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The Rod of an Almond Tree in God’s Master Plan

A book by Peter A. Michas, Robert Vander Maten, and Christie D. Michas, Wine Press Publishing, Mukilteo, WA, 1997.

Reviewed by Jeffrey J. Harrison

This has been a seductive book for many. It claims bold new insights into the origins of Christianity that, if true, would make it necessary to rewrite the history books. But for a book claiming to be based on the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith, the authors are ignorant of the most basic Jewish sources. Their greatest blunder is the claim that the altar of sacrifice of the Jewish Temple was located on the Mt. of Olives. This would separate the altar by the width of the steep Kidron valley from the rest of the Temple—a good 20-30 minute hike away. But the Mishnah, one of the foundational rabbinical writings, places the altar exactly twenty-two cubits (33 ft / 11 m) from the porch leading into the Sanctuary (Middoth 3:6). The Biblical descriptions of the Temple and the Tabernacle of Moses should be enough to convince anyone that the altar was within the Temple compound, not a separate high place outside it. But the authors seem intent on building a spiritual high place of their own on the Mt. of Olives despite the facts, which as the following detailed critique documents, do not support but rather contradict their findings.

The Lost Gihon River

Among the many spectacular claims in this book, the authors say they have discovered a huge underground river running under Jerusalem, which they claim is one of the four rivers flowing out of Eden in Gen. 2:10-14. This theory faces insurmountable obstacles, the first of which is:

1) There is no underground river in Jerusalem (p. 70).

The fact that the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem shares a name with the Gihon river of Genesis does not prove their identity (p. 69), any more than that Memphis in Ancient Egypt should be identified with Memphis, Tennessee. The source of the Gihon Spring is well documented: it is a siphon spring that fills with groundwater and releases its contents on a periodic basis which varies with the season and the amount of rainfall. It is not fed by an underground river.

The twenty-seven water wells located under the Temple Mount (p. 70) are not wells at all but cisterns, of which there are actually thirty-four, that must be filled with water from the outside—either by rain water falling on the Temple Mount or, as in ancient times, by huge aqueducts bringing water from the area of Bethlehem and beyond. Why did ancient engineers go to the trouble of building these extensive (and expensive) aqueducts if water was so readily available just under the surface in Jerusalem?

The water that flows into the cistern under the Sisters of Zion property (p. 70) is a drainage channel dug in the Hasmonean period (before Christ). It’s entire length has been well documented and extensively studied. There is nothing mysterious about this water, and it certainly is not evidence for an underground river.

The local Arabs quoted as references for this underground river are hardly professional sources. Why didn’t they consult a geologist, or the Israel water authority?

2) Jerusalem cannot be the location of Eden.

This is clearly established by the authors’ own map on p. 64: It shows the headwaters of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis emerging in Eastern Turkey, about 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. The course of the Gihon River shown in this map would require it to flow uphill to reach Jerusalem, which is at the top of a mountain, and then again uphill from Israel to gain access to central Sinai, also an uplifted mountain area. After this it crosses the Red Sea: how this would even be possible isn’t mentioned by the authors. This route would take the river through desert areas where the evidence for even a very ancient river should be well preserved. But no such evidence has ever been found. Likewise, their path for the Pishon River requires it to flow uphill out of the Dead Sea area, which is the deepest point on the surface of the earth, and up the steep cliffs rising to ancient Moab and Edom above. These suggestions lack any rational foundation.

The use of the verb ganan (“to defend”) with regard to Jerusalem does not in any way prove that it is the gan (garden) of Eden. Nor is the fact that gan refers to a walled enclosure “consistent with and supportive of the concept of Jerusalem as the original site of the garden of Eden” (p. 75). What is the connection? That both have a wall? Or are the authors claiming that the walls of the city of Jerusalem date back to the Garden of Eden? The earliest walls in Jerusalem did not enclose the Temple area at all, as required by the authors, and were built roughly in the time of Abraham, not Adam.

3) The Sea of Galilee is not connected to the Nile River (p. 67).

There is no evidence for accepting the old Jewish legend of a connection between the Sea of Galilee and the Nile River (300 miles/500 km away)—and certainly not by way of Jerusalem (see above). This local myth is based on the coincidence of a couple of similar species of fish being found in both bodies of water. But does the presence of trout in the lakes of different countries of Europe prove they are connected?

