Week 1

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the land.  As documented in Satan’s Synagogue, I rented a road bike in Tel Aviv and cycled the region.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I called that trip “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s loop through the Lesser Levant.”  Here, I am offering snippets.  Or Dispatches.  This is part 1 of 3.

Day 1.  Arrival in Tel Aviv after a 14-hour flight, with one stop in Vienna.  When I purchased the airline ticket, I considered a two or three day stopover in Vienna.  I have never been and I certainly want to visit the Schönbrunn Palace, or the place where Franz Joseph spent his life, literally from cradle to grave.  I also want to visit the Franz Joseph Center, or the archive that houses the emperor’s artifacts and pays homage to his life lived.  I am, as these references may indicate, intrigued by the historical figure.  I have documents on the man, not known to the historical record.  But let me save those records for another time.

     I didn’t opt for the stopover.  For a Jew, Austria remains a rather sketchy place.  Austria, which willingly jumped on board the German freight train we call the Holocaust, has not gone down the same tracks as the Germans in more recent times.  Austria would rather honor Kurt Waldheim than reveal the depths of its alliance with Germany during the war years.  In current times, Austria would rather elect an anti-immigrant leader as prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, and watch as Kurz allied with other far-right political parties to form a government, than build a more thoughtful and receptive immigration policy.  Notably, the immigration policies in Austria 2019 haven’t changed much from the immigration policies in Austria 1938.  Just as notably, the current immigration policies of the United States now resemble the immigration policies of America 1940s.

     I spent two hours in the Vienna Flughäfen and gladly escaped when the flight took off.  In Tel Aviv, I caught a taxi in from the airport.  The driver spoke to me of Brooklyn.  He spat out the name like a long-time resident.  He spat out the name like a guy on Flatbush Avenue, walking into a bodega and buying bread, complaining to anyone who would listen about the traffic outside, and the complete lack of parking.  There’s a reason why double parking is the rule.

     Yes, I live in Brooklyn.  I’ve lived in Brooklyn for about a decade.  But I never said a word of my place of residence to the driver.  For all he knew, I lived in Portland.  Oregon or Maine, it didn’t matter.

     The driver dropped me off at my hotel, the Vital.  The hotel was part of a large shopping complex, the Dizengoff Center.  Meir Dizengoff, an Eastern European by birth and an engineer by training, was an expansionist.  He had a vision for a modern Jewish city.  He settled in Jaffa shortly after the 19th century turned into the 20th.  He joined a planning commission.  In 1922, a town officially came into existence.  Tel Aviv.  Dizengoff was elected mayor.  He held that position, with a small hiatus, until his death in 1936.

     If an all-knowing narrator suddenly appeared before Dizengoff early in his mayoral tenure and showed him photographs of what Tel Aviv was to become, how would he have reacted?  Tel Aviv now looks a little like Las Vegas.  The Dizengoff Center is brightly lit in neon.  Aside from the high-end shops and restaurants, a food court with the M for McDonalds in full blaze, a large supermarket, young people on first dates, shoppers take their dogs to the mall.  The Dizengoff Center is a dog park, of sorts.  What would Dizengoff say to the scene?

     A security perimeter engulfed the mall.  All shoppers, and hotel guests showed identification, and passed through a metal detector.  Back in 1996, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his explosive just outside the center.  He chose a particularly crowded moment, the eve of Purim.  Eye-witnesses described the horror that followed but so many of them had children in their reportage.  Children in costume.  More children died in the explosion than adults.

     I veered away from the stores and made my way to reception.  I checked in for my 2-night stay.  I then caught the elevator up to the 13th floor.  When I first moved to New York City, years ago, I lived in a building with fourteen floors.  I lived on the thirteenth.  The building, built around the time Dizengoff became mayor of the new Tel Aviv, incorporated a superstition.  No thirteenth floor.  Officially, the elevator reached floor 12E.  It only made the superstition more mindful. 

     There was no such superstition in Israel.  I dropped off my pack in the room, splashed some water on my face, caught the elevator down to the first floor, exited the security zone, and began the hour walk to Hayarkon Park.  I’d mapped out the walk on Google.  I walked up Weizmann Street to the Medina Square, hung a right on Jabotinsky Street, crossed the city to Abba Hillel Silver Road, hung a left and continued on to the Yarkon River, located on the park’s perimeter.  All of these street names meant something to me, but more on that in a bit.  I had a meeting and I was running a little late.

     The meet point was the dog park off of Rokach Street.  There, I met a man named Ezer.  Weeks earlier, I had made arrangements to rent a bicycle from Ezer and his wife, who together ran a tour guide operation.  They welcomed wealthy foreigners to Israel and guided them, on bikes, to famous places.  I didn’t want the tour.  I wanted the bike.  Ezer and his wife accommodated and they rented out their finest, a BMC carbon frame, with high-end Campagnolo parts and wheel set.  New, that bicycle would have cost well over ten thousand dollars.  I rented the bicycle for two weeks, at around three hundred dollars per week.

     Ezer wore the blue and white national cycling jersey of Israel.  In our friendly conversation, he told me that he was once the national cycling champion.  My thoughts went to sarcasm.  This wasn’t France or Italy or Spain.  How hard was it to become the national cycling champion of Israel?  How many cyclists were there in country?

     Let me put it another way.  I always wanted to participate in the Olympics.  Don’t misunderstand: I was never good enough in any particular sport to make it to that level.  But that didn’t stop my drive.  Then one day I had a thought.  If I became an Israeli citizen, I improved my chances considerably.  Now maybe I still wouldn’t have had a chance in soccer or tennis.  But what about skiing?  How many Israelis even skied?  Did Israel have a national ski team?  There is a place to ski in Israel, by the way, Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border.

     My problem with becoming the national champion of Israel in skiing and then participating in the Olympic Games was simple.  I don’t really ski.  Yes, I grew up in Colorado and, yes, my parents put me on the slopes at a young age.  But I didn’t take to the sport.  I didn’t care much for speed down a hill.  I preferred the twists and turns, and long stretches, of cross-country skiing.  That’s an apt metaphor for my life.  But let’s not get into that here.

     After picking up the bicycle from Ezer, I rode back to the Vital.  I wanted to keep the bike in my room, but management wouldn’t permit it.  A notable moment occurred when the receptionist argued my case to her manager.  The manager’s decision was final – the bike went into their storage room on the ground floor, with promises of security – but the receptionist couldn’t have been nicer.  We rolled eyes at each other.  I then took the elevator up to my room on the 13th floor.  I just wanted to shower after the long flight.  But technology got in my way.  The key card wouldn’t work.  I then traipsed down to reception.

     “Oh,” the receptionist responded to my request for another key card, “I thought you came down because you missed me.”  I smiled.  Was she flirting with me, or was her behavior a part of her job description?  The basics of customer service.

     She introduced herself by name, Tamar.  This Tamar didn’t know about the Tamar of Genesis, who endured a cursed story.  Her first husband, Er, was killed by God because of his wickedness.  To continue the familial line, Er’s father, Judah, asked the next brother, Onan, to reproduce with Tamar.  Although Onan went along, he performed an act of deception.  God punished Onan and he died, too.  Tamar, in an effort to get pregnant, dressed up as a prostitute and had sexual relations with Judah.  Judah, apparently daft in his dotage, didn’t know that the prostitute was, indeed, Tamar.  She became pregnant.  While Judah would react initially with a death sentence, he released Tamar from that sentence once he learned that he was the father.  Tamar then continued Judah’s line.  She gave birth to twins.  One of them, according to the Evangelist Matthew, was an ancestor of Jesus’s.

     This Tamar, a very cute 26-year-old, was used to getting her way.  For a few moments, we talked about Israel.  She sounded European in her outlook.  What did that mean?  She didn’t feel the anxieties of the older generations, with the Arab threat on all sides.  She wanted to have fun.  She wanted to buy a new car.  She had a nice Toyota but she wanted a Jeep.  “Jeeps are all the rage,” she said.

Day 3.  Traditions state that a person travels up to Jerusalem, never over, or down, or into.  Up to Jerusalem signifies ascending to the center of faith, although, strangely, Jerusalem is never once mentioned specifically in the Torah.  But, as I learned, there’s a far more earthly reason for the word.  That reason has everything to do with the hill.  Route 1 reaches across the width of Israel.  What begins in Tel Aviv and traverses the ground up to Jerusalem ends in the Jordan valley, not far from the Dead Sea.  Route 1 covers some sixty miles.  The Tel Aviv to Jerusalem leg encompasses about two-thirds of the route.  Nearly a quarter of that leg is the “up” section. 

     Back when I contacted Israel’s former national cycling champion about renting a bicycle, he asked about my travel plans.  He then tried to dissuade me from the first leg.  “If you go against my advice,” Ezer wrote in an email, “you should wear white clothing against the sun, and it will take you about 4 hours so you will need 4 liters of water.  The route up to Jerusalem is an HC climb.”

     I thought he was just in Israeli mode: trying to tell me what I couldn’t do.  Israelis are big on what’s not possible.  The clothing and the amount of water did not scare me off.  The category climb made me somewhat hesitant.  In cycling terminology, HC stands for “Hors Categorie,” or beyond categorization.  The history of cycling tells a history of the Tour de France.  Cycling measurements came about when the Tour added mountain stages.  Riders received points for ascending the hills first.  To figure out the category, race officials multiplied the length of the climb, in meters, with the grade.  If that number reached 8,000, it became a category 4 climb.  A category 1 climb began at 48,000.  An HC climb began at 64,000.  That’s supposed to be a bamboozle of a climb.

     Let me give just the briefest description of an HC climb.  There’s a very famous climb in the Tour de France called the Col du Tourmalet.  It is the highest paved mountain pass in the Pyrénées.  In 1910, that pass reached 7,000 feet.  It wasn’t a paved, smooth road the way it is today.  It was dirt and mud and grime.  A French cyclist named Octave Lapize supposedly shouted out his frustration at race officials during that climb.  Gasping for air and mentally defeated, or “cracked” in the parlance of cyclists, he identified an official and yelled, “Vous êtes des asassins!  Oui, des assassins!”  Word has it that he spat a variant of that phrase to any officious looking person as he continued the climb.  “You are murderers!” the phrase translates into English.  “Yes, murderers!” 

     Lapize won the day, and the Tour, that year.  He won the tour three years later.  That route, too, included the Tourmalet and a bronze statue of Lapize now sits near the top.  Lapize clearly moved toward the highest places manageable by human ingenuity.  He became a fighter pilot.  He died during the First World War.

     His words live on.  I shouted them once, in a moment of panic, as I rode up the Jerusalem hill.  At the risk of committing cycling blasphemy, I would say the ride up to Jerusalem is harder than the Tourmalet.  While I have never ridden the Tourmalet, I doubt that it includes bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I doubt that cyclists must, at the risk of their lives, remain within an ever-decreasing shoulder.  There are points on that route where the shoulder becomes a balance beam of a single white line.  Meanwhile, less than an arm’s length away, cars traveling at 100 kilometers an hour whiz by.  The vast majority of drivers seem to find it necessary to honk as they pass.  Busses join in the whizzing parade. 

     There was a moment, near the famed tunnels on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in what is known as the Sha’ar Hagar junction, that I felt my life on the line.  Literally, as there was no shoulder and a little mistake or misadjustment to my left would have meant a collision with a careening car.  But there was a moment when, panicked to the point of vomiting, I shouted Lapize’s famous words.  Of course, there were no race officials nearby.  This wasn’t a race.  This was only my decision to make the journey by bicycle.  I could have taken the bus.

     I survived the Jerusalem hill and followed the Bus 480 route to the central bus station.  From there, I cycled down Jaffa Road.  The road in that part of the city becomes a mall, with upscale retail and restaurants and young people out on parade.  Fortunately, I landed there just as the mall was waking up.  Later in the day, that place becomes a zoo with visitors moving in all sorts of directions, not one of them paying attention to the street, the traffic, or directions of travel.

     On Jaffa Road, signs pointed the driver – or cyclist, in this case – to various points of the Old City.  Right to Zion Gate, straight to Jaffa Gate, left to Damascus Gate.  I hung a left.  Sultan Suleiman Road traverses the northern side of the Old City, with East Jerusalem and the Arab side to your left and the Old City to your right.  All roads lead to the Damascus Gate.

     I have never been so happy to dismount.  The Israeli soldiers guarding the gate, on three separate guard towers, all looked at me with shaking heads and lowered guns.  I clearly wasn’t a threat, at least to them. 

     With my bike held in my right hand and resting on my shoulder, I walked down a series of steps and passed through the Damascus Gate.  The road into the souk leads down a semi-steep embankment, a ramp on the right, stairs on the left, and comes to a fork.  Hang a right and the road leads to the Christian quarter.  Hang a left and the road leads to the Muslim quarter.  I hung a left.  That road is called Al Wad.  Not that the name helps.  In the Arab world, street names mean nothing.  Everybody points, whether they know the directions or not.  Like New York. 

     The Austrian Hospice, my directions noted, was located at the intersection of Al Wad and Via Dolorosa.  I felt immense relief to find the guesthouse without incident.  That souk is all about finding your bearings.  You could get lost for days, as no compass or map really helps.  You just have to learn the ins and outs of those narrow roads.  I’m sure there’s a story about a traveler entering the Old City and never finding his way out.  He’s still there, walking the limestone, looking for one exit.

     The Austrian Hospice is many things.  It’s a large building with old world style.  The building, replete with a dormitory in the basement for cheap sleeping space and five floors of private rooms, rises to an observation deck on the roof.  Non-guests pay ten shekelim to access the deck and, in fact, there’s a steady flow of visitors wanting the unimpeded view of the city.  If ten shekelim sounds pricey, consider the 36-dollar price tag to rise to the top of the Empire State Building.

     Typically, I noticed, the non-guests hike the stairs to the roof deck (no elevator), take some time to survey the city, then hike down to the first floor and the café.  The food there is marvelously Vienna: käsekuchen and schnitzel, sachertorte and apfel strudel.  The café also serves one Austrian beer on tap: Freistädter, with its slogan, “Fresh.  Free.  Freistädter.”  The beer is most definitely not free but you can take your beer, and your sweets, and sit in a wonderful garden.  An array of trees populates the garden, and an overgrown cactus rises to the second floor.  The garden serves as a refuge to the constant hubbub just outside the compound.

     The Austrian Hospice offers about a hundred private rooms and the dormitory in the basement probably sleeps another fifty or so travelers.  The private rooms are spacious, simple yet clean.  No complaints.  Except for the construction going on directly behind the complex.  Jackhammering, Sunday through Thursday.

     The Austrian Hospice is a paean to Emperor Franz Joseph.  He traveled there in 1869.  He stayed on the grounds.  Joseph essentially reopened the Holy Land to Christian Europe.  Christian Europe had been cut off from access since the crusades.  Joseph, with close ties to the Ottoman Empire, changed the flow of pilgrimage.  Following his trip, Austrians came in multitudes, then the Prussians, then the French, and on and on.  The Old City became Europeanized.  The hunt for Christ, and the places he traversed, was on.

     During his stay in Jerusalem, Franz Joseph did something no other leader in Europe would have considered.  He met with Jewish groups.  To the outside world, it looked like Joseph was in keeping with his policy of tolerance toward Jews in his empire.  The true history told a different tale.  It turns out that Joseph descended from Jewish roots, and he knew it.  The world did not.

