South to Jerusalem: the Final Journey
Fall 32 to spring 33 AD

 

"He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." (Mark 9:31)

Soon after the Transfiguration, Jesus decided to head south toward Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish. If we compare the Synoptic Gospels with the gospel of John, we seem to have a very different chronology. In the Synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus is depicted as going "up to Jerusalem" only one other time than his visit to the Temple as a boy. John, however, has Jesus making frequent visits no fewer than three Passovers (John 2:13, John 6:4, John 11:55), an unnamed feast (John 5:1), the feast of the Tabernacles (John 7:2) and the Feast of the Dedication, or as we know it better, Hanukkah (John 10:22). John, in fact places Jesus' main ministry in Jerusalem, while the other three place it in Galilee. There is no contradiction, however. The four gospels are simply telling the story from different viewpoints. Matthew, Mark and Luke concentrate on the Galilee ministry while John emphasizes the work in Jerusalem.

Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem may have actually taken several months, from the time of the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) in the autumn of 32 AD to the Passover the following spring. Apparently Jesus never returned to Galilee, and like him we must bid farewell to this beautiful, pastoral region and head south toward rocky Judea.


In the footsteps of Jesus...


Heading south from Ein Gev on Road 92 (along the southeast shore of the Sea of Galilee) we pass the ostrich farm at Ha'on, then come to the junction with Road 90 at Degania, Israel's first kibbutz (communal settlement), near the place where the Jordan River exits the lake. For all its fame, this famed river is little more that a desert stream, but its waters are critical to life and agriculture in this entire region. Over many centuries its valley has been one of the most bounteous farming regions in the country. In Jesus' time the level road along the river was the most used way between Jerusalem and Galilee, particularly for those Jews who wished to avoid contact with the despised Samaritans. As seen earlier, Jesus did not share the bitterness of his fellow Jews toward these people. This time, however, he and his disciples bypassed the shorter route through the central hills of Samaria to the west.

From Degania we soon cross the bridge over to the west bank of the Jordan River, then a little later, pass the turnoff for the Crusader fortress of Belvoir. Then, some 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, we come to the site of the ancient city of Beit She'an (Old Testament Beth Shan), known in Jesus' day as Scythopolis. Surely Jesus and his disciples stopped here for the night.


Scythopolis/Beth Shan/Beit She'an


"If the garden of Eden is in the land of Israel, its portals are in Beit She'an." So said Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish in the 3rd century AD.

Scythopolis did indeed have an enviable location. Situated in the lush area where the Jezreel Valley meets the Jordan Valley, it was built between two streams, Nahal Harod and Nahal Asi. The rich soil and fresh water made the area one of the most fertile in Israel, and a natural choice for early settlement. When Egypt and Assyria fought over Canaan, the land bridge between them, the city's location, had additional significance. It stood on the strategic highway linking the northern coast of Israel and the Transjordan (modern kingdom of Jordan) to the east; crossing it was another trade route running north-south through the Jordan River valley.

Scythopolis also belonged to an alliance of ten city-states known as the Decapolis (Greek deca "ten," polis "city"), founded by the Roman general Pompey after his conquest of Palestine in 63 BC. The other nine, according to Pliny in the 1st century AD, were: Damascus, Opoton, Philadelphia (present-day Amman, Jordan), Raphana, Gadara, Hippondion, Pella, Galasa and Canatha. In the Bible, the term Decapolis is used to describe the general region southeast of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan River.

The Gospels state that Jesus' travels took him through the Decapolis region at various times. As he wandered through the region he might have imagined he had been magically transported to Greece. The ten cities located there were out and out Greek cities that took Athens as their model. They had temples honoring Zeus, Artemis, Dionysus and other Greek gods, all in a prominent location in each city. They were the first thing any visitor would have seen. The cities also had other public structures typical of Greek cities: theaters, colonnade-lined streets and marketplaces, stadiums, gymnasiums and baths. Mark 7:31 records that Jesus passed through the Decapolis after he left the region of Tyre and Sidon, and there healed "a man who was deaf and could hardly talk." Also, Matthew 4:25 states: "Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

(Above) excavated and partially reconstructed city of Scythopolis from the theater; beyond is the massive, 160-foot-high tell (Tell al-Husn, "fortress mound") of the Old Testament-era city of Beth Shan, containing some twenty layers of settlement dating back over 9000 years.

Scythopolis was the only one of the Decapolis cities located west of the Jordan. It was dedicated to "Dionysus, the god of wine, founder and master of the city." While there is no specific reference in the Gospels to Jesus visiting Scythopolis, the road from the Galilee to Jericho and on "up to Jerusalem" passed through Scythopolis. This was the primary route followed by pilgrims from Galilee to the great festivals in the Holy City the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). It was also a gateway city leading to the other member-cities of the Decapolis.

Even though there are no specific references in the gospels to Jesus visiting Scythopolis on his journeys, there is good reason to believe that he passed through the city at various times.

At the time of Jesus, the population of Scythopolis consisted of pagans and large communities of Jews and Samaritans. The city was noted for its fine linen and was a textile center of the Roman empire.

Heading south from Beit She'an, we note the emerald-green splashes of farms in the distance, hugging the valley of the Jordan River (above, wide view of the Jordan valley). On the golden hills to our left we can see the barbed wire fence separating the country of Jordan from the State of Israel.

We are already well-below sea level and gradually dropping even lower. There is a profusion of banana palms (their fruit protected by blue plastic bags), grape vines, date palms, pomegranates, mango and and citrus orchards. To either side of us are fields with strips of photo-degradable plastic shielding crops and conserving precious moisture. Away from the river, the vegetation is very sparse. Today the Jordan is little more than a trickle as the Sea of Galilee serves as a reservoir for the entire State of Israel, and only a fraction of the river's normal flow heads south toward the Dead Sea.

As Jesus moved south on this road, he continued to teach, as crowds gathered wherever he appeared. At one point some children were brought to him so that he might touch them. When the disciples tried to intervene, Jesus was indignant. According to Mark, he said to them:


"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.' And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them." (Mark 10:14-16)



Jesus' ministry in Perea, east of the Jordan River


Both Matthew and Mark relate that Jesus passed through the region of Perea, simply referred to in the gospels as "across the Jordan," the scene of John the Baptist's activity:


"Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed and many people came to him. They said, 'Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true.'" (Mark 10:40-41)


Many of Jesus' most well-known parables are thought to belong to this Perean ministry, like the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), the lost son (Luke 15:11-32), the wise manager (Luke 16:1-10).

The province of Perea, hugging the east bank of the Jordan River and the northeast shore of the Dead Sea, was ruled by Herod Antipas, who also ruled Galilee. It was this same Herod who earlier had John Baptist beheaded, and he probably feared a popular uprising by the people in response to Jesus' presence in his territory. Jesus did not fear Herod, however, because he knew that his death will come only in Jerusalem.

(Below) So-called "Elisha's Hill" at what is thought to be Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site of John the Baptist's ministry, on the east bank of the Jordan River, about 5 miles north of the Dead Sea.

John reports that while Jesus was in Perea, news came to him that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, "now lay sick" at his home in Bethany, about 2 miles east of Jerusalem:


"Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, the one you love is sick.' When he heard this, Jesus said, 'This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it.' Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days" (John 11:1-6).


Jesus' Life Home n Raising of Lazarus