O Little Town – A Little History (Part 1)

Series: Israel 2022

O Little Town of Bethlehem6.

This song has been rolling through my mind regularly since the start of the Christmas season. That and a good dozen other Christmas carols that speak (sing?) to the birth of Christ. So, it’s Christmas and I figure I just about have to write about visiting Bethlehem and seeing The Church of the Nativity, the place where it is said that Jesus was born.

But what comes to mind when I sing these carols is not the Bethlehem we visited, but something out of a Currier & Ives inspired event depicting a quaint and very small foreign village with lots of snow, twinkling stars, and an old wooden open-fronted shed with Mary, Joseph, 3 (exactly 3) wise men, maybe 4 shepherds, an angel hovering overhead underneath a big star, and a variety of farm animals. Everyone (and every animal) is standing around reverently adoring the wee baby Jesus wrapped up and asleep in a feeding trough (aka manger) with bits of hay sticking out the sides. Just so you know how important the baby is, there is sometimes a halo encircling his head or a bright light beam shining down directly on him from that giant star outside. A good and proper portrayal of the birth scene for Christians everywhere.

But the new world images of the Holy Land are maybe just a little skewed towards our culture and not that of the middle east.  Nativity scenes that I see at Christmas time certainly do not bring to mind the Bethlehem that we visited in the Judean Mountains just south of Jerusalem (maybe 5 miles). The Bethlehem that gets chilly in winter (if indeed Jesus was born in the winter season) but not really snowy although I’ve read that it can snow and does sometimes. It certainly didn’t snow when we were there in February.  In fact, it was rather hot, and Bethlehem isn’t a little village, it’s a good-sized city; and there was neither hide nor hair of a stable anywhere that I could see.

So, what is true about Bethlehem? Today it is located in the West Bank in the Palestinian Governorate of the State of Palestine. It is Israel but not really.  If you visit, you have to enter through checkpoints, and you have to show a valid passport just like any other border crossing anywhere in the world. (Fortunately, being on a bus as part of a tour, we were allowed to pass through without any serious issues or delays.) Today, Bethlehem’s economy is primarily tourist driven and right at the center of the city is The Church of the Nativity, a site now deemed sacred for Christians throughout the world which attracts thousands of Christian tourists every year.

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Like many middle eastern cities, Bethlehem is a city within a city. There are the ancient portions and then there are the 21st century modern parts. The “old city” in Bethlehem includes about 8 quarters (sections) with a “mosaic style” layout with Manger Square being at the core.  To the Arabs, the city was Beyt Lahm or “house of meat”; to the Hebrews, it was Bet Lehem or “house of bread”; to the ancient Greeks, it was Bethleem. But even older still is the Canaanite name, Beit Lahmi, which refers to the House of Lahmi, a Canaanite god of fertility worshipped by the Canaanites.5

The city is indeed ancient with some archaeological dates going back to the 14th century BC/E where it was mentioned in the Amarna Letters as a Canaanite city.5&10 But, our visit was primarily focused on Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity and events related to the birth of the Christ (Messiah) somewhere around 1BC give or take a couple years.

Bethlehem…. the place where Jesus was born…. the place that was prophesied in the Old Testament (Christian Bible) in the Book of Micah (5:2):

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 

Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, 

Yet out of you shall come forth to Me

The One to be Ruler in Israel,

Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.”8

This little town – little among thousands. While no one really knows where Jesus was born and laid in a manger by Mary, his mother, there is a long tradition that associates the event with caves in the city at the site of The Church of the Nativity.

But, let me back up a minute. Bethlehem is also known as the “City of David” …. for good reason. David, the second and some would say greatest King of Israel, was from Bethlehem. David, the son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah who was anointed by Samuel to be king when he was but a young shepherd boy (1 Samuel 16:13).  David, the ancestor of Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. David, who was promised by God (2 Samuel 7:16) that the Messiah would be born of his lineage.

David’s line. You know the basic nativity story, right? If not, it is all laid out in the New Testament in the Christian Bible in Luke Chapter 2.  The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, called for a census, and everyone in Palestine had to travel back to the home of their ancestors. Since Joseph was of the “line of David”, he had to go to Bethlehem to be counted. And, so he did, taking a very pregnant Mary, his betrothed, with him.  (I’m leaving out quite a bit of the whole story so a little review by reading Luke Chapter 2 and Matthew Chapter 1 might be helpful to you.)

