Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Trek to Bethlehem

Hey there! I think I have time to squeeze in one last holiday related post before I skip town tomorrow so here it goes...

BBC reporter on the road to Bethlehem

Today I was looking at this series of videos and diary entries online from a BBC reporter who is currently wrapping up a 10-day journey on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a donkey in tow. As you can see from the map, the trek takes him from Northern Israel through the West Bank to the old city of Jerusalem and finally to the town of Bethlehem in the central West Bank 10km south of Jerusalem.

It was interesting learning a bit about the various places he's stopped at thus far. Nazareth, for example, is a predominantly Arab-Israeli city and the area around the Palestinian city of Jenin has been a center of conflict between the Israeli military and Islamic militants meaning that tragedies abound for people living there. Then there's the city of Nablus outside of which stands the dubious tomb of Joseph, a revered destination for some Jewish pilgrims which was vandalized by a Palestinian mob after Ehud Barak withdrew military protection of the site in 2000, and Ramallah which is relatively affluent and sheltered from the Arab Israeli conflict. The reporter also stayed overnight in Shilo, one of the controversial hillside Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and of course his journey takes him across several Israeli checkpoints.

Now the BBC is notorious in some circles for its anti-Israeli slant, and there is definitely a sprinkling here as well of that bias we've come to expect, but I still thought it was pretty worthwhile (the diary entries more so than the videos) and it gives you some idea about what life is like for people in the region . You can check it out here.

What do we know about the birth of Jesus?

The nativity journey the reporter was trying to recreate comes from the account of the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that Joseph lived in Nazareth (in the Galilee) and that he had to travel to Bethlehem with his fiancee Mary (who was of course pregnant at the time) in order to be counted for the census in his family's city of origin. This first census of the Roman province of Iudea took place in 6 AD when Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) was the Emperor and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c 51 BC – 21 AD) was the governor of Syria.

The Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, gives a different account of the birth of Jesus. Here, Joseph and Mary were already living in Bethlehem. Matthew's account also includes the famous "Massacre of the Innocents" where we're told that King Herod the Great (73 BC - 4 BC), after hearing from the magi that they came to see the "newborn king", ordered all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 to be slaughtered out of fear this future king might usurp his throne. This would place the birth of Jesus no later than 4 BC, the year of Herod the Great's death.

Thus there is quite a bit of discrepancy between the two Gospels on this subject. Moreover, historians have reason to question the veracity of both Matthew and Luke's accounts of Jesus' birth. First off, there is no historical evidence for the massacre of the innocents outside of Matthew (while Josephus catalogues many other crimes committed by Herod), and thus many scholars believe this is a fiction. It may have been born out of a desire to draw a parallel between the life of Jesus and Moses who – in Exodus – was hidden among the reeds because Pharoah ordered the execution of all the Israelites' male newborns.

Meanwhile, Luke's account of how Joseph had to schlepp to Bethlehem because of the census might have been created out of expediency in order to provide an explanation why Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. This Bethlehem birth was important as it was seen as fulfillment of the perceived prophecy of Micah 5.2, which some interpreted as meaning that the Messiah, the anointed king who would restore Israel, would be born in Bethlehem. Historians also debate whether the Roman census would have really required people to travel to their ancestral cities like this in order to be counted (although they've discovered a 2nd-century Egyptian papyrus which seems to require migrant workers to return to their family homes for census purposes). To further complicate matters, some historians dispute whether Jesus was "of Nazareth" or whether the epithet meant that he was a nazarite. In short, we know very little about Jesus and even less about the circumstances of his birth.

Image is a 2007 map of North and Central Israel including the West Bank and Gaza found on


YMedad said...

Have you seen this, my summary of my participation in the Trek?

Meeg said...

Thanks for sharing this with me and for linking our posts. Other than a short chat with a soldier at one of the checkpoints, you and your wife were the only Jews Maqbool spoke to on his journey so your contribution was definitely very important.