Wanting to visit the many sites of the Holy Land where Jesus lived out his life and ministry is usually why Christians make a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine. Seeing the places noted in scripture changed what had resided within my imagination from the years of childhood to that of adulthood. My trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the surrounding areas in Judea and Galilee shattered my idealized pablum version of biblical times while confirming the realism that he lived and breathed as a human.
Bethlehem: Luke 2:1-20
Located in the West Bank, today Bethlehem is a town surrounded by separation walls in the Judean hills about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Rising above the valleys below, it isn’t hard to imagine how magi traveling from the East might see a bright star “above” this city. From a distance, a star might appear as if it was resting atop a hill. Pilgrims have been visiting Bethlehem since the 1st century, so something had to have happened here. Visiting the Church of the Nativity, one has the expectation to stand where Mary and Joseph had sought lodging, giving birth to a son whom they laid in a manger since there was no room in the inn due to an overpopulated city because of a Roman census. Don’t get too excited. Yes, the church that commemorates the spot is beautiful: mosaics, oil lamps, icons. There are also hordes of people pushing and cramming into the little “cave/grotto” where the precise spot is marked by a 14-pointed silver star. Yes – X marks the spot. I climbed down into the claustrophobic space as my fellow pilgrims sang “Away in a Manger.” I bent into the niche on the floor and touched the star with the little window (plexiglass?) that showed the rock below. Not exactly a holy moment for me.
However, our guide had taken us to the “shepherd’s fields” before heading to the parking garage and escalator to the Church of the Nativity. About a quarter mile away is a Catholic site located in an area called Siyar el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep). It is not a rolling hill for sheep grazing, but a terraced and rocky area. Just to the east is the Field of Boaz, ancestor of Jesus, through David’s lineage. The Chapel of the Angels, designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, was build upon the remains of a 4th-century church and a later agricultural monastery. Paintings in the chapel depict the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, the shepherds paying homage to Jesus, and the shepherds celebrating the birth of the Messiah. A little dog is shown in each painting with a changing disposition as the events unfold. It was a contemplative and holy place and the acoustics were fantastic for singing. What was even more amazing was a nearby cave, carbon-dated to Jesus’ time. Climbing down into the rock-hewn cave with camera flashlights to guide our way, we gathered in the “back room” of the cave, deep beyond the small cave area where a family would have lived. Traditionally, people in this area of Bethlehem would have lived in caves for protection and warmth as well as out of the desert sun. Animals would have been kept in the back as livestock were valuable and needed to be safe. A “manger” would have been a rock, carved into the shaped of a trough. Here, in the pitch dark, amid the animals and away from the others gathered in the “family quarters” Mary would/could have given birth. No more Christmas pageants with a wooden creche and Joseph knocking on the door of the inn for me.
Nazareth: Luke 2:26-40
Situated inside a bowl atop the Nazareth ridge north of the Jezreel valley in the Galilee region of Israel (about 65 miles north of Jerusalem), Nazareth was a relatively isolated village in the time of Jesus with a population less than two hundred. According to tradition, Jesus spent his boyhood years in Nazareth before beginning his ministry when he was about 30. So small, it makes sense that the disciple Nathaniel could say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). A Greek Orthodox Church is built over the town’s water source, which is called Mary’s Well. Nearby is the Church of the Annunciation, build over a Byzantine church where it is believed that the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. Built in the 1960s by the Roman Catholic Church, the lower level of the basilica enshrines a sunken grotto that contains the traditional cave-home of the Virgin Mary. A beautiful church, we were able to participate in their weekly Saturday evening candlelight procession led by Franciscan Friars chanting the Rosary around the Basilica. (Watch a video here.)
In December 2009 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a house from the time of Christ, on a property next to the Church of the Annunciation – the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House (where we were staying!). The authority described it as “the very first” residential building found from the old Jewish village. Small and modest, the house consisted of two rooms and a courtyard with a cistern to collect rainwater. Without any crowds, we were able to visit this small house of one room alongside other Roman excavations. While we do not know if Jesus lived in this particular house, we could imagine Jesus visiting a friend there as a child. Could he have played here? Absolutely! Read more here and here.
Another area of excavation under the Guest House was a series of tombs, with an ante-chamber for preparing the bodies. Just as it had been in Jesus’ time. Including the stone that would have been rolled over the cave. The tombs would have each been sealed individually with mud once a body had been placed in it. About three years later, the tomb would have been unsealed, the bones removed and placed in an ossuary, making room for another body to be laid. Let that sink in.
Was Joseph a carpenter in Nazareth, teaching Jesus his trade? The word the Gospels use is téktōn, a common term used for artisans, craftsmen, and woodworkers (so, yes, it can translate as “carpenter”), but also, interestingly, it can refer to stonemasons, builders, construction workers, or even to those who excel in their trade and are able to teach others. Most likely Joseph was a tradesman who worked in stone – and there are plenty of those around, and not many trees besides olive and fir trees. He could have been employed by the Romans who were building a city in nearby Sepphoris, about 4 miles north-west of Nazareth. Today you can wander around the villas, baths, a colonnaded street, and amphitheater. Looking south you can see Nazareth above on the hillside, to the north fertile land for crops.
After moving his home to Capernaum, Jesus returned to teach in the synagogue of Nazareth twice more, but was rejected both times. (It should be noted that Nazareth was too small to have a synagogue – most likely the people gathered outside to hear the teachings of the rabbis.) On one occasion the townspeople were so outraged at Jesus that they tried to throw him off a cliff to his death (Luke 4:28-30). And yes, there is a site where you can visit the actual cliff (Mount Precipice), now surrounded by highways, barbed wire, and that Wall the pervades the landscape.