Bell Tower at the Church of the Nativity overlooking Manger Square

Now, back to the Church of the Nativity and those caves. As noted above, Bethlehem is in the hills of Judea and those hills include many limestone caves and the people built their houses over the caves. I suppose it is possible that, in even more ancient times, they originally lived in those caves and building their homes over them was a natural evolution. We know that young David took refuge in caves when he was hiding from King Saul (the first king of Judah, and that, in more modern times, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found stored in caves near the Dead Sea. Suffice to say, there are lots of caves in Israel and they were used for various purposes by the people living there. Even today, you can see houses built over caves in Israel. According to our Israeli tour guide, today the caves are used primarily for storage but have been used in the past for graves and, yes, as stables for sheltering their farm animals.

Old Houses built over caves in Jerusalem near Kidron Valley

The Church of the Nativity was built over a series of caves where tradition says that Jesus was born because there were no more rooms available in the house. Yes, the King James Version Bible says “inn”, but the koine Greek (New Testament language) word refers to a house or abode. The translation issue is not something I’m going to delve into with this blog. Suffice to say, some sort of building was built over the caves which, it seems, were being used as a stable with a manger available. Again, there is no recorded history – no neighborhood maps from 1BC, no birth certificate showing the date, time, & place of the birth of Jesus – only oral tradition that provided the basis for the location of the church.

Now a little info on the building of the church – very short version: Early Christians had identified these particular caves (or grottoes) as the site of Christ’s birth as early as the 2d century AD/CE. Yes, that’s over 100 years after the birth but it’s not known how long the early Christians had been going to the site. The Roman emperor Hadrian had gotten a little concerned about Christians gathering here. He didn’t like it since he wanted everyone to worship Roman gods so, in 135 AD/CE took over the site and had a pagan sanctuary to Adonis built over the caves.1&5 Interestingly enough (and ironically), Hadrian’s decision actually preserved the site which would later come to the attention of Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) in 330 AD/CE or thereabouts when she came to the Holy Land seeking out sites associated with Jesus.  She found (?) and identified this site as the birthplace and the first Christian Basilica was built at the site over the caves in 339 AD/CE.1&2

Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity

Fast forward. The original church was one of those octagonal ones (remember the one built over Peter’s house in Capernaum – read about our visit there here). Octagonal shapes were customary for use in basilicas at the time. The original basilica was destroyed by fire in the Samaritan revolts in 529 AD/CE2 and replaced in 539 AD/CE by order of Emperor Justinian with a more modern (for that time) church in the cruciform transept style – shape of a basic Greek cross, 4 apses, 44 Corinthian columns, 5 aisles – basically the footprint the church has today.2  I could go on and on with this history – that church (like the city and the country) has been through a lot since Jesus was born…held by the Romans, conquered by Persians, conquered by the Crusaders twice, back to Muslims, and then the Ottomans, then much, much later, after World War I, the British, and so on and so on. The history of Bethlehem is pretty much also the history of the Church of the Nativity itself. Sometimes the Church of the Nativity was under the management of the Roman/Catholic church, sometimes the Greek Orthodox, sometimes used by the Muslims, sometimes nobody really taking care of things – back & forth it went for the past two centuries.

Today, as noted above, Bethlehem is a part of Palestine in the West Bank. The Church of the Nativity is managed in joint by a series of documents and understandings called the “Status Quo”.2 Major ownership is divided between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and the Roman Catholics (St. Catherine’s next door is connected to the Church of the Nativity and also built over the system of caves); minor rights are also given to the Coptic Orthodox (Egypt) and the Syriac Orthodox (the Church at Antioch) denominations. The city of Bethlehem was once predominantly Christian but today is primarily Muslim or secular with a very small minority being Christian. (In 1947, the population was 85% Christian; in 2016, 16%.5)


So what did I see there? Tune in Tomorrow for Part 2 – Our Visit

Sources for Information:

  1. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Bethlehem and Shepherds’ Fields, pages 87-91
  2. Church of the Nativity – Wikipedia
  3. Mosque of Omar (Bethlehem) – Wikipedia 
  4. O Little Town of Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  5. Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  6. O Little Town of Bethlehem > Lyrics | Phillips Brooks (timelesstruths.org)
  7. Rachel’s Tomb – Wikipedia
  8. Micah 5 (biblehub.com)
  9. Philippians 4:4
  10. Biblical Israel: Bethlehem – CBN Israel
  11. Currier and Ives – Wikipedia
  12. Church of Saint Catherine, Bethlehem – Wikipedia


Series: Israel 2022

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?2

We’ve come to the river at last. Not just any river. I’m talking about the Jordan River. And I was ready – ready to be baptized in the same river where John the Baptist had baptized the Messiah – Jesus. I was so ready that I had planned my whole trip around that one event. From the time we booked the tour way back in January 2021 right up until the day we got on the plane in February 2022, I had told everybody who would listen that I was going to get baptized in the Jordan River. The Jordan River. It was going to happen.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site where tradition says that John the Baptist baptized Jesus near Bethany. It is on the eastern side of the Jordan River in Jordan. The photo was copied from Wikipedia4.

It wouldn’t be my first baptism. Way back, maybe sixty years ago, I was baptized when I became a believer and joined Watkins Memorial Baptist Church somewhere in northwest Atlanta. Two things I cannot remember (how I wish that I had been smarter and had written it all down). I cannot remember the exact date and I cannot remember the exact location in Atlanta. I cannot find the church no matter how many times I’ve gone to Google and searched. I’ve heard that the name was changed to Oakdale Baptist shortly after mama & daddy moved on to start another church closer to our home…but I cannot find that name on the internet either.

So, old Watkins Memorial remains only in my memory now along with the memory of my getting baptized. This was back in the day before every church had a built-in baptismal and your friends and family had smart phones to record every minute of it. It was back when you got baptized in a creek or a river or a pond or some other natural waterway outside.

It was a creek for me – I wish I knew exactly which one. I know it was by Mrs. Bogazan’s house somewhere near Atlanta. I’m not even sure who Mrs. Bogazan was or even if there was a Mr. Bogazan. She wasn’t a member of our church that I recall. But her house and that creek is a clear picture in my mind – a beautiful place where I wished that I could live back then. The creek ran down through huge granite rocks and had been dammed up right by the house to form a pool – a swimming hole, I suppose, for the Bogazan family. This spot was used by several churches in the area for baptisms. (And, yes, it was a place I wanted to swim and play and explore every single time we were there, but I was never allowed because, of course, we were only there for baptisms, a sacred ritual and not there to play or wade and certainly no jumping off those big rocks into the pool.)

Being baptized in a creek was not particularly a choice on my part at that time. I was very young, maybe 10 years old. I hadn’t a clue that there were some churches that had indoor pools (heated, no less) or that some churches only sprinkled water on the head and that they didn’t actually immerse people completely in water during baptisms. Every denomination has its own traditions, but I didn’t know about any of them. I only knew this was how it was done by our church, and I knew that, when I walked the aisle and asked to be baptized, this was how it was going to be…. the “full dunk” as I’ve heard it called more recently.

I was baptized in Mrs. Bogazan’s creek by our pastor, Reverend Lamar Gentry. I think it was a lovely summer day. The church members were all there standing along the side of the creek with my mama & daddy, brothers & sisters. They all sang Shall We Gather at the River2 as they did at every baptism as we waded into the water. Preacher Gentry had on his church clothes – suit pants and white shirt minus the tie and the suit jacket. My dad might have been there to help, I don’t remember. Knowing him, he probably was… who’s gonna miss the baptism of one of his babies?

I would have been wearing one of my Sunday dresses…. probably just what I wore to church that morning. I think there were others getting baptized, but I cannot tell you who or how many. Afterwards, I was allowed to go into Mrs. Bogazan’s house for just a bit to change out of my wet clothes (we weren’t allowed near or in her house otherwise). It’s a good memory of a very special event for me but a faint one…. like an old blurry photograph that’s tattered and fading around the edges. If I ever got baptized again, I promised myself that I would write everything down and remember…. maybe even take some pictures.

And I was determined. We were going to Israel and going to be near the Jordan River, and I could not think of any good reason why I shouldn’t be baptized there. I am reminded of the eunuch in Acts 8:36 after Philip shared the gospel with him asking Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  Indeed, where there is water, there can be a baptism and, if Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, then all the more reason that I should be.

Our first look at the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee.

The River Jordan is just about 251 kilometers (155.3 miles) long flowing north to south right through the Jordan Rift Valley. The upper course flows from its source springs down to and through the Sea of Galilee. The lower course flows out of Galilee and through the Jordan Valley into the Dead Sea.

Source tributaries are the Hasbani River and the Lyyon Stream that flow out of Lebanon. The springs at Banias (read about Banias and Caesarea Philippi here) and the Dan River (Springs of Dan – future blog coming soon), both at the foot of Mount Hermon, are also major tributaries. Originally, these tributaries ran together to form swampy wetlands called Lake Hula. This lake no longer exists as the land is fertile and has been drained and cultivated for hundreds of years. From “Lake Hula”, the river drops steeply about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and flows into the Sea of Galilee. It leaves Galilee at the Degania Dam3 which is about 210 meters (688.97 feet) below sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth at 422 meters (1384.5 feet) below sea level.1

Aerial View of the Jordan River. Photo copied from Wikipedia4

Just below the Degania Dam at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee is the location called Yardenit where you can get baptized today. The Hebrew name for the Jordan is Nahar ha-Yarden – so it makes sense this baptism site is called Yardenit.1

Yardenit Baptism Site on the Jordan River just below Degania Dam. Photo was copied from Wikipedia – Jordan River 1

The Hebrew concept of “living water9 appeals to me. Water that flows naturally from springs in the land. Water that was used for purification and cleansing. Being baptized in a natural setting whether Mrs. Bogazan’s creek or the Jordan River, was, well…just perfect!

