The Final Countdown
Late winter-early spring, 33 AD

 

"Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men" (Luke 9:44).

At Ephraim, north of Jerusalem, the final days of Jesus' life and ministry begin to count down. What occurred during this period, probably between January and the end of March of 33 AD, is a microcosm of his entire ministry. There are more parables to be taught and still more people to be healed, as always, further dialogue and confrontation with the Pharisees. As he has done twice before, Jesus again tells of his impending death. But even now the disciples continue to think only in terms of an earthly kingdom. James and John, prompted by their mother, Salome, ask that they be given special positions. Jesus admonishes them once again, pointing to the spiritual nature of his kingdom and to the need for humility and service to others. But the time is short and, in late March, Jesus again set out on the road from the Jordan River valley to Bethany and Jerusalem.

At the time of Jesus, the main road from the Jordan River Valley to Jerusalem ran through the Wadi Qelt, a long canyon stretching west from Jericho up to the spring of Ein Farah, south of what is now the Jerusalem suburb of Anata. Today, there are three ways to relive this journey. The quickest (and least desirable) is to take the modern highway (Road 1), a 45 minute trip, depending on traffic. A better way is to take the old narrow twisting (but paved) Roman road along the edge of the canyon. Those who truly wish to walk in Jesus' footsteps, can follow a marked hiking trail through the lower part of the canyon.


In the footsteps of Jesus...


Our journey this day begins with a visit to the site of Old Testament Jericho, on the northern edge of modern Jericho and on the road leading northwest out of the town center. As Jesus and the disciples passed the long-deserted mound (tell), they undoubtedly recalled the story of how God helped the Joshua-led Israelites conquer this very city, causing its mighty walls to come tumbling down with a simple trumpet blast. For all of Jericho's fame the ruins are not spectacular. Now, as in Jesus' time, there is little to indicate that an imposing, walled city once stood there; the 50-foot-high mound, called Tell es-Sultan, looks like a great pile of packed dirt (below left) rising above the modern oasis town, now the seat of the Palestinian Authority. What's impressive about Tel es-Sultan is its incredible age. As you walk up the ramp to the top of the mound you soon realize that the the soil under your feet covers houses and other remains that are some 10,000 years old. Perhaps Jesus and his followers stopped for a short time to refresh themselves at the spring of Ein es-Sultan (below right) flowing by the foot of the mound, making possible the long period of settlement in this otherwise desolate-looking region.

Top of Tell Jericho Elishas spring in jericho
wall remains at tell jericho ancent round tower at tell jericho

(Above left) remains of a large retaining wall (revetment) that supported the slope of the Jericho tell; (above right) round tower discovered and excavated by Kathleen Kenyon. She dated it to 8000-7000 BC. The tower is 26 feet in diameter and stands 26-feet-tall and stood on the inside of a wall 13-feet-thick. It was solid rock with an internal stairway climbing to the top.

Some 2 miles to the southwest of the ancient tell, where the course of the Wadi Qelt leaves the Jordan River Valley, lies New Testament Jericho not a town, but a complex of palaces and villas with an industrial section that long-served as a winter playground for the Jewish aristocracy.


New Testament Jericho


Now represented by ruins called Tulul Abu al-Alayiq, it served first as a retreat for the Hasmonean rulers of Jerusalem; its balmy climate was in striking contrast to the chilly, damp winters of highland Jerusalem. The Hasmoneans, who ruled Israel during a brief period of independence (from 142 to 37 BC), immediately prior to the Roman conquest, erected several palaces there. As Flavius Josephus noted, "The ambient air is here also of so good a temperature, that the people of the country are clothed in linen-only, even when snow covers the rest of Judea." (Wars of the Jews, book 4, chapter 8:3). After Herod the Great became king in 37 BC, he too built the first of three palaces for himself there. It was located on the south side of Wadi Qelt and was presumably built while the palace of the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus was still standing. After the death of Cleopatra, Herod took control of the whole area and built a second palace over the top of Jannaeus' palace. Then, sometime between 15-10 BC, he built a third palace, a magnificent complex straddling both sides of the Wadi Qelt.