     His photograph hangs on the second floor of the Hospice, along with a short biography.  Photos of his family hang there, too.  In fact, photos of people important to the Hospice fill the hallways.  The one hundred and fifty years of history of the place is on display in this donor exhibition.

     Hanging above the photographs of Joseph and his family are these wonderful teardrop lampshades.  There are also symbols of Christianity everywhere, from the paintings on the walls to the cross in my room to the rectory itself.  Not only does a Catholic bishop live on site, but the Hospice houses an order called the Custody of the Holy Land.  This order, founded by Francis of Assisi, offers what the name suggests: protection of the Holy places.  It has been in place since the 13th century.

     As King of Jerusalem, a title Franz Joseph most cherished, he decreed this land as the property of Austria.  Today, the land is governed by the Republic of Austria, as an embassy would.  So I might not have made it to Vienna on this trip, but I did enter Austrian dominion.

     Let me give one last note on the Hospice: it reeked of Austrian efficiency.  Breakfast, for instance, started at 7 a.m. sharp.  I tried to enter two minutes early but received a strong rejection.  A banishment, really.  Breakfast ended at 9 a.m.  Everybody was forced out.  No lingering allowed.  As I ate my breakfast with brot and marmelade and käse and müsli, I watched a parade of Austrians entering the cafeteria.  There were a speckling of non-Austrians on site, but we were in the vast minority.  Even the waitress and the dishwasher were Austrian by birthright.

Day 4.  Franz Joseph is not the only historical figure I am intrigued by.  In fact, he’s not even in the top ten.  I should, at some later point in my writing life, compile a top ten list.  But for now, suffice it to say, that my trip to Holy Land Central (and peripheral) involved two of those figures near the top: Joshua ben Joseph (better known as Jesus of Nazareth) and the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.  Both men were born around the same time, but unlike Joshua ben Joseph, Josephus was born in Jerusalem.  For the next thirty years or so, Jerusalem became Josephus’s home base.  Everything changed for Josephus when the Jewish rebellion against Rome began.  Josephus became a general in the Jewish army.  He tried to defend the Galilee.  He lost, with the defining moment coming at the Battle of Jotapata.  He then became a prisoner of Rome.  But his life took a turn most prisoners would never know.

     Josephus became a friend of the Roman General Vespasian and his son, Titus.  Vespasian would become emperor.  Titus would follow in his father’s footsteps.  Josephus would enter Rome on Titus’s ship.  He would never leave.  So while Joshua ben Joseph died in Jerusalem, ostensibly, Josephus never saw his homeland again.

     When he left the ruined city in and around the year 70 of the 1st century, he was stateless.  Did he realize that he could never return to this city again?  Did he take one last look, trying to embed a pictorial in his mind?  In the histories written by Josephus that have come down to us, Josephus spent a good deal of time describing the Jerusalem universe.  In those descriptions, two Jerusalems emerged.  He drew a political map of the City, as he always referred to it in capitalization, or a description of players and events over the years.  The brushstrokes found on that map could be glowing, or acrimonious.  And he drew a physical map of the terrain, involving the land, the cityscape.  Details mattered to Josephus: the specific size of the guarding walls, the weight of the limestone used for building, the work masonry, the intricate look of the upper and lower sections, known today as the Old City and the City of David.  Josephus used a recurring adjective in his physical map: wonderful.  “Like a snowy mountain glittering in the sun,” he described his hometown.

     My tour of Holy Land Central (and peripheral) had to begin with Jerusalem.  That morning, I had questions in mind as I walked the souk.  What is Jerusalem today?  What observations does the physical map inspire?  What follows here are some notes.  Hopefully they form some answers to these questions. 

     Everybody smokes.  Europeans, Arabs, Jews: cigarette smoking is the connective tissue, the binding agent.  Yet advertisements, as in the United States, are apparently forbidden.  You don’t see used cigarettes scattered on every street.  You don’t see an overabundance of vendors.  In the Old City, boys on moveable wagons sell their cigarette packs but you rarely see them.  While cigarette smoking is the one consistent, cigarette selling is sporadic.  Everyone coughs here.  Another connective tissue.

     In the Old City, there’s no space, there’s no light.  It’s tight, claustrophobic.  A roof covers the souk, so you can’t see the sky.  Huge crowds dominate the tiny roadways.  Get behind a tourist group, and you can’t move.  I felt my annoyance kick in.  I felt my total impatience.  Something within takes over and you push your way through the hoards.  You look around and others are pushing, too.  The Old City is this strange confluence of pushing and smoking and coughing.

     The Old City is also this strange economy.  There are tourists on pilgrimage.  They move through the city with maps in hand, hitting the most fundamental of Christian sites: the Via Dolorosa and the stages of the cross; the dark and dank and incredibly kitschy Church of the Holy Sepulcher, commemorating the hill of crucifixion and the alleged tomb of Jesus’s burial; an alternate site to that church, known as the Garden Tomb, where the crucifixion may have occurred.  But while these tourists make their rounds, business owners stand outside their stores, attempting to drum up business.  They’ve learned a few words in all sorts of languages, from English to French to Italian, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, German.  You hear it all.  The stalls all offer the same stuff: food, sweets, toiletries, clothing, shoes, t-shirts, junk jewelry, scraps of religiosity.  The food is all exposed.  The sweets, the meat, the bread, it’s all within sneezing range.  But ninety percent of business, it seems, is walk-in.  There are no regular customers.  There are no enduring relationships here.  This is one-time capitalism on display.

     I spent some of that morning on a mission to find gifts for my two nieces back in Brooklyn.  My maternal grandparents traveled the world and they brought back the most fantastic gifts for their young grandchildren.  So many of those countries don’t exist anymore, or have been renamed: Yugoslavia, Rhodesia, Burma.  My grandparents brought back souvenirs, and coinage, from everywhere.  I was particularly engaged by the coinage: the faces, the medals used, the intricacies of detail.  I want to do the same now for my nieces.  I want to introduce a worldview.  And, as I looked around at the Europeans, I realized that they all wore keffiyehs as scarves.  I stopped at a vender and looked through his collection.  But something stopped me from the purchase.  I am a Jew.  I find the purchase a grave disloyalty to my heritage.  My nieces are not being raised Jewish, but that doesn’t matter.  I am what I am.

     The stall owners are all men, and I watch one trying to sell bras.  He is hardly an expert in bras, although he is a good salesman.  But I wonder: how does he know proper sizing?  That leads to the next question: do Arab women wear the wrong size?  I also see women in full body-hugging, stylish hijab and abaya.  Isn’t form-fitting a bit of hypocrisy?  Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of modesty?

     It doesn’t take long to tire of the souk.  I walk all over Jerusalem.  I walk the guarding walls.  I walk over to the Knesset and the archeology displayed there, remnants dug up from Jesus’s time and the long run of the Second Temple Period.  I walk over to Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem.  When I entered Israel through customs at the airport, the official looked at my passport and then made a suggestion.  “Go visit Yad Vashem,” he said.  “It’s terrific there.”

     I don’t know if that description fits the archeology of the Holocaust on display at the museum, but I’m assuming that his sales pitch came from orders up high.  Notably, the official sounded like he came from the Donald Trump School of salesmanship.  Why is that notable?  Donald Trump’s embassy is being built not far from Yad Vashem.

     I walk over to the City of David and the pool of Siloam, which used to serve the city as its water supply.  That pool probably finds reference in Isaiah.  It certainly finds reference in the Gospel of John.  A blind man receives his sight there.  I walk over to Mount Scopus and Hebrew University.  I walk into East Jerusalem.  I walk onto Jaffa road, the shops and restaurants could be anywhere in the cosmopolitan world.  That Friday, I work out at the YMCA in East Jerusalem.  It was formed in a tent in the immediate aftermath of Israeli independence, and it has a long history in that part of Arab Jerusalem as a social gathering spot.  Only men use the swimming pool.  Only men use the fitness room.  I run fifteen miles on the elliptical.  The elliptical doesn’t hurt the arthritis in my feet.  I haven’t yet mentioned, but a few months back I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.  In this early stage, my feet hurt terribly, and I can’t make a fist with my left hand.

     Back in the souk after my workout, I am nearly struck by a kid on a bicycle.  I will see him everyday, and everyday he will nearly hit me.  Along with everyone else.  He careens down the narrow roads.  He ploughs through the crowds.  Somehow, he doesn’t hit anyone.  I ask a store vender about him.  It turns out he has a nickname.  “Evel Knievel,” the vendors call him.

     The souk has many different musical accompaniments, whether they be store vendors calling out their wares or the call to prayer or, on Sundays, the church bells announcing service.  That Friday, I travel the wrong way twice.  To exit the souk through the Damascus Gate, I go against the movement of Muslim Arabs on their way to al-Aqsa and morning prayers.  Later, as I enter through the Damascus Gate on my way to the guesthouse, the crush of Arabs departs the souk.  Prayer session has ended, and they are on their way to the Friday meal.  In both cases, they pack the entirety of the roadway, filling every crevice, every corner, every crack of space.  Pushing through becomes an extreme sport.  The X Games should stage a competition.

     Friday afternoon, I visit the Western Wall.  The sight isn’t that interesting to me.  At this point in time, it’s a bit kitschy.  But turn around, with your back to the Wall, and the sightlines become fascinating.  You see Jewish Orthodoxy, like Chabad and Aish HaTorah, buying up space, buying up buildings, and putting their advertisements on display.  There are no cigarette advertisements, but there are faith advertisements.  If the Gospels recorded the heresy of the day at this place, and therefore Jesus’s need to overturn the money tables, isn’t this some sort of equivalent?

     Late Friday afternoon and I sit on the steps outside the Damascus Gate, drinking Arab coffee.  I watch the scene.  Vendors selling corn.  The IDF on guard.  Here come two soldiers on horseback, down the steep steps.  The sun setting, not too long after four in the afternoon.  Hasidim walk briskly down the steps toward the Western Wall. 

They can’t make contact with outsiders.  They look down.  The wind whipping.  A young vendor approaching those sitting on the steps.  He offers bread, vegetables, lemon tea.  “Good price,” he says in English.  He then switches to Arabic.  He tries to sell a bag of fresh baked pita at “ahad wa ashara.”  One bag for 10 shekelim.  By the time the sun sets, and I’m essentially the only one around, I could have had that same bag for agorot, or pennies.  The word ashara is constantly heard coming from the vendors in the souk.  More musicality.  The economy is based on ten.

     More Hasidim moving down the steps.  They’re running now.  The sun setting.  I watch some Arab teenage boys jumping around, blowing off steam.  They wear ripped blue jeans, t-shirts too tight, marvelous Air Jordans.  They have the same haircut: the sides shaved, the top a bit of a mop.

     The Hasidim now in full sprint to the Wall.  It’s past sunset.  It’s getting dark.  I finish my coffee.  I get up to go, walking down the steps toward the gate.  A youngish Hasid comes running down the stairs.  He bumps into me.  It’s an accident, but he’s just been corrupted.  He stops for the briefest moment.  He then performs the most interesting maneuver.  He wipes off his shoulder, where we touched, like wiping off dust.  He runs on.  I walk slowly to the Austrian Hospice.

Day 6.  I set out that morning with an objective: to spend time in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  Before visiting, I went to a website called mountofolives.co.il.  That website provides a great deal of information, including a history of the place, and a map.  According to the website, there are 122,000 known graves as of this writing.  The cemetery is 83% occupied.  There’s at least one burial per week.

     I walked to the cemetery on the simplest route I could find.  I bypassed the Old City by walking along Sultan Suleiman road until it turned into Jerekho road.  Jerekho road traveled into the Kidron Valley.  That road, rolling down a long hill, first encountered the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus supposedly prayed to God before crucifixion and where the arrest scene took place.  Up the hillside glimmered the ornate Church of Mary Magdalene.

     I made a pit stop.  Today, a modern church neighbors Gethsemane.  The garden is fenced in, impossible to enter, except for the Franciscan monks who serve as manicurists.  Olive trees fill the garden space.  They are old trees, tired, knotty, a reminder of the ancient land and its long run of history.  The question arises perhaps for every visitor: Could these same trees, if they could speak, offer reflections of Jesus on this spot, praying in the hours before arrest? 

     Notably, Josephus would have argued otherwise.  According to his reportage in The Jewish War, theRomans cut down all the trees when they burned the Temple and the city.  On Josephus’s day, though, Gethsemane stood outside the city proper.  Maybe the Romans didn’t make it over there.

     I entered the church.  I was not alone, though it was early in the morning.  Tour groups packed the place.  Tour leaders spoke in all sorts of different languages outside the entrance.  Fortunately, the church forbade explanation once inside.  The church was remarkably quiet.  I found the scene inside quite moving.  Above the alter, there was a triptych of murals.  The mural to the viewer’s left told a tale of Judas kissing Jesus, with the other disciples gathered around.  The disciples, given their daftness, would not have understood the significance of the kiss.  The arresting party was not in the scene.

     The middle mural depicted Jesus alone on earth, seemingly before the betrayal.  There was a re-creation of him above, as if floating toward God in heaven.  I sat down on a church pew – around me: worshippers agape, lots of photos, lots of selfies, no conversation – and I meditated on Jesus.  Could he enter me?  Could I open myself to him?  What would it mean for a Jew to cross over to Jesus?  I certainly wasn’t the first to ask this question.  I’m sure the disciples all struggled with it, though the Gospels tell a different story.  But I think that the struggle partially explains Judas’s behavior, if his story in the Gospels is credible.  To turn from the moorings of his Jewish heritage to the moorings of Jesus must have weighed heavily.  Did he out Jesus to the arresting party because he couldn’t leave behind his Jewish mooring?

     The question asked something of me.  What would be my worth if I, too, left behind the moorings of a Jewish heritage for the moorings of Jesus Christ?  I have spent my life on an interminable search for truth.  I am dogged by a question.  What is a fact?  The answer isn’t satisfactory.  I’m not sure there are facts but, rather, manipulations of moments.  History then comes down to us as plotted by its writers, engineered, contrived.  There is a wonderful physics phrase: an autocatalytic phenomenon.  An increasing on itself.  A historian finesses a story, and the world accepts the finesse as fact.  The phenomenon hardens the story and we have ourselves a truth.

     The Gospels strike me as one of those truths.  If a man named Jesus – or Joshua ben Joseph in the Hebrew – actually lived, he would have come across as an itinerant orator, traveling the towns and the countryside of the Galilee, preaching and performing exorcisms amongst his activities.  His preaching would have been subversive, riling up the masses against the ruling cultures, both Jewish and Roman.  As the Gospels suggest, his message would have reached the authorities.  How would they have reacted?  Would they have let him live?

     Here’s what I think happened.  The Gospel writers, particularly Mark, had a template in mind.  Given their Jewish moorings, they turned to the Tanakh to base their story of Jesus upon.  They found the Books of the Maccabees.  There is a curious echo there.  There’s the story of Judas Maccabeus throwing off the tyrannical power of the Seleucid Empire.  There’s the story of Jewish governance taking place, with the rededicating of the Second Temple and the menorah candles burning for eight days, even though there was only oil enough to keep the candles lit for a single day.  It’s indeed the story of a miracle.

     The wider history is notable.  According to the source material, Josephus included, the Family Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire.  That revolt proved victorious and a new power, the Hasmoneans, came into the world.  For about fifty years, Hasmoneans governed the region.  Then the Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for a form of self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

     Mark the Evangelist would have hated the Hasmoneans, as would his Gospel successors.  The Hasmoneans were Hellenized.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as pollutants.  To them, Jesus was the way of reduction, and restoration.

