mary of her conception of the Savior Messiah. According to tradition, it could have occurred at "Mary's Well," a spring bricked up under the church. Mary's family was one of possibly 60 in the village who used it at the time of Jesus, and water still gushes through the tiny waterway. It's possible that Mary herself dipped water from the well for her Divine Son and Joseph, possibly until Jesus was old enough to take over the chore.

Traffic moved at a crawl through the narrow streets of Nazareth, where a good deal of refurbishing and road building is going on. It's part of preparations for a visit by the Pope in the Catholic Jubilee 2,000, when hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected as part of a year of celebrations in such places as Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. However, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has been quoted as saying that a papal visit depends on the Pontiff's health and political uncertainties in the Middle East.

As we headed for the fabled fortress and palace site of Megiddo, high up on a mountain, we were filled in on some biblical history concerning warfare and attempts to promote peace and harmony. Stretched before us, on the bus and again when we attained the Megiddo heights, was the strategic Valley of Armaggedon (Jezreel), where Joshua had led the Israelite army across the Jordan to vanquish the Canaanites.

It was recalled how David, another victorious general, succeeded Saul and consolidated the Israelite kingdom about 1,000 BC. He conquered Jebus (then held by Jebusites) with warriors who invaded through water tunnels, and that small town became Jerusalem. (Jebus was about 16 acres, and early Jerusalem had only 2,000 residents. By the time of Christ, it had grown to 140,000 people. The Temple Mount today measures the size of 24 football fields).

David's son Solomon was not so much a warrior as a canny diplomat, who built the first temple in Jerusalem from resources he built up in a rich treasury. He intermarried with other ethnic groups to maintain peace.

As for Megiddo, it is about 6,000 years old and was one of the strongholds where Solomon built a palace, as did Ahab about 900 BC. Ahab succeeded in fortifying the region, strengthening the Megiddo base. Archeologists have discovered foundations of stables, which we observed, for hundreds of horses needed for chariots, the "tanks" of warfare then. Recovered from an assortment of 20 layers of occupation, we saw stone mangers for feeding the animals. There are remains of water tunnels and cisterns to resist siege, dug out of limestone by Ahab's workmen. Grain silos from the time of Jeroboam also have been discovered.

One of our most fascinating stops was at Mt. Carmel, where we enjoyed a thorough briefing on one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. It was here, during the administration of Ahab, that God responded to Elijah's prayer and rained down fire and lightning in destruction that humiliated and doomed the 850 prophets of the gods of Baal and Asherah.

Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of Ahab, was an "intense woman," Lon said. Her father was a priest of Baal, and she apparently instigated the showdown, convinced that Baal would respond. But God's power obliterated watered-down bullocks, trenches and an altar when the false gods of the prophets failed the test. Afterwards, Elijah ordered the slaughter of the prophets.

We picked up another scriptural "nugget" as a result of Lon's talk on the Elijah story, which he described as "a wonderful demonstration of God's power," He emphasized how arid the region was, so where did the water come from to soak the target of God's fire? Then he pointed out a still-flowing brook, flanked by greenery in the valley below, from which Israelites carried the water to the mount so Elijah could set up the miracle demonstrating God's glory and power. Lon, who serves on the national board of Jews for Jesus, urged us to pray more effectively by asking for "God's glory in our prayer," which He cannot refuse.

From the elevation at Megiddo we could observe an Israeli military airfield, with ribbons of runways installed in a v-shaped pattern to keep an enemy from disabling Israeli facilities in a single strike. What looked like American F-16's streaked through the air, but were not visible after landing on the airfield. The jets taxi underground for protection from enemy fire.

According to Lon, a top air force officer had informed him that the entire Israeli Air Force could scramble in 15 minutes if necessary. That's vital because, for modern warplanes, Jordan is only six minutes away and other Arab nations dangerously close as well.

During remarks at one point, Lon mentioned a few of his insights into the "End Times" of Bible prophecy and the conflict to take place in the vast valley before our eyes. Like Christ in scripture, he made no predictions as to when, but Lon disagreed with some well-known apocalyptic analysts who interpret the threat of invasion from the Russian "Bear" or elsewhere in Asia.

