I first saw it in 2006. Walking from the bus station in Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity, dying for a really good cup of coffee (about which, more later!), my heart jumped at the sight, about a block away, of a familiare logo, color-scheme, and even words…I began to trot towards what turned out to be…a “Stars & Bucks” coffee shop. No, not “Starbucks,” but “Stars & Bucks.” My heart sank with the realization that, no, I will not be able to enjoy a cup of their excellent brew.
But I stopped anyhow. The young men running the shop seemed consumed with running a “great” coffee shop. So I ordered a large latte and waited, and was totally delighted. No, they are not Starbucks, but they are doggone close enough that I don’t care!
The whole idea of “close is good enough” packs more punch than it might seem. For example, many people coming to Israel on the more sentimental, emotional “holy land tours” discover that in fact, they did not “walk today where Jesus walked.” They walked on a Byzantine street, overlaying a Roman street, which approximately corresponds to the 1st century street…it can be disappointing. Not Starbucks.
This is not always about actual authenticity or accuracy. The Church of the Nativity strikes many people, the first time they see it, as a disappointment. A cramped little doorway in a drab wall opens into a dark, very Byzantine church. You stand in line, go down a narrow flight of steps only to find something that looks like a very ornate fireplace with a hole in it. You get on hands and knees, crawl into the fireplace thing, and peer down into the hole, all the while assured that somewhere down there is the place where Jesus was born. Not very fulfilling. The location might actually be correct, but somehow, it doesn’t work for me, though as my taste for Byzantine church architecture grows, I enjoy the overall experience more.
On the other hand, once you emerge from the birth-grotto-fireplace, you wander over the more modern Roman Catholic church, follow a stairway down, and come upon the rooms used by St. Jerome as he painstakingly translated the Old Testament from Hebrew, a radical move in his day, into Latin, also a somewhat radical move since most considered Greek to be “good enough for Jesus and Paul” and Latin to be the upstart language. Jerome experienced a lot of criticism and dismissal for his work, and he had the kind of temperament that elicited criticism, dismissal and controversy! He was a crabby, conceited guy with amazing gifts that God used.
Somehow I always love standing in the sections of the cave that, pretty certainly, served as Jerome’s study. I feel a kinship for the curmudgeonly Hebraist who loved God and the church and was willing to forgo popularity even among the very Christians he sought to serve, all to complete his calling. I always take a moment to renew my calling, thinking of old Jerome. Of course, the area is tourist-i-fied a little, but somehow, it’s good enough, ”Stars & Bucks” good enough.
Then there is Jericho.
What a frustrating, confusing site. The spot is the right spot, no doubt about it. Relatively small, about 8 acres, but 4 successive cities, all fortified with state-of-the-art walls and
such, stood there for a period of over 7000 years. The neolithic city, the oldest on the planet, had a wall and a massive tower. Standing there, you easily see why Jericho mattered. A copious spring spouting 1200 gallons per minute and never, ever failing, would draw settlers. Standing at the junction of routes coming from the east, crossing the Jordan, heading up into Canaan, Jericho occupied the perfect spot for trade and, when powerful enough, levying “protection fees” on passing travelers and traders. The vulnerability of Jericho appears in the fact that each of those 4 cities got massively destroyed. The 4th city has long been a source of controversy. It matches the biblical narrative of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho wonderfully.
The problem was the date. The first excavators, Selllin and Watzinger, early in the 20th century dated the destruction to 1550 B.C. which is about either 150 or 300 years too early, depending on when one dates the exodus/conquest. Another excavator, John Garstang, in the 1930’s tackled the site and announced with great confidence that in fact, City 4 (or, City D as it is also called), with its dramatic remains of fallen, crumbled brick-work and even slabs of plastered glacis that coated the slope leading up to the wall, fell in 1400 B.C. doubtless, to the trumpets and shouts of Joshua
and the Israelites. He went on to identify Rahab’s house, though he did not find the red rope…The controversy raged and so a third excavator hit the site in the 1950’s. Kathleen Kenyon brought the best methods known to the site, and stated that in fact, old City D fell in 1550. Not Joshua’s Jericho, and sadly, she said there was little sign of any “City E” that might have existed in Joshua’s day. That a Late Bronze town of some kind stood there seems certain, but nothing remains of it, and certainly no signs of fortifications. So enter another scholar, Bryant Wood, who studied all Kenyon’s data and argued that Kenyon herself had the evidence for a 1400 B.C. destruction of City D but didn’t see it for all the details. That argument generally hasn’t stuck, especially with recent 14C datings confirming the destruction to
1550 B.C. The most recent Italian/Palestinian Authority excavations, though not aimed at that controversy, still found no signs of a fortified city that existed in Joshua’s day.
For some, this is like it not being a real Starbucks. Disappointing. But somehow, as I’ve visited the site repeatedly over the years, I find it still helps me to understand the book of Joshua and its narrative about Jericho. I’ll go into this more in a later article, but once we give due justice to the biblical text’s actual statements, as opposed to our flannel-graph Sunday School images, and once we embrace due caution in approaching the archaeological data, I find every time I visit Jericho that I learn more about the biblical text, its history and meaning.
Sometimes…close really can be good enough.