Straddling both sides of Wadi Qelt, Herod's third palace was built late in his reign. It had a commanding view of New Testament Jericho and the arid, but fertile, Jordan valley.

Herod's palace at new testament Jericho Herod's palace at New Testament Jericho with the mount of Temptation beyond

(Above left) excavations of Herod's northern palace on the north side of the Wadi Qelt, with a main reception hall (95 feet by x 62 feet), two courtyards, a Roman bath, etc.; south of the wadi were a sunken garden and a two huge pools; (above right) remains of the sweating hall in Herod's northern palace.

A large residential area with plantations developed to the north of Herod's palace. This was the Jericho of the New Testament, that Jesus passed through whenever the Gospels tell us he went "up to Jerusalem."

View of the Wadi Kelt road toward the Arab village of Tulul Abu el-Alayiq, site of New Testament Jerich village of Tulul Abu el-Alayiq, site of New Testament Jerich

(Above left) View of the Wadi Kelt road toward the Arab village of Tulul Abu el-Alayiq, site of New Testament Jericho. The road to Jerusalem can be seen on the right shoulder of the hill in the center; (above right) another view of the site of New Testament Jericho.

New Testament Jericho reached its peak around the time of Herod whose palace complex seems to have served as the town's administrative center. It was a flourishing town, with considerable trade. It was celebrated for the palm trees which adorned the surrounding plain, giving it the nickname "the City of Palms." It was also famous for its balsam plantations the most precious plants in the whole Mediterranean producing balm, a sticky sap or gum known for its aromatic and medicinal properties. Jericho had its own theater, hippodrome and amphitheater, all adorned with dazzling white pillars, sparkling in the sunlight. Architecturally it was very much like Pompeii and to anyone who had visited that wealthy Italian city, it would have seemed as if it had been magically transported to the Wadi Qelt, except that Jericho was much more expansive, with plenty of pools, parks, villas and civic buildings.

Excavations uncovered a huge garden of palm trees and balsam called the Royal Garden. An aqueduct system brought water from the hills into the city. Many wealthy citizens lived in Jericho, among them the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus, who climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus:


"Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.' So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.' But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.' Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost'" (Luke 19:1-10)


Sycamore tree at jerichoJericho's sycamore trees were quite valuable and as a reminder of the incident, there is a lone sycamore (right) planted in the center of the modern town. The sycamore of Palestine actually belongs to the fig tree family and has nothing to do with the North American sycamore. The prophet Amos identified himself as a keeper "of sycamore-fig trees" (Amos 7:14), and David appointed Baal-Hanan the Gederite as overseer of the "sycamore-fig trees in the western foothills" (1 Chronicles 27:28)

When Jesus was hosted by Zacchaeus it was probably in one of Jericho's finest houses. With such great wealth, Jericho attracted its share of beggars, for almsgiving was highly meritorious. As Jesus passed through on his way to Jerusalem, he restored the sight of a blind man named Bartimaeus who was sitting by the roadside pleading for help.


"Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus) was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!' Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, 'Son of David, have mercy on me!' Jesus stopped and said, 'Call him.' So they called to the blind man, 'Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you.' Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. 'What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, 'Rabbi, I want to see.' 'Go,' said Jesus, 'your faith has healed you.' Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road" (Mark 10:46-52).


Soon afterward, Jesus headed west, entering the Wadi Qelt which carried the main road to Jerusalem, climbing from about 850 feet below sea-level to around 2,500 feet above sea-level, an elevation gain of some 3300 feet over a distance of about 17 miles. In reference to such journeys to the Holy City, the biblical authors consistently used the phrase "up to Jerusalem" because then, as now, it was both a physical "going up," and a heightening of spiritual emotions.

Jesus' Life Home n "Let us go up to Jerusalem"