I had waited patiently through several days of touring and the day had finally arrived. I had asked and received permission for my husband (an ordained minister – retired) to baptize me. It was going to happen for me and for about 25 others on the tour. In the beginning, it was all pretty well orchestrated. We had planned ahead and wore our “baptizing clothes” – something that could get wet – and something that wouldn’t be transparent when it got wet. We waited in line by the entrance, paid our $20 per person, received a white linen shift, which we put on over our clothes. Then we all went down to sit and wait on stone benches by the water.

Waiting to be baptized. This photo was taken by Rob Young from our tour group.

Drs. Mark Yarbrough6 and Stephen Bramer7 were officiating and had already been in the water to check things out by the time we got changed and down to the baptism site. Jerry and I took a seat at the end of the line and waited as the proceedings began. There was no singing of “Shall We Gather..”2 by the onlookers; I would have been too excited to notice it anyway. Dr. Bramer advised us that the water was cold this year as it was coming from the snowmelt on Mount Hermon and gave us instructions on how things would proceed. There was a handrail (the riverbed was slippery) and 7-8 people at a time would go into the river and wait in line for their turn to be baptized. As an individual was baptized and exited to the right, the line would be replenished with those waiting on the stone benches. We would be in the last group to enter the water.

Dr. Yarbrough prayed asking God’s blessings on the baptisms and then began. As each person was baptized, either Dr. Yarbrough or Dr. Bramer would ask them a question about their belief in God and Jesus. Most just answered “yes” and were then lowered into the water backwards with both men holding them. I thought about what I would say, how I would answer, when asked the question. Of course, I felt like I should say something more than “yes”. Ultimately, I decided that I should just try to be “in the moment” and that “yes” would be quite enough.

Dr. Bramer from DTS giving us instructions. Dr. Yarbrough stands on the left in the photograph just behind Dr. Bramer. This photo was taken by Rob Young from our tour group.

When we finally stepped into the water, it was freezing. I was shivering before I had taken more than three steps in. I was next to last in line. There were about six people in front of me including Jerry. Things moved quickly. Soon it was his turn and then it was mine. Dr. Bramer stepped to one side and Jerry moved into his spot. As I stepped into the now vacant spot between Dr. Yarbrough and Jerry, I was beyond nervous. I felt Dr. Yarbrough’s hand on my shoulders to help support me and I placed my hands on my chest; Jerry laid his hand over mine and then asked me,

“Joan, are you trusting in the finished work of Jesus on the cross as complete payment for your sins? Are you trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation?”

I am not sure where it came from as I had fully intended to just say “yes” just like I’d decided earlier but, in that moment, I answered, “with all my heart and soul”. Then, I was lowered into the river which was like ice water; I gasped as I came back up into the warm air.

Then I raised my hands to heaven. Yes!  After all those months of dreaming about it, I had finally been baptized in the Jordan River. I could not have been happier. This memory and this feeling will be with me for a long time if not forever. (And I have written down the date this time – won’t be forgetting now.)

I was helped out of the river by Jerry and Dr. Bramer, and I turned for a moment to watch the last person being baptized.

Afterwards, we headed into a communal dressing room where everything was wet, and those white robes stuck to our bodies like glue. I thought I’d never get out of it and into dry clothes. But all too soon we were back on the bus and headed to the hotel. It was over way too quickly, and I was exhausted.

Did I need to be baptized a second time? Of course not. My salvation came when I believed. The baptism is just a way of telling the world that I do believe. I like how Dr. Andrew Farley8, from the Grace Message Church in Texas, explains it as being like a birthday celebration. You’ve been born of the spirit and you’re celebrating your “birth” day with all your friends in Christ. Indeed. I might even do it again in another fifty years or so.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.”2

Sources for References and Additional Information About the Jordan River:

  1. Jordan River – Wikipedia
  2. Shall We Gather at the River? > Lyrics | Robert Lowry (timelesstruths.org); Robert Lowry; 1864; Public Domain:
  3. Degania Dam – Wikipedia
  4. File:Bethany (5).JPG – Wikipedia (Photo of Bethany Baptism site)
  5. File:The Jordan River loops, aerial view 1938.jpg – Wikimedia Commons (Aerial View of Jordan River from Wikipedia)
  6. Dr. Mark Yarbrough – Dallas Theological Seminary
  1. Dr. Stephen J. Bramer – Dallas Theological Seminary.
  2. The Grace Message with Dr. Andrew Farley
  3. Living Water – Wikipedia