Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem

Many tourists visit Bethlehem, specially at this time of the year (except in 2020 because of the pandemic), as that is where Jesus was born (Luke 2:11). We first learn about Bethlehem in the Book of Ruth, where we read that Boaz purchased Ruth the Moabitess according to the law of the levirate marriage, who then became his wife (Ruth 4:10). They had a son called Obed, who became the grandfather of David. Jesus is, of course, the greater son of King David. What do we know about his birthplace?

Both Mary and Joseph were descendants of King David. When the Roman government ordered a census to be carried out, they had to travel from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. Mary was descended from David through Solomon (Matth 1:16) and Joseph through another son of David, namely Nathan (Luke 3:31). We suggest that the place where Jesus was born was not a randomly chosen cave, but a place that was prepared centuries earlier for this purpose. 

A reconstruction drawing of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This church is a basilica type building with a central nave and two double aisles. At the back of the church is a stairway that descends to a series rock-cut caves, one of which is the traditional Grotto of the Nativity.

Most people believe that the grotto in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born. In the early Byzantine period, a church was erected over this grotto by Constantine. After this building was destroyed in 529 CE, Justinian built a new church. In the floor of the Grotto of the Nativity is a silver star that indicates the traditional birth place of Jesus. It is important to remember, that after Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). Mangers are found in stable blocks and not in caves or grottoes. The grotto in Bethlehem was originally a Roman shrine above which stood a temple to Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite.

What do we know about the ancestral home of the family of David? Near the end of King David’s life, he had to flee from his son Absalom. He stayed with Barzillai, the Gileadite, whose son Chimham returned with David to Jerusalem (2 Sam 19:37-40). In order to provide Chimham with a source of income, David apparently gave him a part of his own inheritance in Bethlehem on which to build a house, which is later mentioned in Jer. 41:17, as the habitation of Chimham. 

This drawing shows what a large house, such as the “habitation of Chimham” near Bethlehem, mentioned in Jer. 41:17, may have looked like in the first century. Rooms were arranged around the central courtyard, which had a well for drawing water. One, or perhaps more of the upper rooms, seen in the foreground, were reserved for important guests, while servants would have stayed on ground level.

Joseph would naturally have gone to this home where this family members lived. In the Gospel record (Luke 2:7), we read that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. The for word “inn” is kataluma in Greek, and means an upper room or guest room. When Joseph and Mary arrived at their ancestral home, they were told that all the upper rooms were occupied and the only available space left for Jesus to be born was the stable block. Joseph and Mary had to share this stable with animals. It wasn’t a romantic Christmas postcard stable with smiling camels and donkeys, probably drawn by artists who don’t know how bad camels can smell and how loud the braying of donkeys can be!

What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like large rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. a wall with several low windows, built in the middle of the room. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets, called mangers, and placed in these windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the first half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born and eventually placed in one of the wooden provender boxes, which would have served as his crib. 

This drawing shows a typical stable block. The animals were kept behind the fenestrated wall (a wall with windows), while animal fodder and other provender was kept on this side of the wall. Fodder was put in mangers, or wooden feeding troughs, which were placed in the windows, so that animals could eat. Mary and Joseph (pictured here) would have put baby Jesus to sleep in such a manger.

If that is so, then one can only marvel at God’s providence that a birthplace was prepared by David, so that Jesus could be born in his own inheritance a thousand years later. 

When Jesus was born, shepherds came to pay their respect, in fulfilment of Micha 4:8 that the former dominion will be restored to “the watchtower of the flock” (Migdal Eder in Hebrew). This Migdal Eder is the place where Rachel was buried (Gen. 35:21). At the time when Jesus was born, Migdal Eder was the place where special shepherds kept the flock from which the sacrificial animals for the daily sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple were chosen. Angels from heaven announced to these special shepherds the good tidings of the Kingdom of God.

Here we see two shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats in the Shepherds’ Field near BethlehemIt was to shepherds like these that angels from heaven announced the good tidings of the Kingdom of God. (Photo: Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

Interview with Bryan Windle

Bryan Windle loves interviewing archaeologists. In his blog Discussions with the Diggershe says that he is learning from experts about different biblical sites. 

Although not officially a “digger”, I appear in his latest interview.

Other archaeologists that have been interviewed are Steve Ortiz, Robert Mullins, Gary Byers, Scott Stripling and Bryant Wood.

The Royal Stoa of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

During the Herodian period, a colonnaded hall, known as the Royal Stoa, graced the whole length of the Southern Wall. Constructed in the shape of a basilica with four rows of forty columns each, it formed a central nave in the east end and two side aisles. The central apse was the place of meeting for the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish Council. The main part of this building was used for the changing of money and purchase of sacrificial animals.

In 19 BC King Herod the Great, began the most ambitious building project of his life, the rebuilding of the Temple in lavish style. To facilitate this, he undertook a further expansion of the Hasmonean Temple Mount by extending it on three sides, to the north, west and south. The Royal Stoa stood above the Southern Wall, on the left of the drawing.

Although the existence and location of this magnificent building was never doubted, questions remain about its plan and decoration. I was pleased therefore to hear of Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat’s new publication, “Herodian Architectural Decoration and King Herod’s Royal Portico,” that appears in Qedem 57, edited by Eilat Mazar, The Temple Mount Excavations in Jerusalem, 1968–1978 Directed by Benjamin Mazar Final Reports Volume V. Continue reading “The Royal Stoa of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem”

The Tomb of the Shroud in Jerusalem

In a previous post, we commented on the finding of a 1st century tomb, containing bones and the remains of a linen shroud, next to the Tomb of Annas which we have been able to identify earlier. The tomb was named “The Tomb of the Shroud”. Akeldama is located at the mouth of the Hinnom Valley:

On the southern side of the Hinnom Valley, several highly decorated tombs were found in a location that is usually associated with Akeldama, the Filed of Blood purchased with Judas’ betrayal money. However, using the description by Josephus of the Roman circumvallation wall around Jerusalem, we identified this tomb complex as belonging to the High Priestly family of Annas, before whom Jesus stood after his arrest in Gethsemane.

The inner burial chamber of the Tomb of Annas was highly decorated and had kokhim burial niches in the walls. The body of Annas was probably placed in the kokh (burial niche) disguised by the fake door in the wall on the right.

An interesting  scientific article has been published with the results of the Molecular Exploration of this tomb:

The Tomb of the Shroud is a first-century C.E. tomb discovered in Akeldama, Jerusalem, Israel that had been illegally entered and looted. The investigation of this tomb by an interdisciplinary team of researchers began in 2000. More than twenty stone ossuaries for collecting human bones were found, along with textiles from a burial shroud, hair and skeletal remains. The research presented here focuses on genetic analysis of the bioarchaeological remains from the tomb using mitochondrial DNA to examine familial relationships of the individuals within the tomb and molecular screening for the presence of disease.

The Tomb of the Shroud is one of very few examples of a preserved shrouded human burial and the only example of a plaster sealed loculus with remains genetically confirmed to have belonged to a shrouded male individual that suffered from tuberculosis and leprosy dating to the first-century C.E. This is the earliest case of leprosy with a confirmed date in which M. leprae DNA was detected.

Historically disfiguring diseases, particularly leprosy and tuberculosis, were commonly categorized together in the Near East and the afflicted individuals were ostracized from their communities. The general Jewish practice in the first century C.E. was for a primary burial to be placed within a loculus until the decomposition of organic remains had taken place, at which point – approximately a year later – the bones were then taken out of the loculus and transferred into a repository (a pit or wall niche) or into a stone ossuary. However this transfer did not occur for the individual buried in Tomb of the Shroud loculus 1 – instead this loculus was sealed with white plaster, a practice which is quite rare in the first century tombs studied around Jerusalem.

In the conclusion the authors note that the disease of leprosy did not distinguish between rich and poor. The prevalence of such a highly contagious disease, particularly for immuno-compromised individuals with leprosy is not unexpected with inadequate sanitation and demonstrates the significant impact social diseases such as tuberculosis had on society from the low socioeconomic groups up to the more affluent families, such as Tomb the Shroud in first-century Jerusalem.

It is interesting to read in the New Testament of a Simon the Leper, who lived in Bethany (Matt. 26.6). He may have been the leper that was healed by Jesus in Matt. 8.2. Leprosy is an ancient disease, as we are told in Luke 4.27: “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha”, but only Naaman the Syrian was healed.

The above article states that leprosy is a highly contagious disease. This was known already in the time of Moses (Lev. 13,14), where stringent laws were put ion place to contain leprosy by isolating the people who suffered from it. This was reiterated again in Deuteronomy 24.8: “Take care, in a case of leprosy, to be very careful to do according to all that the Levitical priests shall direct you.”

Unfortunately, it did not save this particular individual whose remains were sealed and found some 2,000 years later.

Chronological Life Application Study Bible

Last week I received a copy of the new Chronological Life Application Study Bible, produced by Tyndale House Publishers.

Its approach is quite unique in that the chapters are arranged in chronological order. As an example, it was surprising, but possibly accurate, to see Ps 90, which was written by Moses, placed at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. Also helpful is the timeline at the top of each page, showing where in history the text is placed.

The new four-color Chronological Life Application Study Bible combines the proven resources of the Life Application Study Bible with a chronological format and several brand-new resources. The Bible is arranged in 10 chronological sections that help the reader to see how the various pieces of the Bible fit together. New section intros and timelines set the stage for the passages in each section. New archaeological notes and photographs help to bring God’s story to life in a whole new way.

I was also pleased to see the new reconstruction drawings that I was asked to make for this Study Bible:

p. 197 The Tabernacle

p. 682 Jerusalem in the Time of David

p. 615 Solomon’s Temple

p. 707 Jerusalem from Solomon to Hezekiah

p. 1219 Jerusalem in the Time of Nehemiah

p. 1389 Herod’s Temple

p. 1489 The Tomb of Christ

Here are two samples:

The Tabernacle. Drawing © Leen Ritmeyer

Jerusalem in the Time of Nehemiah. Drawing © Leen Ritmeyer

N.B. The aim of the New Living Translation was of course, as explained in the Introduction:

“to render the message of the original texts of Scripture into clear, contemporary English. As they did so, they kept the concerns of both formal-equivalence and dynamic-equivalence in mind.”

What happened to Solomon’s Palace in Jerusalem?

Certain images in the Image Library have been particularly popular with both teachers and publishers. Among these is the drawing of the development of the Temple Mount throughout the ages:

King Solomon built the First Temple on the top of Mount Moriah which is visible in the centre of this cut-away drawing. This mountain top can be seen today, inside the Islamic Dome of the Rock. King Hezekiah built a square Temple Mount (yellow walls) around the site of the Temple, which he also renewed. In the Hasmonean period, the square Temple Mount was enlarged to the south (red walls). Finally, King Herod the Great enlarged the mount to double its size (grey walls) by building 15 feet (5 m) thick retaining walls, which are still standing today. The many cisterns cut into the mountain are also shown.

Often downloaded together with this is an image which shows a series of reconstruction drawings of the Temple Mount in the different historical periods:

These five drawings show the five stages in the development of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. From top to bottom: 1. The square Temple Mount built by King Hezekiah. 2. The Akra Fortress (red) was built by the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168 BC to control the local Jewish population. The fortress was destroyed by the Maccabees in 141 BC. 3. After the destruction of the Akra, the Hasmoneans extended the Temple Mount to the south (blue). 4. Herod the Great renewed the Temple Mount by enlarging the square Temple Mount to double its size and building a new Temple. 5. During the Umayyad period, the Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the Temple and the El Aqsa mosque on that of the Royal Stoa. Large public buildings were erected to the south and west of the Temple Mount

I recently had the opportunity of devoting myself to a study of the development of the mount in the time of Hezekiah and in the process discovered evidence of some dramatic political upheavals in the time of the later kings of Judah. This new drawing shows that virtually all four corners of the square Temple Mount have been preserved:

Isometric drawing showing the archaeological remains of the outer walls of the 500 cubit square Temple Mount. The dark-tinted areas are the actual or projected remains, connected with reconstructed masonry courses.

Space and time does not allow me to describe these remains here (see The Quest – Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for photographs and a detailed analysis). According to 1 Kings 6, King Solomon built a new Temple on Mount Moriah and the following chapter tells us that he also built a house (palace) for himself with a Hall of Pillars and a Hall of Judgment adjacent to it. It was presumably in the latter building that Solomon demonstrated his wisdom in dealing with the two women both claiming to be the mother of the same child. Next to this royal complex he built the House of the Forest of Lebanon, where he kept military equipment, such as the shields of beaten gold, that were later taken away by Shishak, king of Egypt.

According to 1 Kings 6 and 7, Solomon built a new Temple and Palace Complex on Mount Moriah. This schematic drawing shows an arrangement of the different buildings, based on parallels with similar complexes excavated elsewhere in the Middle East. 
The main entrance was through the Hall of Pillars (1 Kings 7.6), which was flanked by the Throne Hall (1 Kings 7.7) on the right, where Solomon judged, and the armoury, called the House of the Forest of Lebanon (1 Kings 7.2-5) on the left. In the centre of this complex is the palace, called Solomon’s House (1 Kings 7.8a), which had a separate wing for his wife, Pharaoh’s Daughter (1 Kings 7.8b). From a large courtyard in front of Solomon’s House, a special Royal Ascent (1 Kings 10.5 KJV) led up to the Temple (1 Kings 6), which lay on higher ground.

There were two stages in the destruction of Jerusalem of the First Temple period. During the first stage, in the fourth month of 586 BCE, the city wall on the Western Hill, together with the Middle Gate, was destroyed, as well as the king’s palace and the ‘House of the People’ (Jer. 39.8). These two complexes consisted of Hezekiah’s newly built royal palace on the Western Hill of Jerusalem and the adjacent House of the Assembly, where the nobles of Judah held council.

The second stage of the conquest of Jerusalem took place in the fifth month when Nebuzaradan burnt the Temple and the king’s palace in the City of David (2 Kings 25.9-10).

So, what happened to Solomon’s original palace?

I had already suggested in The Quest that King Hezekiah was the original builder of the square mount. He was also a great reformer and is credited with reinstituting the Temple services. The first action he took was the opening of the doors of the Temple and the cleansing of its interior from desecration (2 Chron. 29.3-36). He encouraged the priests and Levites to rededicate themselves and to reinstate the Mosaic sacrifices. This was followed by the keeping of the Passover, which had not been kept for many years (2 Chron. 30.5).

I had also noted that the Solomonic complex must have been completely dismantled by Hezekiah and the area it previously occupied incorporated within the extended square Temple Mount. His actions in removing the royal complex and thus separating it from the sacred area may have been motivated by the description of God’s anger in the prophecy of Ezekiel 43:8. Here the prophet describes the reason for God’s displeasure as: “their setting of their threshold by my thresholds, and their post by my posts, and the wall between me and them, they have even defiled my holy name by their abominations that they have committed: wherefore I have consumed them in mine anger.”

Plan of the present-day Temple Mount with the location of the 500 cubit square Temple Mount, showing Solomon's Temple and his adjacent royal and military complex.

On the above plan, the blue line indicates what would appear to have comprised the “wall between me and them”. It divides the square mount in two equal halves and may be an indicator as to how Hezekiah laid out the boundaries of the square Temple Mount. The blue dot indicates the place where pottery from an apparently undisturbed layer dating from the end of the First Temple period was found during repair work on the Temple Mount, see this previous post.

Solomon’s royal and military complex was located to the immediate south of the Temple. As history has shown, the royal household (e.g. Queen Athaliah and Kings Uzzah and Ahaz) tried on several occasions to control the temple services and the priesthood. By dismantling this royal complex, Hezekiah effectively separated state from religion.

Hezekiah’s religious and political reforms as expressed in his Temple platform construction would therefore have served as an inspiration and encouragement for  the renewal of a purified priesthood and temple service, free from political interference.

First annual conference of Hekhal: the Irish Society for the Ancient Near East

Just returned from Dublin where our attendance at Hekhal’s conference on “The Other Temples” was time well spent. As Lidia Matassa, the society’s president, wrote in her introduction to the conference programme:

“Hekhal was born in July 2011, out of a desire to create a new academic society in Ireland, whose focus is the history of the ancient Near East. There are many academic conferences held in Ireland annually, but none whose focus is solely the history and historiography of the ancient Near East and the biblical world. It is the hope of the committee that over the next few years Hekhal will become prominent in the academic landscape and will provide a forum for the many academics whose work in this area finds itself without a proper and permanent place to be aired.”

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where the conference was held.

The programme can be seen on the society’s website, but we will try to give a bit of the flavour of the three days we spent together in the “fair city”. Jason Gosnell gave an overview of the subject, setting the scene with his talk: “Interpreting YHWH’s Space, an Examination of the Temples of the G-d of Israel”. David Morgan also explored the question of whether the multiple temple sites were in competition with or complementary to the Jerusalem Temple. There was lots of Hebrew conversation to be heard, with Israeli archaeologists reporting fresh from the field. Yossi Garfinkel gave the first academic presentation of the finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa, followed by an animated discussion session. In a talk called “The Temple in the hearts of Galileans”, Motti Aviam showcased the large decorated stone block found in Migdal (Magdala), which he identifies as a symbolic representation of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Attendees experienced some of the passion involved in Temple topics in the discussion arising from Yossi Patrich’s proposal of his theory on the development of the Temple Mount in opposition to the one I have proposed (See: Leen Ritmeyer, “The Hasmonean Temple Mount”, in: The Quest – Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, pp. 207-220). Patrich suggested that the outer court of the First Temple sloped downhill and that Simon the Just leveled it out.  According to him, the southern boundary was determined by a Roman staircase which he mistakenly interpreted as a Hasmonean “staged wall”. My paper was entitled: “Relating the Temple Scroll from Qumran to the architecture of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem” and was based on work I carried out with the late Prof. Yigael Yadin shortly before his death.

The Middle Court of the Temple Scroll was a square of 500 cubits, the same size as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the First Temple period. © Leen Ritmeyer

Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme also spoke on a theme connected to the Jerusalem Temple, looking into the links between it and the temple on Mount Gerizim. Other talks based on the subject of Qumran were given by David Hamidovic and Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, while Benedikt Eckhardt dealt with: “The Yahad, Temple Ideology and Graeco-Roman Voluntary Associations”. The Temple at Elephantine was the subject of papers by Gard Granerod and Stephen Germany, while the theme of Egypt was also pursued by Andrew Krause in his: “Diaspora synagogues, Leontopolis, and the Other Jewish Temples of Egypt”. Meron Piotrkowski discussed Onias’ Temple.

The Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to Barnabas were the subjects of Clement William Grene and Douglas Estes respectively. Naphtali Meshel set up an interesting model for sacrificial language. Tyson Putthoff spoke on “The Edible Shekhinah: Temple, Vision and Transformation in Bavli Sotah 49a”. Members of the Hekhal committee also gave papers, Lidia Matassa examining the identification of a synagogue at Jericho, Jason McCann, “Imagining the Temple” and Jason Silverman suggesting that the renewal of the Jerusalem cult in the Persian period may have had ritual connections with Iran. Most encouragingly, there was still quite an audience for the last speaker, William Hamblin, whose subject “The Temple in the Qur’an”, brought us forward five hundred years from the destruction of the Temple, but showed its enduring spiritual significance.

The most popular site among attendees to visit in Dublin appeared to be the Chester Beatty Library, where biblical papyri dating from the second to the fourth century proved a great lure.

The Permanent display of the Pauline Letters, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

After the conference, speakers went their various ways, with most of them promising to submit their papers for publication in the conference proceedings. Another Hekhal conference is planned for 2013.

Read the Dead Sea Scrolls online

From the website of the Israel Museum:

The Israel Museum welcomes you to the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, allowing users to examine and explore these most ancient manuscripts from Second Temple times at a level of detail never before possible. Developed in partnership with Google, the new website gives users access to searchable, fast-loading, high-resolution images of the scrolls, as well as short explanatory videos and background information on the texts and their history. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest known biblical manuscripts in existence, offer critical insight into Jewish society in the Land of Israel during the Second Temple Period, the time of the birth of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. Five complete scrolls from the Israel Museum have been digitized for the project at this stage and are now accessible online.

“We are privileged to house in the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book the best preserved and most complete Dead Sea Scrolls ever discovered,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “They are of paramount importance among the touchstones of monotheistic world heritage, and they represent unique highlights of our Museum’s encyclopedic holdings. Now, through our partnership with Google, we are able to bring these treasures to the broadest possible public.”

The five Dead Sea Scrolls that have been digitized thus far include the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll, the Temple Scroll, and the War Scroll, with search queries on sending users directly to the online scrolls.

The inner Temple complex as described in the Temple Scroll. © Leen Ritmeyer

You need to be able to read Hebrew to make full use of this resource. There is, however, a link that shows the English translation.

Lectures at the Palestine Exploration Fund, London

If you’re in London during the next few months, you may find the following lectures interesting:

06 October 2011
The Petra Effect: Archaeology and Psychical Research at George Horsfield and Agnes Conway’s Excavations
10 November 2011
War, Politics and Trade in the Roman Red Sea
08 December 2011
The Society of Biblical Archaeology 1870-1919

News of Biblical Turkey

Mark Wilson sends word from Turkey that the Spring 2011 issue of the Asia Minor Report is available. You can read it here: Asia Minor Report 11 or subscribe by contacting Mark at:

Of particular interest is his review of Wall Painting in Ephesos from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine Period by Norbert Zimmermann and Sabine Ladstätter, Istanbul.

Wilson’s book Biblical Turkey (see our review here) has become one of the crucial sources on the history of the area and, together with the classic works, was a tremendous help in the production of our latest CD on The Seven Churches of Revelation.