     But replace the Seleucids with the Romans.  Replace Judas Maccabeus with Jesus.  Replace the miracle of the menorah candles with the miracles of the itinerant orator and his penchant for exorcisms.  The Gospel writers had their backstory.  They then took the history in a completely different direction.  They took the history to Jerusalem, to Gethsemene.  They took the history to a crucifix at a place called Golgotha.  They took the history to a tomb.  They took the history to witnesses, marking a transformational moment.  The rising of Jesus.  The human form becoming the Son of Man.

     I left the church.  A footpath traveled down stairs to the base of the cemetery.  I came across a sign.  The top part of the sign was written in Hebrew script.  The bottom part was written in Latin, with the Hebrew transliterated.  The words included Sephardim and ba’et ha’akharona.

     There are no specific rows in the cemetery.  It’s not like Arlington and it’s perfect grid system.  There is no grid system.  There are headstones everywhere.  The scene reminded me a bit of the Jewish cemetery in East Berlin.  I’d visited in the last days of East German national history.  The cemetery needed immediate and rigorous attention.  Headstones had fallen, or had been vandalized.  The landscape looked more like a rock pile than a cemetery.  But the headstones told the story.  Nearly everyone in that cemetery had died in a twelve-year span, 1932-1945.  It was harrowing, both the dates and the general decrepitude.  I took on a mission: to properly arrange the headstones.  I got arrested by East German police.  I spent a weekend in an East German slammer.  A well-known German Jew came to my rescue.  But that’s a story for another project.

     The Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem is the most amazing man-made structure I’ve ever seen.  The cemetery must be hundreds of yards wide and rising steeply up the hillside.  The headstones are made of limestone and to fly over must signify sameness, as in every headstone looking identical to its neighbor.  On the ground, the headstones make you feel small.  You enter and you feel lost among the generations of the past. 

     You can’t get lost in the cemetery.  There’s a view, directly south, of the Old City.  That point of the Old City houses the remains of the Temple.  There’s a slight view of the Dome of the Rock from the Jewish cemetery.

     I walked back to the footpath.  I turned to my left.  The footpath led past Absalom’s Tomb and Jehoshaphat’s cave.  The cave, a burial ground probably dating back to the time of Jesus, was not the final resting spot of King Jehoshaphat, or any other Jehoshaphat in the Tanakh.  In Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people, Josephus spent a good deal of time detailing King Jehoshaphat and, while the king was clearly an important historical person in Josephus’s worldview, there seemed to be an ulterior motive to Josephus’s biography.  Josephus traced his ancestry to the king.  By providing so much color to the persona of Jehoshaphat, was Josephus trumping up his own persona?

     Past the cave, beside a ravine that led to the City of David, I came upon the east side of the cemetery.  The signage leading into that part of the cemetery had similarities to the signage on the western side.  There were two postings, the top half in Hebrew script, the bottom half in Latin.  The transliterated words included Sephardim and Zaken.  Zaken identified old, or ancient, people.  The words on the sign on the western front, ba’et ha’akharona, identified the newer, or more recent, burial ground.  The cemetery had been subdivided.

     Let’s dig into some cemetery history.  The burial ground came into existence during the reign of David, dating back to sometime around 1,000 B.C.E.  Over the long run of history, the cemetery expanded and divisions arose.  Today, there are four major burial locations, with eight minor locations.  The Hasidim, for instance, have their own burial location.  An Ashkenazim burial ground differs from the Sephardim burial ground.  But these distinctions tend to blur.  When I entered the eastern part of the cemetery, I encountered a Hasidic unveiling.  Way more than a minyan stood in attendance.  I stood apart from the Hasidim, observing. 

     Behind the grieving party, from my vantage point, the land rose up hundreds of feet.  From my vantage point, the Old City, dominated by the old Temple wall, could be glimpsed.  A staircase connected the Jewish cemetery to the Old City.  The steps ascended in intervals of five or six, then a landing area of a couple of feet, then more intervals of steps.  Up the steps went to a lookout point and the guarding wall surrounding the Old City.

     It was afternoon, after prayer session.  There wouldn’t be any worshippers around.  There would be tourists.  The complex, housing al-Aqsa Mosque and its more famed but less significant neighbor, the Dome of the Rock, was open to visitors.  Of course, a visitor couldn’t enter the mosque unless he believed in Allah and Islam.

     For Jews, the Temple Mount holds a question.  The grounds were once the most sacred of places.  The grounds once housed the holy of holies.  Given what it once was, was it unholy to step onto those grounds today?

     I left the cemetery and walked over to the staircase.  I then began to run the steps.  The route took fifty seconds to climb in full sprint.  I then went down easy.  For an hour, I repeated the up and down.  The sun baked my body, and I certainly provoked some weird looks from tourists exploring that part of the city.  But up and down I went.  The steps did not hurt the arthritis in my feet.  That was the good news.  The pounding wasn’t the same as a regular run.

     The steps up to the Temple Mount complex became the latest in what has been a thirty-year challenge.  I run steps everywhere I travel, or live.  From Sinai to Jerusalem, from Varanasi to Bali, in San Francisco and the Fillmore hill starting from the marina side, in Brooklyn and the steps of Prospect Park opposite the Quaker cemetery, I have found steps to test my physical endurance.  I could compile a top ten list.  On that list, but in no particular order, would be the Jerusalem steps.  Then I would add the Nazareth stairs (more on that shortly) and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and while we’re in Colorado, the Manitou Springs Incline outside of Colorado Springs.  Some 2,700 stairs rise 2,000 feet in elevation over a mile.  This is not the one-minute sprint up to the top, then an easy down.  From step one, this is a lungs-blasting, heart-hammering, ferocious, sweat-soaked challenge.  I have heard that there’s a staircase known as the “Gateway to Heaven” in Hunan province, China that tops the Manitou Springs Incline in difficulty, but the Incline is simply out-of-this-world difficult.  I would also add “the hidden stairs of La Mesa,” a neighborhood of San Diego.  I ran them once during a family reunion on Shelter Island.  Finding them is difficult, as the name suggests, but once there, they test the limits of physicality.  It took me almost two minutes to run them.  You reach the top in exhaustion.  When you turn around for the downward, you look directly west, high above the city, toward that point where the sky meets the ocean.  Looking west, with your heart and lungs ripping in your chest, is the opposite to standing near the Old City at the top of those stairs.  Yes, your heart and lungs are ripping in your chest, but you’re looking north.  You’re looking over the large expanse of the Jewish cemetery.  You’re looking at thousands of years of human history, generations upon generations, millennia of lives lived and past, stone slabs filling the landscape.  Jerusalem is an autocatalytic phenomenon.


Week 2

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the land.  As documented in Satan’s Synagogue, I rented a road bike in Tel Aviv and cycled the region.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I called that trip “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s loop through the Lesser Levant.”  Here, I am offering snippets.  Or Dispatches.  This is part 2 of 3.  Part 3 can be found below.

Day 8.  I retraced my cycling route back to Tel Aviv.  While the shoulder problems remained on Route 1, there was no need to shout denigrations about race officials.  The downhill from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv really made me move.  I almost kept up with traffic.  The night before, I had made a reservation for one night at the Tel Aviv hotel where I’d stayed upon my arrival in the country.  At reception, I was instantly disappointed.  Tamar was on holiday.  As before, we had a little argument over where to house the bike for the night.  As before, management won. 

Day 9.  Knowing I had a long ride up the coast to Phoenicia, or Lebanon as it’s called today, I departed at first light.  I traveled Route 4 all the way to the Lebanese border, with one stop some thirty miles into the trip, and a few peek-a-boos in the north.  From there, Route 51 hugged the coastline, snaking past my destinations of Tyre and Sidon and reaching Beirut.  I did not make reservations at a hotel in Beirut.  I had no plans of visiting the capital.  There wasn’t a Beirut in Jesus’s and Josephus’s day.  Tyre and Sidon were the port cities of note.

     As I set out that morning, I felt this great internal resistance.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Was it the unknown talking to me?  Was it fear?  Fear of bike failure and technological malfunction?  Fear of cycling on crowded highways?  Fear of Lebanon, of Hezbollah, of traveling through what could be dangerous lands?  I let myself have a crazy fantasy as I crossed through Tel Aviv, taking Chaim Weizmann road to Zeev Jabotinsky to Route 4.  In the fantasy, Lebanese police pulled me over.  They asked to see identification.  My passport, of course, recognized my American citizenship.  The police, in that part of the country, answered to Hezbollah.  They threw me in the back of the car and, quite suddenly, I became a hostage.  Hezbollah shot a video of me, beaten and tired and reading from a script.  I professed my hatred of all things American and Zionist.  I professed my Israeli hatred.  I denounced Judaism.

     I interrupted my fantasy at that point.  To distract myself from my anxieties, I concentrated on street names.  Chaim Weizmann’s trajectory took him along a path similar to Meir Dizengoff (for more on him, see part 1 of these dispatches).  Weizmann was born in a shtetl in the Russian Empire.  When the empire fractured, those lands became Polish.  As a child, he found a love for two studies: chemistry and Hebrew, and they would absolutely guide his life.  His love of chemistry took him to Berlin, where he studied for his doctorate in and around the end of the 19th century.  From Berlin, Weizmann landed a teaching position at the University of Manchester.  If not for chemistry, Weizmann’s trajectory would have gone in a very different direction.  A Polish Jew during the Holocaust, his trajectory would have gone towards the death camps.  But history had other ideas, and Weizmann became the leading Zionist.  His Hebrew served him well.  He learned the language as a child, taught briefly and, of course, spoke from the minute he became an Israeli citizen in 1948.  As the first president of the country, Weizmann was a foundational player in the rise of modern Israel. 

     Jaabotinsky was not foundational, though he might have been.  A Ukrainian Jew by birth, he became a controversial resistance fighter.  His personality traits tended toward tyranny, impatience, hostility.  He could be self-serving.  But Jaabotinsky was one of the most forward thinking Jews of his time.  In the 1930s he put forth an evacuation plan for all the Jews of Poland, Hungary and the Carpathian-Ruthenia region.  He conceived of an exodus to Palestine over a decade’s time.  The World Zionist Organization, led by Chaim Weizmann, dismissed the idea.  Had events played out differently, though, Jaabotinsky might have been the more heralded man.  Today, who knows of Jaabotinsky?  I bet Tamar and her generation have no idea of the name they’re driving their Toyotas and Jeeps upon.

     But something about those leaders, and their namesakes on streets, put me in a better mood.  I reached Route 4 with positive thoughts in mind.  That didn’t last long.  Route 4 through Tel Aviv is a nightmare for cyclists.  Cars spin past at breakneck speeds.  The shoulder narrows at times to the width of a shoe.  There are multiple exit ramps, and the cyclists have to cross those ramps, against traffic, to maintain the route.  I wanted to scream.  I’m sure I did.  But then, about a half-hour outside of Tel Aviv, on the northern border of Herzliya, Route 4 calms down.  It becomes sleepy and scenic.  The miles pass by, as do the towns, from Netanya to Hadera. 

     Some thirty miles into the trip I reached the road known by the number 6511.  That road, on the eastern outskirts of Caesarea, took me straight to the Caesarea National Park, with its beaches and Roman ruins.  I did pass beside the Caesarea Golf Club, which was founded by the Rothschilds back in the 1960s and then completely redesigned in the 2000s by the famous Golf course designer, Pete Dye.  That project was funded by a certain Donald Trump.

     I’d called ahead and reserved a storage space for my bicycle.  But first I had to wait.  The park opens at 8 and I’d arrived a little early.  I spent some time on the beach, sitting on the sand, watching the blue of the Mediterranean mix with the blue sky.  So calming, so quiet, so different than the Tel Aviv cycling scare.  I thought about Josephus and his rendering of Caesarea in The Jewish War.  As with his description of Jerusalem (see part 1 of these dispatches), Josephus spent many paragraphs on the city, and he laid out both a physical map and a political map.  His political map focused on Herod the Great, who built the city on lands “in a state of decay.”

     As rendered by Josephus, Herod maintained close ties with Augustus in Rome, and he built the city in the emperor’s honor, thus the name.  If Josephus repeated the word “wonderful” in his description of Jerusalem, he did something similar with Caesarea.  He chose a different word, “splendid.” 

     Splendid described the palace and the hippodrome.  Splendid described the row of arches covering one roadway and the theater with seating for 4,000.  Splendid described the statue of Caesar, built to resemble Zeus.  “Nowhere,” Josephus wrote of Herod, “did he show more clearly the liveliness of his imagination.”

     But for all the wonder he poured into his description of Caesarea, Josephus was most smitten with the harbor.  And, as with his physical map of Jerusalem, details mattered to him: the white stone that shined in the sunlight, the masonry that defied the sea, the welcoming and massive colonnades, the harbor’s size and shape, its artificial construction, its direction.  According to Josephus, harbors in Egypt faced southwest and were therefore “menaced” by the sea.  The harbor here faced north where everything was calm.

     To walk through the national park at Caesarea today is to experience both ruins and reconstruction, as architects took from Josephus’s description in The Jewish War and rebuilt.  There are cactuses everywhere, and limestone pillars.  There are Romanesque roadways, both public and private bathhouses, a hippodrome, the colossal theater, scant remnants of a palace with a mosaic in shards on the ground.  Herod never lived in that palace, but Pontius Pilate did.  There’s also a minaret there, and while the Islamic architecture seems out place, it points to the years following the Romans.  Caesarea outlived the Roman Empire.

     I spent two hours in the park, and by half past 10, I found myself back on Route 4.  The road goes straight to Haifa, but fortunately offers a bypass around the city.  I took the bypass.

     About an hour from the border, just north of Nahariya, I passed by the ancient town of Achziv.  Apparently, the town played an important role during the days of Canaan.  It had a port and, like Acre to the south, formed during the Bronze Age.  Today, Acre is a thriving city of some 50,000 residents, and the holiest city of the Baha’i faith, and Achziv is an historic site, with a famous beach and mosque.  I didn’t stop at either.  Instead, I glanced.  Had I toured the region by car, I might have stopped.  I might have noted the presumed disharmony of a beach beside a mosque.  Bikini Israel vs. sharia modesty.  Had I stopped, that disharmony would have been quelled.  The mosque is for show.  It’s a tourist site, a marker of Achziv’s Ottoman past.  Like at Caesarea.

     Around the noon hour, I reached the Rosh HaNikra border crossing.  It was nearly deserted and I soon came to understand why.  As an IDF soldier explained, all tourist guidebooks, both in print and online, describe a border unable to cross.  According to the guidebooks, there are no overland routes from Israel into Lebanon.  To make that trip, a tourist has to cross into an Arab country, like Jordan or Egypt, and then fly to Beirut.  Further, the Lebanese hold to a standard.  A traveler with an Israeli stamp in his passport is unwelcome.  Israel has solved that issue for travelers by offering a paper permit.  But the IDF soldier, after smiling at me and my bicycle and the “crazy” crossing I’d chosen, took my paper permit and let me through.  “This is a pauper border now,” he said.

     I think he used the wrong adjective, if pauper even can be used as an adjective.  Or, perhaps, he looked at my tattered and dirty riding shorts and thought of poverty.  But I think he meant to use the adjective permissible.  Still, his word as a description held some meaning.  That border crossing is desolate.  I remember the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing between West and East Berlin.  That border, in the midst of the city, had so much activity despite the reigning fear.  The Rosh HaNikra crossing held the same amount of fear, with no activity at all.

