Walking where Jesus walked helps put us in touch with his life and teachings.by David Landis
I studied in the Middle East with Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., during the fall semester of my junior year, and this period of international learning altered the course of my life. My experiences abroad initiated misgivings about going into medicine after graduation, I began a period of global travel to explore possibilities. In the following year, I visited more than 40 countries, including a trip back to Israel/Palestine to visit friends and spend a month hiking the Israel National Trail, a 950-kilometer hiking route traversing the length of the country.
While I was scouring the Internet for information on the Israel National Trail, I came across only one site in English—the blog of a young Israeli hiker named Maoz Inon who chronicled his personal month-long journey with detail and enthusiasm. On a whim, I emailed Maoz with a few questions about practical hiking. His response resounded with exuberant hospitality, “You can stay at my house and use my maps. I’ll bring you water in the desert.”
When I returned to Israel the following spring, we hiked together during the peak of the green burst that follows winter rains, when the fields are teeming with red poppies. We passed through Maoz’s family’s moshav, located just north of the border of the Gaza Strip. He told me stories of how his family used to take their bikes into Gaza City before the conflict escalated. He joked about how they were so close to the border with Gaza that when rockets were fired they went right over his family’s house. Maoz spoke with an awareness of the suffering of his neighbors yet exuded a warmth and persistence that moved forward with hope.
Maoz had recently completed his second around-the-world trip and was exploring opportunities to build peace in his own country. He wanted to start a backpacker-style guesthouse in an Arab city in Israel and use tourism with the development of hiking routes to bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs. He imagined Israeli Jews walking into an Arab market for the first time, experiencing a Palestinian hospitality that smells like syrup-laden ktayyef and knaffe, hot mint and sage tea, freshly ground coffee and cardamon.
I continued on my journey but stayed connected to the development of Maoz’s dream. Within a few months, the Fauzi Azar Inn was up and running in the winding old city streets of Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel. The inn is located in a historic Arab mansion with marble floors from Turkey, roof tiles from France and beautiful 200-year-old hand-painted ceilings by a Lebanese artist. The Azar family owns the house, and Maoz’s relationship with them has bridged the gap to bring many Jewish tourists into the old city. He loves to tell the story of how Israeli jaws drop as they learn of the rich Palestinian culture and history that has resided in Nazareth for generations.
Since the fall of 2007, I’ve been living in Nazareth and helping out at the Fauzi Azar Inn. Maoz and I have founded the Jesus Trail, a 65-kilometer hiking route from Nazareth to Capernaum that connects major sites in Jesus’ life, including the Mount of Beatitudes, Tiberias, Mount Tabor, Cana and the Sea of Galilee. Our vision is for the Jesus Trail to become a world-class route that provides a way to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and learn about his life and teachings. We hope it will bring people together from different nationalities, cultures and religions.
During the past months in Nazareth, I have had many conversations with travelers, hikers, students and the press relating to Jesus’ itinerant lifestyle. Everyone is curious about the Jesus that existed before Christianity, asking, “What can we learn from the Jesus who walked between villages, encountered a diversity of people, and invited them on a journey that promises abundant life?”
How did Jesus travel during his life?
Matthew 9:35 states that Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom. In Mark 6:7-12, Jesus sends his disciples out on foot in pairs, instructing them to take nothing for the journey except a staff, no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. He asks them to travel light, rely on the hospitality of a diversity of neighbors and spread the good news throughout the land.
Since Jesus and his followers were not wealthy Roman diplomats or military leaders but mostly a band of low-class fishermen and subsistence farmers, we can assume they traveled by foot. Walking between the towns listed in Scripture required Jesus and his followers to pass months of their time hiking through fields and valleys, up mountains and cliffs and through risky areas of political instability. The range of Jesus’ travels as an adult extends at least 50 miles east to west and 150 miles north to south through present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Jesus and his disciples’ diet likely would have consisted of bread and olive oil supplemented with local fruits and vegetables. A staff was used for protection against wild animals and thieves, which lurked in rugged hill country and in border regions where authority and security were tenuous. It is unlikely they carried much money, though some of the finances of Jesus’ itinerant ministry were funded by Joanna, wife of Herod Antipas’ finance minister, as well as several other women who were from Sepphoris (Luke 8:3).