A more likely threat, in Lon's view, is Saddam Hussein of Iraq (the former Babylon), who sees himself as a "modern Nebuchadnezzar," instrumental in rebuilding Babylon.

Apparently siding with some experts concerning a threat of international economic calamity, Lon assesses Arab and other Middle East nations as possessing tremendous oil wealth and gold reserves. They hold "the debt of the world," he said, and on the other hand, western nations like the U.S. are "broke." While Lon admits, "I don't know if I'm right or not," he does look to the oil-rich nations for the antichrist. When the apocalypse comes, he expresses confidence that "the Lord in the final battle will save Jerusalem."

Caeserea by the Sea

About the only time we had a leisurely encounter with the Mediterranean Sea was during a trip to Caeserea, built by Herod the Great in about a decade. He was an Edomite from a region between the Dead and Red seas, and died in 4 AD. The Romans had taken Israel in 53 BC, had appointed Herod King of Judea in 37 BC..

He was a cruel and politically crafty leader, and a prodigious builder of palaces, forts and towns in many areas of the nation, including the famous Masada. (He spent a good part of his 40-year reign to redesigning and expanding the Second Temple complex at Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, now the area of the Dome of the Rock, held in high esteem by Christians, Jews and Muslims. It's believed to be the site where God called off the sacrifice of Abraham's son, Isaac).

A large port on the Mediterranean, with a population of 45,000, Caeserea had twice that many people when Pontius Pilate lived there for ten years. He visited Jerusalem only for high holy days like Passover and Yom Kippur. That explains why Pilate was in the holy city when he condemned Jesus to death. That is believed to have taken took place in the Judgement Hall of the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem.

Until this century, the Biblical account was the sole record that Pilate resided in Caeserea. Skeptics had a setback in 1964 when archeologists uncovered a stele, a large stone tablet with his name carved on its face, which we captured on video tape.

Other stone evidence shows that the Roman Tenth Legion, the same soldiers who conquered Masada and spread death and destruction through Israel in the First Century AD, had camped in the town. A rather large and ancient artifact was disclosed in recent years when personnel in aircraft noticed a long, snake-like swelling in the sand near the sea. Investigation revealed it was part of a seven-mile aqueduct, parts of it now in full view, that had funneled water to Caeserea by gravity from springs at Mt. Carmel.

Reflecting the late-day sunlight, the red-gold colors of the limestone structure contrasted magnificently with the sandy beach and the blue of the Mediterranean and sky, creating a memorable land and seascape.

Our people congregated at an historic amphitheater, where Lon related how Paul had served jail time in Caeserea and had appeared there before Herod Agrippa. Despite his eloquent witness, there is no evidence that Agrippa gave his life to Christ.

Lon informed us of his own conversion through a street preacher handing out tracts, after years of Jewish upbringing and a wild lifestyle. As he put it, he had come to a point where "I had a heart that was ready to meet God." Many times, he said, it not the lack of information that hinders salvation; not a problem of "ignorance but stubbornness." Lon urged us to stop giving information to friends, but instead "pray for their heart change." The only thing needed, he said, was for "the Spirit of God...to change people's lives."

Old Timer Jericho and the Dead Sea

Jericho, a short distance northeast of Jerusalem and only seven miles north of the Dead Sea, is 950 feet below sea level. It is said to be the oldest city in the world, between 6,000 and 8,000 years.

En route we passed through a region where the first kibbutz, or democratic cooperative, was organized. It happened at the end of the 19th century and brought together immigrants from European nations like Poland, Hungary and Russia. We were informed that the region is earthquake prone and sits on what some call "the biggest crack" in the globe. The rift extends 3,000 miles from the Syrian-Turkish border to Mozambique in East Africa.

Although favored with what is said to be the best oasis in the world--known as the "Spring of Elijah,' which still flows today--Jericho is extremely dry, with only three inches of annual rainfall. Such a climate is ideal archeologically speaking, and has helped preserve up to 22 layers of cultures for examination by experts.

