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Email from Bethlehem

The Guardian – 20 December 2004

In the Holy Land’s “other” Bethlehem, there are no pilgrims looking for a room – not even at Yosef Yeger’s inn. “Christmas isn’t much of an event in Israel,” says the hotel owner. “This year Christmas falls on the Sabbath so maybe we will have a few extra bookings from couples wanting a romantic weekend.”

As Christian pilgrims brave yet another conflict-blighted festive season in the Holy Land, venturing from Jerusalem to the neighbouring Palestinian town of Bethlehem to celebrate the nativity, few are likely to consider a detour 90 miles north to a village of a few dozen homes known in Hebrew as Bethlehem HaGalilit, or Bethlehem of the Galilee.

Hidden deep in woods a few miles west of Nazareth, Bethlehem HaGalilit is without any visible Christian presence: no churches are to be seen and its old stone homes are occupied by Jews, mainly descendants of those who fled or died in the Holocaust. Bethlehem’s only Christmas connection, says Yeger, is a unique, small, private forest of Christmas trees he grows for sale. But before the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the village had an intimate connection to Christianity – and possibly, say a few outspoken experts, to the nativity itself.

Only 100 years ago, Bethlehem was settled by evangelical missionaries called the Templars, a German sect with colonies in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. According to a local historian, Kobi Fleischman, whose home in Bethlehem is a museum to the Templars, the group came to the Holy Land to establish a direct relationship with God. When the Templars were deported en masse to Australia by the region’s British rulers following the second world war, they left few traces behind – not even church buildings.

But the Templars were drawn to the Galilean Bethlehem by the ruins of a much older Christian community. “Here we have the remains of a monastery and two churches from the time of Jesus,” says Fleischman. “Imagine that for a place as small as today’s Bethlehem.” Other archeological studies suggest that Bethlehem was a long-established community by the time of Jesus’s birth.

In recent years a few biblical scholars and archeologists have dared to propose a revolutionary idea: that the Christmas story celebrated by Christians around the world identifies the wrong Bethlehem.

The theory’s most prominent advocate is Bruce Chilton, an American professor and priest. In his book Rabbi Jesus he observes that Matthew’s gospel, the basis of the nativity story, has led some scholars to suggest the account is fabricated and that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Chilton, however, suspects there is a grain of truth in the gospel: it is just that Matthew got his Bethlehems mixed up.

In this view, Joseph and Mary travelled the few miles from Nazareth to the Galilean Bethlehem because they were returning to stay with Joseph’s family for the birth of their child. Joseph, says Chilton, met Mary after moving from his village to Nazareth in search of work. This account avoids the improbable mammoth journey south and explains the important early Christian remains in the Galilean Bethlehem.

But why would Matthew, writing several decades after Jesus’s death, switch Bethlehems? The reason, surmises Chilton, is that Matthew wanted to create an early piece of Christian propaganda to win Jewish converts. Bethlehem near Jerusalem is mentioned as the hometown of King David. Matthew, knowing that it says in the Old Testament that the Messiah will come from the House of David, hoped to establish a credible link between Jesus and King David through the figure of Joseph.

Privately, both Yeger and Fleischman believe their village is the true site of Jesus’s birth, though they say attempts at proving it with archeological digs have been stymied. Yeger is far from concerned. “Do we really need need a fight on our hands with the Vatican? Let the other Bethlehem have the glory.”

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