     Sidebar: The history of Christmas Nativity scenes depicts shepherds with large growths in their throat regions.  Check out the paintings of the Renaissance, or the sculptures.  Check out Caravaggio.  Check out Bernini in Rome.  The growths are as notable as the mangers, and the angels, and the wisemen.

     The growths are goiters.  They symbolize the pauper status, the abject poverty, of the shepherds.  They are, in essence, subversive brushstrokes, or carvings or castings, in relation to the dominant heralding glow of the Nativity scene.  But the goiters reflect more upon the age of the artist than the age depicted.  Goiters were common in Renaissance Europe.  Iodine deficiency ran rampant.  Goiters were not as common in Judea during the time of Jesus.  Iodine deficiencies don’t usually occur in coastal regions.  They are more common in the highlands.  Of course, the Galilee qualifies as highlands country.  Maybe Jesus suffered from a goiter?

     Let’s get back to the ride.  The Lebanese side of the border is operated by the U.N. Interim Force.  The word Interim is a farce.  That force has been on site since the late 1970s.  Why don’t they call it the U.N. Permanent Force?  A friendly Dutch soldier let me through.  He didn’t question my crossing.  Rather, he wanted to talk about my bicycle.  He described himself as a “cycling wonk” and he marveled at the bike’s technology.  This particular model, as noted earlier, was decked out with high-end parts and components.  It would have cost upwards of ten thousand dollars.

     I offered to let the soldier take the bike for a spin, but he shook his head.  Duty wouldn’t allow for such frivolity.  Instead, he talked to me about his hero, Erik Breukink.  When back in his hometown of Amsterdam, this soldier rode with a club led by Breukink.  They all wore their bright orange national cycling jerseys so proudly.

     I nodded my head, and watched as he stamped my passport.  I had never heard of Breukink, but I didn’t feel like standing for the explanation.  I wanted to get on with the ride.  I hopped back on the saddle and peddled into the town of Naqoura.  Later that night, in a guesthouse in Tyre, I learned that Breukink was the last Dutch cyclist to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.  The yellow jersey is worn by the leader of the race.  Back in 1989, Breukink dawned the yellow.  He held it for one day.  No Dutch rider has ever won the Tour.

     The ride from Naqoura to Tyre was uneventful, just the well-paved route of 51 that stretched the thirty or so miles.  Had I been intrepid enough, I could have taken 51 all the way up to Antioch.  That town, in modern-day Turkey, was the center of Roman rule in that part of the world.  The governor of Syria lived there.  At the time of Josephus’s birth, a man named Lucius Vitellius governed Syria.  Some thirty years later, Governor Cestius Gallus, acting on orders from Nero, marched his army into Judea.  He got as far as Jerusalem but Jewish resistance won the day and Gallus turned back.  According to Josephus, he died a broken man in Antioch, never living down the shame of losing to Jewish forces.  Gallus’s loss, though, meant that Roman legions were coming.  Gallus’s loss led directly to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

     It should be noted that, intrepid or not, it’s not possible to cross overland from Lebanon into Turkey.  There are impenetrable borders.  The Lebanon/Turkey border would make a top ten list.

     I slept that night in a perfectly adequate guesthouse.  The sheets were old but clean, and the room smelled of disinfectant.  The disinfectant made sense, as everyone smoked.  Better Lysol than cigarette funk, I suppose.  The best part of the guesthouse was the lemon tea.  I went to sleep that night with a glass, and I woke up to further glasses.  The proprietor of the guesthouse made it on site, from lemon trees in his yard.  He saw my affection for his tea and packed up a thermos for my wanderings around town.

     That morning I explored the ruins of Tyre.  I was immediately stuck by the ancient city’s long run.  The tentacles of Tyrian history reach way back to nearly 3,000 B.C.E.  Those tentacles revolve around the color of a dye, for purple pigment made Tyre.  We see Tyrian purple stretching all the way to Babylon.  We see Tyrian purple in the building of Jerusalem and the first Temple.  We see Tyrian purple making its way to Rome and through that portal, conquering Europe.  We see Tyrian purple on the sails flapping high above, as Cleopatra’s boat entered the port of Tarsus not so far from Antioch.  When Cleopatra emerged, dressed as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, Marc Antony didn’t know what hit him.

     Josephus, in his writings on Tyre, didn’t trace the purple economy.  Unlike his mapping of Jerusalem and Caesarea, he did not describe the layout of Tyre.  A physical map did not materialize.  He most likely never set foot in the region, as it did not fall under his jurisdiction in the war with Rome.  His political map, drawn mainly in Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people, tracked the line of kings during the long run of the Assyrians.  But Josephus missed Rome’s great interest in the city.  All the physical manifestations of Roman attention can be found in the ruins, from colonnaded roads to a burial ground, to an arena, to an aqueduct and a hippodrome that once seated some 20,000 spectators, to a bathhouse, to residential quarters that resemble those found in Caesarea.  But unlike Caesarea, the ruins lack adequate archeological protection.  Lebanon isn’t interested in protecting its historical sites. 

     Of course, the Lebanese are veritable protectors of antiquities compared to their neighbors, the Syrians of ISIS influence.  Notably, ISIS destroyed historical sites built by the Parthians.  The Parthians were Rome’s most formidable enemy.  ISIS could have built a strong east vs. west narrative out of Parthian resistance to Rome.  Of course, ISIS didn’t know the history of the land.

Day 11.  I rode the leg from Tyre to Sidon without event.  But events immediate changed upon my arrival in Sidon, at about the time the muezzin’s call to prayer began.  I heard the news from a man named Aziz, who operated the Hariri GuestHouse.  Aziz, as I soon learned, held a degree from University College London, and he was proud to name other alumni.  He named two in particular: Mahatma Gandhi and Chris Martin.  “Coldplay, you know,” he said.  I did know. 

     Aziz traced his name back to Assisi, the Italian evangelizer canonized by Pope Gregory.  Assisi died “from the wounds,” Aziz was quick to point out, or the stigmata.  He probably died of sepsis, but that’s a story for another time.  Also, Assisi was the first to stage a nativity scene.  He did so in the Italian village of Grecio.  He set up a manger and hay and live animals and he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem,” according to The Life of Assisi by St. Bonaventure.  St. Bonaventure, it should be noted, did not note shepherds with goiters.

    Anyway, Aziz valued his namesake.  He grew up in Sidon, went to England to study, then returned in 2003 to open the guesthouse.  Originally, he’d planned to live in London but the prime minister of Lebanon at that time, Rafic Hariri, put out a call for Lebanese in the diaspora to return home to help rebuild their country.  Fifteen years of civil war was in the rear view, Hariri claimed, with the peace here to stay.  Hariri pointed to the lavish hotels sprouting up.  “The war of the hotels,” Hariri advertised, according to Aziz, “is now the welcome mat of Arab hospitality.  We are now a country of room service.”

     The double use of the word “now” struck me as trying just a bit too hard to win support for the tourist economy.  But Lebanese history seemed to turn a corner here in the 21st century.  The civil war broke out in the 1970s, and it began, quite literally, in the Holiday Inn, a five star hotel located in an opulent, seaside neighborhood of Beirut.  The ruins of the hotel stood to Hariri’s day, a symbol of everything lost.  The Phoenicia InterContinental was the next hotel destroyed by sectarian warfare.  The hotels became the front lines.

     Hariri resigned from office one year after his call to return.  He was assassinated four months later.  The country remains split on the culprit, according to Aziz.  Half the country blames Hezbollah.  The other half thinks an outside agent set up Hezbollah.  And that, in a nutshell, is recent Lebanese history.  It doesn’t feel like a place; it feels like a place others come to use.  But Aziz believed in Hariri’s message so much so that not only did he return to rebuild the country, but he literally took Hariri’s words, opened a guesthouse, and named the place after the prime minister.  Notably, as with most tales both large and small, this one revolved around some complexity.  Aziz didn’t love Hariri.  “He was a child of Saudi influence,” Aziz explained.  “He was corrupt.  But he could get things done.  His son is half of him.”

     In December 2016, Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, became prime minister.  Aziz went on to describe Hariri the younger in comparison to Hariri the elder.  That description could best be summarized by a poster I’d seen while cycling the leg from Tyre to Sidon.  On faded poster paper, the son sat on a chair in the foreground, small in stature.  The father loomed behind, standing and menacing.  Rafic Hariri’s famous mustache almost engulfed the son.  Saad Hariri’s mustache, by comparison, had no force or grace.

     Flash forward to November 2017.  As I rode from Tel Aviv to Tyre, Saad Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia.  In the hours since, he hadn’t been heard from.  There were crazy rumors floating about.  He was under house arrest.  The Saudis countered, claiming that an assassination plot against Hariri had been uncovered and, for his own personal safety, he remained in Riyadh.  Saudi information focused on Hezbollah as the agency of assassination, but then Hezbollah had made an alliance with Iran, and Iran was the sworn enemy of the Saudi Kingdom.  So, of course, the Saudis would blame Hezbollah.  Hezbollah’s long-serving leader, Hassan Nasrallah, immediately denied any involvement.  He then put out a counter-statement.  The Israelis, in alliance with the Saudis, were mobilizing a force to cross the border.  Their aim was to engage and destroy Hezbollah. 

     I asked Aziz a question.  “If war breaks out, are we safe?”

     “Yes,” he claimed.  “On the coast.  You wouldn’t want to be in the Bekka Valley.  Don’t cycle over there.”

     I had no plans to cycle there.  But his words did nothing to alleviate my anxiety.  Was I, all of a sudden, in a war zone?  I couldn’t sleep that night.  I spent my hours on Al Jazeera’s English-language website, trying to suss out the situation.  Little corroborative information was forthcoming.  It seemed all rumors and misinformation, or disinformation.  To try to calm myself, I watched some professional basketball.  My beloved Denver Nuggets were in action.  But I couldn’t keep my mind on the game.  I have no desire to become a war writer.  I was not raised to idealize war, and the writers who romanticize it.  I am “no Hemingway,” a critic once called my work.  I think the critic meant that I couldn’t tell a straight story to save my life, that I overindulged in complexity.  But, well, his meaning certainly described my war dispatches.

     The next morning, taking Aziz’s comments at face value, I went sightseeing.  Josephus had little interest in Sidon.  In his chronicle, Sidon fell under the umbrella of Tyre.  Sidon did not stand on its own.

     A similar framing can be found in the Gospels, where Sidon always comes second.  Tyre is always the first city listed.  To read the Gospels, or Josephus, is to believe that Sidon existed as the simple younger sister to the stunning Tyre.  It didn’t have to go down that way.  In the early days, just the opposite occurred.  Scholars believe that the purple dye actually came from Sidon.  But history seemed to be on the southern city’s side.  A famous king, Hiram, struck trade deals with King David down in Judea.  Tyre soon came to dominate.  That sense of domination continues for someone on a tour of Roman-era history.  There is little to see in Sidon.  Notably, one of the more popular tourist spots is the Soap Museum, which traces soap making in the region.  This is notable because Sidon, for the most part, is rundown and depressed and dirty.  How can a soap-making capital not keep its own city clean?

     When I returned to the Hariri GuestHouse, I asked Aziz for the news.  Hariri had resigned, according to a published report.  Had he been kidnapped?  That was the question in mind.  Was he a hostage?  In related news, three Arab countries – UAE, Kuwait and Saudi – put out a call for their citizens in Lebanon to leave.  I immediately phoned the United States embassy in Beirut.  The official there described the situation as “one to watch.”  The U.S. hadn’t weighed in yet.  Aziz suggested that, since this was ostensibly my one time in Lebanon, I push on to Beirut.  “Everyone must go to Beirut,” he claimed.  “It is the center.”

     I didn’t understand his meaning.  There wasn’t a Beirut in Josephus’s day, so it wasn’t on my list.  Also, what would I discover there in my very limited time in the city that I wouldn’t see elsewhere?  Aren’t all of these capital cities the same, relatively?  Wasn’t Beirut just another Mediterranean city?  I was torn.  Given the possibility of war, should I make my way for the southern border or push north?  At about that time, I received an email from my father back in Colorado.  He advocated for an immediate return to Israel.  “They might know of you,” he wrote, “because of your book.  You might be in danger.”

     Some years back, I wrote a fiction entitled, The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise.  That book detailed American involvement in Iran, and secret deals made between the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and the Khomeini leadership, to delay the release of the American hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran until after Election Day, thereby ensuring the victory of Reagan over President Carter.  There was no hard evidence of any deals, only lots of information, misinformation and disinformation.  A nonfiction book was not possible.  But a fiction could go there.

     It turns out that I was wrong.  A nonfiction book could go there.  New information has come down to me.  A key operative wants to tell his tale.  Another key player, with long ties to the Republican Party, “needs to give a deathbed confessional,” in his words, “that will blow the lid off the true history.”  But that’s a story for another book project.  My book on the October Surprise showcased the traitor mentality of the Reagan Republicans, and the great duplicity of Ayatollah Khomeini.  While the Ayatollah publically condemned America – Marg bar Amrika, he thundered, or death to America – he had his envoys make the deal.  My father was correct: the Iranian government of today would not like the book.  And that government had serious tentacles in Lebanon.  But let’s be real.  I couldn’t find a publisher.  I self-published.  Maybe a hundred people worldwide bought the book.  Maybe ten people read it.  There wasn’t a fatwa against me.

     My father was acting out of his own anxieties, understandably.  But my father lives in a gated community in a wealthy part of suburban Denver and, from that vantage point, nearly everything presents a danger.  An internal voice pushed me northward and, I must say, that decision turned into the great highlight of the trip.  I went on Expedia and made reservations for two nights in a Beirut hotel.  I then called the hotel to make certain that I could store my bicycle in my room.  The receptionist responded with strange words.  “Yes, of course,” she said.  “But, you know, you can’t use the bike in the marathon.”

     What was she talking about?  I did a quick Google search.  Sunday the 12th of November would see the 15th running of the Beirut Marathon.  A further search noted that space was still available for participants.  Registration closed as the race began.  I cycled the twenty-five or so miles to Beirut with a question in mind.  Should I try to run in the marathon? 

     There wasn’t an easy answer.  I have a decent history as a marathon runner.  I began in my 20s and ran many marathons into my 30s.  But at some point plantar fasciitis set in and my feet couldn’t take the pounding.  Then something far worse took over.  I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.  My feet were the first to feel the effects.  I stopped running completely.  Could my feet manage the 26.2 miles of pounding?  Could my body, so unused to running these past few years, find that rhythm?  Although I felt fine from a fitness perspective, I certainly wasn’t marathon-trained.  Would the exertion be too extreme?  Would I suffer a heart attack and end up in a Beirut hospital, just as war broke out?  Would I suddenly find myself on the front lines?  Lots of anxieties, to be sure.

     I think, in retrospect, these questions pushed me onward.  These were the final days of my forties – my 50th birthday fell a few days after the marathon – and the challenge of the run was too much to pass up.  On Sunday morning, I registered twenty minutes before the event began.  The official gave me a bib with the number 47,001.  I later found out that 47,001 participants began the race.  I was the last to register.

