ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 2 -- A half-hour from the Magic Kingdom, the Holy Land rises.

The white and gold temple of King Herod pierces the sky six stories above the Qumran Caves, where ancient Jews stashed the Dead Sea Scrolls. A palm-tree grove away, the Via Dolorosa, the path to Jesus' crucifixion, wends its way to Calvary's Garden Tomb, where robed townsfolk celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

So what if the temple is half as big as the original, the caves are 500,000 pounds of concrete, not sandstone, the Via Dolorosa is a fig toss from Interstate 4 and the robed Israelites are actually costumed Floridians?

In Orlando, this is a cultural oasis -- or desert, depending on whom you ask.

The Holy Land Experience gives God's waiting room a $16 million, multimedia makeover. When the Jerusalem City Gate opens Monday, visitors clutching ''passports'' (brochures, really) will be transported ''7,000 miles away and 3,000 years back in time'' to the sights, sounds, textures and tastes of the ancient Middle East, in the space of 15 acres and a few hours.

No one knows how to categorize it.

A theme park? The biblical motif is ubiquitous, from the armored and plastic-speared Romans guarding the gate, to the Goliath Burger at the Oasis Palms Cafe.

An amusement park? Well, there are no rides per se, but plenty of educational entertainment, according to Zion's Hope, the non-denominational evangelical Christian ministry that built this Holy Land adjacent to its offices.

Zion's Hope calls its handiwork a ''living museum,'' and, indeed, Old and New Testament stories are told through a dozen dramatists wearing dozens more robes.

Some call it sanitized, shrink-wrapped sacrilege. Others call it offensive, if not insidious. Still others call it the fastest way to the Promised Land, save for a first-class ticket on El Al.

But all agree they've never seen anything like it.

''There's a sense we're going where nobody's gone before,'' says Marvin Rosenthal, president of Zion's Hope and creator of the Holy Land Experience. ''We're using high-tech methods to communicate the Bible,'' a tome in which ''the message stays fixed but the methods are flexible.''

Except to some, Rosenthal is muddying the message.

Rosenthal is one of the country's 250,000 Hebrew Christians, also known as Messianic Jews -- Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah -- and his version of Holy Land reflects that. At the park, Jewish and Christian traditions blend: tabernacles intertwine with thorny crowns; menorahs share shelf space with Christian Bibles in the gift shop. For many critics, this theological brew is more alarming than the fact that it costs money to witness it.

After 25 years of hosting teaching tours abroad, in the actual sand-swept Holy Land, Rosenthal -- a Jew-cum-ordained Baptist minister -- became convinced that folks back home would ''learn so much more by being able to see and touch and feel and smell the important sites.''

So he asked the designers at Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment to transform 30 tons of boulders and 12 species of palms -- and a plethora of plaster and paint -- into Babylon and beyond. ''If people want to see the real Raiders of the Lost Ark ,'' Rosenthal says, ''this is the place to come,'' albeit at three-quarters the size of God's specs.

''As real places get dangerous the way Jerusalem has, one compromise between real and virtual reality is this place that's in between,'' explains John Stilgoe, an architectural historian at Harvard. ''I have no word for it, but you'll see a lot more of it.''

In the past, religious theme parks either never saw the light (Florida's Bible World) or fizzled from fraud and scandal (Jim Bakker's multimillion-dollar Heritage USA near Charlotte, N.C.).

This time, what's fueling the Holy Land Experience is a ''terrific rising force in traditional Christianity,'' Stilgoe says, pointing to the swath of red (Bush voters) through the middle of fall's electoral map. ''These people are affluent and well-educated, but they're not about to go to Jerusalem,'' he adds, predicting, ''I think (Rosenthal) is going to have a rip-roaring success.''

Not if Rosenthal's critics can help it. ''If it winds up as something strictly for Christians, I have nothing against it,'' says Philip Abramowitz of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York. ''But if certain programs show Jews with Moses in the desert and all of a sudden flip to a scene showing Jesus, this bothers me.


Abramowitz is alluding to a 20-minute show at the Wilderness Tabernacle, which juxtaposes Jewish prayer with a Christian Nativity scene. It's climaxed by a 40-mph blast of fake fog (carbon dioxide, water and glycol) and a 600-watt rumble from a set of bass speakers. Many find the image -- spreading the Word in part in Hebrew -- unsettling. And the very terms ''Hebrew Christian'' or ''Messianic Jew'' strike most Jews as oxymorons.