In 1855, A Welsh minister by the name of John Mills visited the city of Nabulus in Palestine. The city’s name evolved from its ancient name of Flavia Neapolis, built by Romans as a retired soldiers’ colony in the late 1st century CE. Mills believed that Nabulus was built on the ruins of the Biblical city of Shechem, because the city is cradled in the valley between the shoulder blades of Samaria, between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. “Shechem” translates from Hebrew as shoulder, or more specifically, the portion of the back between the shoulders, close to the neck. The ancient Palestinians, or Canaanites as the Bible calls them, envisioned the mountain range of Ephraim as a giant lying on its stomach, with its shoulders rising as the two highest peaks south of Lebanon. Only the snow-capped mega-giants of Mount Hermon and Mount Lebanon are higher, but they are far to the north of Samaria. For central Palestine, the twin peaks of Gerizim and Ebal dominated the landscape. The mountains that sheltered Shechem are hundreds of feet higher than the peaks of Jerusalem to the south. They also tower more than 1000 feet higher than Mount Gilboa and Mount Tabor to the northeast, in the Lower Galilee, as well as dwarfing Mt Carmel to the northwest on the coast.
Not only were the mountains Mills visited impressive, the valley of Nabulus was a strategic location. The valley provided one of the best passages from the Jordan rift valley in the east out to the western Plain of Sharon and the Jezreel, leading to the ports on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The valley was the backbone of an important trade route, with Shechem guarding the east entrance on the neck of the giant, and Shomron (Samaria) as the watchtower overlooking the base of the spine on the west end of the valley. That trade route was the reason for the existence of the Iron Age kingdom of Israel. The Israelite Omride kings built their capital city on the west end of the valley and called it Shomron, which means “the watchtower” in Hebrew. Shomron (Samaria) became a wealthy city as it watched over the trade route.
On the east end of the valley, Shechem was in a natural fortress between the two great mountains, and for Canaanites, mountain tops were the homes of their gods, the Elohim. Shechem naturally became the religious center of the Israelite kingdom. Every rock and every spring in the region became associated with their gods. The whole area of Palestine looked to Shechem as the home of their gods and to Shomron as the home of their king.
The Israelite kings dominated Palestine because they also managed to control the other two good trade routes from the east to the sea. To the south, there were a few good paths leading from Jericho, close to where the Jordan River ends in the Dead Sea, out to the port of Jaffa on the coast. These paths run through and around the heights of Jerusalem, so it was a natural place for a fortress to guard the trade routes. To the north, lay a route from Shomron through the verdant Jezreel Valley, flanked by Mount Gilboa and Mount Tabor on the east, and the Carmel Range on the west. At Nazareth, the route met up with other paths leading from the north end of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. From the crossroads by Nazareth, travelers from the east headed west to the coastal bay, by the port of Haifa, or north, to the great cities of Tyre and Sidon.
The importance of the region of Nazareth was due to its position on the trade route. It was a crossroads, where the eastern travelers from the King’s Highway (the southern route from Egypt to Mesopotamia) crossed with the western travelers along the Via Maris (the northern route from Egypt to Syria). There is no evidence of the use of the name “Nazareth” for the crossroads region in the Galilee in pre-Christian texts. But, there is ample evidence of human occupation in the region, dating back to the Neolithic. The nearby town of Sepphoris was also occupied during Israelite kingdom of the Iron Age and grew again during the Hellenistic Period. During the 1st century C.E., Sepphoris grew again, becoming a wealthy town under the Romans. Both Sepphoris and Nazareth occupy heights overlooking the valley passages from the Sea of Galilee in the east and the Mediterranean to the West. Their names are similar to the watchtower name of Shomron. Nazareth most likely derives from the Hebrew term to watch, as in keeping guard in a watchtower. To this day, Jews call Christians, Notzrim (Nazarenes), a term they derived from the watchmen of Ephraim as described in:
“For there shall be a day, that the watchmen upon the mount Ephraim shall cry, Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion unto the LORD our God.”
In Sepphoris, the other watchers on the other hill overlooking the trade route also had a name that mingled business with religion. Sepphoris was the Greek transliteration for the Hebrew term for bird. Tzipori is also the name Zipporah, the wife of Moses. In the Canaanite religion of the ancient Israelites, the bird was one of the symbols of their goddess, who resided in a watchtower, as she wept for her dead son. Her dead son was worshipped throughout the Levant with baetyls, which are standing stones. The bird on the baetyl is the key for unlocking the story of the first Christians, which will be explained in the following chapters.