Day 14.  A few minutes before nine a.m., I joined thousands of participants near the starting line.  The scene, in many ways, resembled marathons held everywhere else.  There was the usual chatter and wishes of “good luck” or “Inshallah,” since this was an Arabic-speaking country.  All the participants looked the same, in our microthread running clothes and our gaudy-colored running shoes.  The marathon began near the marina, and sea breezes whipped along at a good and cooling pace.  The breezes would be with us for the entire day.  The course was a double there and back.  The first there and back traveled seven miles south, then returned to the starting point.  The second there and back went six miles northward.  The wind played havoc.  Sometimes you felt it in your face and then, quite abruptly, a draft pushed you forward.  There was a swirling effect.

     What separated this marathon from all others were the atmospherics.  Signs everywhere posted Saad Hariri’s face, with slogans underneath in Arabic and English, announcing, “We want our PM back.”  Some young men, in fact, took that slogan, embroidered it on baseball caps, and passed them out to the runners.  Many of the runners wore those hats along the way.  There was a billboard rising high above the crowd with Saad Hariri in running gear.  He had, apparently, run this event the year before.  “We are all waiting for you,” the slogan on the billboard read. 

     I looked at all the children present.  They were participating in various distances, from the Family Fun Runs, to the 5K, to the more trying distance of the 10K, to the long slog of the marathon, and their behavior told the tale.  Saad Hariri, in their eyes, had become a hero.  Gone were the tales of his corruption.  Gone was his ineptitude.  Gone was his capitulation to Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.  Gone was his reliance on the Saudis.  Saad Hariri had come of age.  Maybe he’d been underestimated?  Maybe this whole strange entanglement was a ruse, to make a hero of the man? 

     The English-speaking crowd noted the name coincidence, Saad to sad.  To judge from the children, if indeed they aped their parents, the country now believed in Saad Hariri.  The crowd felt a collective defiance.  The crowd felt the duty of perseverance.  Notably, these are useful mental tools to lean on during a marathon.  When the miles pile up and the going gets tough, you need something to push you forward.  Defiance and perseverance certainly work.

     Before firing his gun in the air – a strange exercise for a once war-torn country, perhaps on the verge of another war – the announcer shouted, “We run for peace, for unity, for Lebanon.”  We shouted first in Arabic, then in English, then in French.  Then he fired his gun. 

     My body hurt from the first step.  I am not going to write a reflection of pain here.  That seems gratuitous.  But I hadn’t run in years and my muscles had forgotten the pace and positioning.  I also used to overpronate slightly, running on the outsides of my feet before putting much of the pounding on my arches and toes.  The arthritis had taken over my arches and toes.  I couldn’t run as before.  I therefore tilted back and ran on my heels.  My body wasn’t used to that position. 

     I ran slowly.  Normally a marathon would take me slightly under three hours to complete.  Only once did I go over the three-hour barrier, my last.  I was so depressed with my time that I quit.  Actually, that’s not correct.  I quit because I realized that marathons were destructive to the body.  I took to training for marathons, but not running in them.  In Beirut, I ran with a thought in mind.  “Just make it to the next water stop.”  There was a water stop at every mile.

     The course snaked down Paris Boulevard in West Beirut, past the American embassy and American University.  We hugged the coast and nearly reached UNESCO headquarters.  UNESCO was supposed to protect the ruins of Tyre and the tomb of Hiram nearby, but the agency was clearly failing in that endeavor.  I’d come up from the south on this route, and I felt some positivity in the familiarity of it.  We reached Military Beach and made our way back. 

     In East Beirut we ran in between the sea and the Dora Highway, past refugee camps.  Beirut is small, I quickly discovered.  It is not like other Arab capitals, Cairo or Amman, for instance.  The city size reminded me of my first marathon in San Francisco.  That day, you felt like you covered the entire city.  Same feeling here.  Except, of course, San Francisco didn’t have refugee camps on its eastern side, although the homeless encampments today might qualify.  These days the refugees in Lebanon come from Syria.  During the civil war era, Syria controlled large swathes of Beirut.  Everything has changed.

     I’m not sure what happened to me on the run.  That first mile was so painful.  The next mile wasn’t easy, nor the next.  But along the way I realized that I really wanted to run this day.  I realized just how much I’d missed the sport.  Running is all about control.  We don’t control much in our lives, but when you run, particularly when you run long distances, you feel as if you’re the master.  I took to running for various reasons but, primarily, I ran because I wrote.  As a writer, I couldn’t control anything.  Couldn’t control the process.  Couldn’t control the flow of words, or lack of flow.  Couldn’t control the story.  Couldn’t control the publishing side.  Running offered control, a counterweight to the writing side.  I ran to write.

     I realized as I ran Beirut that I still needed the control of running.  There is no control in cycling.  There are too many variables, like drivers who pull beside as some sort of joke.  So if this was my last long running effort, man, I was going out with everything I had.  Damn it, I was going to limp over the finish line. 

     And that’s essentially what happened.  It took me four hours to run Beirut.  I have never felt a better sense of accomplishment.  At some point, around twenty miles or so, I started to talk to the pain encompassing my body.  What had started from step one in my feet soon moved into my calves and up into my quadriceps, and then into my hips and back and beyond.  Even my shoulders hurt.  I started to cry.  Have I gone off the deep end here in my description?  I stated that I wouldn’t write a reflection of pain but here I am, doing just that.  Once I started to cry, I couldn’t stop.  The tears helped me because I knew just how ridiculous they were.  I was crying and laughing at the same time.  I crossed the finish line in laughing tears.  The crowd there saw me and cheered wildly.  Did they think I was crying tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of defiance, tears for their prime minister?  Sad for Saad? 

     If so, they were wrong.  I was crying tears of outrageous pain.  I crossed over that line and found the first volunteer to lean on.  He took on the entire weight of my body and whispered, “Mabrouk.”  Congratulations in Arabic.  Then he did a most outstanding thing, but something I would never allow in any other circumstance.  He wiped away my tears with his hands.  And we stood there for a few moments, one man crying and leaning heavily on the second man, that man wiping away the tears.

Day 15.  I didn’t get out of bed the entire day.  I was too tired to move, and my feet were too swollen to slip into shoes.  I’d anticipated such a day and stocked for provisions.  Plus, the hotel offered room service, as Rafic Hariri had once advertised, and I ordered the biggest cheeseburger available.  I ate my food and swallowed Ibuprofen and binge-watched Netflix and check in regularly on the Al Jazeera website and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean from my window.  It was a great day. 

Day 16.  I woke early, with the anxiety of a ninety-mile cycling trip through unknown territory, on highways filled with traffic and drivers unused to sharing the road with cyclists.  I’d already had enough of those drivers on my way to Beirut.  Drivers in the Levant think a cyclist should be honked at, then nearly sideswiped.  How close can you get?  That’s the game played.  At twenty miles per hour, with your life on the line, it’s hardly a fun game.

     I reversed my route and cycled south beside the towns of Sidon and Tyre and the road to Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine.  That story appeared in the Book of John only.  The Synoptics missed the story entirely. 

     Today, Cana is a lost city.  Was it in the Galilee?  Was it in Phoenicia, and therefore present-day Lebanon?  History remains miffed.

     One historical map, Shepherd’s Historical Atlas of 1923, placed Cana smack dab in the middle of the Galilee, with its famous neighbors, Nazareth and Sepphoris to the west, and the Sea of Galilee to the east.  I looked for that Cana a few days later, but more on that search in a bit.  There is a Qana in Lebanon.  Today, it’s a Shia town.  A Shia town in a wider Sunni nation.  In some ways, that’s more threatening than a Jewish nation in Arab lands.

     I departed my Beirut hotel at sunrise, about an hour after the call to prayer.  I would chart that call, in terms of length of time.  In Beirut, the call on a November morning began at around 4:45.  It lasted seven minutes.  In Nazareth, the call began a few minutes earlier but never lasted more than five minutes.  In Jerusalem, the call began at half past the hour and lasted a good fifteen minutes.  On Fridays, the call went on for half an hour.  Trying to sleep on Friday mornings in Jerusalem is impossible.  I’m sure the entire city rises before five.  But, if the call goes on for that long in Jerusalem, Islam’s third most important city, how long does it go for in Mecca and Medina?

     Due to my early departure time, the roads were mostly clear of traffic.  The temperature was a cool 55 degrees, and the wind seemed friendly.  I made excellent time.  I arrived at the border with hopes of a quick transfer.  It didn’t work out that way.  As before, there were no tourists in sight.  Just me and the border officials and a whole legion, seemingly, of soldiers with guns.  I spent four hours in some kind of detainment, on both sides of the border.  I was not interrogated.  That would be too strong a word.  Interviewed would be a better description.  Rigorously interviewed. 

     What did the officials want to know?  The official representing the U.N. Interim Force, a Kuwaiti, didn’t understand the nature of my trip.  I missed my Dutchman.  I tried to explain that I was following the path once blazed by Josephus in his writing.  Nobody knew the name.  The Kuwaiti brought in other Arab soldiers, as apparently it was Arab guard duty that morning.  They ordered lemon tea from a café in Naqoura.  I drank and they smoked.  I decided to talk about the geopolitics of the region.  It was a tactic.  Locals are always surprised, and typically pleased, when a foreigner knows something of their lands.  I had studied the wider region thoroughly for my book on the October Surprise.  Although that was a good five years back, and much had changed, much had not.  I listed names and paramilitary organizations and, as these were Sunni soldiers that day, I described a deep distrust with Iran.  I predicted a Saudi/Iran war.  The soldiers all promised to fight for Allah, or the Saudis, and after some heavy conversation, they let me through. 

     I walked my bike to the Israeli side, thinking, as a Jew, I was in the clear.  The Israelis studied my passport.  They asked my route of travel.  They doubted my story.  They ordered Nescafé instant coffee.  I drank and they smoked.  Did they think I was an Arab agent?  I clearly didn’t pay allegiance to Hezbollah, or ISIS, or any other death-to-Israel military organization.  Did they think I was CIA?  They searched my belongings.  They patted me down.  They tested my story.  I expressed my views on Israel.  I expressed my fears that this younger generation was not prepared for war.  Oh, I’m sure they’re prepared in terms of military training.  But are they willing to make the kinds of sacrifices the older generations made?  To the soldiers on the border, all young, I questioned their “relative comforts,” their obsession with state-of-the-art technology, their eagerness for material accumulation, their self-perceived lack of tension with their Arab neighbors.

     They didn’t object to my perspective.  Instead, they corrected my word choice.  “Relative comforts?” one of them argued.  “Israel is the stability in the region.  Look at the investments pouring in.  Look at the building in Tel Aviv.  Look around.”

     He wasn’t wrong.  In Tel Aviv, I saw cranes everywhere.  Tel Aviv struck me as a mix between Las Vegas and New York.  New York in its maniacal building.  New York in its traffic.  New York in its glamour.  Tel Aviv has a strip of stores that resembles Madison Avenue in its fixation with fabulousness.

     But Tel Aviv has the Las Vegas feel, too.  Las Vegas in its abundant sunshine.  There is no way of escaping that blinding sun.  As in Vegas, even the shade seems sunny.  Las Vegas in its pockets of rising high-rises.  They do not spread out.  They are clustered and the look feels like the Las Vegas strip has come to the Levant.  Las Vegas in its lack of drinking water and its reliance on one river.  As Vegas is to the Colorado, Tel Aviv is to the Jordan.  Both create incredible tensions within their regions, though neither city seems particularly interested.

     The border guards let me through around two in the afternoon.  It was siesta time, I think, and they’d grown tired of the interview.  I was just happy to get moving again.  I rode Route 4 to Acre, where I picked up Route 85.  Eighty-five connects to Route 785 at Karmiel.  I certainly didn’t see the IDF in mobilization, as Nasrallah counter-accused.  If the Israelis were invading southern Lebanon, they were doing so on side roads.

     I took Route 785 to 79, passing beside Yodfat, where I would return the next day.  Seventy-nine connects to Route 75 around the town of Zippori, or Sepphoris as Josephus and Rome would have known it.  I would return there on my birthday.  Seventy-five ends with a climb up the Nazareth hill.

     It was six in the evening when I began the climb.  I was reminded of cycling up the Rocky Mountains, minus the car traffic whizzing by, and the noise and grime, and the setting sun blinding the drivers.  It once took me nearly three hours to cycle from the town of Idaho Springs to the summit of Mt. Evans.  That road reaches 14,130 feet and travels some thirty miles.  It’s a slow, heart pumping, heavy breathing slog.  The ride up the Nazareth hill has some of the same traits.  Plus, I’d left my hotel in Beirut about ten hours earlier.  I was very tired when I saw what I had to climb.

     I made it, somehow.  I arrived at the old city and immediately found myself at a loss for how to find the guesthouse.  I had done a Google Map search in my Beirut hotel room, and I had written down directions on a scrap of paper.  But Google Maps shouldn’t be blamed for the direction difficulty.  Nazareth is complicated and, in Arab towns, street names are pointless and everybody points in a direction, even if they’re all pointing in different directions.  I found the guesthouse through sheer luck.  The manager greeted me with remarkable hospitality.  Arab hospitality has its levels.  Muslim Arabs treat you like brothers.  They will share their last scrap of food with you.  Christian Arabs treat you like royalty.  They will not only share any and all food with you but, if necessary, they will chauffeur you around the city, in search of rare parts.  But more on that hospitality in the next dispatch.


Week 3

My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago.  That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions.  Who wrote the book?  What was its purpose?  Did it succeed?  How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist?  And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ?

     A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world.  I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform.  I listened.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.

     In support of Satan’s Synagogue (and Against Mark), I’ve been writing a series of profiles.  In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn.  All of those profiles are available further down the page.  Here, I am profiling the land.  As documented in Satan’s Synagogue, I rented a road bike in Tel Aviv and cycled the region.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I called that trip “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s loop through the Lesser Levant.”  Here, I am offering snippets.  Or Dispatches.  This is part 3 of 3.

Late night on day 16.  The long slog on bicycle from Beirut to Nazareth, with the four or so hours of waiting, and interrogation, at the Rosh HaNikra border crossing, had taken its toll.  Exhaustion had rendered me empty.  I slumped in a comfortable bed.  I tried to eat shawarma.  I tried to read.  The next day, I was scheduled for a tour of Yodfat, or Jotapata as Josephus and the Romans would have known it, and I wanted to read Josephus’s chapter on that battle.  He wrote his original description in The Jewish War.  That description reminded me of my bike ride from Beirut to Nazareth.  It went on for sixteen interminable pages, rendering it a brutal slog.  But something funky happened.  There was a detractor.  Someone took umbrage with Josephus’s description of the battle and called out Josephus.  That someone has been lost to history.  We only know that Josephus was put on the defensive.  He therefore felt it necessary to write a second description of the battle.  He did so in the last known book of his life, Against Apion.  It turns out that there was another book written after Against Apion, but that’s a story for another time.

     Apion was the most famous historian of his time.  He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus.  Rather, his works centered on more important figures.  Homer, for instance.  But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish and, in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews.  He rendered Moses as a leper.

     Rendering Moses as a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines.  Unfortunately, that work has not come down to us.  We only know of Apion’s work through Josephus.

     The title, Against Apion, promoted the book’s agenda.  Against Apion was a defense of a people, as Josephus took on a whole kettle of commentators who screamed and whistled anti-Jewish invective.  Against Apion was a roundhouse right of a responsum.

     At the end of the book, Josephus included his “Vita.”  It’s in those pages that his second Jotapata reportage can be found.  There’s a sea change in his two works on the subject.  The original comes across as a chronicle, with some loud, self-serving crowing.  The revision is an edgy defense strategy, acerbic at times, insecure at times.  Layers of panic underscore the tone.  Here was Josephus seemingly up on the witness stand.  Here was his original reportage, under threat.  Here was a man trying to prove himself, trying to save his legacy, trying to save his life. 

