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Geography of the New Testament:
Walk the Walk

by Marianne Race, C.S.J.

They say three things bring success to a business: location, location, location. That same concept explains the tremendous influence of a tiny strip of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Though barely 125 miles from north to south and 50 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, Israel/Palestine has been a pivotal crossroad for thousands of years.

Prior to the advantages of modern travel, mountains, deserts and seas limited travel between the great empires of the Fertile Crescent. Armies and caravans travelled between Egypt and Arabia in the south and Assyria, Babylon and Persia in the north and east by means of a narrow land corridor subsequently named Canaan, Palestine or Israel.

Imagine the great caravans moving slowly on the Via Maris, the way of the sea, along the coast of the Mediterranean. With as many as 3,000 camels, horses and donkeys bearing goods and travellers, each caravan was a self-contained city moving 20 miles per day. What might have dropped off this gigantic cultural and economic train as it moved through the countryside? Ideas, words in the languages of the merchants, perhaps marriage partners, medicines, farm implements, cooking spices, cloth for the latest fashions, perfumes, literature, music, magic and games, news and gossip.

Craftsmen such as Joseph and his young son, Jesus, would have experienced these caravans. They may have learned Greek, the common language in the first-century economic world, in order to barter for needed tools available from these itinerant merchants. The first apostles, merchants themselves in the fish business, would have known the language and benefitted from doing business with the great numbers of people in a caravan who needed food every day.

Palestine's Four Regions

Palestine has a unique geography. Four narrow strips running north to south divide the area into four diverse topographical and climactic zones. There are two seasons: winter, when it rains, and summer, when it is dry.

The coastal plain is flat. There is no natural harbor along the 125-mile coast. Consequently the Mediterranean Sea is not significant for either travel or the economy. Herod created an artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima, which remained the capital of the Roman province of Judea for 600 years.

Just east of the coastal plain are the central hills. This section is divided into Galilee, Samaria and Judah. Most of the events of the Gospels took place in the central hill country. Rugged mountains dominate the north end of Galilee. Mount Hermon, 6,670 feet, is the highest peak and snow-covered throughout much of the year.

The headwaters of the Jordan River are in these mountains. The river carries fresh water to the Sea of Galilee. In the first century one could navigate from the sea up the Jordan River about a mile to the village of Bethsaida. From there it was an arduous day's journey on foot to the base of the southern slope of Mount Hermon to a place called Panias.

After Herod's death (4 B.C.) Panias passed to his son, Philip, who made it the capital of his territory and named it Caesarea Philippi. Jesus took his closest disciples to this place of strong and majestic mountains, fertile soil, beautiful trees and flowers, and the source of fresh, clear water to have a serious talk with them about the concept of Messiah (Matt 16:16).

There were a few large cities in south Galilee, namely Tiberias and Sepphoris, but most of the residents were peasants who lived in tiny hamlets and eked out a living from farming or fishing. Today visitors to the newly excavated archaeological site at Bethsaida can almost see the outline of the synagogue at Chorazim; the next village to the southwest. Peter's hometown, Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and the center of Jesus' Galilean ministry, lies nearby in the other direction.

Nazareth is about 30 miles from Capernaum, south and uphill, through fertile valleys and lavish hills. The village is built on the sides of a hill in a valley that opens only to the south. The Sea of Galilee is 15 miles east, the Mediterranean Sea 20 miles west. The altitude, protected position and 25 inches of rainfall annually provide a moderate climate favorable to vegetation.

The Jezreel valley, just south of Nazareth, is mentioned 42 times in the Old Testament. Many battles were fought here to maintain control of the caravan route through the pass at Megiddo. The author of the Book of Revelation refers to this pass and the valley as Armageddon (Rv 16:12-16).

Samaria is the district south of Galilee. Because of the poor relationship between Jews and Samaritans, few Jews ever passed through this area even though it provided the most direct route to Jerusalem. Instead Jews followed the Jordan valley to Jerusalem, except in the unbearable summer heat.

The Hill Country

The southernmost end of the central hills is Judah, a mountainous region around Jerusalem. The distance from Hebron (south of Jerusalem) east to the mountains of Moab (modern Jordan) is approximately 36 miles as the crow flies. However, the deep east-west valleys divide the area making north-south travel almost impossible. Getting from one side to the other requires a descent from 3,000 feet above sea level to 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth, and up again to 3,000 feet. This daunting divide separated the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. A portion of Judah is desolate, empty, lonely land, the haunt of nomads, uncultivated and therefore not permanently settled. This wilderness begins barely a half-mile east of Jerusalem. The image and symbol of desert are used at critical turning points in the journey of biblical spirituality. When Cyrus, king of Persia, urged the Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon (Ezra 1:1-4), this second Exodus required crossing the wilderness of Judah. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah in the same wilderness of Judah.

Jerusalem was a fortified city built on a mount with three valleys surrounding it. Thus, it was easily defensible. Jerusalem was also situated on a trade route and had a plentiful water supply. These characteristics made Jerusalem a good choice for the capital of a kingdom. To the east is a ridge of hills that overlooks Jerusalem. Jesus frequented one of these hills, the Mount of Olives, whenever he went up to Jerusalem. From the Mount of Olives one had a clear view of the temple, the center of Jewish life and worship. The author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., uses this vantage point to announce the coming of the reign of God (Matt 24:37-44).

Jordan and Transjordan

The third strip of topography, east of the central hills, is the Jordan valley, 65 miles long, extending from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.