Jericho's excavation began in the 1950's with digging by a team headed by an American. Like other explorations, a key telltale evidence of occupation has been a variety of pottery, dated according to composition and design.
The town's main claim to fame was Joshua's victory over the Canaanites, as described in the spiritual song, "when the walls came tumbling down" after the blasts of trumpets by Israelites as ordered by God. Joshua's forces had crossed the Jordan near Gilgal and he placed 12 stones in the river in honor of the tribes of Israel.

Jericho was deserted for quite awhile after God allowed its destruction. It was partially resettled over the next 150 years and was rebuilt by Ahab after Solomon's reign. Jericho was abandoned again after Rome cracked down on Jewish militants in the first and second centuries AD when the Israelites were crushed and dispersed.

A large city visited by Jesus, Jericho was known for date production, which continues today, as we noticed, and there are other outcroppings like citrus orchards and vineyards. We took some time in the town, now in Palestinian Arab control under an agreement between Israel and Jordan, to stock up on fruit and a few souvenirs before heading down the road to the Dead Sea.

The water there is said to be the saltiest in the world, about 40 percent according to some samples. The area also booming industrially and commercially, with extensive mining of potash for fertilizers, and a flourishing tourist business.

A spa and resort section, people come from long distances to bathe in the waters of the sea and daub black mud from the area on their bodies for therapeutic effect. The beach was crowded, and it was a technicolor treat to see the contrast of blonde heads and black bodies among the tourists before they dipped into the water to wash away the stuff. Small bags of it go for four dollars a pop.

It was entertaining to observe swimmers floating on top of the surface of the sea without any effort, due to the extra buoyancy afforded by the salty water. Nancy tried to keep under but couldn't. We had been warned against getting any of the salt water in cuts or eyes. "Get one drop in your eye and you won't be able to watch television for two months!" Abner quipped as we left the bus.

The popularity of the place is indicated by its 12 tourist hotels, and more are going up. One of them, the recently-completed Hyatt Hotel, has 650 rooms. Air conditioning is essential It was not unpleasantly warm during our Dead Sea stopover-- about 90 degrees--not a bad time to be there, since summer readings hit 110.

These beaches are near the sinful towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed through an angel. No trace of them has ever been found.

After a swim and fresh water rinse-off of salt crusts for those who indulged, we were off on a short jaunt to Masada, an archeological site and former fortress that is highly regarded by Israelis. About an hour's drive from Jerusalem, it was there in the First Century AD that some 960 Israelites held out against a siege by thousands of Roman soldiers, before choosing suicide over slavery.

Masada is not an easy dig to reach, way up on a mountain. So cable cars have been installed to creep up the facade, resulting in a breathtaking view of other craggy peaks as well and the blue blanket of the Dead Sea.
Discovered in the middle of the last century, the excavation got underway about 35 years ago, under the supervision of a former chief of staff of the Israeli Army. A garrison and high outpost planned by Herod the Great, Masada was said to have been a fortress of last resort in case the Judean king's throne came under attack.

Herod built a palace, cisterns and large storerooms--some partially reconstructed now--to provide food and ammunition. Ordnance included stones for catapults and for tumbling down slopes against enemy ranks.
There were sporadic hit-and-run night assaults by Israelite guerrillas but the "rolling stones" defense was thwarted by General Flavius Silva, commander of the Roman Tenth Legion troops. He forced Israelite slaves to the forefront of laborers building a ramp of stones, soil and timbers up the mountainside to access the fortress.

The rectangular configurations of stone foundations of the large Roman camps are clearly visible from Masada. Coins found there with markings of 103 AD indicate the Romans used Masada for a troop garrison until it was abandoned after their invasion of Jordan.

Archeologists and historians figure there were enough stocks at Masada for 10,000 people, but the fortress never sheltered that many. There is no evidence that Herod ever lived there, although he died in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

We were escorted to interior public bathing rooms with rocky walls and spotty segments of murals that have stood the test of time. Elsewhere we looked down on the ruins of a former palace wing. Abner, in a moment of whimsy, commented that Herod had a wife named Miriam whom he truly loved, and added, "That's where he killed her." He said Herod used to bring friends to the Dead Sea, "and some of them are still swimming!"

