Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria … Part 5

Located adjacent to the Church of the Nativity is Bethlehem’s Catholic parish, Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. You may have seen it before when Christmas Eve services are televised from Bethlehem around the world.

This beautiful church shares a wall with the Church of the Nativity. The current structure was built in 1882 on top of the ruins of a Crusader church and monastery that belonged to the Augustinians.

Common wall between Church of the Nativity and Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

 

This cloister is between the Church of the Nativity and the Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (notice the statue of St Jerome)

While we did not see it, the church also stands atop a two-room cave where St Jerome, a Dalmatian-born priest (c.347-420), translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. His translation was called the Vulgate, the authoritative version of the Bible for Catholics until the 20th century.

St Jerome is the person responsible for the Vulgate, the translation of the Bible Catholics used until the 20th century. Notice the oranges! A member of our tour group picked a few for his family. They smelled delicious!
A statue honoring the roots from the era of the Crusaders

The Church

Entering the Church of Saint Catherine
Massive and beautiful doors leading into the Church of Saint Catherine
Beautiful chapel at Church of Saint Catherine
Close-up of the Stained Glass above the pipe organ in the Church of St Catherine
A beautiful stained glass window above the doors in the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem
A memorial honoring the birth of Jesus in the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem

Who Was Saint Catherine?

I had not ever heard of Saint Catherine before my visit to Bethlehem. With the beautiful church that honors her built right beside the Church of the Nativity, I wanted to know more about her.

Statue of Saint Catherine. Notice the wheel she holds in her hand.

Apparently, Saint Catherine was a 4th-century Christian martyr hailing from Egypt. She was said to have been well-educated and a princess who became a Christian at around the age of 14. From that time until she was martyred at the age of 18, she is believed to have won many people over to Christianity.

Legend has it that she challenged the emperor Maxentius for persecuting Christians and for worshipping false gods. Enraged, the emperor threw her into prison where she was beaten until blood ran from her in streams.

Catherine steadfastly refused to show that she was in pain. Instead, she is said to have stood her ground with her eyes raised to Heaven, celebrating her Lord. In prison, legend says that angels rubbed her wounds with salve while a dove from Heaven fed her. It is believed the Christ visited her in her cell, encouraging her to keep up the brave fight.

While she was in prison, hundreds visited her and were converted to Christianity, including the wife of emperor Maxentius. They were all put to death for their newfound faith.

Oddly, after Maxentius was unable to break Catherine’s will by torture or starvation, he proposed marriage to her. She refused, telling him that her spouse was Jesus Christ to whom she had consecrated her virginity.

Furious, Maxentius ordered her to be tortured using an execution wheel. Usually reserved for murderers or robbers, execution by the wheel was slow and excruciatingly painful. The convict was first tied down to the floor, then a wheel that had spikes in it, designed to mutilate the body, was dropped on them.

However, when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke. Spared of dying the long and painful death by the wheel, she was instead beheaded. Rather than blood, it is said that a milk-like substance flowed out of her neck. Legend says that her body was subsequently carried by angels to Mount Sinai.

Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics honor Saint Catherine as a saint. She is considered a Great Martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church and one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers by Roman Catholics.

(I relied on information found here to tell the story of Saint Catherine.)

 

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7

 

 

Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6

Our Gate1 tour of Israel took us to Shepherds’ Field, one of three spots believed to be where shepherds learned about the birth of Jesus. Interestingly, Christians have chosen one spot – Shepherds’ Field, while Greek Orthodox believe the shepherds learned of the Savior’s birth in the eastern part of Beit Sahour and Catholics think the Christ child was announced about 400 meters north of the Greek Orthodox site, on the north ridge of Beit Sahour.

While the significance of the Lamb can’t be denied, young and old stood near Shepherds’ Field holding lambs. The hope was that you would stop and speak and maybe pet the lamb or ask for a picture with the lamb for a donation.