The Mount Of Olives

The construction of altars by Adam, Abel, Noah, and Abraham does not imply that they all “rebuilt” the same altar (p. 79). The actual altars of Adam and Abel were in the pre-flood world (east of Eden). The altar of Noah was in the mountains of Ararat (somewhere in Eastern Turkey), the altars of Abraham were at various other places in Israel, not in Jerusalem (unless the binding of Jacob took place here, as claimed by Jewish legend; but this traditional site is on the ancient Mt. Zion, the Temple Mount, not the Mt. of Olives as claimed by the authors; p. 83). To claim that all of these men worshipped at the same altar on the Mt. of Olives, as the authors do, is a distortion of the Biblical text and a denial of clear statements made in Scripture.

4) Jerusalem was never at any time known as Bethel (p. 80).

The authors claim that Jerusalem was once called Bethel to support their claim that Abraham’s altar was on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem, rather than the actual site several miles to the north. The names of Jerusalem through history are well known: Salem, Jebus, Yerushalayim, Ariel. Bethel is not one of them.

5) Sacrifices for sin were offered not on the Mt. of Olives as claimed by the authors, but on the ancient Mt. Zion (the Temple Mount, p. 81).

As mentioned above, the authors here engage in a truly horrid twisting of the facts. No rabbi at any time or in any place would agree with them. Yet they claim rabbinic authoriy for their conclusions: “Rabbinic sources confirm that the altar of sin sacrifice was located in Jerusalem opposite the ‘Throne of Glory.’ The ‘Throne of Glory’ refers to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Since the Temple entrance was located on its eastern side, ‘opposite the Holy of Holies’ clearly indicates the Mount of Olives” (p. 81). This argument may be convincing to the authors, but it denies what the rabbinic sources actually say about the location of the altar. Yes, the altar was to the east of the Holy of Holies, but just a few cubits away (about 30 feet / 11 meters; Middoth 3:6), not across a canyon on another hill.

6) The accounts of the purchase of the threshing floor from Ornan and Araunah both refer to the same event, not two separate events as claimed by the authors (p. 81-3; 1 Chron. 21:18-27 and 2 Samuel 24:18-25).

The “Araunah” who sold the threshing floor to David is not the man’s name, but his title (“Lord,” in Hittite). He was a Jebusite king whose proper name is given in Chronicles: “Ornan.” The purchase price of 50 silver shekels in 2 Samuel probably refers to the oxen that were part of the deal, the price of 600 golden shekels (a much higher price) in 1 Chronicles refers to the land itself. These accounts are not in any way evidence for two purchases by David, one on the Temple Mount, the other on the Mt. of Olives, as claimed by the authors.

7) God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 did not take place on the Mt. of Olives, nor did it involve an altar, as claimed by the authors (p. 83).

This is part of the authors’ attempt to place all the most important events of Biblical history on the Mt. of Olives. But according to the Bible, Abraham was living in Mamre near Hebron at the time (Gen. 14:13). The cut halves of the animals were laid not on an altar, but in two rows on the ground. This was an ancient form of covenant-making in which the two coming into agreement passed between the halves of the animals and swore to uphold their covenant. In this case, only God himself, represented by the smoking stove-pot and flaming torch, passed through the halves (Gen. 15:17): that is, he took the whole burden of the covenant on himself.

8) The large arched stone bridge over the Kidron valley (pictured on p. 87) may have existed in the time of Jesus, but certainly not in the time of David, as claimed by the authors (p. 86).

The authors ignore a thousand years of history when they claim that a bridge known from historical sources to have existed in the time of Jesus was already there in the time of David. Not only is there no evidence of such a bridge in David’s day, but the section of the ancient Mt. Zion from which it led had not yet been incorporated into the city. The account the authors refer to in 2 Samuel 15 as proof makes no mention of a bridge (2 Sam. 15:23).

9) The Mt. of Olives is not Golgotha.

The Hebrew word rosh (applied to the Mt. of Olives in 2 Sam. 15:32) means head or top, not skull, as stated by the authors (p. 88). The Hebrew words for skull are gulgolet (from the same root as Golgotha), qodqod, and qarqefet. There is nothing on the top of the Mt. of Olives that looks even remotely like a skull. And if this nickname (Golgotha) simply refers to a regular place of execution, this contact with the dead would make the area unclean, and make impossible the sacrifices that the authors claim took place at the same location. By contrast, John says that the place of crucifixion was near the city (John 19:20), not on the other side of the Kidron valley and up a steep ascent.

