Religious Studies News

5 Jun

Observations of a first time digger

Beth | June 5th, 2012

For me, the day started at 4:30 am – 2 cups of fresh ground coffee that I picked up at Arcafe early last week (yum!) and some cherry yogurt. Packed up my gear and was on the bus by 5:30 am. It’s about a 15-20 drive to Bethsaida from the Kibbutz, past the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum. It was nice and cool, and the group went straight to the section of the outer wall that Dr. Gale has been working on for years. Some of the oldest finds, from the late Bronze Age, have been found in our section, so I’m really excited to be working there.

Since yesterday was mostly introduction and instruction about Bethsaida, today was our first real day of excavation. First thing – remove all the vegetation that had grown since digging last year. We spent most of the morning pulling up weeds. Thank goodness I love gardening or this would have been a real bummer. If nothing else, I can now say that I’ve weeded a 3000 year old wall built by the Geshurites (a polytheistic society). After climbing like a spider monkey to the highest parts of the gate, I finished my part of the weeding and grabbed a bucket and shovel. The goal is to take the surface of the plotted square down inch by inch, and sift the dirt for goodies. A few hours later we had a bucket full of pottery shards, animals bones, and a sea shell (?).

After lunch, Dr. Arav (the head of the dig) led the pottery reading – we’ll do this everyday to identify and record the finds from different parts of the dig. There was a part of a jug that still had its handle attached, and some glazed shards from the Crusaders (eeeee!!!). Being a potter myself, this is where I get to dork out. I talked with some of the specialists about the particular aspects of the pieces – and tomorrow we’re going down in the lab to see some reconstructed work. It was so crazy to run my fingers over the lines left by a potter who lived about 3000 years ago – that was really sensational. Some of the shards were so thin and finely made – the people who crafted them were amazing potters.

So far, I’m really enjoying the dig. You’ve never been dusty and dirty like this, but it’s worth it. Keeping hydrated is going to be the hardest part, I believe – it gets really hot towards late morning, and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing, you forget to drink lots of water. But everyone’s getting the swing of it quickly, and our amazing group is going to kick some ancient Bethsaida butt.

5 Jun

Back at Bethsaida

Aaron | June 5th, 2012

This is my eighth year digging at Bethsaida, and today was the 2012 WVU group’s first day of excavations at the site. In past years WVU groups have made a big impact on the archaeological tale of this Old and New Testament site. Most of the time WVU groups have been working on or near a road that dates back to the 9th century BCE. That’s right, the road is almost 3,000 years old! It was built and used by an ancient people called the Geshurites, who are infrequently mentioned in the Old Testament. In fact, King David married the Geshurite king’s daughter, according to the Bible. So it is entirely possible that King David, who reigned around 3,000 years ago, actually came down an earlier version of this road.

Here is a picture of the road as it looks now. The road is the paved center section set with stones. A good portion of this road was excavated by WVU groups over the last seven years.
Iron Age Road Bethsaida

Despite this amazing road, the Old Testament city associated with the Bethsaida site (it was named Zur, back in that time) was most noted for having one of the best city gates in the entire Middle East. Unearthed in the mid-1990s, the city gate was carefully excavated and preserved by Dr. Rami Arav and his team of archaeologists over the last decade. Since the Geshurites were a pagan community, one of the neatest things located near the now-famous city gate was the so-called “high place.” A high place was an area where one paid homage to the local god before entering the city. Not to do so would be a sign of disrespect and could anger the locals. In this case, the local god, portrayed as a bull, was probably the moon god.

Here is a picture of the high place area, complete with the stella (stone monument) of the moon god. The stella you see here is actually a reproduction. The real one is so famous that is currently on exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Moon God at Bethsaida Gate

What we will we find over the next several days at Bethsaida? Who knows, but stay tuned to find out what is unearthed in the 2012 season!

Aaron Gale

4 Jun

Shalom my friends!

The last two days have been quite interesting for us at the Kibbutz Ginosar. After a week of luxurious, comfortable hotels, we’ve settled into the Kibbutz’s dormitories to prepare for the archaeological dig portion of our journey. In addition to the six students from WVU, five students from Truman State University, two graduates from Yale Divinity School and three non-affiliate individuals are housed in a series of small, cozy (for lack of a better word) rooms with a central room with a half kitchen, that is there’s no stovetop or oven, only a fridge, microwave, and a sink. We also share two small toilets and four showers among all of us. Needless to say, we’ll be getting to know one another really well?

From what I have been told, on archaeological excavations, the day starts really early—usually, we are en route to the site by 5:30am (today was a little different, though, because it was orientation day to the dig and the site). We spend the day excavating and sifting under the blazing hot sun, gulping water as quickly as we can in an attempt to stay hydrated.

The best part of the day, however, is when we get back from the dig and finish lunch. We relax for a little while by going to the Sea of Galilee and taking a brief dip to cool off. We get on facebook, twitter, and email to stay connected with our loved ones at home, while chatting amongst ourselves about our lives in the states and our universities. We share a few drinks (Coca-Cola, of course!) while everyone writes journal entries for their respective trips. Then, we enjoy what will certainly be a delicious dinner.

So far, I enjoy all of the people we have met so far. There are students and archaeologists from all over the United States and Israel; we even have a Swede joining us for the next few days. It’s an eclectic group of people with varying interests and diverse backgrounds. But, for the next few days, anyway, we are all here with a similar goal: learning as much as we can about the distant past.

Here’s to a spectacular few days at the Bethsaida Excavations Project!

Take care until next time,
CJ Rice

3 Jun

Archaeology and Us

Aaron | June 3rd, 2012

Today we concluded our tours of ancient historical, religious, and archaeological sites throughout northern Israel. Now, rather than looking at archaeology, we are going to begin actually DOING it. During our time on the dig we will continue to blog about our latest finds, biggest joys/griefs, etc. We will try to give you a unique perspective from what I like to call, “the digger’s pit.”

First, however, I wanted to take a moment and introduce our dedicated bloggers to you.

1. Carl (CJ) Rice is an intellectually gifted and curious religious studies student at WVU.

2. Beth Warnick wears many hats, including mom, super religious studies major, and student worker.

3. Joseph (Alex) Snow earned his PhD in Asian religions from Syracuse University, and has just completed his first year of full-time teaching at WVU.

4. Aaron Gale earned his PhD in biblical studies from Northwestern University and is an associate professor and the head of the Program for Religious Studies.

That being said, we are looking forward to our next stage of the trip, digging. And you will get more than one perspective since we have varying levels of archaeological experience. CJ, Beth, and Alex are first-time diggers, while this is my eighth year at the Bethsaida archaeological site. Tomorrow is our orientation to the site, so stay tuned for the latest updates!

BTW, if anybody has any questions or comments, please feel free to post them. We will be happy to respond to the best of our abilities!

Aaron Gale

2 Jun

The Cycle of Life?

Carl | June 2nd, 2012

In many ways, Israel is an interesting place. Perhaps the most interesting however is the relationship between beauty and death. Located in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Israel has experienced a long, tortuous history of death and dying.

Today, we visited the ruins of a Christian monastery at Kursi which was destroyed in 614CE by Persian invaders. At its height, the monastery was the largest built in Israel. When Persians came, they destroyed the monastery complex, essentially erasing it from history. Recent archaeological excavations have found the remains of seventy monks in a mass grave nearby; all of this was found in an idyllic, gentle slope on the ancient shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Remains of the monastery at Kursi.

Later, we visited the ancient Jewish city of Gamla. Here, we heard the account from Josephus Flavius’s chronicle; he detailed the rebellion of the Jews beginning in 66CE. At Gamla, a town situated on a camel-like mountain in the middle of a valley, several thousand Jews had gathered in the face of the approaching Roman army. After an initial defeat, the Romans finally infiltrated the city’s walls. Rather than facing capture by the Romans, five thousand Jews—men, women, and children—leapt from the city’s citadel, plunging to their deaths. Of those who did not leap, another four thousand were killed by the ruthless invaders. All of this death, again, occurred in a beautiful valley with incredible panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

The trail through the mountains to Gamla.

Placing death within its context is important for understanding society, both past and present. However, reconciling the beauty of the landscape and the ferocity of the wars fought within its borders for the past five millenia is difficult, impossible even. However, Israel is nonetheless a land steeped in bloodshed and, yet, dripping with beauty—remnants of a profound cycle of life.