At the time of Mills’ visit to Nabulus, no archaeologist had yet turned a spade in the heartland of Samaria. But, the region was littered with hints of its rich history. In the legendary vale, water and rocks conspired to tell ancient tales and Mills went to listen. Mills listened to the local people and to the landscape, to match what he heard with the tales he knew from the Bible. But his Bible stories were often significantly different from the stories of the local Samaritans. His Bible was composed of the Old Testament, derived from the books of the Jews of Jerusalem, and the New Testament, which for centuries Christians have interpreted with Jesus as a Jewish Messiah. Trying to understand the history of Samaria with a Christian Bible is a bit like trying to learn about England with only Scottish sources. Sure, there is a lot of information in Jewish sources about Samaria, but it is a wee bit slanted. But, the Welshman, Mills, was well aware of the bias and did his best to explore Samaritan sources. The Samaritans, the age-old enemies of the Judeans, have their own version of the Torah, their own story of Joshua conquering Canaan, and their own Chronicles of the kings of Israel. And, they have their own prophecy of a Messiah, who they call the Taheb, or “restorer.” The verse from Jeremiah the Jews use to describe Christians as Nazarenes was rejected by the Samaritans, along with all the other Jewish books of prophets. The term for the watchmen of Ephraim, the Nazarenes, would not pose a problem for Samaritans, but their watchmen would not look to Zion in Jerusalem for their god. The proper home for their lord was on Mount Gerizim. Or, at least the lord’s house was on Gerizim until the Jewish king, John Hyrcanus, destroyed the Samaritan temple in about 110 BCE. The Samaritans were hoping for their Messiah, the Taheb, to restore their temple for 180 years before the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, in 70 CE by the Romans. The Samaritan watchmen were looking for a messiah far more intently and for longer than their Jewish neighbors when early Christianity was evolving.
One of the places where Mills listened and learned the secrets of the valley was at a dilapidated Mosque, he called: Sheech el Amud and translated as meaning: “the saint of the pillar.” The local Samaritans simply called the spot “the pillar” and claimed it as the site where Joshua set up his standing stone and where Jacob buried the idols, his wife Rachel had spirited away from her father, under a sacred oak tree. Today, the location of Joshua’s pillar is known as Tel Balata, an archaeology site just a bit further down the slope of Mt. Gerizim from “the pillar” mosque. The site was occupied during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age and features the remains of a temple, sporting a massive standing stone. Tel Balata is the remains of the Biblical city, Shechem.
But, “the pillar” mosque further up the mountain has a story and ancient remains too. Mills’ little mosque is called Rijal el-Amud and has a similar meaning to “the saint of the pillar.” It means: “men of the columns” and is located over the remains of a monumental propylaeum, which was the pillared gateway in front of the stairs that led up to the temple complex on Mount Gerizim. Legend has it that 40 prophets are buried by the gateway to the temple. According to Josephus, a “false” messiah gathered his followers at the base of Gerizim in 36 CE, with the intent of climbing the mount to the ruined temple, where the messiah promised to show his followers the vessels of Moses. Pontius Pilate was called in to stop the rabble rouser and his followers. Pilate killed a bunch of them and executed the messiah and his ring leaders. Josephus called the site of Pilate’s slaughter “Terathaba.” No such village is known at the base of Mount Gerizim. The closest equivalent would be Tubas, a town northeast of the valley and not a place convenient for gathering before climbing the mountain. But, Terathaba can be translated as Tera, meaning gate, and Taba, meaning slaughter. Tera Taba, the Gate of Slaughter, is an apt name for the site where Pilate slew the Samaritan messiah in front of the propylaeum. It also explains why the local Muslims call the site “the men of the columns.” This story is the most detailed reference, outside of the gospels, of Pontius Pilate executing a messiah type character. And, as you will see in the following pages, executing a messiah type character in front of pillars at the base of Mount Gerizim was of exceptional religious meaning for the local people. Sure, it could mean a lot to execute a messiah in Jerusalem too, because of the shared religious history of Jews and Samaritans. But, in 36 CE, an executed messiah was more meaningful in Samaria because their temple already lay in ruins. The Jesus story didn’t mean much for many Jews until after their temple was also destroyed in 70 CE.
On top of Mount Gerizim, Mills’ guide showed him twelve stones deeply set in the ground, which stood in front of their temple. The Samaritans claimed the stones were removed from Gilgal, where Joshua had erected them in a circle and re-erected on Gerizim. It was not unusual for materials from one holy site to be reused at another. The archaeologists who excavated the Gerizim temple believe some of the materials were recycled from an older temple in the valley of Shechem. But, standing stones could be from almost anywhere because they were a central feature of religious sites all over the Levant. There was not just one Gilgal, standing stones were all over the place. But, for Samaritans, the lord of the gilgal was their savior god, Joshua. In Greek, the word “gilgal” was bastardized as Golgotha and “Joshua” became Jesus. In Josephus story, we find the Jesus executed at Golgotha. Josephus doesn’t say Pilate crucified the messiah, but it is possible.
The other story told by Josephus relevant to the Christian gospels, is the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. According to tradition, John was buried at Sebaste, which was the Roman city built atop Shomron, the citadel of the Israelite kings at the western end of the valley. Josephus’ sequence of events with the execution of John followed by the execution of the messiah at Gerizim agrees with the sequence in the gospels. However, Josephus’ accounts of the executions do not mean they actually happened. Josephus was born about 37 CE and wrote his Antiquities about 94 CE. He was writing about things that supposedly happened before he was born. They could be based on some kind of fact, but for our purposes it does not matter. What is significant is that with Josephus we have the basis of the gospel tale of John the Baptist and Jesus, but the center of the action was meaningful to Samaritans, not to Jews. And, the oldest known story of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, was written by someone who looked to Gerizim as the holy mountain of his god, not to Jerusalem. How do I know Mark’s Jesus was a Samaritan? Let’s just say a little bird told me.
What the bird said is in Chapter Two.
This is a draft for my first chapter of my new book: The Mark of Simon Magus
The final draft will include the references and will most likely be rearranged a bit.