10) Jesus was not crucified on the Mt. of Olives.

There is not a shred of evidence that Jewish executions ever took place on the Mt. of Olives (p. 91). Executions most likely took place north of the city, near the present Damascus Gate (at the Arab bus station). The process of stoning, as shown by Jesus’ experience at Nazareth, was to push the victim off a cliff (at least twice the height of a man; Luke 4:29). If this did not kill him, he was finished off with stones (Sanh. 6:4). There is no place on the Mt. of Olives matching this description.

Besides, Jesus was not killed by the Jewish people, but by the Romans, and by crucifixion, not stoning! Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus died facing the Temple (p. 92). Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was led across the Kidron to be killed (p. 92). Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the centurion confessed Jesus as the Son of God because he saw the veil of the Temple torn in two (p. 92). What the Bible actually says is that the centurion was convinced when he “saw the way he [Jesus] breathed his last” (Mark 15:39).

It is completely false to claim that the Church historian Eusebius believed that Jesus was crucified on the Mt. of Olives (p. 94). In a detailed narrative, Eusebius records the discovery of the hill of Golgotha and the tomb of Christ under a pile of dirt and rubble at the exact spot where Constantine built his basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

It is completely false to claim that “the Mount of Olives was the only place considered holy to the early Christians” (p. 94). All the early records, which include detailed pilgrim diaries, record Christian worship at many different places in the city in commemoration of different events recorded in the gospels. These records clearly indicate that the site of Constantine’s church was the only contender for the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. Worship did take place on the Mt. of Olives, but this was in connection with Palm Sunday and Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, not his crucifixion.

The Greek word Inbomon used of the summit of the Mt. of Olives by the early church means simply, “On the hill.” This was a slight rise at the top of the Mt. of Olives, which was remembered as the place of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The site was memorialized by a church (named Inbomon) which had a central circular enclosure open to the sky. This enabled worshippers to gaze up in the direction Jesus had gone. (This was on the same site but larger than the present enclosure around the Mosque of the Ascension.) There is no hint in any historical source that this was remembered as the place of crucifixion, as claimed by the authors (p. 94).

The cave nearby was first associated not with the crucifixion, as claimed by the authors, but with the ascension (p. 94). There is no evidence that “This crypt was recognized as the tomb where Yeshua was buried and resurrected” (p. 94). The name of the Eleona church built here simply means “at the olives.” The cave was later associated with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in which he spoke about events coming in the future.

The Week of the Crucifixion

11) It is incorrect to say that the Passover celebration of the Jewish people changed from the 14th day of Nisan to the 15th day over the years (p. 154).

The book of Exodus clearly states (in Hebrew) that the Passover lamb was to be killed on the 14th of the month between the evenings (Exo. 12:6). This may originally have referred to the daylight hours between sun-up and sun-down. Later, the rabbis restricted the hours of the sacrifice to about 3-5 pm. This was the end of the day of the 14th, since the Biblical day ends in the evening, just after sunset. Then, the Bible says, they will eat the flesh that night… (Exo. 12:8). This can only mean the evening hours that followed, which beginning at sunset, were considered to be part of the next day, the 15th. So in other words, the Passover has always from the very beginning been celebrated on the the 15th

12) The Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, not on a Wednesday (p. 158).

The teaching of the authors of a Wednesday crucifixion defies the clearly written word of God, which states that Jesus died on the same day he was put on the cross, just a few hours before the beginning of the Sabbath (which begins on Friday at sunset; John 19:31, etc.). The three days in the tomb are, according to the Jewish reckoning, (1) the late afternoon of Friday, (2) Friday sunset through Saturday sunset (the Sabbath), and (3) Saturday evening until whatever time Jesus arose before sunrise. (For ritual purposes, a portion of a day was and is even today considered as a whole day.)

13) Jesus was not led to Caiaphas in the Temple (p. 176).

The Scripture clearly says he was taken to “the house of the high priest” (Luke 22:54).

14) The Chamber of Hewn Stones was not in the southeast corner of the Temple, nor was it destroyed when Jesus died (p. 177-178).