When the Romans finally broke through the walls of the fortress with a battering ram after a three-year siege, they were surprised to find the inhabitants dead, of suicide or slaying by heads of families. The last one fell on a sword, or at least that's the theory. There is another story, apparently apocryphal, that a handful of women and children rejected suicide and lived to tell the tale. Many of the facts about Masada were ascertained through the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

General Silva is said to have paid tribute to the bravery of those who perished. Israelis take pride in the actions of their predecessors symbolic for freedom fighters everywhere.

Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an Army general in the wars against the Arabs, is said to have had little sympathy for the people of Masada who chose suicide over a fight to the death. But he later softened his attitude.
As part of their training, Israeli military personnel are thoroughly indoctrinated in the historical and religious aspects of their culture, and Masada is considered a must visit to capture the fighting spirit of the Jewish people. Some troops have been sworn in at special services there.

The Riddle of the Tomb

It was time to head back to tour the Garden of Gethsemane, a traditional site where Jesus prayed before his death and was placed in the Garden Tomb outside what is now the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. A thick and healthy-looking olive tree, among others in the garden, is said to date to the time of Christ. The Church of All Nations adjoining houses a large stone marking where Jesus prayed, according to guides.

To confuse the issue, there seems to be no certain evidence whether His tomb is in the garden area. There are other claims that the tomb is within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not far away. That is inside the northern wall in the Armenian section of the city. The other sections are Arab, Jewish and Christian.

So we looked over both sites, and had a communion service in the Garden Tomb area, where the gravesite is hewn from solid rock, in an attractive setting of flowers, shrubs and trees. We were allowed to keep the small wine cups, made of olive wood, as souvenirs.

Providing an oral sketch of the grounds, a British volunteer guide cited a quarry and winepress as part of proof that this was actually the tomb that Joseph of Arimathea donated for the burial of Christ.

As was often the case, Lon led a song, worship and prayer service. Other visitors would file out of the small, dark opening of the tomb and join in our singing, arms upraised in praise of God. It was a delight afterwards to detect a gardener, walking along as he sprinkled flowers, singing a Christian hymn.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre presents a far different perspective of Christ's crucifixion and burial, with most of its magnificence enclosed inside its walls, housing art works, such as statues and paintings and a variety of altars. Six Christian denominations share roles supervising the complex, including Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Armenian . The hierarchies of these faiths believe that the church encloses Calvary, where Jesus was slain on the cross. His purported tomb is conspicuously nearby, housed in what resembles a somber chapel, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, played a major role in establishing the church about 300 years after the death of Christ. She is said to have been in the forefront of those who believed the cross of Jesus was found in the basement section of the church, now cared for by the Armenians.

In this day's panorama, duplicated for countless years, the faithful crawled inside a low, small enclosure to kiss a plaque marking the crucifixion spot. It is now protected under glass or plastic spanning a series of holes excavated from rock. Candles are lighted and prayers said as Christians reverently--and quietly for the most part, except for the whirring of video cameras and the clicking of snapshot triggers--file through.

In another section, a marble slab identifies the place where the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and washed, anointed with spices and wound with cloth as was the custom for burial in those days.

Then it would have been borne a few steps away to what looks like a medium-sized chapel, originally built by the Crusaders, over the small tomb. It's entrance is framed with giant artificial candles, topped with electric light bulbs as would-be flames. A burly guard with a fez-like hat pounded a large staff on the floor to ensure proper decorum.

Only five people are allowed into the tomb at a time, and since there was some confusion, noise and crowding due to a Greek Orthodox service and procession, most of our group didn't make it inside. Greek Orthodox icons, many featuring the customary black images of Mary, proliferated in that denomination's wing. And some arresting mosaic artwork depicted scenes from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The fact that the site has been generally recognized as Calvary since the fourth Century adds authenticity. But it appears that no can be certain that this is indeed the specific spot where the Roman soldiers, with Jewish complicity, gruesomely murdered Christ.

