Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem - 2


"Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" (John 7:42).

We now pick up the final leg of Mary and Joseph's journey at Jerusalem...

After breakfast at the Christmas Hotel (honest!) in East Jerusalem, the mostly Arab section huddled against the north and east walls of the Old City, our tour group of 25 boards a brand-new Volvo bus for the short, 10-minute drive to Bethlehem. Due to the relatively small size of our group (we noted several groups at Ben Gurion Airport numbering in the 80's), each of us has a window seat.

Following Nablus Road, we head three blocks south to the Damascus Gate. A right turn takes us along Ha-Tsankhanim road paralleling the Old City's north wall past the New Gate. Then its left onto Derech Yafo alongside the west wall of the Old City to the Jaffa Gate and the Citadel, built on the site of the three great towers — Phasael, Mariamne and Hippicus — that once protected Herod the Great's palace from a potential assult. Only the solid stone base of Phasael, named for the brother of Herod the Great, Phasael's Tower, now part of the Citadel/Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem; one of the three defense towers built by Herod the Great to protect the northern side of his palace. Following the destruction of the city in 70 AD it was left standing, but emperor Hadrian demolished it in 135 AD. Partly rebuilt in the 14th century AD, the 16 rows of massive blocks at the base are part of the original Herodian structure, which is solid all the way through.

(Above left) Damascus Gate in the north wall of Jurusalem's Old City; (Above right) extant base of Phasael's tower that guarded Herod's palace in Jesus time

By the Jaffa Gate the road changes names, becoming Khativat Yerushaleyim, which soon joins Derech Hevron (Road 60) opposite the area now known as Mount Zion (Hebrew Har Tsiyon), the higher western hill, part of which projects out beyond the south wall of the Old City. At the time of Jesus this was the site of the Upper City, home to some of the most wealthy and influential citizens. Mount Zion is bordered on the west and south by the Hinnom Valley which, in the 1st century BC, marked the southern extent of the city. Today, however, there is nothing to distinguish the historic birthplace of David and Jesus from its much larger neighbor. The urban sprawl of modern Jerusalem extends all the way to Bethlehem, and the dominant building material is the same pale, yellow-gold "Jerusalem stone" found in the homes, churches and walls of the Holy City

(Above) west wall of the Jerusalem's Old City on our left while heading southward toward Bethlehem along the road in the foreground.

Road 60 descends southward across the Kidron Valley, below the east wall of Jerusalem's Old City, and crosses a bridge whose piers and arches once supported an aqueduct carrying water from Solomon's Pools (located south of Bethlehem). Gradually ascending, the road reaches the top of a ridge extending westward from the Hinnom Valley.
We continued south along the same route almost certainly followed two thousand years before by Joseph and Mary (and the Magi of Matthew 2:1-12, after a stop at Herod's palace some months later).

I began recalling all my acquired childhood associations with that first Christmas. First, there's that "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" thing. On this mild November day, dressed in T-shirt and windbreaker, it's hard to think of snow, even though, as post cards sold by the boys outside our hotel show, a few inches of white periodically blankets the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area. Reindeer are nowhere to be seen, only small herds of sheep and goats grazing along the roadside. Then there's the "O little town of" and "how still we see thee lie" hymn lines running through my brain. While Bethlehem may have been a quaint village in Jesus' day, it certainly isn't today; nor is it "still," as evident by newspaper, radio and television reports. Those images come from a Christianity that has long since separated itself from the realities of the Holy Land and has instead embedded itself in American and European folklore. And with all the unrest during the final years of Herod's reign, I doubt it was any more "still" in the 1st century BC then it is today.

About 4 miles from the Old City, on our left, we pass the Greek Monastery of Mar Elias (above), a semi-fortified three-story building with a square bell tower. Established by Patriarch Anistanius in 460 AD, the white limestone building provides a panoramic view of Bethlehem. Destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1160 AD, it was restored by Crusaders the same year. According to one tradition, the prophet Elijah (Elias) slept here while fleeing the angry queen Jezebel of the Northern Kingdom of Israel; another holds that it is the burial place of Elias, a Greek bishop of Bethlehem; yet another version states the site held the tomb of St. Elias, an Egyptian monk who became Patriarch of Jerusalem. Today, Mar Elias is a popular pilgrimage site; prayers said here are believed to bring healing to barren women and ailing children.

