Our first excursion from Jerusalem was to Bethlehem, the traditional
birthplace of Jesus (Matthew 2, Luke 2).
The modern city itself has a largely Arab population and is under control of
the Palestinian Authority. Although the Arab-Jewish conflict was largely
invisible for much of the previous parts of the tour, it was impossible to
ignore here. The separation from Jewish Israel is physically embodied in a
massive concrete security wall, which has been stunningly successful in
preventing suicide bombings, but which has also been stunningly successful in
ghettoizing the community. The wall is a fearsome structure made even more
imposing by the security procedures needed to get through it. Our driver
explicitly said not to take photos during the trip through the checkpoint and
the return trip through the checkpoint involved a boarding by well-armed (but
surprisingly cordial) border guards and an examination of the luggage area to
assure that none of The Other got through.
Some kind of legal arrangement prevents tour groups from bringing Jewish
tour guides into Bethlehem. We dropped off our Jewish guide, Tzachi, before
heading to Bethlehem and picked up a very pleasant Arab guide named George just
past the checkpoint. George was quick to point out the desperate state of the
economy in Bethlehem, where the dominant industry is tourism and many young
people need to go abroad to find work. The siege mentality is palpable.
The traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem is the Church of the
Nativity. In addition to the conflict embodied in the modern city of Bethlehem,
the church is a maelstrom of contention in itself. Aside from the crushing mob
of unruly pilgrims from around the world, the church is shared by three
denominations that have vied for control of this holy site for centuries: Greek
Orthodox, Roman Catholic (the Franciscan Order) and Armenian Orthodox.
Beneath the alter is the Grotto of the Nativity, a cave that once resembled
the type of space that might have been used as a barn back in the day.
However, the cave has been expanded, surfaced and ornamented so that it bears
absolutely no resemblance to anything like the manger of the Bible or the
Western imagination. The traditional spot of Jesus birth is marked with a
silver star and the surrounding grotto is a cramped madhouse.
John Shelby Spong in his book Jesus for the Non-Religious (2007, pp
15-24) makes a case from biblical evidence, geography and historical context
that the citing of Jesus birth in Bethlehem was an interpretive flourish by the
Gospel writers rather than a literal event. A birthplace in Bethlehem may not
have been a fulfillment of old testament prophecy, but rather a literary device
used to conceptualize messianic claims for Jesus in writings targeted at a
Jewish audience. Luke says a Roman census brought a pregnant couple 100 miles
down from Nazareth on foot, while Matthew simply opens his story in Bethlehem
and has the couple moving to Nazareth later. There is no mention of such an
ancestral census at any time in ancient writings, and given that Matthew places
41 generations between David and Jesus, the number of people who could claim
lineage from David might well be in the millions - not that the Romans would
care or have any records to verify any of that anyway. The presence of stars
and shepherds and wise men raises an additional set of questions about how much
of the Bethlehem story is symbolism and how much is literal history.
Bethlehem was an experience that was enlightening, although both my mother
and I found aesthetically and spiritually disappointing. If you're looking for
Jesus, this may not be the best place to start.