Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Bethlehem; the Israel Museum

Our group in front of the Basilica of the Nativity
Today we took a bus into the Bethlehem area. This is part of "Area A" of the West Bank, meaning that it is under full Palestinian civil and military control. Our purpose, of course, was to visit sites associated with the birth of Jesus. For convenience, we took these somewhat out of order, stopping first at one of the traditional sites of the "Shepherds Field" before continuing on to Bethlehem proper to visit the likely place of his birth. We then had a fun Arab meal before heading back to Jerusalem.

Bayt Sahour

Bayt Sahur (Arabic, بيت ساحور) is a largely Christian town whose name may meaning something like "House of the Night Watches.," which is appropriate given that somewhere near here would have been where the shepherds were "abiding with their flocks by night" when the angle of the Lord announced the birth of Jesus.

The hilly countryside north of Bethlehem where the angels sang of Jesus' birth

The site we stopped at is Khirbet Siyar el-Ghanem, the Roman Catholic site that is operated by the Franciscans. An alternative site, Kanisat al-Ruwat, is operated by the Greek Orthodox Church, and both sites include Byzantine ruins. Before visiting the modern church, which was designed to look like a shepherd's tent and is decorated with beautiful paintings about the Annunciation to the Shepherds, we gathered in a meeting area overlooking some open hillsides. There I spoke about the Infancy Narratives, and we read from Luke 2 and sang "Angels We Have Heard on High."

The modern church looks somewhat like a Shepherd's tent

Church of the Nativity

Early Christians venerated a series of caves in the hillside of Bethlehem as the place of Jesus' birth. Sometime around A.D. 135, the emperor Hadrian built a temple to Tammuz, the pagan god of food, as part of his wider effort to obliterate Jewish and Christian holy sites following the unsuccessful Second Jewish Revolt of A.D. 132-136. Some two hundred years later, Constantine allowed his mother Helena to raze the pagan temple and build a large Christian basilica. This was destroyed in one of the Samaritan Revolts of the mid-500's.

The Byzantine emperor Justinian built the current structure in A.D. 565, making it one of the oldest, continuingly used Christian churches in the world. According to one story, it survived the Persian invasion of A.D. 614 because the Persians were moved by depictions of the Magi within the church dressed as Persians. It survived Muslim rule, Crusader, usurpation, and the vicissitudes of time. However, much needed renovation revealed an interior completely filled with scaffolding when we entered it.
Teresa Wright entering the very small door of the basilica. The large doors of the Byzantine church were made smaller by the Crusaders. Then the Ottoman Turks made this even smaller door so that mounted horseman would not ride into the church!

The interior of the Basilica of the Nativity Christmas Eve 2011 (with my mother, niece, and the back of my son Samuiel's head)
While we waited in line for about a half hour to go into the traditional grotto under the Greek Orthodox altar, Victor told us about the history of the church. We then moved into the small cave, the natural walls and ceiling of which are almost completely obscured by hangings, lamps, and other religious decorations, to see the 14-pointed start that marks the supposed place of Jesus' birth and the small altar commemorating the manger where he was first laid.

While this kind of shrine is unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, to some Protestants and most Latter-day Saints, we need to remember that the Grotto of the Nativity is only one cave in a series throughout the hillside, and Jesus could have been born in any of them. Fortunately, several of them lie under the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, and these are less ornamented and give a better feel for what a cave used as a stable might have been like.

In one of these (numbered 10 and 5 in the map above), we were able to gather, read the Luke 2 birth story, and sing "Away in a Manger." I then led us in prayer, and it was a pretty special experience.

The Tent Restaurant

Before leaving Bethlehem, we stopped and had a mixed grill, traditional Arab meal at the tent restaurant.

Israel Museum

After we crossed back into Israel, we went to the Israel Museum. While a few hours are hardly sufficient for such a great museum, we were able to enjoy the famous model of Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in A.D. 66, visit the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, and visit some of the archaeological exhibitions inside.

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