Passing Mar Elias we leave the Valley of Rephaim. A deep valley close to the left-hand side of the road heads in the direction of the Dead Sea. A little over half way along, we see in the distance, to the right, the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, containing about 3,000, mostly Arab-Christian inhabitants. Here a road turns off to the right, passes Beit Jala, heading directly to Solomon's Pools and Hebron without passing through Bethlehem. Adjacent to Beit Jala is Gilo, a Jewish settlement of some 40,000 supposedly lying on the site of ancient Giloh, the hometown of Ahithophel the Gilonite, David's counselor mentioned first in 2 Samuel 15:12. Palestinians claim it was built illegally on Arab land, but residents hold it lies within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and Israel as defined by Israeli law. While the United States says such colonies are illegal, nevertheless they were built with money from America. The settlers have their own buses, their own roads, their own markets. They never shop in Bethlehem. Unfortunate!

Nearly 5 miles from Jerusalem's Old City the Israeli-built security wall ( "Apartheid Wall" to Palestinians) marks the boundary between Israel and the "West Bank"/Palestine, that part of the one-time British Mandate of Palestine, west of the Jordan River, that was occupied by the Kingdom of Transjordan in its war with Israel in 1948 and unilaterally annexed by Israel shortly afterward. Transjordan then changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the territory it lost to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 (with the exception of autonomous areas, like Bethlehem), has remained under Israeli military administration ever since.

The border between Israel and the West Bank is known as the "Green Line" and it denotes the pre-1967 armistice between the two areas. However, it is not officially recognized by Israel. Many Israelis refer to the region south of Jerusalem by its ancient Biblical name, Yehuda, or Judea (OT Southern Kingdom of Judah), and the area north of Jerusalem as Shomron (Samaria, OT Northern Kingdom of Israel). Official Israeli maps, like those obtained from rental car companies and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, don't show it.

Just over 2,000 years ago, the Holy Family made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to prepare for the moment that would change history forever. If they were to take that same route today, they would be greeted (below left), by a 25-foot concrete wall, armed guards and a huge steel gate resembling those found on nuclear shelters.


(Above right) entrance through the wall at the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, near Rachel's Tomb.

On this auspicious note we enter the "little" town of Bethlehem.

The security/apartheid wall (depending on your point of view) was erected in November 2005 — just in time for Christmas — sealing off the birthplace of Christ from Jerusalem, depriving people of freedom of movement within their land, annexing entire communities and crippling the local economy. Initially the tourists and religious pilgrims, the major contributors to Bethlehem's economy, stayed away.

But, in 2009, tourists returned to the town where the Bible says the Prince of Peace was born, in numbers unseen since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence at the turn of the millennium. Buoyed by the relative calm that has reigned in the West Bank, more than 1.6 million visitors came to Bethlehem in 2009. Some 15,000 pilgrims were expected for the 2009 Christmas celebrations. But even the strings of festive lights can't dispel the pall cast by the huge wall lurking over the entrance to the town and continued concern for the plight of Bethlehem's dwindling Christian population and the 60% unemployment rate. And those who do visit are encouraged by Israeli-led tour groups not to stay in Bethlehem. Rather, they are encouraged to support the hotels on the outskirts of the city, on the other side of the barrier wall.

"We are prepared to welcome Christmas with lights, decorations and joy, but this little town of love and peace, the capital of Christmas, lacks the desired peace it deserves," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.

About 200 yards from the wall entrance, on our right, is Rachel's Tomb, the traditional burial place of the biblical matriarch Rachel, favorite wife of Jacob, and mother of two of his twelve sons, Joseph and Benjamin.

Rachel's Tomb

Rachel's Tomb is first attested to by the Bordeaux Pilgrim who made a visit to the Holy Land in 333 AD and wrote: "Four miles from Jerusalem, on the right of the highway to Bethlehem, is the tomb in which was laid Jacob's wife Rachel." According to Genesis 35, Rachel "was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, 'Don't be afraid, for you have another son.' As she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)." (Genesis 35:17-19)

This is the first mention of Bethlehem in the Bible and the account further says that "over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb" (Genesis 35:20). According to 1 Samuel 10:2, Rachel's Tomb was located "at Zelzah (unidentified) on the border of Benjamin," which would place it about 5 miles southwest of Jerusalem. This original tomb had stood about seven hundred years when Samuel mentioned it, and it was probably destroyed afterward. The present site, which is likely not correct, has seen a succession of memorials; the small, rectangular domed building housing the tomb today was originally erected in the 1620's by the Ottoman Turks. In 1997 it was enclosed inside a fortress, complete with guard towers, Israeli soldiers and barbed wire was built (below left), so that it now looks more like a penitentiary for locking up violent criminals than a place for worship and prayer.