The Old City

Jerusalem now has eight modern suburbs and aims to build more, but it's the old city that tends to fascinate foreign tourists and Israelis. When we arrived in Jerusalem we stayed at the luxurious five-star Hilton Hotel, which opened in 1998. It's located just to the south so we could view the southern wall, and it was a spectacular sight, especially floodlighted at night. The Jaffa Gate, leading to a major Palestinian Arab shopping bazaar, with scores of small shops, was only a 15-minute stroll. That was a fun place, hit hard by our bargain hunters. There and in other areas, the frequent refrain from hawkers was, "only a dollar, only a dollar (pronounced dolla)."

Some of the merchants were amusing, and as usual they would spike the price, expecting bargaining. One tapped an index finger to his forehead when Nancy countered with her offer, uttering with a smile, "I would have to think about that for 24 hours." He also said he had a wife and family to support.

Another newly-married couple encountered a shopkeeper who checked out the recent bride and jested, "I'll give you 500 camels for her." The groom thought she was worth at least 600.

Another guy bargained mightily for a stone necklace his wife liked, for which the price started at $30, and the deal closed at $5. A little later, our colleague strolled back with some friends. The merchant glanced at him and said contemptuously, "stingy!"

Pickpockets were a threat in the bazaar and we were warned repeatedly to watch our wallets and purses. One man on our bus had bills filched from his fanny purse, but fortunately it was only nine dollars, and the thief missed cash in another zippered pocket.

Jerusalem stirs senses and emotions and it's understandable that photos are a hot seller. We don't usually buy them, but we did this time because it was hard to resist shots that framed us and our group against the magnificent Old City and its captivating walls, domes and spires.

Standing on the Mount of Olives to the east we viewed the Temple Mount, with the sun splashing bright yellow off the golden Dome of the Rock, the pale reflections of the four broad walls, and other historic landmarks. Lon traced the Valley of Kidron, which splits the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem and extends for many miles through the Judean wilderness. We later filed down the slope toward the Temple Mount along the narrow way where Jesus walked frequently on the way to Bethany, a mile or two away from the city, to visit his close friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. That was the same route as his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey prior to his crucifixion, as crowds cheered.

Spread out below us were thousands of graves of Jews from all over the world, who believe interment there will ensure priority on the day of resurrection. They lie with their feet pointing toward Jerusalem, for easy access to Zion when the time comes. The gravesites resemble concrete caskets about three feet high, adorned on top with loose stones as marks of respect from visitors. Some had small red-glass doors, and inside memorial candles glowed.

Further down the hill near the Eastern Wall was another graveyard, this one for Arabs, as ordered by the Muslim ruler, Suleiman. According to Lon, Suleiman believed that if the Messiah comes, the Jewish Talmud had proscribed entry into the Temple Mount gates through a cemetery, considered an unclean place. Lon said that was a "nice try," but he doubted that would keep God out.

When we passed into the city, we could see many Orthodox Jews, some who come to the spacious Temple Mount daily to pray at the western "Wailing Wall." It is of great significance to the Jews, who sing, nod back and forth as is their custom and affix pieces of paper inscribed with prayer requests. We could hear the ululations of women, piercing cries that are ordinarily associated with Arabs, but it's also part of the culture of Oriental Jews.

They were in the ladies section, where I learned too late that Nancy had stepped to the wall to deposit a prayer slip and I missed out on what would have been a cool video shot. It was there that a Jewish man objected strenuously to the presence of a Christian woman wearing a crucifix and she refused to remove it. He apparently felt this violated the sanctity of this hallowed Jewish shrine. The woman's stand caused a minor debate among us at dinner that night as to whether more sensitivity on her part would have been in order.

Among thousands of worshippers was one young Orthodox Jewish man, dressed in the usual formal black clothing and old-fashioned wide-brimmed dress hat that looks too small and rides high on the head. "Every Orthodox Jew has his own head cover," Abner explained. "You cover your head, which is your wisdom, if you think your head deserves a piece of art." In his opinion, "sometimes the super orthodox are quite crazy."

As is the case with Muslims and their five-time-a-day prayers, I felt admiration for the piety of the Jewish prayer warriors observed on the Temple Mount. As I watched the man in black, with long tight curls tumbling down alongside his face hurry toward the Wailing Wall, it seemed as though he was trying to psyche himself up into tears.

Displays of emotion are not that unusual. When Eastern Jerusalem was seized from Jordan in the 1967 war reuniting the holy city, tearful scenes were common as Israeli soldiers threw themselves against the wall and sobbed with relief that they could pray there once again.

At first we surmised that this western wall was from the original temple, but it turned out to be a retaining wall built by Herod as he leveled part of the mount during his rebuilding phase. When he completed the temple complex it covered more than 100 acres.

During our visit to the Temple Mount, we walked through the long Rabbis Tunnel, which wends its way through various stages of excavation. We viewed various levels of occupation and archeological digging. Some are deep. Even walking underground over what seemed like glass panels, we could see sidewalks below where shops existed at one time.

We passed through giant cisterns and saw stones used to build foundations that defied imagination as to how they could have been maneuvered into place. One measured forty by ten by fourteen feet, and weighs in at 375 tons. It has indentations cut into its sides to allow the insertion of poles for shoving into the proper position. No one seems to know exactly how such a feat was accomplished.

We also viewed models of the Temple Mount, one intricately built of tiny limestone blocks over a period of years. Another had plates that would descend and elevate, comparing a particular section today with the time of Jesus.

The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred sites for Muslims, were out of bounds for us. The Dome of the Rock is described as the Holy of Holies, but to Islam Al-Aqsa ranks higher spiritually, behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. According to Muslim tradition, it is the most "far distant" (Al-Aqsa in Arabic) place visited by Mohammad, above which he communed with God. Ordinarily even Christians are allowed entry into the Dome of the Rock, but the head Mufti ruled it out that day. We couldn't determine the reason. Perhaps to cover chagrin that his agenda had been disrupted, our head Jewish guide, Monty, blew it off as a pagan site. "I never visit the place," he said. "Why should I? I go to the temple."

We toured the Fortress Antonia, built by Herod, and the Hall of Judgement where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus. And we walked through a Via Dolorosa, where Jesus staggered to Calvary. Stations of the Cross were affixed to buildings along the way, which is part of a bustling bazaar.

The stations included one at the point where Jesus supposedly met his mother, and another where Veronica wiped the blood-and-sweat-stained face of Jesus, only to find the image of his features on the veil, according to tradition. The final few stations are in the Church of St. Anne, located at the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus restored the paralytic to health and was chastised by the Pharisees for healing on the Sabbath. We went through the church and gathered in a courtyard for one of our last meetings with Lon, for our pilgrimage was approaching an end.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Abner described the Valley of the Shadow of Death as a symbolic name, although David mentions it in Psalm 23, which Lon read as he briefed us on the location. He faced us, poised against the dramatic backdrop of a steep valley, or wadi, with mountains behind. They appeared drab in the dry season but changed color as the sun began descending, and darkening shadows crept across their contours.

We could barely see black dots of goats on distant slopes. Lon has been here during the rainy season when the area turns green and thousands of head of stock wander and feed. Although not far from Jerusalem, the area had a remote aura, with only sporadic camel and tourist bus traffic. It's attainable only via a narrow road with hairpin turns and switchbacks.

Despite the arid landscape, we could see a waterfall on the far bank of the wadi, which is one of three springs that flows to Jericho. Also cut into the opposite bank, and four hours of travel by foot, is an old monastery, still staffed by a few monks, who obtain their water from the spring.

The tribe of Benjamin controlled this area. Abner said his men were tough warriors to survive in such desolate territory. We noticed that there are still be some sturdy types around, like a man squeezing oranges to provide fresh juice to visitors, and a couple of young boys who sauntered in on a camel to offer rides for shekels. Even out here, we couldn't escape the hawkers. One had his wares spread out on a rug near a pillar commemorating King David. His top draw was stuffed toy lambs.

Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the most dramatic encounters during our tour of the Holy Land was viewing famous Dead Sea scrolls, a rich cache of original, ancient scripture writing found in obscure caves in Israel a half-century ago. The collection of more than 800 manuscripts, some of them dating back two centuries beyond the time of Jesus, is described as the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th Century and represents a powerful instrument of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Two of the fragile manuscripts--sections of the "Great Scroll of Isaiah" and the Book of Psalms--are on public view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They are exhibited in a special building, the "Shrine of the Book." The roof of the shrine--domelike, rising to a point--resembles the lids of the clay jars which contained the scrolls.

Pages of the scrolls are stitched together at margins, and are stretched over a few feet behind protective glass. Fascinating to observe, the dark script reads right to left as Hebrew and Arabic writing does today. The faded brown fragments of leather parchment are jagged, due to decayed portions. The parchment is mostly sheepskin and papyrus, but non-biblical texts are inscribed on the hides of other animals, such as ibex (goats), which still wander in the Judean wilds.

Through lectures, documentaries and research, we were able to learn a great deal about these remarkable writings, how they were stumbled upon in 1947, and their extreme value in authenticating Old Testament prophecies and other biblical revelations.

The ll caves that contained the scrolls are in Qumran, located near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea and less than 20 miles east of Jerusalem. We drove past the caves en route to Masada, but they were not visible from the road and our schedule didn't allow a visit, which we came to regret.

Scholars agree on many details concerning the hermitic people of Qumran, largely men. There were professional scribes who copied the scrolls, and apparently some women and children. Sources shedding light on the cloistered community include Flavius Josephus, the Jewish writer of the First Century.

Only males were allowed to compose these intricate writings sometime between 167 BC and 70 AD. They did their work in a scriptorium, using pens of sharpened reeds and applying ink blackened with soot, resin, oil and water. Most are in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages in an ancient Jewish script.

It's believed that the community hid the scrolls in sealed clay jars in the caves, fled their primitive quarters and vanished after the Roman annihilation of the Jerusalem Temple and the Jewish people. They evidently intended to return and recover the scrolls but couldn't because they were wiped out in a wave of military torture and murder.
The common view of historians is that the monastic residents of Qumran were Essenes who had chosen the remote Judean desert locale beginning two centuries before the Roman incursion. Their objective was a life of purity, study and worship, separated from the temple priests in Jerusalem for whom they had lost respect. As our guide Abner Ben Uzial put it, they felt Qumran was "a haven from social and cultural corruption" they had perceived in Jerusalem.

Known as "Sons of Light," they pursued a disciplined lifestyle, which emphasized orthodox legalism and ritualistic customs. Despite the arid nature of their desert and Dead Sea environment, they used precious water to bathe before late afternoon dining. An ancient sun dial has been recovered that could indicate in any season the exact time daily for their ritualistic main meal. .

Some historians speculate that John the Baptist might have associated in some way with sects who settled in Qumran. However, there is no supporting documentation of that in the scrolls, which relate to Old Testament scripture and so-called secular texts that include rules for day-to-day living.

The scriptural scrolls are considered of greatest consequence. So far experts have identified segments of every Old Testament work in them except the Book of Esther. Controversy arose over painfully slow progress by a small group of experts assigned to study and decipher the scrolls and publicize findings. Consequently, impatient scholars went to court in 1997 to expedite the project and have won the case, so it's hoped that will speed up the process.

Perhaps the most exciting find so far has been an entire book of Isaiah, which language scholars have identified as matching in every important detail the translated texts we read in modern bibles. That and writings on the other books are regarded as a stupendous achievement because these scrolls have been dated more than a thousand years beyond the oldest Old Testament scripture, the Aleppo, Syria Codex of 970 AD. The scrolls from Qumran include copies of the Book of Jeremiah of 250 BC and Psalms from 100 BC.