What realities affected travel and movement during Jesus lifetime?
Matthew 4:12-16 states that Jesus went to live in the Capernaum region, near the Jordan River on “the way to the sea.” This ancient land route is called the Via Maris, connecting eastward to Damascus and serving as one of the major thoroughfares through first-century Palestine between the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The Via Maris connected the silk and incense routes that extended from Iran and China to the ports of Ptolemais (Acco) and Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast of western Asia.
Jesus was born during the period of the Roman Empire’s expansion throughout the Mediterranean region, creating a network of land and sea routes used for transportation and communication. The Roman Road system was comprised of a network of over 63,000 miles of paved roads, connecting centers of government, culture and power stretching from present-day Spain to Iran.
In the first century, less than four miles from the small village of Nazareth (population 200-400) was Sepphoris, one of Herod Antipas’ capitals. This city boasted a population of 30,000 and was a center for culture and art in the Galilee, including beautiful mosaics and a Roman theater, giving it the reputation as the ornament of the Galilee. It also served as the political and banking capital of the region, housing many of the social and religious elite. Although Scripture does not mention Sepphoris by name, it is likely Jesus was aware of its existence, as a “city on a hill cannot be hidden” and is visible from the ridges of Nazareth.
Proximity to Sepphoris would have provided Jesus employment with his father Joseph, exposure to foreigners from across the Roman world as well as the ability to learn to speak and read three languages: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Through archaeological evidence of cities and systems of international transport during Jesus’ life and informed speculation when interfaced with Scripture, we can know that Jesus was in contact with the broader world.
Why might Jesus have chosen to travel?
Jesus’ choice to spend much of his adult life in a state of itineracy provides hope to the destitute. For the poor and oppressed, Jesus’ way of living offered an invitation to choose freedom from oppressive and unjust structures—to consider them insignificant compared with the promised good news. As the movement grew, Jesus’ choice to build a kingdom with decentralized geography consequentially disempowered elite establishments that hoarded wealth and exerted control through segregation. Whether Jesus’ intentions were to challenge political and religious structures or not, it is clear his movement threatened the authorities enough to publicly execute him.
The geography of the kingdom of God is not tied to specific places or people but is an invitation open to all. In Jesus’ central region of Capernaum, he was in contact with a diversity of ethnic and religious groups, making it possible to imagine the beauty of a world without borders, restriction of movement or division. His vision for the kingdom of God is an invitation to mindfully journey in a way that is life-giving for all people.
What does this mean for followers of Jesus today and the Christian movement worldwide?
It is wise to be located in a region of international influence, demography and movement.
In order to communicate with the world, there is a need to be located in a region with exposure to the world’s diversity. Today, these places are best represented as urban and border regions, near airports and seaports and along major travel routes. Encountering diverse demography through everyday existence is the foundation to building relationships and bridges across people groups.
The geography of the kingdom of God has no political, ethnic or religious borders.
Jesus’ vision and philosophy of land was focused on following his example of breaking down obstructions to movement and seeking reconciliatory relationships between diverse people groups. The choice to follow his example was a decision to recognize each person as a neighbor and extending love even to enemies. This also means extending relationships beyond traditional identities, whether national, political, ethnic, religious or denominational and focusing on the individual behind their public label.
The choice to follow Jesus is to transform life into a journey, take nothing for the road and walk with a trust in providence.
As paths are made by walking, the choice to take Jesus seriously becomes real when movement begins. This journey is sustained by simple living, intentionality, the practice of hospitality and creative ingenuity. It becomes unending as the traveler rests in the risk of action, grasping the reality that the exercise of faith is the true adventure of the journey.
The Jesus Trail and Fauzi Azar Inn continue to support the local communities nearby, inspiring many neighbors to start businesses because of the increasing interest and traffic. Our work is a combined effort of locals and internationals, Muslims, Christians and Jews. As we focus on providing hospitality for travelers passing through the land, our different ethnic and religious backgrounds become less important than our attention to others. We mostly encourage people on their journeys, whether physical or spiritual, offering them an opportunity to spend some time on the path of Jesus and experience abundant life.
David Landis (firstname.lastname@example.org) works for Franconia Mennonite Conference and is based in Nazareth, Israel.
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