It turns out that Bethlehem is not as little as it used to be. It is a thriving town of commerce, mostly built on tourism and religion. But more of that later.
Today started with a visit to the Israel Museum. The museum has a large outdoor model of what Jerusalem was like in the first century, before the Romans sacked it in AD70. It really helped to get a sense of where everything was in relation to everything else, and to see just how much the Temple dominated. Jerusalem wasn't so much a city with a Temple inside, as a Temple with a city around it.
And then we got to see a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These portions of the Bible and other documents date back as early as 300 years before Jesus. They were found in a cave in Qumran, which I visited a couple of days ago, by a shepherd. The shepherd didn't know the importance of what he found and, because he was cold, he burned the book fo Esther to make a fire. Thankfully the other scrolls were preserved and can now be studied by scholars and seen in the museum by people like us.
From the museum we set off towards Bethlehem, but stopped first at the Herodian. This is another stronghold built by Herod the Great, like Masada that I talked about 2 days ago, but this overlooks Bethlehem. Herod was quite paranoid really. As the Israeli tour guide at the museum said "Herod is fascinating because he did many great things for the nation, but he was also mad." It was Herod the great who ordered that all boys under the age of 2 in the Bethlehem area should be put to death because the wise men told him that a new king had been born. No wonder he thought that people might be plotting against him - he brought it on himself! Joseph and Mary thankfully took Jesus to safety in Egypt, and only returned when Herod was dead. The Herodian is where he is buried.
We set off again but by now it was lunch time so we stopped to have lunch at a gift shop. It turns out that tourism is big business in the town where Jesus was born, there was even a nativity set worth $35,000.Finally we arrived at Bethlehem itself and made our way to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. This is the oldest site continuously used as a place of Christian worship in the world - that is it has been a functioning church since 326AD. What's more, it claims to house the very place that Jesus was born. How anyone in 326 would know that is not explained, but it is treated with deep religious reverence. A steady stream of people came into the grotto to kiss the place where 'Jesus was born'. They then made a donation and were given a certificate to show that they had done it.
Our final stop was a Christian bookshop. The shop is a remarkable place because, rather than sell nativity mementos, it simply exists to share the message of Jesus through the Bible. Set up in 2003 it also sells coffee, gives Bibles away free, and provides opportunities for people to ask questions about Jesus. It doesn't make any profit, but many people have come to faith through the work that they facilitate.
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