"The rabbi wasn’t lying. I sensed that immediately. He believed what he was saying and only told me because I had attacked his faith. What was so destabilizing is that I was inclined to believe him."
Years ago, I went to Israel and found Jesus. He’s not difficult to find, but I was raised Catholic, so I wasn’t really looking—and the discovery was so destabilizing that I didn’t write about it in the magazine for more than a year. After more than a decade, I’m still wrestling with how to tell the story and what it means.
What launched my discovery was pissing off a rabbi in the ancient city of Safed (or Tsfat), up in the mountains of Galilee where Jesus went to pray. I visited Safed as part of a press tour sponsored by the Israel Tourist Board. The rabbi and his colleagues had just finished creating what they hoped would be a new kind of tourist attraction: a computerized Bible Code reader. They had entered the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) into a computer that had been programmed to decipher secret messages from God hidden in every nth letter or word. Thanks to the computer, detective work that had previously taken days or months or even years could now be completed within seconds. We were told we could ask a question and an answer from God would be printed for us on a slip of paper a bit bigger than the fortune in a fortune cookie. The rabbis around the computer practically glowed with pride at their invention.
Alas, to my mind, the answers that spewed from the printer were somewhat less than fortune cookie wisdom and more like playing Abbey Road backwards to discover that Paul is dead. I decided these rabbis were rubes and attempted to sneak out of the demonstration. But one of them caught me outside and asked why I had left. I told him. I pissed him off.
To get even, he told me about another potential tourist attraction that I might find of more interest: the burial place of Jesus. In other words, he told me the faith of my childhood and billions of people worldwide is based on the resurrection of a body that actually lies under a pile of rocks just outside Safed.
The rabbi wasn’t lying. I sensed that immediately. He believed what he was saying and only told me because I had attacked his faith. What was so destabilizing is that I was inclined to believe him. I spent years among treasure hunters and even discovered an ancient Native American site. I know firsthand how accurate local knowledge often is.
I also learned from James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty that the location of Jesus’s grave outside Safed in recorded history dates back to a revered 16th Century Kabbalistic rabbi named Isaac Ben Luria, who listed Jesus among other saints and sages in his “burial places of the righteous.” The Rabbi put himself at odds with his own people by including Jesus on that list, and he must have done it because local knowledge told him that it was both true and important.
The story behind the burial site is that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who believed he was the Messiah. Jesus didn’t think he would actually die on the cross; instead, his crucifixion would bring about the Kingdom of Heaven. His followers didn’t think he would die either—and didn’t prepare a tomb. When he did die, they had to borrow a tomb before nightfall. Three days later, they had to move the body—and that presented a problem: Where do you bury a revered teacher who was not supposed to die? The answer was to take him to the mountains where he went alone to pray, and put him in a simple stone grave like those of the Essenes, pointing toward Jerusalem. Short of the Kingdom of Heaven, that’s what Jesus would have wanted.
There are a lot of ways to think about this story and one of them is to consider the changing nature of time. Just at the instant calculations of computers make the ancient practice of Bible Code readings look childishly silly, our billions of years of known history now make everlasting life and Heaven a fate beyond our worst nightmares. Times have changed!
Yet Jesus has not. He didn’t wait for Heaven. He preached it and practiced it and sacrificed his life to bring it into being. His own final belief may have been dead wrong. But so what? His action changed the world, and I suspect that no one who has ever acted like Jesus has failed to leave the world a better place.