Though it flows through the center of this valley, the Jordan River is actually about 200 miles long because of its meandering. This depression in the earth is also called the Rift Valley and constitutes the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below sea level and 1,300 feet deep. Its salt content is six times greater than that of other seas. The high mineral content of the Dead Sea prevents any plant or animal life from existing there, but provides many nutrients used as health and beauty aids.

The fourth north-south strip of land constituting ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan Valley, is called Transjordan. These highlands, in contrast to the arid Rift Valley, are fertile and productive. Caesarea Philippi and Bethsaida are two New Testament sites in the northeast region of Transjordan. Four main rivers, the Yarmuk, Jabbok, Arnon and Zered, serve as natural boundaries separating the territories of Bashan, Gilead, Ammon, Moab and Edom.

Another major caravan route called the King's Highway operated through this region from the Gulf of Aquabah to Damascus. In New Testament times, this area was known as the Decapolis, a federation of ten cities of Hellenistic culture. For the Jews it was Gentile territory, though Jesus did not consider it off-limits. He worked miracles there, freeing a man of demons, curing a deaf-mute and feeding thousands of people (Mark 5:1-20; Mark 8:1-20).

Geography and Life

This amazing array of land forms, from snow-covered mountains to the lowest point on earth, from fertile plain to rugged dry wilderness described the world in which Jesus lived. How did this geography affect Jesus' life and preaching?

The usual mode of transport was on foot. The terrain almost everywhere involves significant climbing. As an itinerant preacher Jesus and his disciples were always outside and on the move. Walking 15 or 20 miles a day was common. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem two or three times a year required a round-trip journey of 120 miles. Knowing the landscape in which Jesus lived suggests that he was a strong rugged man used to the outdoors who lived close to all the elements of nature.

Jesus also used images from the landscape. The Gospels suggest that Jesus went up the mountain (Matt 14:23) or to a deserted place (Mark 6:32) to be alone. Wadis, narrow corridors where water drains from the hillsides toward the Sea of Galilee, separate the alternating hills and plains of lower Galilee. The wadis are pockmarked with caves; cool streams and thick vegetation provide privacy in a setting of natural beauty.

In the springtime especially Galilee is a burst of floral elegance. Red anemones and blue iris may have been the lilies of the field (Matt 6:28) whose beauty surpasses Solomon in all his splendor (Matt 6:29).

To the Ends of the Earth

Pilgrims visiting the homeland of Jesus often question how his teachings reached the "ends of the earth." How did the message of the Jesus movement advance from rural Galilee to the urban community in Jerusalem to an open mission to the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire?

Knowing the geographical boundaries of Jesus' public ministry makes the action of the spirit of Pentecost in the lives of the Church's earliest disciples very real. The apostles and disciples laid the foundations within which faith in the risen Jesus was nurtured and transmitted. James led the church in Jerusalem, Philip went to Samaria, and Peter was in Caesarea, Antioch and Rome. Thomas is said to have gone to India.

Paul, the disciple who never met Jesus, was the most charismatic of them all. The accounts of his journeys tell a story of a love-faith journey. Greek and Roman writers of this time have provided actual details of travel in the first century, verifying its hardship. Paul's travels cover a remarkable 10,000 miles. Though these journeys may have extended over a period of 20 years, the distances are noteworthy given the travel conditions of the time.

Paul's recorded journeys began in Antioch (on the coast of modern Turkey) and moved into the Anatolian Plateau in the Taurus Mountains. The plateau ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. The weather is unpredictable. Spring rains flood the rivers, hail is not uncommon; snow sometimes blocks mountain passes.

Though aided by good Roman roads, one could not sustain 20 miles of upward climb per day for several days. Paul and his party could be delayed by inclement weather, fatigue, illness, or because Paul was called upon to use his leather-working skills to assist other travellers who needed repair work. Thus, the group would at times not be able to make it to an inn, necessitating sleep outside, perhaps without food.

If they did make it to an inn, food and lodging were rudimentary but not free. The average inn consisted of a courtyard surrounded by small rooms. Animals and luggage stayed in the courtyard, while beds were provided in common sleeping areas.

In his second missionary journey, Paul travelled by sea from Troas to Neapolis, the port of Philippi in Greece. In the same journey, he sailed from Beroea to Athens, and later from Corinth to Ephesus and from Ephesus to Caesarea. Paul mentions a two-week storm on the Mediterranean when he was travelling to Rome (Acts 27:27). Shipwreck was common and included in Paul's travel experiences. Given these conditions for travel on land or sea, one did not travel for pleasure, only for business, war or when driven by the Spirit to deliver a life-changing message of salvation through love.

As with Jesus, knowing the topography of the land travelled by Paul helps us understand the fire of the Spirit burning within this incredible individual. Spanish writer Ortega y Gasset perhaps said it best when he said, "Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are."

Marianne Race, C.S.J., is a Sister of St. Joseph of LaGrange. For nine years Marianne lived a significant portion of the year in Israel as the director of the Israel Study Program sponsored by Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is author, with Laurie Brink, O.P., of In This Place: Reflections on the Land of the Gospels for the Liturgical Cycles (Liturgical Press, 1998).

Next: Isaac and Ishmael (by Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M.)


Praying With Scripture  

Find a picture of the site of the Sermon on the Mount. Read Matthew 5:3-12. You are looking down over the Sea of Galilee on a lovely spring morning surrounded by flowers. How does this message sound and what is he telling you about your life?



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