Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, the place where David was crowned king of Israel, and currently in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. The Palestinians and Israelis are not on the best of terms (to say the least) and the West Bank is off limits to Israeli nationals. At the entrance to the West Bank there are large signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English that say “…Entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives…” I’m American though, so I should be ok, right?
I was joined on today’s adventure by 7 coworkers. We loaded up into a couple of cars and took off towards Jerusalem where we would meet our Palestinian guide. Our guide was in is mid 50’s and immediately started earning brownie points with us: he brought food. It was a wrap of some kind, I didn’t get the name, and it was excellent.
After introductions were done and the food was eaten, we got in our cars and headed towards Bethlehem.
The first stop of the day was Shepard’s Field. It is believed to be where the Archangel Gabriel came down and announced to a group of Shepard’s that the Messiah had been born. The chapel that currently stands on this spot was designed and built by Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian who became known as the “Architect of the Holy Land.” This chapel was designed to look like the tents that the Shepard’s used when they were tending their flocks in the days of Jesus.
Did you notice anything odd about the third picture? No? Go back and take a look again, I’ll wait.
The story of the birth of Christ that I learned in Sunday school was that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary rode into Bethlehem shortly before Jesus was to be born. They were turned away by the innkeeper and as a result were forced to take refuge in a manger.
The Bible is not clear about where Jesus was born, but biblical scholars think he was probably born in a cave near Joseph’s ancestral home. It’s not clear why a pregnant woman was forced to give birth in a cave instead of in the house.
Church of St. Catherine
There is not much to say about the Church of St. Catherine. It was dedicated in 1347 to St. Catherine of Alexandria. There is also a statue of St. Jerome in the courtyard of the church. St. Jerome is famous for translating the bible from the original Greek into Latin
The Milk Grotto
According to Christian tradition, Mary breast fed Jesus in a cave here. A drop of her milk fell to the ground and turned it white.
Church of the Nativity
Constantine the Great definitely left his mark on the Holy Land. Along with building the Church of the Holy Spulchrehe he built the original incarnation of the Church of the Nativity in the 4th Century CE. The original church was destroyed in a fire in the 6th Century CE during the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantine Empire. The Church was rebuilt by the Byzantines shortly after the Samaritan revolts where put down. Over the last 1,500 years there have been numerous additions to the Church.
The traditional entrance into the Church of the Nativity is a small door, about 1.2m high (4 foot) and 0.6m wide (2 feet). The original intent was to prevent people from riding horses into the Church, or bringing other livestock in. Over the years though, it’s purpose has evolved into the “Door of Humility” because people are forced to bend over to pass through the door.
The Church is currently being renovated by Italian and Spanish artisans and access to the Door of Humility was blocked. As a result, I was unable to get any pictures of the door. Google was kind enough to provide this picture though.
Due to the restorations going on, the inside of the Church was somewhat underwhelming. The vast majority of the interior was covered in tarps and scaffolding, so there was very little worth taking pictures of. We did get to visit the site of Jesus’ birth though. The site is marked by a silver 14 point star. Why a 14 point star, not a 6 point Star of David, (Jesus was a Jew after all)? The Book of Matthew Chapter 1 Verse 17 sums it up pretty well:
In all, then, there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ. Book of Matthew 1:17
Here’s a couple more pictures from the area around the Church of the Nativity. I was somewhat disappointed that Bethlehem’s Christmas tree was fake, but after I thought about it, it made sense. There are not a lot of evergreens at the edge of the Arabian Desert.
Bonus fact: Many pagan religions believed that the sun was a god, and that during the winter, when the days where short and the nights long, the sun god was sick and weak. December 21 or 22 is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, marked the beginning of the recovery of the sun god. Because of these beliefs, plants that could stay green through the entire year held a special meaning to ancient peoples. They would decorate these plants in celebration of the return of the sun god.
The German people are credited with adding the Christmas tree to Christmas. They had recently converted to Christianity and they brought some of their pagan beliefs into Christianity. Decorating evergreens for the Winter Solstice was one of those traditions.
I hope you enjoyed following along as I explored Bethlehem. I definitely enjoyed my time there, as well as sharing it . There is plenty left to see an do in Israel, so stay tuned for more pictures and history.