     Who was his detractor?  Again, the historical record remains murky.  But there was a villain in The Jewish War.  His name was Justus ben Pistus from Tiberias and he seemed to lead a rebellion against Josephus, while the war against Rome raged.  At least, that’s how Josephus rendered Justus.

     To that intrigue, here’s more.  At some point in the post-war years, Justus accused Josephus of irresponsible warmongering.  The accusation was somewhat hollow.  Justus was in the Galilee.  Josephus was ensconced Rome.  A prisoner of sorts.  Unable to leave the city, but free to live his life and to write his histories.

     What did the irresponsible warmongering charge mean?  Unfortunately, there are no extant sources.  We only know of the accusation through Josephus.  Maybe there’s a document written by Justus ben Pistus somewhere in Tiberius.  It hasn’t shown itself, yet.

     With all of this in mind, but with inertia taking over, I slumped down in bed.  I closed my eyes.  I fell asleep.

Day 17.  I awoke to the prayer call.  My night light was still glowing.  My copies of The Jewish War and Josephus’s Vita laid cluttered on my chest.  I looked at my watch: 4:42.  The call to prayer provoked the roosters, who joined in the cacophony.  Or maybe it was the other way around.  Maybe the roosters’ circadian rhythms came first.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.

     I set out for Yodfat at around seven a.m.  I had a difficult time in finding my way out of Nazareth.  The turns and twists and maze of the place challenged my internal navigation system.  My internal navigation system is used to the Rockies of Colorado, where I grew up.  I’ve never been lost there.  I’ve been lost most everywhere else.

     Eventually, I found Route 75.  I took that road to 79, then to 784.  Rolling hills formed the landscape, with some steep climbs.  There were no big cities in the region, so traffic was light.  The route, some twenty miles, took longer than expected, and I worried that I’d missed the turn.  I didn’t.  The sign for “Yodfat/Monkey Forest” was big and bright and welcoming.  What wasn’t so welcoming, though, was the prick in the innertube.  I arrived with a flat tire.

     I had made preparations for such a malfunction.  When I rented the bicycle in Tel Aviv, I also rented a repair kit.  The kit included two spare innertubes and a pump.  I soon discovered that the first spare had a valve problem.  So after changing out that innertube, I immediately realized that it wouldn’t hold air.  I wanted to give up right there.  It’s interesting.  During the Beirut marathon (see part 2 of these dispatches), I didn’t want to give up.  I wanted to persevere.  I was pushed to persevere.  But here, given the technology glitch, given the difficulty in changing innertubes with my arthritic hands, I contemplated my options.  I could try to hitchhike back to Nazareth.  Given the tourist attraction of the site, I certainly had many people to ask.  I could ask one of these people to call a taxi on my behalf.  How much would that cost?  What would the driver say to the bike?  I could change the tire, again. 

     I swallowed some of my frustration and went with the last option.  Fortunately that innertube held air.  But I had bike grease all over my hands and clothes, and I felt the anxieties of what to do if another flat should occur on my ride back to Nazareth.  I had no spares left.

     Today, Yodfat serves several purposes.  As the welcoming sign advertised, it’s a monkey preserve.  It turns out that all sorts of monkeys are indigenous to the area.  As I changed out my tire, twice, the parking lot filled up.  The tourist attraction includes a restaurant and a gift shop.  There’s also a working moshav next door.  The settlement must be strictly agricultural by nature.  I changed the tire beside the entrance and didn’t see any industry, not even furniture building in keeping with the basics of the kibbutz movement.  The historical site is to the south.  It’s a five-minute drive, down a steep incline.  I was feeling the anxieties of my tire issue, and the incline bugged me.  Plus, I knew I had to cycle up it.  Plus, I knew I had to cycle back up the Nazareth hill.

     The self-fortification of Yodfat is immediately apparent.  The ancient town sat on a hill, shaped like a key, sloping, with the bow of the key up high and the cuts below.  Prior to the revolt, the town held some fifteen hundred residents, according to Josephus.  The residents must have known something about terrace or slant farming.  From the town, there were steep drops to the valley floor.  For the most part, the floor below was not visible from up high.  The vegetation on the hills included grass and weeds, olive and fruit trees.  The trees were not packed together, like the highrises going up in Tel Aviv, but sporadic.  There were limestone rocks everywhere.  These days, and probably back in Josephus’s day, cows roamed the hills.  They munched on the grass.  I looked around at the neighboring hills and it dawned on me: there might have been other communities with towns there, too.  This was not exactly Masada, with it’s one rising hill in an otherwise flat landscape.  Josephus didn’t note any surrounding towns in either of his writings, but maybe those towns fed into Jotapata at the time of revolt.  Maybe that swelled the population.  Maybe the other towns also aided the war effort.  Positioning archers on neighboring hills would have put them in position to pick off Roman legionnaires from behind.  Maybe Josephus, as a novice war general, missed this opportunity. 

     In the run up to the war, Josephus garrisoned Jotapata as his western outpost.  The Romans could only attack from the north.  When Rome’s great general, Vespasian, arrived on site and viewed the difficulty of the terrain, he called for backup.  Some sixty thousand Roman troops attacked, according to Josephus.  That number seems exorbitant.  Did Josephus raise the troop number to pit a David vs. Goliath battle?  As noted, the land around Yodfat is hilly.  Moving armies into place wouldn’t have been easy, or quick.  The Romans were at a disadvantage.  Also, the battle occurred in the summer of 67.  The summer is the dry season, and sticky hot.  The Romans would have needed long lines to connect to a water source.  Certain details of the battle, as Josephus rendered it, then reflected on another battle made famous by Josephus and Josephus alone.  The few Jewish settlers compared to the large Roman army resembled the battle at Masada.  Did Josephus use Jotapata as a template for his legend at Masada?  (See my book Satan’s Synagogue for a detailed analysis.)

     I sat down amongst the cows to write down my thoughts.  I watched a group of Israelis on tour.  Their Hebrew speaking guide gesticulated wildly.  I looked up at the sky.  Incredibly blue for as far as the eye could see.  The very opposite of the New York finite.  I didn’t sit for long.  I was feeling the anxieties of my bike situation.  Granted, my anxieties paled in comparison to the anxieties the residents of Jotapata must have felt nearly two millennia ago, but my anxieties were strong.  I wanted to get on with the ride back to Nazareth.

     As events played out, I arrived at the guesthouse without incident.  Even up the Nazareth hill, the innertube held.  I then had a mission: to find a bike shop and purchase spare innertubes.  A Google search of Nazareth didn’t show one bike shop in the entire city.  The nearest bike shop, according to Google, was in Haifa.  I guess nobody cycles in Galilee.

     I took my mission to the proprietor.  His name was Michel abu Nassar, and he couldn’t have been any more generous.  According to Michel, Google was wrong.  There was bike store in Nazareth, but it was clear across town.  He offered to drive me.  At first, I thought the offer was too large.  How could I take up that much of Michel’s time?  Plus, the search occurred around the rush hour.  How could I put Michel in traffic, on a mission superfluous to him?

     Michel was adamant.  We jumped into his compact Toyota ­– in Nazareth, all cars are small, as the size of the streets won’t allow for SUVs – and, along the way, we talked about life in Nazareth.  It’s a town with a Muslim majority.  According to Michel’s statistics, Nazareth is sixty-five percent Muslim and thirty-five percent Christian.  There’s also a Nazareth Illit, or Upper.  That’s where the Jews live.  In the Arab towns that Jews want to settle in, they build an Illit neighborhood.

     Michel was in the minority.  A Christian in a Muslim town.  A Christian in a Jewish country.  He was 77 years old when I met him and he lived his life in a Jesus-inspired way.  He showed incredible kindness.  He ran his guesthouse and treated his guests with a base level of extraordinary generosity.  For instance, he personally cooked breakfast for every guest every morning.  His breakfasts were delicious.

     For me, he wove through heavy Nazareth traffic, there and back.  He haggled with the bike shop owner for a better price on my behalf.  The owner wanted to charge me double what I would have paid in the United States.  Michel’s haggling got me down to “an Arab price,” in Michel’s words.

     When we arrived back at his guesthouse, he offered to make my lunch for my bike ride the next day.  I know enough of Arab hospitality to know that one does not turn down what’s offered.  Michel concocted the most excellent eggplant sandwich, which I would eat in the ruins of a synagogue the Jews of Sepphoris might have davened in. 

     Michel lost his father when he was three.  His mother brought up six children, with the help of the Nazareth Diocese.  He lived in poverty but he received great schooling.  As a child, Michel learned languages: English, Hebrew (he went to school prior to Israeli independence, so Hebrew in the north would not have been compulsory), Latin.  As an adult, he found a nun to teach him French and German.  An administrator by trade, he became the director of the local medical center.  He retired after many years in the trade and opened a guesthouse.  He said he did it for his son, so he could have the money made.  This was Michel abu Nassar: kind, generous, thoughtful, a good driver through crazy traffic, a wealthy man though you would never know, a polyglot who speaks to his guests in their language.  He pronounced his family name the Christian way, two syllables: Na-Sar.  Not the Arab way, like the once dictator of Egypt, one syllable: Nasser.  When we got back in his Toyota after haggling with the bicycle shop owner, Michel offered some final words.  A denouement to my flat tire.  “Your troubles are over,” he said. 

Day 18.  I awoke a good while before the muezzin’s call with a foreign thought in my head.  I was born in Virginia at around two in the morning, according to my parents.  Given the seven hour time differential between Israel and the East Coast of the United States, I was in the last three hours of my forties.  The countdown led to a much wider thought.  Who was I?  The question had little to do with accomplishment.  The question had everything to do with mooring.  When I visited Israel last, thirty years earlier, I had no adult mooring.  That would be expected for a twenty year old.  But at some point in our lives, we need to find something far greater than ourselves to serve as a foundation.  There are many options: religion and God, family and friends.  Those form the traditional building blocks.  But there are others, like science or mathematics.  I moored myself to the flow of history.  When you become a historian, when you step back from the moment and look at human life on this long trajectory, you realize your own stature.  You are small.  You are insignificant.  Let me borrow a phrase from one of the great Holocaust historians.  Raul Hilberg labeled himself a “footnote writer.”

     I love the phrase.  It connotes insignificance compared with the much wider task of compiling history.  It connotes humility.  It connotes self-awareness and accountability.

     Josephus was not a footnote writer.  He inserted himself, sometimes subtly, into his narrative.  He used the third person when writing openly of himself.  He stylistically chose to call himself Josephus in his narratives.  It’s a painful reminder of ego.

     The same could be said for the Gospel writers.  The discrepancies found between Gospels, the contradictions both large and small, comes down to the bravado of the evangelists.  They wanted their stories to be told, and to dominate.  There’s a terrible irony to the Gospels.  In the telling of Jesus, there’s a sort of best supporting actor role.  The best supporting actor role has nothing to do with Peter or Pontius Pilate or Judas Iscariot.  The best supporting role has everything to do with Mark and Matthew and Luke and John.  They inserted their dispositions into their narratives.  They then created remarkably flawed histories.

     They should have known better.  They were not young writers, according to Christian traditions.  They were old men, telling a story much bigger than themselves.  It’s a painful reminder of ego.

     I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I took my coffee to the veranda and sat outside on a cool, quiet, starry night.  I reflected.  When I first started a writing career, I had big aspirations.  I suppose I wanted what Josephus accomplished.  To be remembered, and to be remembered some two millennia later.  The writing life, though, reduced my ambitions.  It took from me, sometimes little by little, sometimes massively.  It slapped me in the face.  It rearranged more than my disposition.  It rearranged my comportment.  I am not Josephus memorable.  I am not Evangelist important.  I am a footnote writer.

     These were my final thoughts of my forties and they came with a sort of musical accompaniment.  The roosters began their vocalizing.  The call to prayer soon woke up the town.  The sun appeared.  The noise of waking life followed.  My forties turned into my fifties. 

     I made another cup of instant coffee and considered how to spend my birthday.  I was tired from the previous days of pedaling but determined to push on with the Josephus tour.  I did need a day off the bike, however, so I made a plan to visit Zippori, some six miles to the north of Nazareth, or about an hour’s hike from my guesthouse.  That hike followed what is known today as the Jesus Trail.  Pilgrims come to Nazareth to hike either parts or all of the trail.  The full hike will take you the forty or so miles to Capernaum, Jesus’s adult home.  I cycled over to Capernaum a few days later, to visit the synagogue site where Jesus supposedly preached.  From there, I made the journey up to Gamla, or Gamala as Josephus called it.  To judge from a map, Gamla was in the territory controlled by Herod Antipas.  Herod served as the vassal king for the Roman Empire.  Josephus then must have fortified Gamla in the war against Rome, if his reportage was accurate, despite Herod’s control.  It’s an interesting twist.  Would Herod have permitted Josephus on his soil?  Would the people of Gamla have gone over to Josephus’s side?

     These questions circle back to Zippori, or Sepphoris as it was known to the Romans.  The town did not cross lines and join the rebellion.  The town stayed loyal to the Romans.  For this reason, Sepphoris was not destroyed during the war.  But little to nothing, artifactually, remains from that time.  Today, Zippori is known for its fantastic ruins, dating from the second century onward in the Gregorian calendar, until about the 5th century.  Zippori saw a renaissance following the second rebellion against Rome, known as the Bar Kochba revolt, 132 to 136 C.E.  Following the Jewish defeat, Rome banned Jews from Jerusalem.  Judean Jews traveled north to the Galilee.  They settled, for the most part, in two towns.  Zippori and Tiberias.

     But that’s decades removed from our story, and a story I will concentrate on in a future book.  What we know of Sepphoris from the time of Jesus, we know from Josephus.  He told some history of the town but, more strenuously, he rendered Sepphoris as a place of hypocrites. 

     The history began with Herod the Great, who conquered the city around the year 37 B.C.E.  Herod died some thirty-three years later, and a Jewish revolt soon followed.  Sepphoris then saw revolt at about the time of Jesus’s birth, some sixty years before the wider revolt against the Romans.  The initial revolt led to Jewish governance, for a short period.  Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, retook the city.  After that military victory, he followed the Roman model, burning the city to the ground and enslaving the revolting population.  Herod Antipas then rebuilt Sepphoris. 

     And it’s in that rebuilding where an intersection with Jesus and his family occurs.  According to information supplied by Josephus in his book Against Mark (see my book Satan’s Synagogue for the reprint of that full document), Jesus was born in Beth Lehem Zebulun, a town neighboring Nazareth.  In need of work, his family migrated to Nazareth.  Like migrants everywhere, Joseph and his wife Mary went where the work was.  The Gospel of Mark used a Greek word, “tektōn,” to describe Joseph.  Tektōn might be translated as a carpenter, a woodworker, a builder.  In the larger scope of things: construction.  None of the Gospels spell it out, but Joseph walked the hour or so everyday from Nazareth to Sepphoris for the work.

     The story gets even more interesting.  According to Josephus in Against Mark, Joseph taught his boys – James, Joseph, Judas, Simon and Joshua (or Jesus of Nazareth as he’s known today), according to both Mark and Matthew – the craft of the tektōn.  They all went to work in Sepphoris.

     Looking north from the top of Nazareth, there’s a small town below on the valley floor.  That’s modern-day Zippori, with the Sepphoris National Park in the center.  The first leg of the Jesus Trail winds its way down the hill.

