Israeli sites of Jesus and Christianity

Israel: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus

For almost two thousand years, Christians have visited the Holy Land to connect with their faith and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Modern pilgrims might be under the impression that the traditional sites associated with Jesus and his family are unique and firmly established but this is not so. Nazareth has two churches commemorating the Annunciation. Jerusalem has two locations for Jesus' tomb. Kafr Kanna (Cana) has two churches celebrating the miracle of transforming water to wine.

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Moreover, some of the traditional sites associated with Jesus have been altered by successive generations. Capernaum is Byzantine and the Old City of Jerusalem is largely medieval. You are left with the daunting task of putting these sites into context because they no longer look like they did during the time of Jesus. This can be a real strain on your imagination.

How can you better relate to your pilgrimage and maximize your experience? You can start by developing a1st century CE mindset. Immerse yourself in traditional village life at the time of Jesus in the setting of his hometown of Nazareth. After you return to the present, discover three sites whose connections with Jesus are easy to relate, firmly established and unambiguous.

Explore the only remaining 1st century CE site in Israel where Jesus could have walked -- Bethsaida; visit the site of Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan -- Qasr El-Yahuda; and view Christ's footprint in set in stone on the spot where he ascended into heaven -- the Church of the Ascension.

Nazareth Village

The Twilight Zone theme echoed in my mind as our tour group entered Nazareth Village; a reproduction of typical village life at the time of Jesus based on the best New Testament and Archeological sources available. This site was a working vineyard two millennia ago so it is conceivable that a young Jesus was acquainted with the owners, given that Nazareth only had about 400 residents at the time.

Arriving in the past, we crossed paths with a shepherd dressed in period costume who was directing his five sheep into a shady round pen constructed of standing sticks. The flock had just returned from higher up on the nearby grassy slope.

After leading us up the slope past an original 1st century wine press, our guide, Rani, herded us into a typical home of the period. Inside, a middle aged housewife was weaving colorful woollen fabrics. She stopped her nimble-fingered activity to demonstrate how to spin the wool on a hand spindle. It looked easy but several members of our group found out otherwise.

Exiting the house, Rani led our group inside a carpenter's shop where an elderly man and a young boy construct a manger together. The elderly craftsman stops to demonstrate several tools from the period including a hand drill powered by a bow. Imagine rubbing two sticks together to produce a fire. It was easy to imagine a young Jesus learning the carpenter's trade.

The young Jesus would also have attended school. In a town that size, the local synagogue doubled as the school. The very plain greyish white interior of the local house of worship was lined with three tiers of benches along the walls. The open area in the centre featured a small table with the Torah set on top. Our group sat down for a few minutes and contemplated a passage from scripture. Upon completing our reflections, we returned to the 21st century and continued our journey.


Bethsaida is relatively unknown to most Christians. Yet it is the only town in Israel today where you can truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus using the very same streets that he did. Archeologically, this deserted site dates back to the 1st century CE.

Jesus cursed the residents of Bethsaida (Mathew 11:21) for refusing to repent. But he still managed to recruit more Apostles from this town than from anywhere else. These "Fishers of Men" included Peter, Andrew, Philip, John and James the Greater.

Bethsaida is an active archeological dig with mounds of earth still covering much of the ancient town. Excavated structures typically feature roughly constructed stone walls whose occupants are identified by the contents found inside. The most important of those identified include the House of the Winemaker and the House of the Fisherman.

The House of the Winemaker occupied an area 2,700 square feet so the owner was clearly not destitute. His underground wine cellar consisted of an eleven foot long rock-lined trench covered by eight basalt slabs. Archeologists discovered four original wine jars from the Hellenistic period when it was excavated. Their contents had long since disappeared. Other expensive imported vessels were also found inside the house.

The neighboring House of the Fisherman occupies a more impressive 4,300 square feet. A number of anchors, fish hooks and lead weights found on site serve to identify the occupant as a fisherman. Who knows, perhaps even one of the Apostles owned this house.

Visitors should note that the present-day Sea of Galilee is approximately one mile away from Bethsaida, suggesting that it may have retreated over time. Even though fishing was known to be quite a profitable enterprise in this region during the time of Jesus, the fisherman may not have been wealthy enough to afford beachfront property.

Qasr El-Yahuda

Few Christians are familiar with Qasr El-Yahuda. Yet it is the third holiest site in Christendom after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Qasr El-Yahuda is the site of Jesus' Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). It is also generally accepted as the site where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan.

Located inside an Israeli military base, Qasr El-Yahuda was recently re-opened to tourists after being off-limits for over four decades. Driving toward the Jordan River, the first thing you notice is a distant Greek Orthodox Church with its golden domes. We were looking forward to visiting this beautiful structure but were disappointed to find that it was actually in Jordan and therefore inaccessible.

The fourteen foot wide river divides the West Bank from the country of Jordan. Soldiers on both sides stand ready to return any individual who attempts to walk on water to the other side.

Pilgrims are permitted to enter the water and renew their faith. In fact, at the time of our visit, nine people dressed in flowing white robes stood on a West Bank patio ready to immerse themselves in the greenish-brown water. Feel free to enter the water when you visit as well.

The Church of the Ascension

For Christians, the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem houses the traditional spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-51). Muslims also revere this site and worship in the nearby mosque. Staff was quick to point out that this is only place in the world where Christians and Muslims worship together.

The church of the Ascension is a 12th century CE octagonal limestone chapel set on the crest of the Mount of Olives. Under its domed roof, you find what is traditionally regarded as the right footprint of Jesus set in stone. Finding the footprint can be challenging; you must study the marble-framed rock protruding through the floor carefully.

Until the Middle Ages, there was also a left footprint but the Muslims transferred it to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. At the time of my visit, non-Muslims were not permitted inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque to view the left foot print.

As you exit the grounds of the Church of the Ascension, you may wish to cross the road outside for a panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem. As I lingered here for a few minutes in contemplation, a peaceful feeling washed over me.

The essence of Jesus and the meaning of events that occurred at the above sites were much clearer now.

If You Go

Nazareth Village is located in Nazareth. Travel south on Paulus VI Street and turn right onto al-Wadi al-Jawani St. Follow the sign directing you to the YMCA which is next to Nazareth Village. Admission is 50 Shekels for a guided tour.

You will require a rental car to visit Bethsaida and Qasr El-Yahuda.

Bethsaida is approximately 4 miles northeast of Capernaum. Admission is 10 Shekels per person or 55 Shekels per car. Save money by parking your car outside the park gate and walking inside. You should remain on the designated paths at all times as signs warn of landmines in the area.

Qasr El-Yahuda is approximately 5 miles east of Jericho on Highway 90 as you travel north toward Beit She'an. Admission is free. Remember not to drink water taken from the River Jordan.

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Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines. Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick's articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Updated: August 23, 2016

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