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Mystery Revealed! I found where Stephen the Martyr was Buried!

Updated: Mar 23




On Wednesday morning, I was praying on our balcony. I was spending time in silence before the Lord when I had a strong urge to visit a local monastery.


There are two in our region, Latrun and Beit Jamal. I have been wanting to visit for over a year and I had this sense that the Lord was urging me to simply go and stop procrastinating. I came inside, and Elana said to me, having no idea what I had been praying about, “Let’s go visit Beit Jamal.”  It was clear the Lord had an appointment for us at Beit Jamal! (Scroll down if you just want to read about Beit Jamal where Stephen the Martyr was buried.)


Now, you might be wondering why in the world a nice Messianic Jewish boy would be visiting a Catholic monastery? Good question. Since I have studied church history over these past few years in higher education, I have gained an appreciation for believers of other traditions. Many of these traditions were steeped in an anti-Jewish theology for centuries, which kept me from gleaning that which is good from them.


I am presently in a course called The History of Spiritual Formation. When I was getting my master’s degree, we had a class that tracked the moving of the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries. Many modern Charismatics and Pentecostals believe that the Holy Spirit was somewhat absent from the early church until the Azuza Street Pentecostal outpouring in 1906. I was amazed to find that many had powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit over the centuries—but I was particularly intrigued by the stories of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. 


To the Desert

The monastery movement was born out of a deep desire to give all in the service of Yeshua. In the late third and fourth centuries, many believers fled the city, fleeing compromise in the church, for the desert. These men and women became known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers. In the beginning, they would often live alone and seek the Lord in solitude.


Saint Antony, the most well-known Desert monk, “gave away all of his worldly goods to live out ‘the discipline,’ which included such ascetic exercises as vigils, fasting, celibacy, poverty and solitude” (Gerald Sittser, Water from a Deep Well). He experienced intense temptations and attacks from demons before he encountered a most powerful heavenly visitation. “After his twenty years in the desert,” writes Richard Foster, “God catapulted him into one of the most remarkable ministries of that day.”


The Desert Mother, Syncletica from Constantinople, was pledged to be married. She deeply wanted to live a life of celibacy and worship. She asked her father’s permission to go to the Holy Land before her marriage so she could worship at the sacred sites. Once there, she wrote to her parents, “I have offered myself to the God of the universe. Do not, therefore, search for me any longer, for you will not find me. I am leaving here to go where God will lead me.” Sittser tells us, “She found a cave, where she lived for twenty-eight years before being discovered by a wandering [desert monk], who described her as radiating light and holiness.”


It's lonely out here!

Monasteries formed for two reasons. The Desert monks realized that it was not healthy to be living alone. The Bible speaks very strongly about the body of Messiah being a body of individual units coming together for a common purpose. The other reason is that many of the Desert Fathers were sought out by young disciples. Thus, they formed communities where they could live together and learn, worship, pray, and work.



The father of monasticism (coming from the Greek word for solitude) is Pachomius, a pagan soldier moved by the love of believers he encountered. He embraced Jesus and started the first monastery in the early fourth century. Each monk lived in a cell (room) and followed a strict daily rule (or rhythm of life) that included work and prayer. Many monasteries pray and worship seven times a day, with the first watch coming often between 2 and 3 AM! 



Pachomius: You might wonder why he has a skull. It was common for monks to have the skull of a former monk in their cell. It was a reminder of their mortality; we do not live for this world, but for the world to come.



Rhythm of Life

Peter Levi, a Catholic priest of Jewish descent, said

If one spends a week or a month [in a monastery], a different scale and pattern of time imposes itself, which at first one resists as if one were in prison. When this new time-scale is accepted, it soaks into one’s bones and penetrates one’s mind.

Sittser says,

Levi observed, monastic rhythm replaces a hectic pace with "a tranquil, unhurried, absolutely dominating rhythm. This specially undisturbed yet specially rhythmical sense of time is the greatest difference between monastic life and any other."

Don’t worry, I’m not going to become a monk! But I am very intrigued by the life of monks and nuns, who give themselves entirely in service of God. Sittser reset his life by spending time in a monastery after a great tragedy. A car accident claimed the lives of his mother, wife, and daughter. That monastery became “a home of healing” for him that “saved [his] life.”

I found solace and recovered my equilibrium by submitting on occasion to a monastic rhythm. … I sat in silence, wept, prayed, wrestled with God, evaluated the direction of my life. On occasion I met with Sister Florence for conversation and prayer. I can remember conversations with her in which not a word was spoken. That little monastery became like a second home to me.

(Sittser has written another book which I have not yet read, but is waiting for me on my iPad. It is a memoir of putting his life back together and raising his kids after such a devastating ordeal.)



Beit Jamal

That was a very long introduction to Beit Jamal. 




Did you know that Stephen the Martyr was buried at Beit Jamal? How did he get from Jerusalem to Beit Jamal, 30 kilometers away? Jamal is Arabic but comes from the Hebrew name Gamaliel—yes, that Gamaliel from Acts 5. I did not know this, but according to Catholic tradition, he became a Messianic Jew. It’s very clear from his speech in Acts 5 that his heart was quite softer than those of the other Pharisees, including his disciple Sha’ul (Saul).


In 415 CE, a priest named Lucian claimed that Gamaliel appeared to him in a dream and told him where he, Stephen the Martyr, and Nicodemus were buried—in a place called Kfar (Town of) Gamla. Lucian did indeed find their remains and excitedly announced the news in a letter that has become famous. Much to his chagrin, John, the bishop of Jerusalem, demanded that the relics be brought to the Holy City. A plaque at Beit Jamal reads, “To comfort Lucian of this painful deprivation, on the spot of the burial place, he built a monument (known as a martyrium) in honor of Saint Stephen, with some tiny remains.”



Archaeologists discovered these remains in 1916. On a rock at the site, the Greek words “ΔΙΑΚΟΝΙΚΩΝ ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΥ ΠΡΩΤΟΜΑΡΤΥΡΟΣ” are written, which translates to “The place of relics (remains) of Stephen the Protomartyr (first martyr).” While Jamal is Arabic, archaeologists made the linguistic connection to the Hebrew name Gamaliel. A church was built on the site to honor Stephen, the martyr, and rebuilt in 1930 on the same spot. 




Today, there are two orders on the premises. In the 1800s, a monastery was built, and later, in 1987, the monks gave land for a convent to be established within the walls of the monastery. If you’re interested in the daily rhythm of the nuns, you can read here. The photo below emphasizes this rhythm or daily rule.


While we were there, we met Sister Or Marie, who came from the Philippines but has been in Israel for almost two decades. I don’t think I’ve ever had a serious conversation with a nun before. Many evangelicals are taught that they are just ‘religious’ people but not truly connected to God. If you meet Or Marie, you will have difficulty maintaining such a position. She shines with a light I have rarely seen in a human. 



Most of the time, the nuns are committed to silence, but as missionaries, they are permitted to share their lives with local Israelis. One of the knocks I have had against the idea of the monastic life is that you don’t reach the lost locked up in a monastery. I was unaware of how many people come to visit all over the world. Thousands of Israelis come on the weekends to visit the lush grounds around the monastery and the shops (the monks sell wine and olive oil and the nuns sell handmade pottery.)


As we talked to Sister Or Marie, I was struck by how much the convent or monastery is like the Israeli kibbutz. They have all things in common. Everybody does the most mundane jobs. Most Kibbutzniks, like monks, have a strong work ethic and are not attached to possessions. However, while the Kibbutz movement helped build the modern state, its roots are deeply unreligious. Out of 250 Kibbutzim, about twenty are religious and came later.

 

While I am very comfortable in my own Messianic Jewish tradition, I am deeply challenged by the commitment and devotion that I have witnessed as I have studied the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and the monastic life that developed. I hope this blessed you and gave you a greater appreciation for the monastic life. 


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