My opinion is that it doesn’t really matter which of the three spots is the one where the shepherds got the word that Jesus had been born. What is important is that He was born!

The cave where the Shepherds were keeping their sheep the night the angel told them of Jesus’ birth

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  Luke 2:6-15

Shepherds’ Field

Shepherds’ Field is east of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic sites. It is also in Beit Sahour, a community southeast of Bethlehem, originally known as the Village of the Shepherds.

The Field of Boaz is visible to the east of Shepherds’ Field. This is where Ruth, grandmother of King David, met and married Boaz.

Field of Boaz, aka Field of Ruth. The plains where Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, the forefather of Jesus, met and married Boaz. Ruth 2, 3

 

It was a cold, wet day in January when we visited Shepherd’s Field. It was amazing how warm and cozy it was when we entered the cave where Christians believe shepherds were tending their sheep the night they learned that the Christ child had been born.

The cave was fairly large, bigger than I would have guessed it would be. The ceiling was black from the fires that kept the shepherds and their flocks warm.

In the Bible study, the ROCK, the ROAD, and the RABBI, with Kathie Lee Gifford and Rabbi Jason Sobel, we learn that it is probable that the shepherds weren’t just your run of the mill sheep tenders. Instead, they were likely Levitical shepherds whose job it was to raise the blemish-free lambs to be sacrificed at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem.

The caves where the shepherds took their ewes before they gave birth to new lambs were necessarily kept in a state of purity since Jewish law required the lambs to be pure. So, the cave where Jesus, the Lamb of God, was born was almost certainly one used by the Levitical shepherds, one that had been purified.

The cave at Shepherd’s Field where Christians believe shepherds were tending their sheep when they learned Jesus was born.
Notice the size of the cave and the black, soot-covered ceilings.
The church at Shepherds’ Field. We were not able to visit the church.
Statue of a Shepherd and his flock outside of the Shepherds’ Field church

Archaeological Ruins of Five Churches Found at Shepherds’ Field

Excavations uncover multiple churches from early centuries

The beautiful Shepherds’ Field church is new. In 1972, the Archimadrite Seraphim, the leader of the Monastery of Saint Savva, decided to build the full-sized church over the cave at Shepherds’ Field.  It was while excavating the foundation for the new church that they found the remains of three additional ancient churches.

There are now the remains of five early-century churches found near Shepherds’ Field:

  • The Natural Cave Church dates to the second half of the 4th century
  • The Cave Church, dating to the 5th century
  • The Roof Chapel, dating to the 5th century
  • The Basilica, from the 6th century
  • The Monastery Church, which dates to the 7th century

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7

 

Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Where It Started … Part 3

Our tour of the Holy Land did not follow the timeline of Jesus’ life. For instance, we didn’t go to Bethlehem, where our Savior was born, until the sixth day of our visit. By the time we went to His birthplace, we had already seen where He was baptized and where He died, was buried, and rose again.

I have decided to try to put as much as I can into chronological order rather than how we saw the landmarks while on our tour. I think it will make more sense that way. Naturally, you can skip around this blog at your convenience and can visit whichever page(s) you desire in the order that pleases you.

Notice the Christmas tree on the left and the Peace Center on the right. (I believe the Peace Center actually may just be a restaurant, but given the political situation, I thought it might be something more significant…)

Bethlehem

It takes someone much smarter than I am to understand how the West Bank and occupied territories all work. I’ve tried to do some research on it all, but I am sorry to say that my mind is left spinning.

So, while I do not purport to understand it all, suffice it to say that Bethlehem is in the West Bank. Our Jewish Israeli tour guide was unable to accompany us into Bethlehem because it is under Palestinian rule.

There is a sign at the border warning Israelis that they could be hurt if they cross over into the West Bank. If I understand correctly, this is because of Israel laws, not Palestinian.

 

Israeli citizens – turn around! You are not allowed here!

