The Fifth Gospel
Published by SarahSchreiber
The “Holy Land,” or land of the Bible, has always played a prominent role in the Christian understanding of faith, as it is the setting for many biblical events. A resident Christian population in the land dating to the apostolic era continuously witnessed the location of events there. And that witness continues to this day. As one monk in Jerusalem likes to say, the land is the fifth gospel in our canon.
Professor Gary Burge and I led students in the “Taste And See: A Tour of Israel and Palestine” course this January. The title of this course is especially meaningful, as scholarships for the trip come from seminary supporters who are passionate about students experiencing the land with all five senses. Their generosity makes the trip affordable for our students and makes the land a tactile memory, useful for future teaching and preaching illustrations.
This two-credit travel course takes place during the January term between our fall and spring semesters. The top of the year is an excellent time to visit this region. The tourists are not there, the vistas are clear since there is no humidity, and the heat of the Middle Eastern summer is a thin memory.
So, this winter, we took off from Grand Rapids to continue in the longstanding tradition of pilgrimage to the land of the Bible. Scholars Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea were both guiding pilgrims to biblical sites. The first pilgrim diary was written in the mid-4th century by a woman named Egeria, and we visited numerous spots she identified for Christian travelers who would come after her.
Through this course, we were not just pilgrims—seeking a deeper meaning to our faith story through what we see in this land—but also students because we examined the history of Biblical events and studied the material and archaeological evidence for them.
But unlike pilgrims of faith and students of biblical history alone, we also took one more step. We discover that what is important is not just what occurred in antiquity. There are communities of Jews, Muslims, and Christians (often forgotten in the modern narrative) who today share this land. We heard their stories and tried to comprehend the rival narratives that have made this one of the most controversial regions in the world.
Sometimes our guest speakers came to our hotel, and sometimes we learned from them in their life and ministry settings. Two of our most meaningful on-site visits included times of fellowship with Christians from the Nazareth Baptist School community and the Tent of Nations. Our conversations were rich and thought-provoking, and they gave us a deeper understanding of what it looks like to follow Jesus in the land today.
In addition to communal connections, Scripture came alive for students on this trip. Things our students have read in the Bible for years suddenly clicked into place when immersed in the sights and sounds of the Bible.
For example, we listened to Scripture and spent some quiet devotional time on a hillside called Wadi Qelt, where you can see from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is not a smooth path between cities, but tiring and treacherous. This is the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan, and we can imagine the challenging trek of both the robbers’ victim and the Samaritan who paused his journey to assist his neighbor. This is also a journey that Jesus himself had to make, as we read in Luke 19.
Seeing Jerusalem high above us on the hillside brought to life the idea of “going up” to Jerusalem, as memorialized in the Psalms of Ascent. The rocky hillsides and cut stones everywhere helped us to understand the widespread imagery in Scripture about God as a rock or stronghold.
If you are on campus soon, we would love to connect you with a student who traveled in the footsteps of Jesus. Their reflections touch on community, culture, and scriptural context and have expressed how the experience forever changes their hearts.
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