Hello Everyone! It has been one week and four days since I arrived in Israel. Those have been busy days. I’m now settled into the rhythm of weekday classes and weekend field studies around the country. A week ago I followed Dr. Wright, the school president and teacher of physical settings of the Bible, around the Old City of Jerusalem. You can see pictures from that tour of the city here.
This last Saturday I was went to Jericho with a class on the history of the Church in the East. We visited five monasteries, each of a different Eastern Orthodox church. You can check out the pictures from this field study here. All these monasteries are located in the area of the Jericho oasis down in the Rift Valley. Some of them are built on or near the ruins of former monasteries and some are brand new.
Since the time of the early church fathers, there have been patristic writings referring to monasteries in the hill country of Judea. Until the last century not a single one of these monasteries had been found. Many articles had been written about the “mythical monasteries” saying that they were just that, myths. Then, one was uncovered, and it was a huge monastery. Since that first one, over four thousand monasteries have been discovered in just the hill country and wilderness of what was once Judea!
The oldest of these was built in the 4th century by a priest named Euthemius. He originally was the only person living there and so there was no monastery. He simply lived in a cave. Over time, many monks congregated with him and prior to the death of Euthemius there are records of there being over one thousand monks living in the monastery they had built! By the time he died a village had even sprung up around the monastery. This is how it happens that a monastery is no longer a place secluded from society. It will often begin that way, however, a community would soon surround the monastery and a village would take root. The monastery would support the village and would also host and provide for any travelers who came along.
One of the disciples of Euthemius was a man named Gerasimos. Gerasimos left Euthemius with his blessings and built a monastery about ten miles away on the outskirts of what is today the modern city of Jericho. You may have heard of Gerasimos before. If you ever read Aesop’s Fables you might remember one of those fables is about a man and a lion. The man walks through the forest when he comes upon a giant lion. At first, he is terrified that the lion will rip him apart. Then he notices that it is limping. He is given the courage to come up to the lion and he discovers that the lion has a thorn in his paw. The man is able to remove it and because he relieves the lion’s pain the lion befriends him. From this point on the lion follows the man around until both are captured and separated. Later the man is thrown into the arena to be eaten by lions. The gates open and out bounds an angry snarling lion ready for lunch. But, when it sees the man it becomes tame and runs up to him. It is the lion the man helped and befriended and because of the help he had given the lion the lion now does not eat him.
This fable is of course only partly true, which is why it’s a fable. In fact, it is possible that none of it is true. Regardless, the man in this story is supposed to be Gerasimos. Today you can see a statue of his lion standing outside the entrance to the monastery which has been rebuilt upon the ruins of the monastery Gerasimos built.
The monastery of Gerasimos of the Jordan (that refers to the Jordan River, which is less than a mile from here) functions still today and is a meeting place for people of all three of the major religions in Israel. In its crypt there are purported to be bones of over five thousand monks who were all massacred during Muslim raids during the 7th and 8th centuries. The chapel of this monastery is built directly over the crypt and this is the pattern in all non-Protestant churches. Though, in America and in some newer European orthodox churches this pattern is no longer always followed.
The Ethiopians are by far the poorest of the orthodox churches. Their compound and chapels were extremely simple. They trace their roots back to the Ethiopian official who met the apostle Philipp and was converted.
The Romanians are the wealthiest church in Jericho, as you can tell from the artwork filling their chapel. It is very beautiful.
The Copts stake their claim on Christianity upon the fact that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt, the home of the Copts, to escape Herod the Great. There are only two Coptic monks in Jericho and there are two Coptic monasteries. So, it was not surprising that there were no monks at the monastery when we visited. There were five or six Egyptians there who had come from their homes in Egypt for several months to help the monasteries harvest all of the crops that are grown there. They were telling us how much work was left to be done and how there were only five of them to do it. When asked how soon they needed to harvest they said, “Today!”. So, we hung around and harvested bushels of green beans as well as green and red peppers.
Once we finished, back to the bus we went. We went around the North edge of Jericho and up to the cliffs that form the western edge of the Rift Valley. From here it was a ten to fifteen minute hike up switchbacks to the Greek monastery. It is built right into the cliff face several hundred feet above the valley floor. It was at this spot that the Greek church claims Christ was brought by Satan and tempted with all the nations of the world. It is also here that the cave where tradition says Elijah lived when God had the ravens bring him food.
The priest at this monastery would not let us in. It was Saturday and the monastery had closed an hour and a half earlier. So, our professor went to work on him. She begged and pleaded with this man to let our group in, but he told her, “Even if you were friends of God, I would not let you in!”. I thought we were friends of God, but apparently that wouldn’t have changed anything. So, our professor gave up and began to teach us while standing up by the entrance to the monastery. After about five minutes another priest, whom our professor knew, stuck his head out a window and hollered at her. They talked in German for a while and eventually he decided to let us in! I am so glad he did. It was unlike any monastery or church I have ever been in, and what a view it has! If you ever come to Israel, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars. They make an already awesome experience and view even more incredible.
That is a quick summary of the weekend. I hope you are all doing well wherever you are!
Grace and Peace,