The Church of Saint Elisha
Location – Jericho
Map Coordinates - 31.856204, 35.456357
Merged Gospels story - 211
Our Octagon Tour groups love seeing the tree that Zacchaeus climbed, and that’s the centerpiece of this Orthodox church. This is a popular Christian pilgrimage site for visitors to Jericho, located in the center of the city.
The Biblical Story.
From Luke 19:1-5 we read
“And having entered, He was passing through Jericho. And behold, there was a man whose name was called Zacchaeus, and he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he was trying to see Who Jesus was, and because of the crowd he was not able, because he was small in stature. And running forward ahead of them, he climbed on a sycamore tree, so that he might see Him, because He was about to pass by that way. And as Jesus came up to the place, looking up he saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, quickly come down, for I must stay today in your house.”
What happened to Zacchaeus? A tradition dating back to the fourth century says that Saint Peter appointed Zacchaeus to be the Bishop of Caesarea.
The Sycamore Tree.
There are three sites in Jericho claiming to have the Tree of Zacchaeus, including a Franciscan monastery, a Russian Orthodox mission, and the Greek Orthodox monastery of Elisha.
Although this tree may not be the same one Zacchaeus climbed, local tradition has named this Zacchaeus’ tree. It was already mature by the time Zacchaeus climbed it, and it stayed alive until the time of Antony of Placenta in the 6th century. Today only the stump remains. Tests carried out on the tree have shown that it is over 2,000 years old and it stands in the same setting as the Biblical sycamore tree.
For these reasons, this tree seems to be the most authentic. The other two trees in Jericho claiming to be that of Zacchaeus are still alive. Today this is protected by a small chapel with an open roof, surrounded by glass on three sides.
The sycamore tree of Zacchaeus.
The Church of Elisha.
Just past the tree is the Church of the Prophet Elisha. This modern church contains many icons and frescoes, and the nave is painted a beautiful shade of blue. The most stunning work is under and around the dome, and the iconostasis is made of marble. There is also a fresco in the narthex of Zacchaeus, depicted as a bishop.
Why is this called the Church of Elisha?
In Jericho Elisha turned the salty waters of this area into pure drinking water. Today the spring is called “Elisha’s waters” by the Greeks. Here is the Biblical story:
The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.” “Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So, they brought it to him. Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. (2 Kings 19-21).
The citizens of Jericho drink water from the same spring to this day.