After almost fifty years I revisited Israel in 2019. One of the most striking things I noticed was the growth of new Christian tourist sites, based on traditional or newly discovered locations. Tourism is a significant contributor to the economy of Israel and it appears that the Israeli government has been encouraging these developments for some time to attract more Christian visitors. In recent years, the Israel Ministry of Tourism has published guides to biblical and historical sites specifically aimed at Christian visitors.1

Two locations I visited during my time in Israel are typical examples of these tourism sites.

Nazareth Village2

Nazareth Village opened in the year 2000. It aims to depict a farm and village illustrating life in first century Nazareth where Jesus grew up. It is located on a six hectare site on the grounds of Nazareth Hospital, which was established in 1906 by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society. Together with the Nazareth Hospital, Nazareth Village is on property now owned and managed by the Nazareth Trust. It is governed by a non-profit board of inter-denominational and ecumenical leaders.

It is claimed that the site is untouched and unchanged since Jesus’ time, and preserves the last remaining fields in Nazareth from the first century. Archaeologists have confirmed the site would have been a working terrace farm in the time of Christ.

In creating Nazareth Village, the original farm has been restored based on research of everyday life in the first century. Houses, a synagogue, and olive presses have been reconstructed using methods as close as possible to those used two thousand years ago.

Local people, dressed in period clothing, add to the colour of the village by showing daily life in New Testament Nazareth. A carpenter, shepherd, baker, weaver and other workers demonstrate the tools and methods that would have been familiar to Jesus and his family. The village also offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy a traditional first century meal. Dishes are made from foods of the Bible, such as lentils, olives, dates, ground wheat and flat bread.

Visitor numbers have grown to almost 100,000 per year since the village was opened. There are plans to expand the existing visitor centre to cater for the increase in the number of people coming through the gates.

Nazareth Village is very much an Evangelical Christian enterprise that has wide support from Americans, some of whom act as guides for visiting tour groups.

Magdala3

The Magdala project was initiated in 2005 by the papal appointee in charge of Notre Dame of Jerusalem, Juan Solana, who continues to direct its development. It is owned and operated by the Legionaries of Christ,4 a Roman Catholic religious congregation of priests and men studying for the priesthood, with centres around the world. Solana’s aim was to build a retreat centre in the Galilee where visitors could enjoy comfortable accommodation on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

When construction began in 2009, workers digging the foundation for the guesthouse discovered a first century synagogue where Jesus may have taught. Excavation of the synagogue uncovered the Magdala Stone, which is thought to have been a repository for the Torah and the Prophets’ scrolls. It is decorated on one side with a menorah.

Further discoveries revealed an entire first century Jewish town lying just below the surface. Visitors are able to walk around the ancient town of Magdala, believed to be the hometown of Mary Magdalene.

Magdala has a number of chapels as well as a guesthouse.There are plans to construct high standard accommodation with a restaurant for visitors, in addition to expanding the archaeological park. While the archaeological evidence at Magdala is impressive, one has the feeling that the primary emphasis is on Roman Catholic religious devotion rather than Jewish and Christian history.

Promoting Evangelical Christian tourism in Israel

Meanwhile, Israel has discussed with senior officials of the United States’ Trump administration, a proposal to develop up to 24 major Bible tourism sites in the West Bank.5 The focus will be on Evangelical Christian tourism and the idea was originally presented by the former Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.

The proposal is titled: Developing Win-Win Economy in Judea and Samaria. Barkat told The Times of Israel that he was inspired by the archaeological park in Shiloh, which receives 60,000 Evangelical Christian tourists per year.6

The sites to be developed include: The Valley of Dothan (where Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers), Samaria (once the capital of the Kingdom of Israel), Bethel (the location of Jacob’s dream), Qasar al-Yahud (the part of the Jordan river where the Israelites entered into the land of Israel under Joshua), and Hebron (the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried).

Barkat said that the goal is to prepare a range of almost two dozen Bible tourism sites to market to the 800 million Evangelical Christians in the world. Israel will be promoted as the land of the Bible that presents the opportunity to visit many of the places well-known from Bible stories. It is hoped, too, that Christians will return home with a positive view of Israel and its situation in the Middle East.

Statistics for 2019 recorded that 4.9 million people visited Israel, which is an increase of 12 percent in the number of entries compared to 2018.7 According to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, 4.6 million were tourists who stayed for at least one night. Israel benefits from these visits with tourism for 2019 adding USD6.49 billion to the economy as well as providing employment and other benefits.

Today, tourists travel to Israel to visit the biblical and historical sites, and the so-called holy places. But when Christ returns and Israel is restored to favour again, the nations shall come to Israel to worship the King and learn of God’s ways. In the words of Isaiah: “And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem” (2:3).

References

  1. For example: Biblical and Historical Sites for Christian Visitors, Jerusalem: Israel Ministry of Tourism, 2013
  2. https://www.nazarethvillage.com
  3. https://www.magdala.org/
  4. www.legionariesofchrist.org
  5. David Sidman, “Thanks to Evangelicals: Israel to Develop 24 Biblical Sites in Judea-Samaria”, BreakingIsraelNews, November 18, 2019 online at: https://www.breakingisraelnews.com/140133/thanks-evangelicals-israel-develop-24-biblical-sites-judea-samaria/
  6. David Horovitz, “Barkat: US may adopt West Bank plan for 250,000 Palestinian jobs, Bible tourism”, The Times of Israel, 17 November 2019 online at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/barkat-us-may-adopt-west-bank-plan-for-250000-palestinian- jobs-bible-tourism/
  7. Stuart Winer, “Record 4.9 million people visited Israel in 2019, 12% more than 2018”, The Times of Israel, 7 January 2020 online at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/record-4-9-million-people-visited-israel-in-2019-12-more-than-2018/