Therefore, we were given a Christian Palestinian to guide us through Shepherds’ Field and the Church of the Nativity. I wish I better understood all of the politics of it.

The Names of Bethlehem

Bethlehem plays an important role in both the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. In Biblical times, it was known as Bethlehem Ephrathah or Bethlehem-Judah. Currently, you may hear it referred to as Bethlehem or by its Arabic name Bayt Laḥm (which translates to “House of Meat”) or its Hebrew name, Bet Leḥem (meaning “House of Bread”).

Getting to Bethlehem

Today, Bethlehem is located in the West Bank. It is only about five miles south of Jerusalem, situated in the Judaean Hills. To get here, though, you have to cross out of Israel and into the West Bank. Fences and warnings abound.

In recent years, tourists quit going to Bethlehem because it was simply deemed to be too dangerous. However, the Palestinians have made great effort to remedy that situation since much of its economy is tourist-driven.

Border security.

Bethlehem in Biblical Times

Bethlehem is important to Christians for many reasons, most especially because it is where our Savior was born over 2,000 years ago. The Church of the Nativity, which stands over the cave where Jesus was born, is one of the oldest Christian churches.

It was initially built by Helena (326-328), mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I. The original church was destroyed but it was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Justinian (reigned 527–565). It remains substantially the same today as it was then.

Luke 2:4-7:

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 

Bethlehem is important to Christian pilgrims for more reasons than “just” the birth of Christ:

  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife and the mother of Benjamin, died during childbirth on the way to Bethlehem (aka Ephrath). She was buried there. (Genesis 35:16-20)
  • It is where most of the Book of Ruth took place. Ruth married Boaz in Bethlehem. They ultimately became the great-grandparents of the mighty King David.
  • King David was born and raised in Bethlehem. It was there that he was anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel (I Samuel 16).
  • King David’s grandson, Rehoboam, who became the first king of Judah (2 Chronicles 11), fortified the town.
  • Shepherds’ Field, where the Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds tending their sheep and announced the birth of Christ is also near Bethlehem.
  • King Herod assassinated all boys in Bethlehem, ages two and under, in a jealous rage after he heard that Jesus, King of the Jews, was born. He hoped that by killing all young boys he would do away with the Christ-child.

Bethlehem Today

The population of Bethlehem and surrounding villages today is over 220,000 people, including over 20,000 living in three refugee camps (Dheisheh, Aida and Beit Jibrin). While Christians made up most (86%) of the population of Bethlehem in 1950, that is no longer the case. Now, according to Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun, Christians make up only 12% of the population.

Church in Bethlehem

 

Sadly, Baboun says that the unemployment rate in Bethlehem is a staggering 27%. Part of the reason for this high unemployment is the declining tourism trade. Most tourists, even if they go to Bethlehem, do not stay long and spend little of their money there.

When we were there as part of our tour, we ate lunch in Bethlehem, quickly visited Shepherds’ Field, spent an hour or so at the Church of the Nativity (including waiting to be allowed down to the cave over which the church sits), visited a very commercial, very expensive shop, and left.

Angel carved from Olive wood. Beautiful and expensive.

I personally spent a total of $16 US in Bethlehem, the cost of my lunch. I suspect that was also the case for many of the other people who were on our tour. Unfortunately, we didn’t help Bethlehem’s local economy much by our visit.

Just for Fun

Before I leave this page, I want to leave you with a touch of America that has made it across the ocean to the West Bank. Not only did we pass a number of McDonald’s fast food restaurants during our journeys – some kosher, some not – we saw lots of other American companies represented in the Middle East.

Coffee, anyone? I loved the play on words here. (Although I didn’t see it while in Bethlehem, there is also a Walled Off Hotel … playing off the name of the popular Waldorf Hotel in America.)
KFC, Samsung, Dell … All brands we know and love here in America!
You can find Coca Cola at most restaurants. I didn’t have one so I am not sure if it tastes the same as in the US. Notice, too, our American Santa pushing the product!

 

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7