According to Jewish tradition, the Chamber of Hewn Stones was in the center of the Temple grounds, adjacent to the Court of the Priests. Neither the Bible nor Jewish tradition mentions the destruction of any rooms or buildings in the Temple prior to its destruction in the war against Rome forty years later.

15) The inscription above Jesus on the cross did not create the acronym “YHWH” (p. 192).

The authors incorrectly reconstruct the Hebrew of the inscription posted above Jesus’ head from a faulty understanding of the Greek language. The Greek word for “the” (the definite article) is never simply translated “of” as claimed by the authors (p. 191). The “of” that we see in English translation is not a separate word in Greek, but comes from the case ending that appears on one of these definite articles as well as on the following noun, giving the meaning “of the.” To propose that this should be translated “and” violates the clear meaning of the Greek words used in Scripture.

16) The quakings and door-openings mentioned in the Talmud and Josephus may be related to the earthquake of Matt. 27:51, but the accounts as they stand differ in several important respects (p. 201).

The Talmud’s mention of the Temple doors opening occurred not just once, but several unspecified times over the forty years before the destruction of the Temple, with no mention of the Passover season or an earthquake (Yoma 39b.5-6). Josephus’ mention of a one-time event in which doors opened took place not in the afternoon, as in Matthew, but at midnight, also with no mention of an earthquake (Wars 6.5.3 § 293-295). In Josephus, these were not the doors leading to the Holy Place, as mentioned in the Talmud, but the nearby Nicanor gates at the entrance to the Temple court. While Josephus does place this event at Passover, he does not specify the year. Josephus does mention quakings in this passage, but not at Passover, rather at an unspecified feast of Pentecost.

17) The earthquake at Jesus’ death is not the reason the Sanhedrin Council left the Chamber of Hewn Stone (p. 203).

The reason the Sanhedrin Council left the Chamber of Hewn Stone was because the Council was no longer considered righteous by the people, and they refused to appear before it in such a hallowed spot, near the Holy of Holies.

18) Jesus was not buried on the Mt. of Olives (p. 207).

The Bible says that the burial of Jesus was near the place of crucifixion, and that the crucifixion was near the city (John 19:20,41), at a busy spot where people walking in and out of the city could easily see it (Matt. 27:39, Mark 15:29). This doesn’t match the authors’ description of a crucifixion and burial on the Mt. of Olives. The summit of the Mt. of Olives cannot be described as being near the city, since you must cross over the Kidron valley to get there and walk up the steep hill.

19) Matt. 28:1 does not imply that Jesus was raised on the Sabbath (p. 210).

As we have noted above, the authors demonstrate a lack of understanding of the basic elements of the Greek language. While it’s true that the word Sabbath appears here in the plural (in Greek), this does not justify ignoring the common Jewish use of this word in the plural where we might expect the singular. The reason for this use is not known, but it is of frequent occurence both in the New Testament and other contemporary literature (Matt. 12:1,5,10-12; Mark 1:21, 2:23-24; 3:2,4; Luk. 4:31, 6:2, 13:10). Nor can they so easily dismiss the use of the word “sabbath” to refer to an entire week: the “first of the sabbaths” in Matt. 28:1 simply means the first day of the week. The absurdity of the authors’ position becomes clear in their attempt to stick to a strictly literal interpretation of Luke 18:12: “I fast twice a week,” making it (literally) into “I fast twice a sabbath.” In addition to this translation making no sense (how do you do a day-long fast twice in a single day?), fasting was forbidden on the Sabbath. The only reasonable translation is the common one, that the Pharisee claimed to fast twice a week.

The authors counter that fasting twice a week “was not practiced and likely falls under the category of ‘excessive’ fasting” (p. 223). But this ignores the clear historical evidence that the Pharisees did in fact fast twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Didache 8:1 and elsewhere).

The testimony of the gospels is clear: Jesus rose on the first day of the Jewish week (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1, John 20:1). This means he could have arisen anytime on Saturday after sunset through just before dawn on Sunday, when the women came to the tomb.

20) Christians did not uniformly observe the Sabbath in the early years of Christianity, as claimed by the authors (p. 218).

