Israel: Jerusalem and Bethlehem

For me, the days spent in Jerusalem and Bethlehem were the highlight of my trip to Israel and Jordan. Roman ruins are interesting, but my primary reason for this visit to these countries was to see places mentioned in the Bible. I especially wanted to follow the path of Jesus. Bethlehem, of course, was where his life on earth began.

Bethlehem has been commercialized with plenty of vendors trying to sell you expensive manger scenes and cross necklaces. But it was still an awesome experience to visit the Church of the Nativity, built over the site where Jesus was born. The simple outside entrance is appropriate, I think, for the humble birth that this church celebrates.

Of course, with the church being mostly under the control of the Greek Orthodox, who like glitter and gold, the interior is quite ornate.

Steps lead down to the grotto, the cave where Jesus was born. The spot is marked with a silver star.

Yes, I said “cave.” Like most people, I suspect, I’d always pictured Jesus being born in a barn. But caves were often used to house animals in ancient Israel. In fact, historians of the time describe Jesus’ birthplace as being part of a large network of caves in the area. Wow, I’ll never again look at my nativity scene the same.

A few steps away from the site of the birth is the manger where Baby Jesus was laid.

Back in Jerusalem, just a few miles away, is the Garden Tomb, where many Protestants believe Jesus is buried, with the site of the execution not too far away. “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.” (John 19:41)

The entrance to the Garden Tomb has windows through which the soul was believed to depart. Of course, for Jesus no such exit was needed.

It’s hard to describe how I felt stepping inside the Garden Tomb, where many believe the body of Jesus was laid.

Those who believe the Garden Tomb is the location of Jesus’ burial also think his crucifixion took place nearby, where a street runs today as a road probably did in ancient times. Although we sing, “On a hill far away, stood the old rugged cross…,” the Romans crucified people in visible places as an example.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all mention a place called the Skull as part of the crucifixion location. These cliffs, today above a Palestinian bus station adjacent to the area of the Garden Tomb, once had a clearly-defined image of a skull.

A visit to the Israel Museum was also part of this day. There I saw the famous Dead Sea scrolls, parts of which authenticate the Old Testament. These scrolls were discovered hidden in urns in a cave by shepherds in 1947 and are considered one of the most important archeological finds of modern times.

The day ended with an optional excursion featuring a “Middle Eastern” dinner followed by a light show at the Tower of David near the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old Town.

I put quotes around “Middle Eastern” because this was the advertised description of a meal that featured French fries. Incidentally, the fries were a hit for us Americans looking for a break from falafel and shawarma.

The Old City of Jerusalem with its ancient walls was a magical sight at night. Tourists walked along the locals.

The story of Jerusalem was told through a sound and light show at the Tower of David, built during the second century B.C. The history of the city from King David playing his harp to Jerusalem being recognized as the capital of modern Israel was projected on the walls.

I loved being in Jerusalem.

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