The Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels highlights the connections between place and story in the Gospels and shows how geography plays a crucial role in the narrative. "It is actually quite rare for a biblical event or a biblical narrative not to be anchored in identifiable space," says Barry J. Beitzel, a scripture and geography scholar and the book's general editor.
The aim of the book is to enrich readers' understanding of the Gospels by connecting the narratives to places they can visit in the real world. "Especially for people who are visual learners," Beitzel says, "the cartographic portrayal of a story, alongside an accompanying text of the story, can be an effective means of reinforcing the story or can provide another dimension of learning."
Beitzel says there is often a direct correlation between the content of Jesus's teachings or sermons and the environment in which he spoke. For instance, Jesus speaks of "living water" when he is at Jacob's well (John 4:10). When he refers to himself as the "bread of life," he is at Capernaum, a site where basaltic grain mills were manufactured (John 6:48). Jesus declares Peter to be the "rock" against which not even the "gates of Hades" could prevail while at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:18), a dramatically exposed rock site well known in the classical world.
The book also reveals the social context of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus's birth. Travel in the area was considered dangerous, and when people did travel, they often stayed with family or friends of friends. Most houses had an extra room for guests. When Luke describes Joseph and Mary being turned away at the "inn," that inn was likely the home of a relative that could not accommodate them in the main room, and so instead they stayed in the stable. It is also very possible that they were offered the stable because women often gave birth in stables at the time.
"Most lower- and middle-class, first-century Palestinian homes were simply one large area, divided into an upper section and a lower section or built over a natural or man-made cave," Beitzel says. "In either event, the lower section was where animals would find overnight shelter and where they would be fed. Some such houses with either man-made mangers or chiseled troughs have been found and are available to see even today."
To research the book, the editors traveled to the locations of the Gospel stories. On the importance of undertaking such a journey, Beitzel says, "Visiting a place that has piqued our interest for years can dramatically change our way of thinking about the place."
For someone who knows the history of D-Day, for example, a visit to Normandy, France, "will deliver a more dramatic sense of the event and a profound and sobering reminder of the destruction of war," Beitzel says. "Someone who has read the story of the Great Pyramid and then visits the Giza platform will surely come away with memories and insights and a relevant understanding not otherwise possible. The same is true when one stands on the site of a biblical event and surveys essentially the same landscape."
The Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels is aimed at academics and members of the church, but with its rich imagery and maps, it could also serve as a guide for anyone looking to visit the historic sites themselves. "Perhaps," Beitzel says, "it will also whet the appetite of many readers to visit the sites it describes."
A second volume of the work has already been completed and is currently being made available digitally in stages, with a full print edition due out in the fall of 2019. Three additional volumes, which address Old Testament texts, are also in the works