     The trail has been clearly marked, with orange and white signage to steer the way.  In between the towns, the land is serene, tranquil, undeveloped, hilly, green.  You walk along a dirt path and you can feel the antiquity in the soil.  There’s nothing of modernity here.  Nothing to suggest a Jewish state situated within a wider ring of Arab nations.  Nothing to suggest Hezbollah terrorists just beyond the border.  Nothing to suggest Syria in civil war.  Nothing to suggest the hardline Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  Nothing to suggest Palestinian refugee camps.

     On the Jesus Trail, you can glimpse the Roman Empire, with a Jewish population torn over revolt.  There wasn’t an Islam or a Christianity in Josephus’s day.  There was a Jewish hegemony led by the Pharisees.  There were Sadducees to the south.  There were Essenes to the south, too, a forerunner in attitude to modern-day Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  In his writing, Josephus played up the internecine feuding of the “completing philosophies.”  He rendered a country torn asunder by distrust and envy, a country torn apart by venom.  He made Jews into antagonists.  He made himself into the protagonist.  According to Josephus, different towns within the Galilee wanted to kill him.  He couldn’t, for instance, step foot in Tiberias.  Within the wider rebellion against Rome, the internecine warfare created insurmountable obstacles.  Josephus blamed the losses to Rome in both the Galilee and Judea on Jews.

     It’s a notable framing and it has tentacles that reach into the 21st century.  The internecine feuding of the “competing philosophies” continues.  If Josephus were writing today, we would note the Ashkenazi vs. the Sephardic.  He would note the competing sects, or the Orthodox vs. the Conservative vs. the Reform.  He would note the “fallen” or “fake” Jews vs. the “real” Jews.  The list goes on.  If he went to Judea and the Galilee, he would note the Dante-like rings, with the black Jews of Ethiopia, and other parts Africa, on the bottom, with the Mizrahi Jews on the ring slightly above, with the Russian Jews on the next ring.  He would note the intractable positions taken by the Sabra vs. the Ashkenazi.  He would note the settlers in the West Bank vs. Jews on the Coast.  He would note Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv.  If anything has changed from Josephus’s time, the religion has gotten more complicated.

     But here’s what Josephus missed in his narrative.  He missed his own status.  He was an outsider when he became governor general of the Galilee.  Maybe the Galileans wanted one of their own as leader and general.  Maybe they didn’t much care for a favored son of Jerusalem.

     Josephus seemed oblivious to this consideration in his chronicle.  This is strange in that Josephus, at the time of his writing, was a Jew from Judea living in Rome.  He didn’t fit in within Jewish circles in Rome, and he certainly was ostracized from Roman society.  He was the ultimate outsider.  His reportage reeked of self-importance. 

     On my walk from Nazareth to Zippori, I asked a question I’d never before pondered.  What was Josephus moored to?  The answers weren’t easy to grasp this many years later.  As an observant Jew, he was moored to God.  According to his personal history, he was moored to his family.  But those moorings seemed to wane, as he made his way through the labyrinth of Roman rule.  He became a turncoat, or so the accusations went.  He became a hypocrite.  He became a fraud.  If he moored himself to history, a part of his mooring went to the Flavian dynasty.  He had to serve the emperors.  Without Vespasian and Titus, there would be no Josephus.  If ever there was a court Jew, Josephus fit that description. 

     But, of course, he lived a complicated life.  He wouldn’t have survived without the Flavians.  What is more important?  Mooring to the Flavians and then living for decades while writing histories that would survive thousands of years?  Or, fighting to the death in the war with Rome and dying as a Jew moored to the soil?

     I arrived at my destination.  I was immediately struck by a healthy dose of skepticism.  How can those ruins be so well preserved?  It feels like someone played a trick on you and, one dark night in the not too distant past, came along and built the ruins, claiming they dated back some two millennia ago.  Sepphoris is an amazing place for the imagination.  When you enter the National Park, you feel transported back to the pinnacle of the town’s existence.  Sepphoris is a time machine.

     Upon entering, you come across a modern day model of the ancient town.  Sepphoris was constructed with upper and lower sections.  A water system connected the sections, though it’s not clear that the system reached the acropolis.  Today, you can walk through the water system, with its deep reservoir some thirty feet below the city’s floor and its aqueducts.  After passing beside the model, you walk on an ancient road incredibly well preserved.  The town was constructed on a grid system and, beside the road, there are remnants of colonnades.  On both sides of the road, there are homes.  It seems that Sepphoris was a town of mosaic floors.  Josephus even referred to the town as an “ornament.”  He seemed to have the mosaics in mind.  Every home probably had one, like wood floors or carpet today.  The town probably became famous region-wide.  That reach might have traveled south.  Maybe Judeans even knew Sepphoris for its mosaics.

     On the walk, you come to what is called the Nile house.  The naming of the house is instantly clear.  There is a mosaic on the floor, depicting life beside the river.  Agriculture, animals, Egyptian gods, warriors: all are on display in gorgeous detail. 

     Further on, you reach another home with a mosaic of Dionysus.  The God of the harvest seems applicable, as fruit trees dot the landscape.  In fact, I’d grabbed a grapefruit on my walk over.  The God of theater also seems applicable, as the town included a large amphitheater.  The Greek word for actor is hypokrites and that, too, seems applicable, when considering Josephus’s rendering of the town.  But the highlight of the mosaic of Dionysus is what’s known as the “Mona Lisa of Zippori.”  The mosaic, depicting the stunning beauty of a woman, is remarkably close to da Vinci’s painting.  It makes you wonder if the painter traveled here before beginning his work, or maybe someone described the mosaic to him with such vivid accuracy that he reconstructed the description on canvas. 

     Up the hill to what might have been called Zippori Illit by the Jews, there is a fortress.  It was probably rebuilt over the centuries, first by the Byzantines, then by the Ottomans.  The view of the surrounding region from the fortress is unmatched, with the valley floor below, the hills on all sides, Nazareth clearly in the distance.  But the crowning jewel of the tour comes next door.  There, in the highest part of the town as would be Jewish tradition, stands the remnants of a synagogue.  The mosaic on the synagogue’s floor depicts different scenes from both Biblical and Greek traditions.  The writing on the mosaic, in fact, uses both the Hebrew and the Greek alphabet.  There is a zodiac on the mosaic.  Within the circle, there is a depiction of Elias.  The depiction clearly illuminates the Elias of Greek traditions, not the Elijah of the Tanakh.  Also within the circle, there is a menorah, and a reflection of the Hebrew calendar, noting the months Nissan and Tammuz.  Beside the zodiac, there is a depiction of the Temple, including the tools used on those grounds, from the trumpets to sacrificial animals, from oil to bread, from a menorah to a depiction of the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, the holy of holies.

     Three hours passed all too quickly.  Before leaving for the hike back to Nazareth, I sat for lunch.  I unwrapped the eggplant sandwich made by Michel earlier in the day.  I unpeeled the grapefruit.  This was my birthday lunch.  And, in that spot, I felt rejuvenated, uplifted by the ruins, uplifted by the land, uplifted by the eggplant.  I felt like certain things were possible.  I think I felt something similar some thirty years earlier.  I hadn’t traveled to Nazareth, but I’d been close and, at age twenty, I had my life before me.  I wanted everything from the world.  Now, at age fifty, I wanted some quiet.  And, in that moment, that’s exactly what I found.

Day 19.  I woke early.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I listened to the strong silence.  Too early for the call to prayer, the crows and their relentless racket, the echoes of foot falls bouncing off the walls.  Not even the rustling of wind.  The old city of Nazareth is an enclosed place, a maze of narrow streets.  For the most part, the alleyways are built of limestone.  The limestone serves as the perfect surface for noise amplification.  The old city of Nazareth has the loudest echo in the world during the day, and the strongest silence during the night.

     A catfight cut through the silence.  Nazareth is also a town of feral cats.  The old city shuts down early.  When darkness comes, and the storeowners go home, the cats prowl about.  The old city belongs to them.  I wonder if the cat presence is as old as these limestone streets.  Did the family of Joshua ben Joseph pass beside cats as they passed through their days?  Did they awake to constant nocturnal catfights? 

     Cats don’t appear in the Gospels, and only once in the Hebrew Bible.  They are associated with the devil, or paganism, or evil.  But, in Nazareth, they are the dominant population.  How did the Gospel writers miss this detail?  How did Josephus miss the detail?

     There are no mice or rats in Nazareth.  That’s a certainty.  In that characteristic, Nazareth is the polar opposite to New York.  In another characteristic, tourism, Nazareth is like a sister city.  But unlike New York, Nazareth is not a city of hotel rooms.  Most of the tourists pass through on day trips.  Buses pull up directly in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, idle for an hour or two, then move toward the next stop on the Jesus Tour, Capernaum or up to Jerusalem.  Take away the Basilica of the Annunciation, take away one family’s history, and what is Nazareth?  Would there be a mention in any of the history books?  Would Nazareth even exist?

     The economy of Nazareth is based on tourism to one focal point.  It’s no wonder then that the old city seems shuttered.  So many storefronts but few of them occupied.  The old city is the opposite of Jerusalem.  There, empty storefronts are as rare as rats, as Jerusalem too has its large cat population.  Here, it feels like the usage rate for storefronts is one in twenty.  That, too, reminds me of New York City with its wide swathes of vacancies.

     Mid-morning and I decided to get some exercise.  The Jesus Trail begins at the Basilica of the Annunciation.  The walk then rises, through the streets, towards the top of the town.  Everybody in Nazareth breathes hard due to the steep incline.  You’re either climbing or descending with little flat in between.  As you walk the first few steps of the trail, you pass by a series of guesthouses.  In between two noted falafel cafés, Kazan’s and Abu Salem’s, you hang a right.  Up the trail you go, passing by both the Mensa and Maronite Churches.  The path continues to rise, the breathing loudens, the echoes of deep inhale and exhale bounce off the limestone, amplification turns the exchange into a cacophony, or a musicality.  My thoughts jumped to parking.  The streets are way too narrow for parked cars.  In fact, you rarely see a parked car.  Where do drivers park?

     In Nazareth, like everywhere else in Israel, people want to drive.  In fact, the first sight I saw on my bike after the Nazareth hill was a Toyota dealership.  A salesman beckoned me over.  “You need a car,” he said in English.  He didn’t talk about parking.

     At some point, the Jesus Trail becomes a series of stairs.  I was instantly reminded of the stairs in Jerusalem (see Week 1 of these dispatches).  These steps reach the tippy top of Nazareth, and I decided to run them.  It took me 56 seconds to sprint up.  I then took my time getting down.  Up and down I went for an hour.  As I finished my last sprint, on top of Nazareth for the last time, I took a moment.  I was exhausted, and sweaty, and breathing heavily, with the air seemingly reaching the bottom of my lungs.  But from that vantage view, with Nazareth below and the Galilee stretched out for miles and miles, I felt invigorated.  And I realized why people travel to Nazareth.  They come here for the view.

     Back at the guesthouse, I showered and ate the eggplant sandwich Michel had again made for me.  My itinerary that day involved two objectives.  I wanted to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation and, in no particular order, I wanted to eat coffee ice cream.

     Let me start with the latter.  The date was November 15, my paternal grandmother’s birthday.  She was born in Austria, in the last decade of the long reign of Emperor Franz Joseph.  Her given name was Frances.  She immigrated to America with her family before the First World War.  She married into the Josepher name.  The Franz Joseph/Frances Josepher name connection always fascinated me.  I was also fascinated by our birthdays just one day apart.  As a child, I thought that was special.

     As an adult, I realized two particulars about my grandmother.  While she loved her five grandchildren, she favored one in particular.  I was not the favored.  My cousin was, as he was diagnosed with diabetes as a child, and my grandmother took to him.  Our birthday connection might have been special to me, but my grandmother didn’t uplift that connection.  She uplifted the disease my cousin had to live with.

     My second realization had to do with my grandmother’s love for coffee ice cream.  She kept a container in her freezer and she ate a small portion nearly everyday.  She died in 2008.  To commemorate her birthday, and to celebrate her life, I turn to coffee ice cream.  I love it, too.

     Coffee ice cream does not exist in Nazareth.  Ice cream, in fact, is not the easiest find.  Arabs love their sweets, but they favor cakes and sweet bread and cheese pastry and Baklava.  Ice cream isn’t on the list.  I spent an hour or so hunting down the item.  All I could find was vanilla.  So I compromised.  I bought vanilla ice cream.  I bought an Arab coffee.  I poured the coffee over the ice cream.  I ate away.  Sometimes you have to be a little inventive.

     I went to the Basilica of the Annunciation prior to my hunt for ice cream.  The Basilica dominates a large complex in a strategic part of Nazareth.  It is, in fact, just off the main road when entering the city.  Visitors can’t help but to take in its presence and, due to that location, the Basilica has become a political issue.  The Arabs want the high visibility that the Basilica offers.  The major mosque in town, the White Mosque, is further up the road, and down a few alleyways.  Nobody on the Jesus Trail goes to the White Mosque.  Most tourists have already visited the Temple Mount area in Jerusalem, anyway.  They don’t visit the White Mosque, although they should.  You can actually go inside.

     The Basilica complex is multi-tiered, with each layer telling something of the long history.  The current church was built in 1969 and its builders wanted a show church, or the biggest church around. 

     There were earlier incarnations.  The first house of worship was Jewish.  Notably, it was not built in the highest part of town.  I don’t know why.  Its date remains unknown but most certainly pre-dates the first Christian church on site, built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.  An inscription was found in Greek on the synagogue wall.  “Hail Mary,” the inscription read.

     Luke’s Gospel tells the origin story.  God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, who was promised to a man named Joseph.  Gabriel came with shining news.  The Lord had decided to favor her, Gabriel reported.  She would become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus.  He would become a great man, Gabriel continued, and he would be known as the Son of the Most High.  The Lord would give him the throne, and his kingdom would last forever.

     “‘How can this be,’” Mary responded, according to Luke, “‘since I am a virgin?’”  Note the form of resistance.  She didn’t respond to the exalt coming at her.  She didn’t respond to the glory.  She didn’t immediately think of Gabriel as a crazy loon.  No, she considered her status.  Her resistance formed around sex.

     Gabriel responded with interesting words.  “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’”  How Gabriel spoke these words, Luke did not say.  Did he speak these words in a chilling tone?  Did he speak these words in a supportive whisper?  It’s a shame that Luke missed the tone and temper of the words.  A story lies there: Mary’s initial reaction.  At the very least, I am assuming, Mary’s hands would have gone to her belly.

     Here’s what we know.  Mark’s Gospel didn’t offer an origin story.  According to Against Mark (see my book, Satan’s Synagogue), Josephus came along and noted the lack of origin story.  Did Luke tell the tale as a direct result of Josephus’s criticism?  It’s seems reasonable to suppose.

     According to Luke, Mary gave up her resistance and pledged allegiance to the Lord.  She then readied herself for the pregnancy.  While Luke didn’t say exactly where this annunciation took place, church traditions suggested her home.  Her home was believed to be a structure found on Basilica grounds.

     Let’s continue with more history.  The Muslims conquered the region in the 7th century and destroyed the church.  The crusaders came along and began to build a new church in the 1100s.  Saladin’s armies conquered the crusaders in 1187 and took control of the region.  The Muslim/Franciscan relationship then went through its stops and turns for the next five hundred years.  There were expulsion orders by the Muslim suzerainty and returns by the Franciscans, dark years, massacres.  Somehow Franciscan families maintained the church’s presence.  In the 1600s, the Franciscans purchased the land and built a new structure.  That building saw projects of enlargement for the next three hundred years.

