Where the Present is a Continuation of the Past

October 30, 2018
Professor Giovanni Bazzana poses with students during a trip to Israel as part of his course "Historical Jesus." Photo contributed.
Professor Giovanni Bazzana, center, poses with students during a trip to Israel as part of his course "Historical Jesus." Photo contributed.

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 at best 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 the 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 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 provide an invaluable experience for students that they couldn’t get inside the classroom. Thanks to generous philanthropic support, he was able to travel to Israel with the 12 students from his class this summer.

The goal was to consider who Jesus was as a man beyond—and before—the writings of the New Testament, and to consider how place and the times may have shaped those accounts. Bazzana is cognizant that most of the conversation surrounding the life and times of Jesus Christ 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 site in the ancient city of Magdala situated along the Sea of Galilee. It had been the site of Jewish ritual baths, according to Bazzana, where workers were in the process of excavating beneath granite pavement set in the first century. And as the team, assisted by the students, went deeper, they discovered a swimming pool dated to the time of Christ. A place Jesus may have tread.

Students at a dig site in Israel during the Historical Jesus course.

“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.”

The lens through which history is relayed is a focus of much of Bazzana’s class, one which student Judy Beals learned to appreciate more fully following the class trip to Israel.

“The class was wonderful,” said Beals, “but the trip brought it to life.”

A former prosecutor who now works part-time at Harvard Divinity School, Beals said the class challenged her assumptions about what history knows and can relay.

“I came away from the class convinced the quest for historical Jesus is largely unattainable and isn’t important, that there are few facts and little is actually known,” said Beals, an MDiv candidate. “But then I had never been to Israel or an archaeological site. I think, for me, it turned my skepticism toward discussion and imagination. There’s something to being in an archaeological site and unearthing coins and it coming to life.”

Student Britney Foster traveled previously to Greece and Turkey for a different HDS course, but her recent experience in Israel participating in an archeological dig expanded her intellectual imagination.

“I had read the Bible in black and white before. Now I read the Bible in color,” said the MDiv candidate. “This trip brought the Bible to life in ways I couldn’t have even imagined. It connected the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.”

Students at a dig site in Israel for the Historical Jesus course.

The class and Bazzana were able to explore beyond Magdala. They went to other dig sites in Galilee that are largely now tourist attractions, and traveled to Jerusalem where they attended a conference of mostly Hebrew and Palestinian scholars, said Bazzana. He said the goal was to have a multifaceted presentation of ideas, “which is not easy to have in Israel.”

But the best part for Beals, she said, was hunkering down in the earth, wilting in the heat with the whiff of salt water nearby that gave her a true sense of history—and the realization that the present is simply a continuation of the past. Seeing firsthand the process of layers of pottery and coins unearthed, objects touched by those who had come thousands of years before her was profound.

“It was bounded by material evidence,” said Beals. “It was bounded by discipline and scholarship. I could imagine this person. Jesus did live, he did die. He came alive to me in a very different way. I was thrilled.”

Among the greatest lessons the trip revealed to Beals, she said, was the understanding of how stories are told within the construct of time and place, and how they evolve over time.

HDS student and RLP staff member Judy Beals in Israel for the Historical Jesus course.

While Bazzana said he doesn’t plan another trip for the current school year, perhaps the next he will. Given that his goal is to encourage his students to consider perspective when it comes to scribing history, Bazzana sees the opportunity in enhancing the classroom experience.

“It’s great for them to get to touch with their hands how continuous concerns are shaping even the space today, even the spaces of the past,” said Bazzana.

—by Amy MacKinnon