Oh, Disappointing Little Town of Bethlehem

Oh, little town of Bethlehem.

You once were a tiny, non-descript village just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Jerusalem, and now people around the world sing songs about you every December because a special baby was born within your city limits.

Bethlehem, did you know how famous you’d become?

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register. 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. Luke 2:1-4

The Nativity scene

When I was touring Jordan, just across the Dead Sea, and my guide Ibrahim pointed in the direction of the City of David from 50 miles away – my breath caught in my throat.

That’s the place where Jesus was born. Wow. If I was that awed from miles away, certainly the in-person experience would be even more overwhelming.

I was wrong.

My experience in Bethlehem was grotesquely disappointing. To start, the tour guide was an hour late. Rawrr.

Once he finally showed up, there was no apology or explanation for the tardiness, just a gruff “Get in the van, we’re late!” There was no explanation along the way of what was going on as we passed from Israel into the West Bank, Palestinian territory. The only indication I had of a change was the alert my iPhone sends when I cross into a new country and of course, the ever-present machine guns at the border.

Once the tour began, I realized just how uninformed the guide was about the actual story of the birth of Christ. I’m the first to admit maybe I’m a little too particular about my details due to about 30 years of Bible study, so I try not to be too demanding of those who maybe haven’t had as much instruction, but it was frustrating to see all my other tourmates gobbling up the false information.

Whether you believe all that is said to have happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago is truth or not – that’s not the issue – it’s that a tour guide in Bethlehem should probably take a peek at the source material before waxing poetic about the city’s historic roots.

Hark the herald angels sing.

Our guide said, “This is the field where the shepherds spent that first cold Christmas night awaiting the baby Jesus.”

It took everything in me not to yell “False!” in all my Dwight Schrute glory. Two millennia ago, shepherds would not have been keeping watch over their flocks by night outdoors because it was freezing cold. That was a summer or at least temperate spring/fall activity. Christmas as we know it in Northern Hemisphere winter format itself was originally decreed by Emperor Constantine in AD 336, after Christianity was legalized by the Roman Empire.

Is this the field where the angels announced Jesus’ birth to the terrified shepherds?

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. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

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

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

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 2:8-15

Lighting candles at the Church of the Nativity

We Three Kings of Orient Are(n’t)

The guide told us how three wise men followed a star all the way from Persia, or modern-day Iran/Iraq/the Arabian Peninsula, and presented newborn, 5-pound/6-ounce baby Jesus fine gifts of gold, frankincense & myrhh. But where do we get the idea that there were three? Probably from Christmas carols written in the 1800s by English guys! It doesn’t say that in the Bible.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

So we don’t know how many kings, magi, wise men or astronomers there really were. All we know is that a group of very smart mystic dudes showed up to visit Jesus, Mary & Joseph and when they left, they didn’t go back to King Herod as they’d promised.

And while it really doesn’t make much of a difference in the story if there were three or 33 wise men, my guide was so adamant that there were three – he had names for them and everything – that it made me wonder where in the world he was getting his information. And it cast doubt on everything else he said…

The spot where Jesus was born? Really?

And there’s another wrench in the story and in just about every Nativity scene ever created. Jesus was not a newborn when the wise men finally found him. It would’ve taken the caravan of magi a while to research the star they saw and determine what it meant, they would’ve had to organize a caravan and guards, they would’ve had to make the trek – which could’ve been anywhere from 900-1200 miles depending on where the fellas actually hailed from, and they made a stop in Jerusalem to chat with the paranoid and unstable King Herod.

By the time the magi finally arrived, Jesus may have been up to two years old! We know that he probably wasn’t any older than that because Joseph, Mary & Jesus fled when Herod, the governor of the region at the time, ordered all baby boys under 2 years old in Bethlehem killed. He wanted to make sure no Messiah ever came out of Bethlehem as it was prophesied. But of course, Jesus & his crew got out in time and peaced out to Egypt.

Religious pilgrims in Bethlehem

And there were other issues… our guide tried to pass off the massive, ornate Church of the Nativity as a structure that was somehow there when Jesus was born… what?! I may not be a biblical scholar, but I guarantee the manger/cave where Jesus was born was not made of gold, it did not rest on a gilded star on the floor nor was it couched in a creepy dark basement of a grand cathedral.

You wouldn’t know that Jesus never had a diaper change within the walls though, because enthusiastic tourists from all over the world were rubbing dish towels and souvenirs over every visible surface, hoping to glean some holiness from the site.

Pushing & shoving to get to the spot where Jesus was born… sort of misses the point, don’t you think?

On top of the guide being so uninformed, which really just wrecked my whole day, I was really put off by the commercialization of the city. Every shop sold tacky Jesus souvenirs (and some sold lovely homemade gifts, of course) and I just had such an icky feeling while I was there. Obviously I’m emotionally attached to the story so seeing people with no concern for its sanctity was upsetting, but I guess this is one instance where my travel expectations just couldn’t live up to the reality.

Want to buy some holy stuff? At the Church of the Nativity, you can!

Do you think I am being too particular? If I’d taken a tour of Jane Austen’s home and the guide got her sister’s name wrong or if I’d visited Platform 9 3/4 in London and my guide took me to the wrong train station, I’d be just as annoyed. If you’re a tour guide, I think the major point of your job is to impart correct information… right?!

Church of the Nativity

As a traveler, I’m not hard to please. I’m rarely disappointed with new destinations. In fact, I think I find that more often than not I am impressed and surprised and delighted. This past year I’ve felt that way frequently in Bologna, Umbria, Costa Brava, Prague, Switzerland and Jordan.

