Love at First Site

By Neil Earle

Susan (Welch) Earle at Qumran. Click to enlarge.

Every time my wife and I see a documentary on the state of Israel or Jordan we get seized by strong feelings of nostalgia for what we both felt was the most eventful summer of our lives.

As I’ve already covered in this spot, it was 50 years ago this summer we participated in “the Big Dig” led by Professor Benjamin Mazar and sponsored by the Israel Exploration Society, Hebrew University and our alma mater at the time, Ambassador College. Two years later we were married – so there’s a special connection for you. I’m often asked if we discovered anything or if the Dig was noted for other things besides 8-10 weddings from that event, love at first site.

Yes, to both questions but first let me sketch some background.

Interfacing History

After the Israelis captured the Temple Mount area of Old Jerusalem in June, 1967, it finally became expedient to excavate the complex that holds the Jewish Wailing Wall, the gorgeous Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque: the last two being among the holiest sites in Islam. In 1968 Benjamin Mazar was placed in charge of this biggest “dig” in Israel at the time. The Temple Mount was important because it housed both Solomon and Herod’s Temple (or Second Temple) and was not far from the City of David, the Biblical “Zion” where David had his capital. The political implications of this project were – and are – considerable.

However, this is not our story.

It so happened that a graduate of Ambassador College had become friendly with Dr. Mazar. Knowing how archaeologists are always interested in funding, Ray Dick arranged for representatives from the then Ambassador College in Pasadena, California to meet with the Israelis. Everything clicked and in the summer of 1969 students from the three Ambassador campuses – Pasadena, California, Big Sandy in Texas and Bricket Wood (20 miles north of London) showed up as student volunteers.

The next summer, 1970, Ambassador sent 70 students – including my wife, Susan, from Texas and yours truly from the British campus. Everyone got along famously, toiling gladly in the heat for a dollar a day (but free tuition that next semester). We not only toured the land, popped out on day tours occasionally, studied Hebrew and geography and actually lived in the Old City! We stayed among our Arab friends in a fine establishment capably run by a Palestinian family (the Orient House Hotel) but… we actually made an important archaeological discovery (you were probably wondering!). Big John Turner from the Pasadena campus via Kansas uncovered a 3-4 foot stone column that had an inscription on it. Inscriptions are like gold for archaeologists and this one read, in part:

Imp Vespasian

It apparently was erected by the Roman Tenth Legion in honor of Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79 C.E.) by his son Titus – supporting literary evidence that both generals were on the site. The find by this “young Pasadena archaeologist” made The Jerusalem Post the next day.

The eastern set of Hulda Gates (Herodian and later) as it stands today. Wikipedia photo

Love Among the Ruins

Now look. If you throw 70 healthy young men and women from America, the British Commonwealth and elsewhere together for eight weeks – something’s gotta give. It did. Susan estimates that of the 70 students no fewer than 12 marriages came out of that summer eventually. Unfortunately some of those marriages did end unfortunately and some of our friends have since deceased (including the kindly giant John Tuner) but overall the record was pretty good.

Even today when they ask how my wife and I met we get a chance to imaginatively revisit that special summer of 1970. It never grows old. It really does something to you to live and work and eat and sleep where so much Biblical history unfolded. I remember looking up occasionally at the Mount of Olives and thinking – “That’s where Jesus ascended and where Jewish prophets say the Messiah will return to – wow (Zechariah 14:4)!”

Dig Items: A Brief Review

The next year, 1971, another group of Ambassador Diggers uncovered the Hulda Gate or Steps east of the walls erected by the Turks in the 1500s. It was a pretty famous find. Up that southern approach to the temple walked Jesus, Peter and John on their way to worship (Acts 3) and to expound the new message Jesus was bringing to the world.

So here’s some of the record for of the most important artifacts that have been uncovered relating to the early years of the New Testament church. As a pastor I am often asked this when I present talks on Palestinian Archaeology. Most of these can be found in Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s book The Jesus Legend: a Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed helpfully compile the “Top Ten Discoveries” in their book Excavating Jesus. Here are some of the most famous “finds” re the New Testament in Israel:

Of course for us in 1970 and afterwards, the rocks themselves were crying out – every day for eight weeks. Some of those massive Herodian stones that still undergird the Southwest corner of the Temple Mount down from the Wailing Wall measure 40x10 by fourteen feet thick. They rose from street level about 100 feet high and are all the proof you needed that Herod’s Temple really was something. Even Jesus’ own disciples were dazzled (Matthew 24:1-2). These remains were massively spectacular and we were digging near them every day. Something happened here and what it was soon became exactly clear when Jesus’ disciples “hit the streets” with the message Jesus had been dead but was now alive.

No, we’ll never forget our summer in Israel. Archaeology has been fascinating for my wife and I ever since.