Mount Tabor: Site of the Transfiguration?
Summer-Autumn 32 AD

 

"After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves." (Matthew 17:1)

 


In the footsteps of Jesus...


Continuing northeast on Road 65 from Naim/Nain, the rounded dome of Mount Tabor (1,843 feet high) looms ahead (below left). Soon, a left turn onto Road 7266 takes us to the entrance to the Arab village of Daburiya, biblical Daberath (meaning "pasture," lying at the west foot of Mount Tabor. It is named for the Israelite prophetess and judge, Deborah. Under her direction the Israelite commander Barak swept down from the summit of Mount Tabor upon the 900 iron chariots of the Canaanite general, Sisera, delivering Israel from the yolk of king Jabin of Hazor.

From Daburiya, a steep, winding road climbs the rocky, oak-covered slopes of Mount Tabor to the main gate in the medieval defense walls, now called the Gate of the Wind (restored in 1897). The view from the top (above right) commands a panorama ranging from the hills of Nazareth to the west, the Jezreel Valley and the hills of Samaria to the south, the Jordan River valley and the hills of Jordan to the east, and the Horns of Hattin and the great mass of Mount Hermon to the northeast.

Mount Tabor site of the Transfiguration... Maybe?

Situated in the northeast corner of the triangular Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor is about six miles east-southeast of Nazareth and twelve miles west-southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Its isolation and its steep-sided dome shape combine to give it the aura of a sacred mountain. A Christian tradition, dating from the 4th century AD, places Jesus' Transfiguration on Mount Tabor:


"After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.' While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!' When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. 'Get up,' he said. 'Don't be afraid.' When they looked up, they saw no-one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead" (Matthew 17:1-9).


Matthew does not tell us the name of the mountain where the Transfiguration took place. Neither do Mark 9:2- 9 and Luke 9:28-36. Nevertheless, the early church attempted to localize this important turning point in Jesus' life. In the Byzantine period, Eusebius (d. 340) vacillated between Tabor and Mount Hermon, while the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333 AD) placed it on the Mount of Olives. In 348 AD Cyril of Jerusalem decided on Tabor and, with the support of Epiphanius and Jerome, the tradition was firmly established. But the date churches were constructed on Tabor to commemorate the event is uncertain. The book, "S. Helenae et Constantini Vita," mentions that Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, climbed Tabor and after searching for and discovering where the Transfiguration happened, built a church there in honor of Jesus and his three disciples. The anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza recorded seeing three basilicas in 570 AD, and a century later Arculf spoke of a great monastery with three churches and many cells inhabited by monks. On the other hand, Willebaldus (723 AD) mentioned only one. Possibly at that time the three chapels were linked, as in the present building.

During the Crusader period, further buildings and fortifications were erected on the mountain and the Benedictines established themselves there along with the Greek Orthodox. In 1113, the Turks invaded the Galilee and defeated the Crusaders. Before returning to their homeland, the Turks massacred all those they found in the monastery on Tabor. However, the Benedictines soon re-established themselves on the mountain. To protect themselves from future attacks, the Benedictines fortified their monastery and installed a garrison of Turkopols. Some years of peace followed. But, an invasion by Saladin destroyed the peace and was the beginning of the end. In 1183, a band of Saracens ascended Tabor and devastated the Greek monastery. They also attacked the Benedictine abbey but their fortifications proved too strong. Four years later Saladin returned and defeated the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin. His troops again ascended Tabor and this time finished the work they started on their previous sally. The Benedictines abandoned the mountain.

The threat of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) spurred the Sultan Melek el-Adel, the brother to Saladin, to construct a powerful fortress on Tabor. It kept the Crusaders from re-conquering Galilee and closed the road to Jerusalem to them. Although a 17-day Crusader siege against the fortress failed in 1217, a year later, el-Adel ordered it dismantled, along with other fortresses, fearing they would provoke further attacks and fall into Crusader hands. A series of truces permitted Christians to return in the 13th century, but they were expelled by Baybars in 1263. Over the next six hundred years the summit was abandoned; it was not until the 19th century that the Greek Orthodox and Franciscans built their churches and monasteries there.

The summit is divided between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics. The road divides: the left fork leads to the Greek sector and its Church of St. Elias (Elijah); the right fork enters the walled area occupied by the Franciscans. At its eastern end rises a basilica (below left) designed in 1921-1923 by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi who was inspired by churches built in northern Syria in the 4th-6th centuries AD. The modem church follows the outlines of previous Crusader and Byzantine buildings. It contains three grottos called tabernacles and are said to represent the three huts Peter wanted to build, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.

From the summit of Mount Tabor, we descend again to Daburiya (above right, on the lower slope of Mount Tabor). Here, tradition holds that after descending Mount Tabor from the Transfiguration, Jesus healed a man's only son stricken with epilepsy:


"The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, 'Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.' 'O unbelieving and perverse generation,' Jesus replied, 'how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.' Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God" (Luke 9:37-43a).


Heading northeast on Road 65 we soon pass the small tell of Zafzafot (below left), which may have been the site of Ein Dor (Old Testament Endor), where, according to 1 Samuel 28:7-25, King Saul of Judah consulted a "medium" on the eve of his final engagement with the Philistines on nearby Mount Gilboa. Endor was also the scene of the great victory by Deborah and Barak over Sisera, commander of the army of king Jabin of Hazor (see Judges 4: 2-24; Psalm 83:9-10). East of the tell is a spring which was the water source in ancient times, and gave the site its name, which means fountain or spring of Dor.

At Kfar Tavor, we turn left and continue north on Road 65 to Golani Junction, an important crossroads captured by the Israel Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence. All around are groves of evergreens planted by visitors as part of the "plant a tree in Israel" project to restore the forest that once covered the hills in ancient times.

From Golani Junction, we retrace our route east toward the Sea of Galilee, taking note of the Horns of Hattin (Arabic Qarne Hittim) (above right), the double hills created by the collapse of a long extinct volcano, where Saladin crushed a Crusader army on July 4,1187 bringing an end to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem established after the successful First Crusade nearly a hundred years earlier.

As we descend the hilly region into the upper suburbs of Tiberias, we come upon a fabulous view of the Sea of Galilee. Soon we pass a sign informing us that we are now exactly at sea level. Our driver, Moses, shifts to a lower gear for the descent to Tiberias and another night at the Ron Beach Hotel one more chance to swim or take a leisurely stroll into the town center to browse the shops along the traffic-free waterfront promenade, to find out if the local McDonalds or Burger King serves un-kosher cheeseburgers, order a platter of the local specialty St. Peter's Fish or better still, gaze at the moon reflected in the gentle waters of the lake, while imagining Peter, Andrew, James and John heading out in their boats for another night's fishing.

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