Our group leader, Pastor Lon Solomon, is pastor of a megachurch: McLean Bible Church, Virginia, which numbers thousands of Christians. A Messianic Jew, he has arranged tours to Israel for many years and has had considerable contact with scroll scholars and experts there and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Lon explained how the authenticity of these old manuscripts corroborates the validity of scripture.

Skeptics had claimed the Bible was unproven and had been "retrofitted" concerning Old Testament prophecies. In other words, after Christ's birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, His followers could have back-dated New Testament events of His life into Old Testament books to support claims of prophecy fulfillment in New Testament times.

Justification for such suspicion has been trumped by the scrolls, which have been meticulously dated by language scholars and scientists. Their conclusion: the scrolls were was written well before the time of Christ and were not altered in any significant way. Therefore Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah have been borne out in the life of Jesus.

Pastor Lon noted that critics also had demanded proof that the Old Testament scriptures used in Jesus' time correspond with contemporary Bibles. That, too, has been put to rest by the Dead Sea Scrolls. The original autographed Old Testament scriptures have not been found. But with "absolute certainty," Pastor Lon told us, citing an example, "at least from 200 BC on, we can say the copy of the Bible we are reading is the copy of the Bible that Jesus was reading when he stood" one day in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth. Jesus read the scroll on Isaiah Chapter 61.

(As related in Luke 4, it was this powerful revelation: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor…Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.")

What the scrolls have revealed, Pastor Lon said, "gives us enormous power to argue for our faith," stressing "the importance of this discovery in terms of defending and trustworthiness and the veracity of the Biblical texts is beyond belief."

The scrolls were discovered in 1947, only to disappear again and that is a story in itself. Pastor Lon has information on those early days from professors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which he attended for divinity studies, and whose versions he finds authoritative.

Some Arab Bedouin shepherd boys, missing an animal, dropped a stone in a cave to roust it. In Lon's words, the sound echoed back as a "clink" instead of a "thud," prompting further investigation. The boys' father brought out five scrolls from the first cave and took them to an antique dealer in Jerusalem. He sold them to the Syrian archbishop who asked an opinion about their validity from John Trever, a U.S. scholar at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem.

Trever studied three of the scrolls and contacted American Professor William Albright in the United States to help confirm portions of the Isaiah Scroll. Analysis of the configurations of the Hebrew Semitic writing and language changes over 2,000 years led to precise dating of the scrolls as before the time of Christ.

Realizing they were priceless, Professor Albright urged Trever to obtain the scrolls from the archbishop by any means possible, but he had to leave Israel because of the 1948 war for independence. They disappeared until 1949 when the New York Times published classified ads for the sale of ancient Jewish scrolls, which turned out to be the Dead Sea Scrolls. As a result, the Hebrew University purchased the first batch for $250,000 and they were turned over to Israel.

With later digs at Qumran, the number has topped out at about 30,000 scrolls and fragments. Disappointingly, only about 100 have been published so far in research that is expected to go on well into the next century.

Pastor Lon differs with some scholars on the scribing role of the Essenes. He asserts that "there is a very good chance" that the scriptural scrolls are really originals from the temple in Jerusalem, smuggled to Qumran for safekeeping when thousands of Roman troops advanced on the capital to put down the revolt by zealots.
In his opinion, it would have been very costly to mount such an ambitious copying effort by paid professional scribes. Furthermore, each expensive parchment had to be discarded and the work started over if there was a single mistake. Lon argues that it would be very unlikely and "illogical" to assume the Essenes had sufficient wealth to sustain such a large volume of scroll production.

Like the fate of the Essenes, the Virginia minister expressed the view that the Jewish priests and leaders in Jerusalem planned to recover the scrolls, but were killed by Roman troops.

Finding the scrolls in any shape for research after 2,000 years in their clay jar repositories is attributed to the hot, dry Dead Sea climate. Rainfall is only two inches yearly. One Israeli archeologist quotes good odds that more scrolls will be dug out of collapsed caves in Qumran, which would probably have blocked access to thieves seeking to loot their contents.