Inside, you won't find Jacob's pillar. Instead there is a large cenotaph (above right) (dictionary definition: "a monument erected in honor of a person whose remains lie elsewhere") draped in velvet. As at Jerusalem's Western Wall, men and women are segregated in separate prayer areas (the men's area is shown here; the women's area is on the opposite side). Men must cover their heads with a kippah or yarmulke (skullcap). People come here to pray for health and fertility (Rachel was long-barren). Some pilgrims wind a red thread seven times around the cenotaph, then remove it and give snippets away as talismans to cure illnesses. A small vestibule containing a mihrab (a prayer niche oriented toward Mecca) indicates this is also a holy site to Islam.

Adjacent to Rachel's Tomb is a Muslim cemetery, with tomb-markers bearing Arabic inscriptions, reflecting a Middle Eastern tradition of burial near honored people. It brings to mind the poignant passage in Matthew 2 stating that Herod's orders to "kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under" was a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15:

"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:18).

Some two blocks north of Rachel's Tomb is the modern Bethlehem Inn, tonight's lodging place according to our itinerary. We are reminded of the "inn" where Joseph could not find room for himself and his pregnant fiancιe.

There may well have been an inn, a typical Middle Eastern khan or caravansary,* in the vicinity of Bethlehem. In the 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 41:17) mentions a place called Geruth Kimham (possibly meaning "habitation" or "lodging place of Kinham") in or near Bethlehem where he stayed during his flight to Egypt from the Babylonians. It could be that a similar place existed there at a later date for the benefit of road-weary travelers. Moreover, Bethlehem was far from unknown at the time of Jesus. Quite close to it passed the main road from Gaza and Hebron to Jerusalem, the modern equivalent of which we are now following. Furthermore, a little over 2 miles south of Bethlehem were three large water reservoirs, misnamed "Solomon's Pools," that stored water from springs farther south and supplied water to Jerusalem through a series of aqueducts. Also, looming ominously on the horizon, some 5.5 miles to the southeast, was the volcano-like hill of the Herodion (right), one of a chain of fortress-palaces (Masada, Kipros etc.) erected in the Judean wilderness by the paranoid Herod "the Great" to protect himself and his kingdom. It served as an administrative center for places south of Jerusalem, and it could only be reached from Bethlehem. With the additional traffic generated by the census, Bethlehem's "inn" may very well have been full. Even if it weren't, it is possible that Joseph preferred to seek more secluded lodging to spare Mary the ordeal of spending a less then restful night among raucous camel and mule drivers. But where?

A clue may be found in the original Greek texts of Luke 2:7, where the word "inn" is represented by kataluma (kat-al'-oo-mah), meaning: an inn, guest chamber, lodging place, an eating room, dining room, derived from kataluo (kat-al-oo'-o), to halt on a journey, to put up, lodge, to put up for the night. Thus, this much memorized verse can also be translated, "she laid him in a manger because she had no space in the guest room."

Based on this, the most accurate translation of Luke 2:7 is in Young's Literal Translation, which reads, "and she brought forth her son — the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber."

At the time of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem was a small town of maybe 500 inhabitants. It would seem more likely that Joseph and Mary would have been welcomed into one of the homes of the town, perhaps that of a family member, and not forced to stay in a separate stable. Even today among the Palestinian people hospitality is assumed; strangers are welcomed as extended family. To avoid disturbing those in the living area while giving birth, Joseph moved Mary into the back with the animals which would have been brought inside for extra warmth against the chilly high-altitude (2,500 feet above sea-level) climate.

(Above left) reconstruction of a room in a Bethlehem dwelling as it might have appeared at the time of Jesus' birth, with stone-carved manger for feeding animals; (Above right) stone-carved manger with "hitching posts" at the ancient city of Megiddo, some 12 miles from Nazareth

While we're on the subject of misconceptions: There would have been no wooden stable or barn, nor a wooden manger stuffed with straw as has so often been portrayed on greeting cards and children's story books. Such images are drawn from those created by Renaissance artists who painted New Testament scenes in their familiar European landscape, not the actual scenery of the Holy Land. Israel is mostly dry and warm, and wood is scarce. If by some off-chance they weren't afforded hospitality by one of the townspeople, Joseph and Mary would probably have found shelter in one of numerous caves around Bethlehem. As for the "manger" where Jesus was laid: it may very well have been a feeding trough carved out of stone (above).

*A khan or caravansary provided both lodging and protection for travelers. Such havens were always built around a water source, and travelers could feed and water their animals in the open courtyard and fill their goat skins. Poor guests slept on mats in the courtyard; the more affluent could stay in bare rooms around the perimeter, somewhat removed from the clatter and stench of the mules, camels and other livestock.

