An update from Perkins School of Theology student Scott Gilliland, who is blogging at

I’ve just realized my title for these blogs is partially incorrect. I’m surprised it took me until now to realize that they should have been titled “Israel/Palestine Trip,” out of consideration for the two distinct peoples that occupy this land officially known as “Israel.” These last two days we have been based in Bethlehem, which sits just inside the West Bank (named for its geographical location on the western bank of the Jordan River, which is actually on the eastern border of Israel, which is super confusing, but whatever…), so I’ve become acutely aware of the distinct differences between the Israeli and Palestinian territories.

We began Day 9 by leaving Nazareth bright and early to make our way down the eastern edge of the country, through the West Bank, along the Jordan River, with Bethlehem as our ultimate goal. We stopped first in Jericho to see the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus was tempted by Satan before entering Jerusalem) and it was completely underwhelming. The problem is, even the biggest believers in the Holy Land locations admit that the Mount of Temptation could actually be any number of mounts in the area, and so what you visit is a view of a mount, along with a man urging you to ride his camel and shops selling the same gifts that are literally everywhere in this country.

We then traveled to the Jordan River, which is way smaller than I ever thought. It is maybe 20 feet across. Also, it was incredibly cold, so I have respect for anyone brave enough to get baptized in it during the winter. We loaded up some water bottles for friends and family back home and headed out.

The hills of Qumran.  All of the little dark holes you see are one of thousands of cave openings that dot the landscape in this region.  An archaeologist's dream.

The hills of Qumran. All of the little dark holes you see are one of thousands of cave openings that dot the landscape in this region. An archaeologist’s dream.

From there we went to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found back in the ’40s by a shepherd boy looking for his goat. The Israeli Parks Department forces you to watch a truly excruciating video telling the story of one of the Essenes (a Jewish sect living in the area during Jesus’ time, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls). From there you walk through a mediocre “museum” before finally exiting into the actual excavation site. This is where it got pretty interesting – you could actually walk through their living quarters, dining area, work room, etc. The scenery was also pretty breathtaking, with mountains rising and falling along the desert terrain, thousands of caves dotting the landscape and reminding you just how many secrets could still be buried.

After lunch and a little gift shopping, we made our way to the Dead Sea, renowned for its high salt and mineral content that gives swimmers the ability to float unnaturally well. The mud is a little treacherous, and the feeling of such extreme buoyancy is at first bizarre and unsettling, but after a little while a lot of fun. Then after a little while more, it’s super painful… you know, because there are crazy high levels of salt in there.

Then off to Jerusalem, where we visited a church with great acoustics, old ruins, and that’s about it. Moving on.

We arrive in Bethlehem for the night with a 5:30 wake-up call staring us in the face, so we ate and scurried off to bed in expectation of a day in Jerusalem around the corner.

The Dome of the Rock.  I became lost in photographing it, so much so that at one point, in order to get better shot--seen here--I laid down on the ground, a big no-no that a soldier quickly pointed out to me.

The Dome of the Rock. I became lost in photographing it, so much so that at one point, in order to get better shot–seen here–I laid down on the ground, a big no-no that a soldier quickly pointed out to me.

We started today (Jan 8) off standing in line at 7:45 (breakfast was later than expected, and super weird… who serves cold cuts and croutons for breakfast? Answer: our hotel) along with many other tourists hoping to walk in the Temple Mount. This is where the 2nd Jewish temple stood until 70 CE, and now is home to two beautiful mosques, the most notable and picturesque being the Dome of the Rock (a.k.a., the building you see in, like, EVERY photo of Jerusalem). I have never felt more out of place or keenly aware of my not belonging than I did today on the Temple Mount. We entered, and at first everything felt fine, nobody really paid any attention to us, but then behind us came a group accompanied by a couple of Israeli police (at least one of whom was Jewish), which the group of Muslim women sitting near the entrance to the Mount clearly did not appreciate. The began chanting “God is great! Honor the prophets!” in Arabic (according to our guide), which caught me off guard at first, but our guide and professor assured us this wasn’t uncommon. So we continued up the Mount, climbing the steps to the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen in my life.

At this point I was hyper aware of where I walked, how far I was from the group, and the fact that our guide was constantly scanning the environment as he spoke to us. The women’s chanting had not yet died down, in fact it started growing a little louder, joined by some male voices. Maybe it was his eyes, or his quieter voice, or the fact that he said “If people start running, wait for me to run and follow me,” but it got a little tense for a while. Everything turned out fine in the end, and Raegan and I managed to get some incredible shots of this incredibly contentious land.

We continued our day by following a few of the stations of the cross on Via Dolorosa. Overall, I really didn’t connect with most of it. I expected to be really drawn into the path that Christ walked on the way to his crucifixion, but the churches clearly lend themselves to an Orthodox/Catholic perspective, and I couldn’t help but feel again out of place at these sites that should have meant so much more. The pushing, shoving, sparkling, overly-ornate attractions were hardly what I expected to find at Jesus’ tomb, the stone that split upon his death, etc.

We then ventured up to the Mount of Olives, to see the Chapel of the Ascension, where Christ is said to have ascended into heaven. It was surprisingly simple, which I appreciated, but still no deep spiritual event for me. I have to admit, at this point I was getting really disheartened. Here I am, a seminary student, a passionate Christian, on the trip of a lifetime, having just seen sites in one day that people wait their whole lifetimes to visit, and I’m just not connecting. I get pretty dadgum depressed, and it continued through Dominus Flevit, a Catholic church that, in all honesty, I only half paid attention to.

And so we made our way down to the Garden of Gethsemane, and it’s here that I will stop, because for me it requires an entire blog post (hopefully not this long) all on its own. That’s because of all the places I’ve visited, of all the sites I’ve seen, rocks I’ve touched, churches I’ve entered, nothing compares for a moment with what I experienced in the Garden where Jesus prayed, wept, and found peace before he submitted to death. It demands more than a separate blog post, but for now, it will have to do. Coming in about 10 hours! For now, off to another day in Bethlehem!