2 Jun

Crossing Over

Joseph | June 2nd, 2012

If I were to suggest that this adventure could be broken into three parts, then we are coming to the end of Part I—before we all begin to actually dig at Bethsaida. This morning, we explored Kursi National Park, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Both literally and metaphorically, this is where Jesus “crossed over,” performing a miracle for the first time for non-Jews. This event, according to Christian tradition, is the “Miracle of the Swine,” mentioned in the New Testament (Chapter 8 of both Luke and Matthew’s Gospel). Having crossed the Galilee by boat to the eastern shore, Jesus is said to have exorcised devils from the body of a non-Jew. These malevolent spirits then possessed the bodies of some nearby grazing swine, who then promptly raced into the Sea of Galilee, drowning themselves. Kursi is the largest known Byzantine monastery in the Holy Land, and below you see me, with Dr. Gale, standing before the main prayer hall and apse.


Before leaving Kursi, our Guide Ram, who, sadly, will be leaving us tomorrow, related a very interesting story. It is believed that in the areas surrounding the monastery, there are certain lines of energy, lying just beneath the ground, that connect the site, Jesus’ wonders, and the surrounding ruins overlooking the Sea of Galilee. One such spiritual vein is supposedly associated with a nearby bench, and locals believe that by sitting there for a little while, one might be invigorated, so-to-speak, by spiritual pockets of vibratory energy. As many of my friends know, I tried several years ago to invent a word called “vibratology” (obviously, the study of vibration!). So, here you see me sitting on what I will now affectionately call the Kursi Chair of Vibratology—and yes, I feel the “good vibrations.” (By the way, the flora are ridiculously beautiful as well!)


Now re-energized, we traveled up into the Golan Heights to visit the ancient walled city of Gamla, whose nature reserve also contains the highest and most powerful waterfall in Israel. Gamla is known to have taken part in the revolt against the Roman armies in 66 CE., chronicled most famously by Josephus’s text “The Jewish War.” For once, if but only briefly, here at Gamla the Jewish resistance actually defeated their Roman enemies rather handily. Their joy, however, was short-lived, for just a few days later their city was breached, and over 9000 Jews lost their lives. Containing one of the oldest synagogues ever excavated in Israel within its walls, here you see its location—as well as our precarious approach to it (the very same approach made by the Roman legions so many generations ago!).


While leaving this amazing piece of history, we were once more reminded of the power of place and time. Below you will see a dolmen over 4000 years old. “Dolmen” carries the meaning of “stone table,” and these were the burial edifices for the nomads who wandered the Golan Heights back in the Bronze Age.


Shabbat weekend is now drawing to a close, and the next time you hear from me I’ll be knee-deep in the archaeological wonders of Bethsaida. Until then…

Alex Snow

1 Jun

Laws are Great...Legends are Amazing!

Aaron | June 1st, 2012

During our visits today I learned something vital about Judaism: legends are very important, and might I add, fascinating! Let me share two examples with you.

First, we visited Peki’in, an ancient city associated with the rabbis of centuries ago. In particular, we heard about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (aka the “Rashbi”), who lived almost 2,000 years ago. It is the Rashbi who gets credit for writing one of the most important books associated with Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. According to rabbinic tradition, the Rashbi was forced to hide from the Romans in a cave for over 12 years. While there, the legend states, he wrote the Zohar. So one can say that it is the Rashbi who is responsible for the origins of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. To further add intrigue, the legend concludes with Elijah the Prophet appearing to the Rashbi and telling him that the dreaded Roman emperor had died and it was safe to leave the cave.

Here is a picture of the cave:
Cave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai

The second legend, also pertaining to mystical thought, takes place in a different city that we visited today, Safed. Safed gets credit for being the actual city where Jewish mysticism really took hold in the late Middle Ages and beyond. In particular, this story deals with the Messiah, whom Jews believe has not come to earth yet. It is this messianic longing and hope that relates to at least some Jewish mystical traditions and practices. In any case, the story goes that when the Messiah actually does come to earth, he/she will travel through the city of Safed on the way to Jerusalem. So, many years ago there lived in Safed an old woman who was convinced the Messiah would pass through a certain alley’s staircase on his/her way through the city. So this dedicated woman, who became known as “Grandma Yocheved,” would regularly sit at the top of the alley steps in her chair waiting for the Messiah to come. She became so popular that the people of Safed even installed metal handrails for her to hold on to if she needed to meet the Messiah down the steps!

What a great story! Here is a picture of the narrow alley:
Messiah's Alley

I guess it’s true that laws are vital to most religions’ survival, but sometimes it may actually be the legends that seemingly keep a religion vital and alive.

What legends does your own religion cherish? Let us know…we have now enabled a “comments” section at the end of our entries!

Aaron Gale

31 May

From Water to Landmines

Joseph | May 31st, 2012

Many may think that Israel is largely a vast desert—they would mostly be right. However, sacred places like Tel Dan Nature Reserve exemplify the natural power and cultural importance of water. A myriad of peoples have occupied this area for over 7000 years—for as the snows melt and the rains run off Mt. Hermon, the Dan River and its many tributaries form the sources from which the Jordan eventually flows. By the way, if you’re wondering—yes—it’s drinkable, it’s cool, and it’s immanently refreshing!


As we continue to explore areas north of the Galilee—very near the Lebanese border—we are all continuously reminded of the syncretic mixing, blending, and overlapping of cultures, time, and religion. Here you can see an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the famous flute player, Pan (the site is now called Banias in Arabic). Along with several other niche-like altars, I stand amazed and somewhat confused by the diversity and complexity the past and the present have to offer our eyes! For this is also the very spot where Jesus is recognized as the “Son of God” in the gospels (Matt. 16).

cave2 cave3

After leaving the Hermon Stream (Banias) Nature Reserve, we stopped for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant literally just feet from the border. But on this trip filled with the diverse histories of ancient Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Paganism, I was stunned to find the following Chinese image of Yin and Yang on the footsteps of where we were eating.


By the way—here’s what I had for lunch—wonderful, succulent, ever-present chicken shawarma.


Before I close for the day, and lest we get caught waxing too romantic about where we are, let us remain faithful to the realities of our contemporary world. All day, as we so fortunately discovered the mysteries and wonders of the past, the political realities of the present are never too far away…


Alex Snow

31 May

Sensing Israel

Carl | May 31st, 2012

In the past few blog posts, we have been allowing you to experience the things we are doing. For me, one of the most important parts of travelling is the sensory experience. For just a few minutes, however, I want to take you on another journey altogether; I want to try to allow you to experience the Israeli world on a whole new level.

The most distinctive part of Israel is the unique smell, although, perhaps aroma is a better word. A gentle combination of a warm salty breeze from the Mediterranean Sea mingles with the ammonia of feral cat urine in the coastal cities. Spices at open air markets—cumin and cinnamon, especially—add another layer of scent, yielding a richer flavor. The juicy tartness of freshly cut fruit coupled with roasted lamb and beef all mix with hot coffee and sweet cappuccino to make one’s mouth water like the flow of the Jordan. Perhaps best of all however is the slightly sweet, slightly stale, scent found only in underground ruins.

Israel is also so colorful. Fully ripened, newly sliced halves of fruit shine green, orange, and yellow in the scalding sun. Deep greens and dark blues of water bind the country at its Western shore, while a lighter aqua runs white-capped through the riverbeds. The foliage erupts in a beautiful array of color; bouquets of turquoise, pinks, and purples are arranged by some unseen natural hand. The sun glistens a glaring white off the marble of the ruins which spot the countryside, while tan pervades the entire nation, neutralizing the bright vibrancy a bit. No, not neutralizing; complementing.

Finally, the elegant symphony that is the sound of Israel rings throughout the air. Birds chirping and squealing in delight combine with gentle brush of the wind through the trees. The soft patter of boots on marble echo throughout vast cities laid waste by time, while somewhere up ahead an oh-so-quiet camera shutter clicks. The joyful babble of the youth joins the wizened conversations of the elderly to create the song of their people.

This is the euphonious mosaic that is Israel.

31 May

Bet She'an - yes, please, thank you.

Beth | May 31st, 2012

Today has been my favorite so far, which I’ll probably claim daily, but bear with me. Ram said we’d be stopping at a Roman city that’s both very old and well-preserved. One thing that’s fun about many of the places we’ve visited throughout Israel is the element of surprise so strategically employed when moving from the parking lot to the actual site – you pull up into this unassuming paved square in the middle of the nothing, walk through a door/garden/what-have-you, and WHAM – some looming monster of antiquity is staring you right in the face – it’s spectacular marketing.

This place is called Bet She’an, and parts of it are around 5000 years old. 40-50 thousand people lived here at one point, so it’s HUGE (only about 25% is excavated currently). The theater is ok, it’s not ridiculously cool or anything (!!!!!!!!!)...

We toured the bath house, where men and women went every day to be sociable and active members of their community. I could have easily been a Roman (a rich one, preferably), I’d have no problem going to a spa daily – although I’m not too found of the public restroom system.

This street was lined with shops – - – this place was intended to knock your socks off.

At the top of this hill sits the remains of a temple – and underneath that (or nearby, I didn’t see for myself) is a really old Egyptian site, so this place has been popular for quite some time.

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