But perhaps since I hold such attachment in my heart to the events that took place in Bethlehem, perhaps I just expected too much sanctity and too much purity and awe in a town that felt neither holy nor pure or awesome. (Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t Vegas, but it just felt like the polar opposite of what I expected.)

Am I being too hard on my tour guide? Have you ever had a guide tell you facts you knew weren’t correct? Would you tip in that situation? (I still tipped him, albeit grudgingly. Mercy & forgiveness, right?) 

 

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  • September 28, 2012

    You’re in the Middle East, Angie—it’s not that the tour guide failed to show up on time, it’s that you failed to be late. But I am impressed with his knowledge that even 1,700+ years before America existed, they used the American measuring system to weigh baby Jesus at exactly 5 pounds 6 ounces.

    The commercialism unfortunately reminds me of seeing St Peter’s Basilica shot glasses being sold by nuns in a Vatican City gift shop.
    Mohamed Mansour recently posted..Roman HolidaydreamMy Profile

    • September 28, 2012

      So true! I usually don’t get so bent out of shape about tardiness.. honestly I know my punctuality is the exception, not the rule. It was just a start to a terrible experience.

      Glad you caught the 5 lb. 6 oz. reference, too. Subtle ode to one of the funniest Will Ferrell movies…

    • September 28, 2012

      And yes! I feel the same way in parts of Rome. There’s much money to be made, it seems!

  • September 29, 2012

    That’s such a shame! I don’t think you’re being too particular at all. The whole point of having a guide is so they can share their knowledge with you. And you should be able to trust that the knowledge they share is fact. I would be just as upset.
    Jennifer recently posted..Sarajevo’s War TunnelMy Profile

  • September 29, 2012

    Hahaha I love what your commenter said: You’re in the Middle East, Angie—it’s not that the tour guide failed to show up on time, it’s that you failed to be late. I’m going to start using that for Argentina too!!! What a shame that it was SUCH a disappointment. 🙁
    Andi recently posted..Puerto Rico & Dominica: Day 4 (Part 2)My Profile

    • September 13, 2013
      johnny

      are you sure that your tour guide is Palestinian guide?
      Because i know they are very good guides and they know what they are talking about.\
      Sorry to say that but this is the true

  • September 29, 2012

    I would have felt exactly the same way, it’s always embarrassing when the tour guide gets it wrong. And an hour late is not acceptable! I feel that the gold star and highly decorated location of Jesus’ birth is just the way posterity chose to show respect for Jesus’ birthplace, no? I’m not sure if they actually meant to reproduce the poor conditions of His birth for future generations, although that may have been the best (look at the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized…it’s much more unassuming)
    Charu recently posted..Columbus’ Inner Circle: Inside Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” Art Installation (PHOTOS)My Profile

  • September 30, 2012

    How annoying that you knew more than your guide did! I’m sorry to hear Bethlehem was so disappointing!
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  • October 01, 2012

    I’m sad to hear about how disappointing a modern-day visit to Bethlehem can be. I think I would’ve been pretty cynical, too, by the end of the whole ordeal. 🙁
    Bethany ~ twoOregonians recently posted..Ted’s First Whale and Other Tales from HermanusMy Profile

  • October 07, 2012

    My husband and I lived in Tel Aviv for a couple of years and I was always amazed with how much money there is to be made from Religion. It always seemed to me at the various Christian sites that it was less about what was written in the Bible and more about how much money could be made from the physical place you were currently visiting, which was quite disappointing.
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  • November 02, 2012

    Sorry to hear it was disappointing for you — I hope it was still a worth-while experience at the end of it all 🙂
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  • December 16, 2013
    Raul

    You’re mad that a tour guide didn’t quote “facts” about a made up event? His “facts” are no more idiotic than yours

    • December 18, 2013

      Thanks for the message, Raul Castro. The point isn’t whether one perceives the story to be true or not. The point is that there IS a story, and its details are clear. So whether one considers the Christmas story to be fiction or not, the tour guide should be well aware of the details of that story. As I said, I’d expect a Jane Austen tour guide or C.S. Lewis tour guide to be familiar with the particulars of those authors’ works if they were claiming to be experts and receiving tourist dollars for that expertise. It’s not a stretch to expect a Bethlehem tour guide to have studied up on the published details of the event he is profiting off of 2,000 years later, whether you believe it’s real or not.

  • January 30, 2016

    You will have noticed that in the holy land there are historic sites, and there are traditional sites. Traditional sites are places chosen after the fact, some by Constantine’s mother, for purposes of veneration. Not many sites can be verified historically, as far as I know the only ones which can be are the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, Capernaum in Galilee, and (less precisely) the temple area. In the same way there are traditional elaborations of the biblical narrative, and traditions of worship. The Catholic Church at least regards some of this traditional material as divinely inspired and an addition to the holy word (i.e. bible). I am not Catholic and cannot tell you exactly what falls in this category. However I can say that the talk of three wise men, and their names (Balthazar etc) are a traditional narrative associated with the nativity, and it is perfectly in character with the whole ‘traditional’ thing for this material to be presented to you. In my opinion the guide would have be derelict in his duty if he had not presented these traditions as most would have expected to hear them.
    As to the guide being late, thank your lucky stars you did not have to deal with the cab drivers which met me at the Bethlehem bus stop. What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand? They don’t do no, they aren’t into the whole no thing. (Only eight shekels from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on the bus – that is a good deal).

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