(Right) central Bethlehem, looking southeast, with the Church of the Nativity (light-colored roof and tower, left) and the tall pointed steeple of the Lutheran Christmas Church (right of center); beyond is the Judean Wilderness, the deep rift of the Jordan River (some 3,800 feet lower in altitude) and the mountains of Moab (now in Jordan).

From Rachel's tomb, our bus continues south to a point a few blocks north of the city center. Before heading out to view the places commemorating Jesus' birth, our guide, Doran, relates some necessary background:

"Bethlehem is located about 5 miles south-southwest of Jerusalem's Old City, on the ancient north-south route from Galilee through Samaria, to Jerusalem, Hebron and beyond to Beersheba, designated Road 60 today. Surrounded by fertile fields and lush olive groves, the town covers a long, steep limestone ridge, about a mile in length and rising some 2,500 feet above sea-level. From the city limits the stark Judean desert drops off quickly to the east. 14 miles away and 3,790 feet lower is the long, narrow strip of the Dead Sea which, at 1,290 feet below sea-level, is the lowest point on the earth's surface. Tens of millions of devoted believers revere the town — Americans, Africans, Australians, Mexicans, Japanese, Germans and other lands. But Bethlehem is a Palestinian city; no Jews live here; the only Jews are soldiers."

Earliest Bethlehem

Archaeologists have uncovered 5,000-year-old-remains in nearby Beit Sahour and 3,000-year-old-remains just east of the Church of the Nativity. The first historical mention of Bethlehem is in cuneiform tablets unearthed at Tell al-Amarna in Egypt, the so-called Amarna Letters, dating to the 14th century BC. Amarna tablet 290 contains the name of a small Canaanite city-state called Beit Lehama ("House of Lahama), which probably originally referred to the temple-house of a Chaldean fertility god named Lahmo mentioned in the Enuma Elish, a Mesopotamian creation story. The tablet consists of a letter from the then-ruler of "Jerusalem" (presumably Jebus) requesting aid from Pharaoh Amenhotep III, because "Bit-Lahmi" has gone over to the side of the "Apiru." Conventional dating places this letter at 1300 BC, during the period of the Judges. "Bit-Lahmi" is very close to Beit Lahama and "Apiru" could be a mispronunciation of "Hebrew."

The Philistines built a garrison in the town. But the most famous story set in Bethlehem is the courtship of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4). Three generations later, the future King David was born in Bethlehem, which is often called the City of David. The prophet Micah predicted that a great leader would come out of Bethlehem, a prophesy which Christians believe was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus.

In the footsteps of Jesus...

With cameras, voice recorders and notebooks in hand we walk south along Paul VI Street, Bethlehem's main drag, named for the Pope who visited Bethlehem in 1964, although it is more a pedestrian mall than a thoroughfare. Soon, on our right, is the striking, 100-plus year-old Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church with its tall pointed steeple. Continuing, we pass various coffeehouses, souvenir stands and shops. We stop to make purchases or sample the "street food," while observing robed women striding past, carrying water jugs, baskets filled with clothes and produce, even sewing machines, on their heads in the time-honored manner of the Middle East. An elderly Arab man mounted on a donkey, his head covered in a traditional black and white kaffiyeh (headdress), ambles by to the sound of clicking camera shutters — another memory captured for the photo album. These are some of the "living stones," the term used by the International Center of Bethlehem when referring to the Palestinian people.

(Above left) Approaching the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church; (above right) back of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, with sign in three languages: Arabic, English and German

Paul VI Street curves to the east. Three blocks from the Lutheran church, after passing the city marketplace (souk) (below left) packed with boxes of fresh produce, freshly and stacks of freshly-baked bread and butchered animal carcuses — Bethlehem's namesake (Hebrew house of bread; Arabic house of meat)  — we come to the Mosque of Omar (below right), the city's only mosque. Directly ahead, across the stone-paved Manger Square, is the Church of the Nativity.


Manger Square

In past years, the open plaza of Manger Square had degenerated into a parking lot for tourist buses; in November 1999 it was transformed into a public square with trees, water fountains, museum and tourist center. During the renovation, a Byzantine era (6th-century AD) mosaic, that may have been part of a public building belonging to the Church of the Nativity complex, was discovered under the square; excavators also found two water cisterns and two water tunnels.

Walking toward the Church of the Nativity (right) at the east end of Manger Square, several questions run through your mind: Does this building really mark Jesus' birthplace? Was Jesus born in a cave, and more specifically, was he born in the very cave now beneath the church altar, which we will soon be seeing? The answers to these questions lie somewhere between "possibly" and "probably."