While it’s true that some Gentile Christians observed the Sabbath, many others did not, and observed every day alike, as is clearly stated in the Bible, a belief that was widespread in the first two or three centuries of Gentile Christianity (Rom. 14:5). Yes, it’s true that “the first day of the week was never confounded with the sabbath” (p. 218). But as Gentile Christians were not obligated to observe the Sabbath, many did not (Acts 15:10). Instead, from a very early date, many Gentile believers began to meet on Sundays to worship before going to work on that day. Only many centuries later was Sunday turned into a Christian “Sabbath.”

21) An accurate timetable of events in the year of Jesus’ crucifixion cannot be reconstructed by computer (p. 226 and note 46).

The Jewish calendar at that time was not calculated mathematically, but by actual sightings of the new crescent moon which were influenced by weather and other variables that cannot be reconstructed today, since no continuous record of these sightings has been preserved.

22) It is incorrect that the anointing oil was poured on the head of a high priest in the shape of the Hebrew letter kaf (p. 236).

Although the shape is compared to a kaf, the oil was actually applied in the shape of an “X” (the Greek letter chi; Hor. 12a.4). This is the way the Hebrew letter tav, the final letter of the alphabet, was drawn at an early date (using the older Hebrew script in use before the exile to Babylon). This shape for the application of anointing oil may be related to Eze. 9:4, in which the man dressed in linen was instructed (in Hebrew) to mark a tav on the foreheads.

23) It is incorrect that “In Jewish thought, the Word (Torah) of God is the same as God” (p. 253).

While it is true that the rabbis thought of the Torah as existing before the creation of the world, it existed as a created thing, and not as God himself.

24) It is false that the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher “was selected by the Roman Emperor Constantine as the site of the crucifixion, based upon visions and dreams which he had experienced” (p. 270).

The site was not determined by Constantine at all. It was his mother, Helena, who visited the Holy Land to try to locate sites where Biblical events had taken place. Although some of her identifications are questionable, the location of the tomb of Christ had been fixed by the Emperor Hadrian, who hated Christianity and Judaism alike. In his attempt to destroy historic Christian sites, he only succeeded in marking them for all generations to come. He buried the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection under a new temple to Aphrodite. Sure enough, when that temple was later removed by Constantine’s workmen, the tomb was rediscovered intact. (It remained there until destroyed by Muslims in 1009 AD).

25) It is not true that there was a two thousand cubit perimeter around the Temple inside of which tombs and gardens were not permitted in the time of Jesus (p. 270).

The authors attempt to use this as evidence against the Holy Sepulcher as the place of the burial of Jesus. But in fact, tombs and gardens were forbidden anywhere within the city walls. Evidence that their contention is false can be found in the four tombs from the time of Jesus that have been found in the area of the Holy Sepulcher, just outside the line of the walls at that time.

26) The pious myth proposed by the authors that the same rod was used by both Abraham and Moses, a rod which originated from the tree of life in Eden, and that David planted on the Mt. of Olives to become the tree of the crucifixion hardly needs any refutation.

This idea is taught nowhere in the Bible. It appears to be based on a late Jewish legend (“some say”) that the rod of Aaron had been the staff of Judah and Moses, and was held “in the hand of every king until the Temple was destroyed” and then hidden to be held in the hand of the Messiah (Bamidbar Rabbah 18.23). A Christian variation of this theme from the Middle Ages connects the wood of the cross with the three staffs of the angels that visited Abraham. These were planted by Lot and became a single tree with three branches: one of pine, another of cedar, and a third of cypress. The tree was cut down for Solomon’s Temple, but the beams discarded, only to be used in Jesus’ day for the cross (Vassilios Tzaferis, “The Monastery of the Cross,” Biblical Archaeology Review 27:6 [Nov/Dec 2001], pp. 32-).

27) It is not true that Jesus and the two thieves were all crucified on the same tree.

Although the word “tree” is often used of Jesus’ crucifixion in Scripture, and living trees may have been used occasionally as the upright posts for crucifixion, the Roman practice of crucifixion, of which thousands of instances are known, placed each man on his own cross. To claim that this regular practice was broken in this one case would require a clear statement in the Bible or archeological evidence to support it. That no such statement or evidence exists means that this point, like so many others in this book, is pure fabrication.


* The Rod of an Almond Tree in God’s Master Plan was originally published as God’s Master Plan From Aleph to Tav by Messengers of Messiah Int’l. in 1994.

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