     Flash forward to the mid-1950s.  The Franciscans began the process of tearing down the structure to build the modern church.  During that process, the Franciscans invited archeologists to the site.  Excavation work then tunneled downward as the building went up.  The findings were extraordinary.  They included: the first synagogue, the structure believed to be Mary’s home, and another home from the time of Jesus.  Mary’s neighbor, apparently.  It’s too bad we don’t know anything about Mary’s neighbor.  What a story he might tell.

Day 20.  I woke that morning to the call to prayer.  I glanced at my watch: 4:41 a.m.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I dressed warmly and sat with my computer on the veranda.  I had an itinerary for the day and I needed to do some research before embarking.  My day involved the search for Cana.

     As noted in Week 2 of these dispatches, the town of Cana appeared in the Book of John only.  Jesus performed his first public miracle there: turning water into wine at a wedding feast.  The Synoptics missed the story, and the city, entirely.  Today, Cana is a lost city.  Was it in the Galilee?  Was it in Phoenicia, and therefore present-day Lebanon?  History remains miffed.

     On my bicycle ride through coastal Lebanon, I saw the road to Qana (for that story, see Week 2 of these dispatches).  I didn’t take that road.  But, notably, one historical map, Shepherd’s Historical Atlas of 1923, placed Cana smack dab in the middle of the Galilee, with its famous neighbors, Nazareth and Sepphoris to the west, and the Sea of Galilee to the east.

     Today, that Cana is an Arab town known as Kafr Kanna, a short six or so miles from Nazareth.  Around first light, I packed up my belongings, slung my pack on my back, jumped on my bike, and pedaled my way to Route 75.  Down the Nazareth hill and outside the city, I turned onto Route 754.  Before the sun even properly awoke, before the morning traffic could get going, I pedaled into Kafr Kanna. 

     It feels like a made-up place.  Yes, Arabs live there and, to them, it’s home.  But to the Christian world, and to those of us engaged in Biblical exploration, it feels like a place artificially constructed to fit a story.  There is no there in Kafr Kanna.

     Here’s what we know, and where the evangelist who wrote John took his narrative.  According to John, Jesus and his disciples traveled from the Jordan valley, where John the Baptist had baptized them, to Cana for a wedding celebration.  Jesus’s mother was in attendance, as were his brothers.  Mary, though unnamed in the story, played an important role.  She served as the co-host.  Perhaps that placement suggested something of the event itself, a family affair of some kind, a wedding of one of Jesus’s brothers. 

     John had no interest in that element of the story.  He focused on the miracle.  In John’s rendering, more people than planned attended the event and, soon enough, the party ran out of wine.  Mary turned to Jesus in some kind of desperation.  Jesus then took six stone vessels, filled with water, and produced the finest wine.

     It really is a fascinating story.  It’s hard to miss the psychology.  Jesus reacted to his mother, not to some stranger, or an innocent bystander.  Would he have turned water into wine for just anybody?  Did he perform the miracle to please his mom?

     John, of course, didn’t care about the psychology.  His concern centered on a powerful moment reached.  In John’s rendering, we come to the first sign of Jesus as the Son of Man.  This is the first miracle step.

     Let’s now turn to a key source.  As I documented in my book Satan’s Synagogue, the historian Josephus wrote a responsum called Against Mark.  What was he responding to?  The title gives it away.  His criticism centered on the first Gospel, the Book of Mark.  The Books of Matthew, Luke and John were then necessary to re-establish the Jesus narrative.  As was the suppression of Against Mark.

     According to the Book of Mark, and corroborated by Josephus from what he heard in the Galilee some thirty years after the life of Jesus, Jesus and his family lived in Capernaum.  While Jesus was born in a town called Beth Lehem Zebulun, and while his family moved to Nazareth for work when Jesus was a boy, the family migrated further east to Capernaum after Jesus and his siblings reached manhood.  They did so, according to Josephus, for work purposes.  Though raised by Joseph in the field of construction, or “tektōn” in the Greek, the brothers preferred the fisherman’s life.  Capernaum, on the shores of the Galilee, fit the purpose.

     In Against Mark, Josephus routinely made reference to Capernaum by shortening the name.  Capernaum becomes Cana.  Though he didn’t use the Latin alphabet in his writing, the sounds were the same.  Cana was apparently the popular shortening of Capernaum during this era.

     Since the Christian world eviscerated Josephus’s Against Mark, and since we don’t have any other extant sources from that time, other than the Gospels, history misses the true story of Cana.  There wasn’t a town by that name.  There was only Capernaum.

     What is Cana, or Capernaum, today?  I found out that afternoon.  Around mid-morning, I jumped on my bike.  Just north of Kafr Kanna, I reached Route 77.  I could have taken that road all the way to the town of Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee.  In fact, I had some research to do in Tiberias, but more on that in a bit.  At the intersection of Route 65, I hung a left.  I caught a side road, route 807, to Migdal.  From there, I turned onto Route 90 beside the sea.  I rode north for another twenty minutes or so.  I bypassed two spots that I would return to in a few hours: Tabgha and the Mount of the Beatitudes.  At Tabgha, I veered onto route 87.  I arrived in Capernaum before noon.

     Capernaum today is an archeological configuration.  There are Roman-era ruins that clearly mark out a town.  There are remains of a synagogue, dating to the fourth or fifth century.  There is a modern memorial, built over the alleged house of Peter.  The town’s history can be traced to the Hasmoneans.  During that era, when a Jewish rebellion threw off the yoke of the Seleucid Empire, new fishing villages sprung up around the Galilee.  Capernaum was one of these towns.

     That rebellion, it should be noted, played a key role in the writing of the Gospels.  As I documented in Week 1 of these dispatches, the Gospel writers, particularly Mark, had a template in mind.  Given their Jewish moorings, they turned to the Tanakh to base their story of Jesus upon.  They found the Books of the Maccabees.  There is a curious echo there.  There’s the story of Judas Maccabeus throwing off the tyrannical power of the Seleucids.  There’s the story of Jewish governance taking place, with the rededicating of the Second Temple and the menorah candles burning for eight days, even though there was only oil enough to keep the candles lit for a single day.  It’s indeed the story of a miracle.

     The wider history is notable.  According to the source material, Josephus included, the Family Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire.  That revolt proved victorious and a new power, the Hasmoneans, came into the world.  For about fifty years, Hasmoneans governed the region.  Then the Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for a form of self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

     Mark the Evangelist would have hated the Hasmoneans, as would his Gospel successors.  The Hasmoneans were Hellenized.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as pollutants.  To them, Jesus was the way of reduction, and restoration.

     But replace the Seleucids with the Romans.  Replace Judas Maccabeus with Jesus.  Replace the miracle of the menorah candles with the miracle of water to wine.  The Gospel writers had their backstory.  They then took the history in a completely different direction.  They took the history to Jerusalem, to Gethsemene.  They took the history to a crucifix at a place called Golgotha.  They took the history to a tomb.  They took the history to witnesses, marking a transformational moment.  The rising of Jesus.  John took the history to Tabgha, where Jesus appeared to his disciples following resurrection.  The human form became the Son of Man.

     There were a number of reasons the Gospel writers needed Capernaum in their story.  First, Capernaum was a Jewish town, unlike, say, Tiberias.  And, indeed, Jesus and his family were practicing Jews.  Second, Capernaum was known for its tranquility.  In Against Mark, Josephus elaborated, “Mark’s usage of Capernaum is not lost on me.  Capernaum was known for its quietude.  Capernaum was not a hotbed of rebellion, as Giscala or Jotapata would have been.  Neither was Capernaum a hotbed of dissension, as Tiberias would have been.  Capernaum did not rise up against the Romans during the revolt.  Capernaum was placid and from such beginnings our story builds and peaks in Jerusalem, the hotbed of consequence.”

     To the literary tool of moving from mild to a flashpoint, Capernaum also seemed to have a population the Gospel writers needed.  Capernaum seemed densely populated by those suffering from leprosy.  Jesus, as a miracle worker, found a way to drive out the disease.

     No records corroborate Capernaum as a leper colony.  Meanwhile, there are records corroborating Bethany as a leper colony.  Bethany, too, was needed by the Gospel writers as a literary tool.  Near Jerusalem, Jesus used Bethany as his headquarters.  According to Mark, he went up to Jerusalem three times from Bethany.  Meanwhile, upon his return to Bethany, he healed the sick.

     A walk through today’s Capernaum makes it clear why lepers, or Jesus’s family, or fishermen during the Hasmonean period, would want to settle there.  It’s beautiful.  It’s serene.  The land gives way harmoniously to the Galilee.  There’s a sense of history there.  There’s a sense of generations living and working there.  There’s a sense of time gone by.  There’s a sense of eternity.

     Around mid-afternoon, I made my way back to Tabgha via route 87.  I stopped for an hour.  The area is known for the lush grenery stemming from its seven springs.  In Josephus’s and Jesus’s day, the town was called Heptapegon, or seven springs in Ancient Greek.  And it’s here, according to all four Gospels, where a pivotal miracle story occurred.  According to the Book of Mark, Jesus held a conference with his apostles, who reported on their missionary work.  Jesus wanted that conference to be held in a quiet, serene place.  Certainly, Heptapegon qualified.  But something unexpected occurred.  Huge numbers of people flocked around Jesus.  The large gathering played on Jesus’s heart strings, as he saw the masses as “sheep without a shepherd.”  He began to teach.  The teaching lasted some time.  Afterward, with the people growing hungry, Jesus asked his apostles about provisions.  They discovered an inadequate amount of food, two fish and five loaves of bread.  Jesus took the provisions, looked up to heaven and said the blessing, then broke the loaves and distributed the fish.  According to Mark, all present were satiated, with another twelve baskets of leftover fish and bread.  Mark then offered a number to tally those in the crowd: five thousand men.

     Josephus, when he wrote Against Mark, criticized Mark for missing a presumed large portion of the crowd.  If there were women and children present, Mark did not say.  It’s notable what occurred then.  The evangelist Matthew came along and seemed to react to Josephus’s criticism.  In his recounting of the tale, he changed numbers.  Rather than two fish and five loads of bread at the beginning, he put the number at seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish.”  He used the number seven again, when counting the baskets of leftovers.  But, he also changed the count to “four thousand men” present, “not counting women and children.”  Was that subtle change a reaction to Josephus’s criticism of Mark?

     Matthew also made a major change to the larger story.  He moved from the initial teachings of Jesus to the section known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Of course, that sermon, with its beatitudes, became one of the most famous parts of the Gospels.  Near Tabgha lies the Mount of the Beatitudes, or the traditional site of the sermon.  Today, that spot is a primary site on the Jesus Trail, with an incredibly peaceful garden overlooking the sea.

     I didn’t stay long.  I returned to Route 90 and cycled the leg from Tabgha to Tiberias.  I had made a reservation for two nights at the Scots, once a hospital founded by a Scottish surgeon and minister, then a maternity ward, now a comfortable hotel overlooking the sea.  I checked in.  Unlike my Tel Aviv experience, management graciously allowed me to keep my bike in my room.  I took a shower and stretched out on the bed.  I meant to close my eyes for a few minutes and then go wander around town in search of dinner.  I fell asleep.

Day 21.  I woke up early.  It wasn’t the muezzin’s call to prayer that woke me.  It was the opposite.  The incredible quiet.  There isn’t much of a Muslim population, as the Arabs were evacuated under British protection in 1948.  It is a Jewish resort town, scenic, tranquil, a bit staid, poorly planned.  It didn’t used to be.  Under the watchful eye of Herod Antipas, Tiberias was founded around the year 20 of the first century.  As his father did for Emperor Augustus with Caesarea (see Week 2 of these dispatches), Herod Antipas built the city as a paean to Emperor Tiberius.  The Emperor was then about a third of the way through what would be a twenty-two year reign.  Though built by a Jew, Tiberias was not a Jewish city.  A smattering of Jews lived there during the time of Jesus.  By the time the war with Rome came, that smattering had grown to a sizeable minority.  But while the town saw some dissension against Rome, according to Josephus, it did not rise up.  Josephus then had a bit of hate relationship to Tiberias.

     The second war against Rome, also known as the Bar Kochba revolt, changed the trajectory of the town.  Following the Jewish defeat in the year 136, Rome banned Jews from Jerusalem.  Judean Jews traveled north to the Galilee.  They settled, for the most part, in two towns.  Zippori and Tiberias.

     I won’t go into the long history of Tiberias here.  But I had come to Tiberias for a reason and, while there, I made a major discovery.  There is an ancient Jewish burial ground in Tiberias.  It’s the very reason why Jews shunned Tiberias during its initial period.  Because of the burial ground built within city confines, Jews considered the town unclean.  In Jerusalem, for instance, the Jewish cemetery was built on the Mount of Olives.  That area was not in Jerusalem proper.

     Herod Antipas did not respect Jewish tradition, though.  Or maybe history got it wrong.  Maybe Herod Antipas was ordered to build the cemetery in the town.  Notably, all graves face Jerusalem in Tiberias.  That wasn’t done by accident.

     There’s a fascinating reference to Emperor Tiberius in Against Mark.  Josephus wrote that Tiberius died “in that eponymous place” and that he was buried “as a Jew.”  When I published Against Mark in Satan’s Synagogue, I cut the reference.  Truth is, Satan’s Synagogue was full of apostasy and I decided enough was enough.  I would deal with the Tiberius reference in another place.  This isn’t that place.  Another book project will go into full detail.  But suffice it to say that Emperor Tiberius left Italy undercover one night.  He traveled to the Galilee.  To Jerusalem, too.  He spent the rest of his life in the town named after him.  This is a story never before told.

     Back in Italy, a double stood in for him.  That double took the emperorship further afield, living the crazed, lascivious life in Misenum on the Gulf of Naples that Tiberius is known for.  The Tiberius double was murdered by Macro, not the real man.

     I found corroboration of that history in the cemetery in the town of Tiberias.  But, again, let me save that story for another project.  After a few days in Tiberias, I remounted by bicycle and began the ninety or so miles to Tel Aviv.  I had a return flight to New York, scheduled for the next morning.

     I woke early.  I brushed my teeth.  I made instant coffee.  I jumped on my bike at first light.  I took Route 77 out of town.  Around the Golani Junction, noted for a Roman road that once linked the port of Acre to Tiberias, with the stone remnants a site on the Jesus Trail, I veered onto Route 65.  That road took me beside Afula, with the Nazareth hill just off to the north.  That morning was foggy, and the traffic heavy, and the shoulder minimal.  I found myself yearning for an open road. 

     I found it about an hour later.  I turned onto Route 581 heading south by southwest.  Suddenly, the heavy stream of automobiles gave way to the quiet of fruit trees.  For some forty-five minutes, I listened to the whirl of the bicycle, and the airplanes overhead dropping water on the groves, and the wind, pushing me in all directions.  The Tour de Josephus was in its final leg.  The mountain of a hill into Jerusalem, the long road to Lebanon, Tyre and Sidon, the Beirut marathon, the slog from Beirut to Nazareth, the Jesus Trail, the ride to the sea: all were a part of the bicycle’s treads.  I felt… not a sense of accomplishment, not a finality, not the end of the trip.  I felt an opening, a new chapter, the first few words of a new story.  I felt free. 

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