Luke makes no mention of a cave, only that Mary gave birth to Jesus and "wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7 NIV). Yet, we know that many houses in the area were built in front of caves.

Furthermore, an archaeological survey has shown that the town of that time was in the area of the Church of the Nativity and that the caves beneath the church were then in use. Still, all we have to go on in establishing the authenticity of the site is that it has been regarded as the birthplace from the earliest of times. In the 2nd century AD, both the Protoevangelium ("first gospel") of James, an account not accepted as one of the books of the Bible, and the early Christian writer Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165 AD) speak of a cave in which Jesus was born, statements reinforced by Origen (in 248 AD), the great theologian from Alexandria: "In Bethlehem you are shown the cave where he was born, and within the manger where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes. These things that they show you are recognized in the district, even by those who do not share our faith. They admit that Jesus whom Christians adore, was born in a cave."


How the Church of the Nativity came to be built on the site

Following the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian expelled the Jews from the area, giving free rein to the development of pagan cults. Over the much-venerated cave, he erected a shrine to the dying-and-rising god Adonis, the personification of vegetation that dies and springs to life again. It was a popular cult among agricultural communities in the east and Adonia, a yearly festival representing his death and rebirth, was celebrated in midsummer. By placing the shrine over the cave, Hadrian hoped to supplant many decades of Christian veneration at the site. Rather, it had the opposite effect of preserving its memory.

At the general church council at Nicaea (modern Iznik, Turkey) in 325 AD, Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, acquainted the emperor Constantine (ruled 312-337 AD) with the neglected condition of the holy places in his diocese. Constantine ordered the construction of monumental churches to commemorate the principal events of Jesus' life. The story is told that Constantine's aged mother Helena traveled to Palestine (a name given the region by Hadrian) in 326 AD to locate the sites of Jesus' birth, death and Ascension. At Bethlehem, she inquired about his birthplace and was shown Hadrian's Adonis temple at the end of the village among a grove of trees. Architects, working under Helena's supervision, ordered the trees removed and the superfluous rock quarried away. On the site, the original Church of the Nativity, with an octagonal apse (the preferred form for a memorial structure at the time), was built restoring its status in Christian tradition. This church was badly damaged during a Samaritan uprising in 529 AD in which Jerusalem also suffered greatly. While there is no written record of the destruction, ashes and debris discover in 1934 indicated the church had been destroyed by fire. Sabas, a monk from a nearby monastery, went to Constantinople and appealed to the emperor Justinian (527-565 AD) who, around 536 AD, erected a larger church on the site, extensively altering the original plan (now cruciform instead of octagonal). This building, with later modifications, has remained in use to the present day.

When the Persians invaded Palestine in 614 AD, all churches in the Holy Land were destroyed, except the Church of the Nativity. The story is told that the Persians saw a mosaic on the church facade depicting the visit of the Magi dressed in Persian attire (below), and were misled into believing that those who worshiped in the building venerated their prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathusthra). Muslims themselves prevented another destruction ordered by the mad caliph Hakim in 1009 AD because, since the time of Omar (639 AD), they had been permitted to pray in the south transept, where a prayer niche (mihrab) was installed. At the time of the Crusades, Baldwin I was crowned there as the first king of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, on Christmas Day of 1101 AD, and the Emperor Manuel had the church extensively restored (1161-69 AD), replacing the marble floor, lining the wooden roof with lead and adding mosaics above the nave (parts of which remain). The Crusaders remained in control of the town and church until 1291 AD, when the Mamelukes assumed power. Thereafter the church suffered centuries of neglect, although its importance to Christians never faded.

(Above) mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, dates about same time (432-440 AD)
as the Church of the Nativity.  Note the two Magi, right, in typical Persian attire

In 1347 AD the Franciscans were given custody of the basilica, but in the 17th and 18th centuries AD there was fighting between the Greek Orthodox and Catholics. In 1757 the Ottomans gave the basilica to the Greeks; the Armenians won the north transept by 1829. The question of ownership inflamed passions throughout Europe. Napoleon's arbitrary decision to declare it French property in 1852 angered the Russians and led indirectly to the Crimean War of 1853, pitting Russia and Ottoman Turkey against France and Britain. In 1852 shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches, with the Greeks caring for the Grotto of the Nativity.

Today, a truce between the three denominations — backed by an elaborate schedule of services — prevents potential conflicts. This also means there are three successive Christmas celebrations: the Catholics and Western Christians on December 25, the Eastern Orthodox on January 6 and the Armenians on January 19.

Jesus' Life Home n Explore the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem