Israel and Middle East

Was Jesus Really Born at THAT Place in Bethlehem?

by Steve Ray on September 24, 2016

Church of the Agony in Gethsemane

Today we are having Mass at Gethsemane on the western slope of the Mount of Olives. How do we know this is really Gethsemane?

And tomorrow we have Mass at Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Really? How do we know?

Yesterday we venerated the place Jesus was born in Bethlehem and had Mass in the Cave of the Shepherds.

It is often asked: how do we know these are the real sites where Jesus and Mary lived and walked. The earliest Christians realized the importance of these sites and immediately viewed them as sites to be remembered and venerated. Small chapels were built and pilgrims came from around the world to visit these spots and to pray.

The spot marking the place where Jesus was bornthese spots and to pray.

When Christianity became legalized, churches were built on these sites. Tradition, archaeology and the ancient witness confirms the authenticity of the sites. Below is a few examples relating to Bethlehem.

In a very enlightening side note, Bethlehem was mentioned by St. John Chrysostom in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, written in ad 370: “. . . Since that birth [of Jesus], men come from the ends of the earth to see the manger, and the site of the shed.”

The early Christians remembered and preserved the location and pilgrims like you visited even in the first centuries. Emperor Hadrian built pagan shrines over the holy places in 135 AD. He thought the memory of the sites and associated faith would be obliterated forever. But then Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. His mother St. Queen Helena went to Israel, asked the locals where Jesus was born, where he was crucified…

Church of Nativity 100 years ago

They pointed to the shrines and showed her what they all still remembered well. Queen Helena knocked down the pagan shrines and what did she find? The remains of early Christian veneration. She built a huge church over the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, another over the place of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and a large church over the cave on the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into heaven.

There is a saying, “The water is cooler and clearer the nearer you get to the source.” Many of the Fathers of the Church – very close to the events mentioned in the Bible – speak with great certainty about the sites in the Holy Land.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “The cave-stable is mentioned by Justin Martyr, Origen, and Jerome. After the Romans conquered Bethlehem anew (AD 135) the site of the Nativity was desecrated, probably under Hadrian (117–138; cf. Jerome Epistle 58.3). Jerome lived for thirty-three years in Bethlehem (AD 387–420). Here he helped found and direct pilgrim hospices, convents for women, and a monastery.”

The Tyndale Bible Dictionary says, “The birth of Jesus possibly took place in a cave in the rocks outside the town. The early Christian writer Justin Martyr 9100–165) thought so, as did Origen (c. 185–254) some years later. Origen frequently resided in the Holy Land and wrote, ‘In Bethlehem you are shown the cave where he was born, and within the cave the manger where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes.’

Emperor Constantine and his mother Queen Helena

“Jerome later described the grotto over which the Emperor Constantine had built a basilica. In excavations in 1934–35, evidence indicated a second period of building in the reign of Justinian (ad 527–565), when Constantine’s basilica was extended beyond its original proportions. Steps lead down to the grotto, the rectangular shape of which suggests that Constantine’s builders reshaped the original. But there is no description of the grotto prior to the construction of Constantine’s basilica.”

These places were remembered! We’ve known their locations for two thousand years.

Another Example: The Cave of Machpelah

The Cave of Machpelah was bought by Abraham about 1850 BC as a tomb in which to bury his wife Sarah. It now contains the remains of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. It is now in Hebron, the city of Abraham. However, Abraham never owned any other land in Canaan before he died.

The Machpelah Cave over Sarah’s tomb built 2,000 years ago

Abraham’s descendants were in bondage in Egypt for four hundred years. For an additional forty years they wandered in the wilderness. It was remembered in Genesis 49 – over 400 years later – when the Israelites returned from Egypt. The city of Hebron was built around Abraham’s tomb and King Herod build a huge monument over the graves of Abraham and his family which still stands today in the heart of Hebron.

Abraham bought a plot of land called the Cave of Machpelah (Gen 35:16–20; 48:7; 1 Sam 10:2). Even today, the Cave of Machpelah is known and can be visited in Hebron. Visiting this site you see a place known for four thousand years!

Another Example: Rachel’s Tomb

Notice a case in which we can see how important holy sites were and how they were carefully remembered. The Tomb of Rachel can be visited today in Bethlehem even though she was buried there about 3,800 years ago!

Rachel’s Tomb 100 years ago in Bethlehem

Jacob buried Rachel in Bethlehem and the location of the tomb was still known 800 years later when Israel returned from Egypt and after they lived in the land for over 350 years. Wouldn’t expect them to forgot its location over the subsequent eight hundred centuries? It is still there today and we filmed there for our David DVD. Notice the biblical verses below:

“So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Genesis 35:19) 

“And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day” (Genesis 35:20)

Eight Hundred years later, “[Samuel said to Saul]  When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah” (1 Samuel 10:2).

These are just a few examples from the Old Testament to show how these holy sites were venerated and remembered. The same can be said from the New Testament. Holy people have always remembered the holy sites.

How much more so for Jesus the Son of God who became flesh! We can be very confident that the holy sites we see today, were the holy sites of old—the very places where God and the saints walked and where we can walk today.

Join us on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and I will be your guide. Visit Footprints of God Pilgrimages.

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Behind the Headlines: Facts and Figures – Islam in Israel

“The State of Israel…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.” –Israel’s Declaration of Independence, 1948

 Freedom of religion is a core value of the Israeli democracy

 •    Israel is home to 1,454,000 Muslim citizens who enjoy full civil liberty and political freedom. 

•    Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of the State of Israel.

•    Most Arab citizens of Israel are Muslims, mainly Sunnis. Other branches of Islam in Israel include: Shia, Alawite, Ahmadiyeh, Sufi and Shazaliyeh. Islam is the second biggest religion in Israel after Judaism.

•    Jews account for 75.4 percent of the population, Muslims make up 16.9 percent, Christians 2.10 percent, Druze 1.70 percent and the rest of the population identifies otherwise, including a small Baha’i community.

Religious affiliation in Israel

 •    The Muslim population of Israel has increased about ten-fold since the State was established; from some 156,000 in 1949 to over 1,454,000 today.

 Muslim Population Growth

  •    There are over 400 mosques in Israel, of which some 73 are located in Jerusalem. The number of mosques in Israel has increased about five-fold since 1988, when there were 80 mosques. 

•    Approximately 300 imams and muezzins receive their salaries from the Israeli government. Israel provides the Korans used in mosques and funds Arab schools and many Islamic schools and colleges. Such schools teach Islamic studies and Arabic, as well as the Israel Ministry of Education’s general curriculum.

•    In 2015, the Israeli government approved a 10-15 billion NIS budget (about 2.6-4 billion USD) for a five-year plan to develop the Arab sector in Israel.

•    The Muslim community regulates its own unique court system and handles marriage and divorce under Islamic law. Eight regional Islamic law courts and one national appeals court operate in Israel, under the supervision of Israel’s Ministry of Justice.

•    Muslims are highly involved in Israeli academia, with some 26,000 Muslim students enrolled in Israeli academic institutions. In 2014, about 21 percent of the undergraduate students at the prestigious Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa were Arabs, up from 11 percent in 2001. This is roughly the same proportion of Arabs as in Israel’s overall population of 8.3 million.

•    Some Muslims also serve in the Israel Defense Forces; approximately 1,700 Muslims served in 2015, mostly from Bedouin tribes.

•    Most of Israel’s Muslim citizens, some 69 percent, live in the northern part of the country, i.e. the Galilee and Haifa. About 20 percent live in and around Jerusalem and 11 percent of Israel’s Muslims are Bedouins that live mostly in the south of Israel, near Be’er Sheva in the Negev.

•    Each year the Jerusalem municipality decorates the streets of the city in celebration of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, and hosts dozens of festivities and events for the public.

•    The municipality also marks the holiday with a traditional ceremony in which a shot is fired from a historical cannon in East Jerusalem each day at sunrise and sunset to mark the beginning and end of the daily fast.

•    Muslim employees can take days off work during Ramadan, and working conditions are tailored to their needs while fasting during the month. The Israel Defense Forces also adjust Muslim soldiers’ training regimes during the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan Lights in Jerusalem, 2016

•    The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem contains one of the most impressive archives of Islamic art in the world, while the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem boasts 600 copies of the Koran from various periods. 

The Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem

•    The umbrella organization Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, or ICCI, has for nearly three decades run programs that foster dialogue, education and mutual understanding among various members of the religious communities in Israel. It is comprised of over 70 Muslim, Christian, and Jewish institutions, including Jewish-Arab coexistence organizations, universities, museums, and various ecumenical organizations.

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President Rivlin: These are difficult times for our city. Terror and death have returned to our streets. The violent attacks all over the city cause growing fear, and with fear comes intolerance and hatred.

(Communicated by the President’s Spokesperson)

President Rivlin with Christian leaders in Jerusalem. Photo: GPO/Mark Neiman.

President Reuven Rivlin this morning (Monday, 9 May 2016) visited the Apostolic Armenian Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, to meet with leaders of the Christian community in Israel. He was welcomed by Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, while also in attendance were the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal.

President Rivlin thanked Patriarch Manougian for his and his community’s hospitality for what he noted was an important meeting, “A meeting with leaders of your community is always important to me, but during these days, is perhaps even more important.” He stressed, “These are difficult times for our city. Terror and death have returned to our streets. The violent attacks all over the city cause growing fear and with fear comes intolerance and hatred.”

President Rivlin reiterated Israel’s commitment to the values of freedom of worship, and to the well-being of the Christian community which was facing persecution across the Middle East. He said, “I come here today to say in the clearest way: the State of Israel is deeply committed to ensure the religious rights of worship and activity of all communities of faith in Jerusalem and throughout Israel.

“But these times are challenging times not only in our holy city, but across the region. Civil war and bloodshed in the name of religion, have brought much pain, and loss, to the Christian communities.” He added that “I am proud that Israel is the only country in our region where the Christian community is not shrinking, but in fact is growing.  Christianity in Israel is not only about historic or holy sites and the many pilgrims who come to visit them. It is a living faith, a living community. We must work together to make sure this stays that way.”

President Rivlin spoke of the importance of remembering the victims of hatred, and spoke of the arrival of Armenian refugees to Jerusalem during and after the First World War. “In 1915, when the members of the Armenian nation were being massacred, the residents of Jerusalem – my parents and my family – saw the refugees arriving in their thousands. In Jerusalem they found shelter. No one in Jerusalem denied a national massacre that had taken place.” He stressed, “We are morally obligated to point out the facts, as horrible as they might be, and not to ignore them.”

The President concluded by offering his hopes and prayers for days of calm in Jerusalem and across the region.

Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian welcomed the President and said, “It is a pleasure and an honor to welcome you all on this special occasion. We the Armenians appreciate the sensitivity you have showed to the community’s concern regarding the genocide. We reflect on our deep commitment to our Christian faith which has often lead us to persecution and death, just as the Jewish people have died for their faith.”

Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III spoke of the shared heritage between the Jewish and Christian communities and said, “We are united in the reality of our common humanity and common cultural heritage. Mr. President, time and again, we are deeply appreciative of your steadfast condemnation of all forms of prejudice, violence, and terrorism and we applaud your commitment to freedom of worship and religious expression for all peoples of the holy land.”

Janet and I with Patriarch Twal in Jerusalem

Latin Patriach of Jerusalem Fouad Twal (Catholic “archbishop of the Holy Land) also welcomed the President, and spoke of the importance of dialogue between communities, “In this region where walls separate one community from another, we must be courageous in opening our doors and hearts to all regardless of gender, race, religion, or nationality. Mr. President, I remember very well our meeting in Tabgha last year where you defended the rights of minorities in the country, and for your eloquent words here today too, we are most grateful.”

He concluded by saying to the President, “On the occasion of the upcoming Independence Day, we wish peace and prosperity for all the people of Israel.”

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Sunrise over Jesus’ Sea of Galilee

April 13, 2016

Every morning it is different and puts on a new face. I watch the fishing boats coming in and imagine Jesus walking across these waves. He left heaven and came to earth – the “scandal of the Incarnation.”  The angels must have been astounded. But Jesus had to enjoy his handiwork, watching sunrises like this […]

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Plants and Trees of the Bible – What a Fun Show!

January 28, 2016

You may not realize how often plants and trees play a part in Scripture! To understand the land and culture of the Bible is to open your eyes to the whole story of salvation. Recently I did a fun show on Relevant Radio about the Trees & Plants in the Bible. Hope you enjoy it. […]

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Womb 2 Tomb; Bethlehem 2 Jerusalem; Biking on Christmas thru the Holy Land

December 26, 2015

I am back in Israel now! Greetings from the Land! I posted this blog a year ago — but I am posting it again so you can see Bethlehem from a unique perspective, from my bike. I think you will enjoy this fun and educational adventure riding through Bethlehem and Jerusalem today. We are in […]

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West has ‘betrayed the Christians of the East’, says Syrian Patriarch

November 28, 2015

Syria, November 19, 2015: The head of the Syrian Catholic Church, Mar Ignace Youssif III Youan, has said the West has betrayed Syrians and caused an endless conflict in the country. Speaking to Le Messenger, an Egpytian Catholic magazine, Youan spoke passionately about the “chaos” that Western governments have caused by ignoring the advice of […]

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Pictures from Nazareth over 100 Years Ago (see the Virgin Mary :-)

November 16, 2015

Today we are in Nazareth looking for Mary! We are visiting her home cave where the Angel Gabriel brought the announcement from heaven. We will also visit her cave where she lived 30 years with Joseph and Jesus. These pictures are over a hundred years old from Nazareth. Not much changed between then and the […]

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Beauty Shots of Sea of Galilee & Is It Safe in the Holy Land?

November 13, 2015

Janet and I are at the Sea of Galilee awaiting our sold out bus of pilgrims arriving on Sunday. We have another sold out bus in December. Our pilgrimage to the Holy Land is almost sold out already for March 2016. But many people are again afraid to come to the Land of Jesus and […]

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Who Has Right to Temple Mount? Why Fearful of Analyzing Muslim Story?

October 25, 2015

Since we have two sold-out pilgrimage groups still going Israel this year and six more next year, I thought this would be interesting for two reasons: 1) To inform folks that things are calming down and will be no problem for our 2015 pilgrims (it would have been no problem even as it was); and […]

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Syrian Archbishop “Disturbed” By CIA Involvement in Conflict 

October 2, 2015

STEVE RAY HERE: After meeting with the Bishop of Jerusalem and talking to many people here in the Middle East I conclude that this bishop is absolutely correct. The United States is on the wrong side of this conflict and Russia is on the right side. President Asad has always protected the Christians and toppling […]

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Jews as Proof of God’s Existence & Faithfulness

October 2, 2015

Winston Churchill wrote “Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.“ He is absolutely right! I have often said they are remarkable people –gifted in a […]

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Who Would Dare to Love ISIS? The People of the Cross, thats’ who

April 25, 2015

The first reaction is to hate ISIS but the People of the Cross, the Christians of the Middle East have sent them a “Letter” in the form of a beautiful video.

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History of Middle East in 90 Seconds

April 13, 2015

Fascinating moving map. Click the image below to see biblical and modern history of the volatile Middle East.

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Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress – Excellent!

March 3, 2015

I thought his speech was brilliant and I’m embarrassed that our president and so many of our leaders refused to attend. They’re acting like spoiled brats. Here you see a real world leader — I wish we had one. Here is the link to listen and watch if you missed it earlier today.

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Excellent and Artistic Photographs of Israel by Spirit Juice

March 3, 2015

Rob Kaczmark and his new wife Kimberly joined us in the Holy Land last September. They own Spirit Juice Studios which is a new and talented production company. While they were with us they took magnificent and artistic pictures along the way. Never have I seen such eye-popping images of the Holy Land. Enjoy! Join […]

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