History books are filled with accounts of the past, shaped by the perspectives of those who wrote them. A reader’s imagination may conjure events across the miles and millennia based on those accounts, but their own life experiences and interests may influence their sense of history.
A fuller picture is guided by scholars in classrooms where lessons are shaped by a lifetime devoted to study. And few historical events are as widely studied — and discussed — as those found in the Bible.
Bringing biblical history to life is exactly the goal of Harvard Divinity School (HDS) Professor Giovanni Bazzana. That’s why he sought to add a unique component to his course “Historical Jesus.” Bazzana knew that traveling to Magdala to trace the places Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have walked during his lifetime would be an invaluable experience that his students couldn’t get inside the classroom. Thanks to generous philanthropic support, he was able to travel to Israel with 12 of them last summer.
The goal was to consider who Jesus Christ was as a man beyond — and before — the writings of the New Testament, and to consider how the place and the times may have shaped those accounts. Bazzana is cognizant that most of the conversation surrounding the life and times of Jesus is dominated by text, so tilting the lens to give students a fresh perspective adds another dimension to their studies and how history is constructed.
“There is this longstanding conversation in New Testament studies about who Jesus really was. All we have are accounts by other people,” said Bazzana, referring to what he calls the scribe perspective. “How reliable are they, and what is the relationship between the accounts and the historical figure? With students, the goal of the course is to think about this problem.”
Bazzana said the main feature of the trip was attending an archaeological dig in the ancient city of Magdala, situated along the Sea of Galilee. It had been the site of Jewish ritual baths, according to Bazzana, and workers were in the process of excavating beneath granite pavement set in the first century. As the team members, assisted by the students, went deeper, they discovered a swimming pool dated to the time of Christ — a place Jesus may have been.
“It’s another interesting wrinkle,” said Bazzana. “Obviously, archaeologists would love to say they retrieve the past as it was, but in truth, how much of an intervention has there been about the diffraction of Jesus? In a sense, when they have to give an account, there’s a diffraction or interpretation of who he was.”