Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Archeology



                   FROM THE HAND OF THIS PHILISTINE”      FIRST Samuel 17               

Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Let's imagine lions in Beth Shean's amphitheater

With his trusty sling, the shepherd boy David would have taken aim at any lion who dared to threaten his father's flock.  This was in the tenth century BC when lions roamed the wilderness of Judah.  If we fast forward to the time of Jeremiah, four centuries later, lions could be found in the thickets of the River Jordan from its outlet at the south of the Sea of Galilee, all the way down to east of Jericho.  (See Jeremiah 49:19 and 50:44)

Map of the Beth Shean and Jezreel Valleys

Adapted from Bible Mapper by itsGila

Beth Shean is just a few miles west of the Jordan River where lions once roamed

Only a few miles from the River Jordan, the descendents of these very lions could have starred in the entertainment offered to the Roman Sixth Legion stationed in the Beth Shean Valley during the second and third centuries AD.  Spectacularly gory gladiator fights of man versus man or man versus beast were probably more popular with the Roman soldiers than the more refined cultural programs presented in the nearby theater.
It was in 1980 that Beth Shean's amphitheater was discovered.  It had been built around 200 AD and used for two centuries until the price of lions escalated.  And more than likely, the Christians who had by then gained power after centuries of harassment and worse, objected to gladiator sports.

Beth Shean's amphitheater where lions once fought

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Beth Shean's amphitheater discovered in 1980

It seems to be more fiction than fact, that the early Christians "were fed" as breakfast, lunch and dinner to the lions.  Late first century AD Roman historian Tacitus credits the Emperor Nero with the persecution of the first Christians after a devastating fire destroyed Rome in 64 AD.  A rumor began to circulate that it was Nero himself who had started that fire so he would have a pretext to rebuild the city.  Whether or not he had any part in setting the fire is still being debated.

But the rumors threatened Nero's reign so he decided to blame the subversive Christians for igniting the fire.  Tacitus writes that Nero forced a confession from some Christians.  On this "evidence" a number of Christians were convicted and put to death with dreadful cruelty.  Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and left to be eaten by dogs.  Others were nailed to the cross.  Many were burned alive and set on fire to serve as torches at night.  Nice guy he was, Nero.
Rome's Colosseum, by the way, had not yet been built.  It was built a few years later by the Emperor Vespasian.  (He was the general sent to put down the revolt in Judea and whose son burned the city of Jerusalem, destroying its Temple in AD 70.)
In contrast to the Colosseum with its capacity for 50,000 spectators, Beth Shean's amphitheater seated a smaller crowd of eight thousand.  There was no stone floor, only sand.  Sand translated into Latin is arena.  The arena's purpose was to soak up the blood of man and beast.

The arena soaked up the blood of man and beast

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The floor of the amphi was made of sand, to soak up the blood of man and beast

Afternoon hours in the amphitheater were reserved for battles with beasts of prey.  In order to give these spectacles a more authentic air, the Romans painted trees and jungle scenes around the arena, as if to place the animals in their natural habitat.  The wall surrounding Beth Shean's arena was covered with light-colored stucco on which the archeologists found traces of red paint.

In the fourth century AD, Beth Shean's amphitheater was covered with debris and its location lost until 1980.  The lions, however, continued to hunt their prey in the thickets of the Jordan until the Crusader period.
In 1107, a Russian pilgrim noted that "powerful and impious Saracens [Medieval term for Muslims] attack travelers at the river fords" of Beth Shean.  If that wasn't enough, he added, "Many lions frequent these parts.  Great sheets of stagnant water separate the Jordan from the town of Beth Shean and it is there that the lions abound."

Ruins of the ancient city of Beth Shean or Scythopolis

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ruins of the ancient city of Beth Shean or Scythopolis

But alas, no more!  As we take in Beth Shean's once bloody Roman amphitheater, we can, in contrast, project the images of the prophet Isaiah who left us the hope for peaceful coexistence, Not only will the lion dwell with the lamb but it will adapt the ways of the more gentler animals and scorn violence.  "And the calf and the young lion and the fatling shall dwell together…and the lion shall eat straw like the ox." (Isaiah 11:6-7)

Copyright 2014 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Gila Yudkin has been guiding pilgrims throughout the holy land since 1978.  She has never seen a lion except at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.  However, on tour, she has seen hundreds upon hundreds of camels!  And ibex too.  Her tours are a mix of fun, fantasy and fact, where the Bible comes alive.

Hundreds of camels roam in the wilderness where lions once did

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Hundreds of camels roam the wilderness close to the River Jordan

When Jacob blessed his son Judah, he called him a lion's whelp (Genesis 49:9).  This prophecy was fulfilled when the tribe of Judah ascended to the leadership of the people of Israel.  It also refers to the wilderness assigned to the tribe of Judah where lions once prowled.  Today, because the lions have become extinct, ibex wander freely, especially in the oasis of En Gedi.

Ibex found in abundance in En Gedi

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ibex flourish cause lions are no more

Just last June, the camp of the Legio Sextra Ferrata, that is the Roman Sixth Legion was found not too far from the Beth Shean amphitheater, right by the Megiddo junction.  Apparently some of the soldiers were secret believers in Jesus.  Read about the discovery by Armageddon of the oldest church dated to the third century AD
-- in a period in which Christianity was outlawed.   (Was it possible that the same soldiers rooted for the gladiators versus the lions (or vice versa) and then on Sunday went to church??)
“Saul has his thousands,” rapped the women of Israel. “But David has his ten thousands.”  This was after David killed the giant with a sling and a stone. Bring a "traditional" sling to your Bible class.  It's also an ideal gift for someone who wants to slay his giants.

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"Let's imagine lions in Beth Shean's amphitheater" (as text without the photos) is one in the series of free quarterly e-letters sent on request to tour leaders, pastors, clergy, teachers, Bible students, colleagues and friends.  If you'd like to receive "Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights", please contact Gila. 

More Archeology:

Let's see where the Priestly Benediction was found

Let's empathize with Paul in Caesarea's hippodrome

Let's find Herod's tomb at Herodion

Priestly Benediction

Caesarea aqueduct

Herod's Tomb found!


Let's saunter through Solomon's Stables at Megiddo

Let's visit Gezer, Solomon's wedding gift

Solomon's digs in Jerusalem

Solomon's stables:  Megiddo

Solomon's dowry:  Gezer

Jerusalem:  Solomon's digs





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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin