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BiblePlaces Newsletter
Vol 15, #3 - December 7, 2016

Sending a Christmas-themed newsletter seems like an obvious idea, but it's been ten years since we did it last. Since that time, we've taken and collected some great photos and we've learned a few things as well. We share some of that with you in this month's newsletter.

We continue to work on a new photo collection that we think you'll like very much. We'll have news here just as soon as it is available.

If you'd like more biblical geography, archaeology, and history than you get from this periodic newsletter, subscribe to our blog, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Todd Bolen
Photographer, BiblePlaces.com
Assoc. Professor, The Master's University


New at the BiblePlaces Blog...

Was Paul Heading for Alexandria? - A summary of a recent proposal that Paul and Barnabas were originally headed for Egypt on their first missionary journey...

Weekend Roundup - Links to the latest stories in the biblical world...

New Excavation: Khirbet el-Mastarah in the Jordan Valley - A team will begin working next summer on a site that holds promise for understanding the settlement of the Israelite tribes during the monarchy...

Update on Excavation of Holy Sepulcher - Researchers had 60 hours to study the traditional tomb of Jesus before it was sealed up...

New Book: A Political History of the Arameans - K. Lawson Younger Jr.'s book looks at the history of Israel's northern neighbors from their origins through the Iron Age...

And more...


"Jesus in His Context" Conference

A unique and fascinating conference on "Jesus in His Context" is being presented in June by the Institute of Biblical Context. Six experienced contextualists will address the geographical, historical, cultural, literary, and visual contexts of Jesus and the Gospels. Special emphasis will be given to contextual frameworks, how to read the white spaces between the lines of the text, weaving together the social dynamics of a Near-Eastern village for interpretive insights, all with the goal of seeing the original meaning of the text and discovering "the rest of the story" that Westerners often miss.

The conference is being held June 12-14 in Zeeland, Michigan, and you can learn more in the brochure. Registration opens on January 1, and you'll be able to find more information at the website of Preserving Bible Times. I plan to attend and I encourage you to check it out!


Featured BiblePlaces Photos:
The First Christmas

For centuries, artists have used their imaginations to capture the look of that first Christmas with Mary and Joseph in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem. The overall lack of detail in the Gospel narratives provides much freedom for illustrators and cinematographers alike. This month we're going to join the crowd, but with this difference: all of our photos were taken on location, even if some imagination was involved. We've selected eight images from our collections to provide what we believe are the most accurate illustrations of one of the most important events in human history.

All of the photos below are available, with captions, in a free PowerPoint presentation. A limited version is also available in pdf format.


Journey to Bethlehem

Click photograph for higher-resolution version. Download the PowerPoint presentation for all of the photos.

Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. If they avoided Samaria, as most Jewish travelers seemed to do, they would have passed through Jericho and ascended the route next to the Wadi Qilt on their way to Jerusalem. The Ascent of Adummim avoids the wilderness wadis as it climbs up to the Mount of Olives. From Jerusalem, Joseph and his pregnant wife turned left to head south to the city of their ancestor David. Some months later, the Magi may have traveled this same route on their way to worship the king.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

Bethlehem is not impressive today, and it was not impressive then. Joseph and Mary probably arrived to a village with not more than a few hundred inhabitants. Bethlehem was significant as the home of Ruth and the birthplace of David, but it never seems to have been large or prominent before the birth of the Messiah. The view above shows the area of the Church of the Nativity, the ancient core of the village. This photograph was taken in the 1850s, before parking garages, visitor centers, and hundreds of shops obscured the natural landscape. Source: The New York Public Library.


No Room in the "Inn"

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

Though the English translations pretty consistently render Luke's word kataluma as "inn," many scholars today believe that a more accurate translation is "guest room." This American Colony photograph shows just such an upper room that was used for housing those visiting the village. For more about the translation of this word and its possible significance, see our previous comments here.


While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

Shepherds do still tend their flocks by night in the Bethlehem area, even in the month of December, despite what some commentators claim. The image above was likely staged by the American Colony photographers, but it reflects a common practice in the Bethlehem area and throughout the hills of Judea and Samaria. Some years ago I was hiking east of Bethlehem on Christmas morning when our party came across a shepherd who had spent the night with his sheep. Two thousand years ago a group of shepherds working in this area were honored to be the first to learn of the birth of the Great Shepherd.


No Crying He Makes

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

This photograph was taken about 100 years ago in the town of Bethlehem. As with all such nativity scenes, the creator used a bit of imagination to flesh out details not recorded in Scripture. Nonetheless, the scene is helpful in reminding us of the very ordinariness of the entrance of God's Son to earth.


Away in a (Stone) Manger

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

The most plentiful building material in Israel then and now is limestone, and it is not surprising that many feeding troughs from ancient Israel were carved from stone blocks. Despite the common portrayal of a wooden manger (see the previous photo), Jesus's first crib was probably something similar to this stone manger discovered at Tekoa, just a few miles south of Bethlehem.


We Three Kings

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

It's not impossible that there were three Magi, nor is it unreasonable that they rode on camels. Their visit to the "house" where Jesus was staying (Matt 2:11) suggests that they arrived some time after the night of his birth. They traveled first to Jerusalem, where the priests directed them to the prophesied place of the Messiah's birth in Bethlehem. In bringing gifts of gold and frankincense, the Magi foreshadowed the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that one day the nations will bring tribute as they come to Jerusalem to worship the king and to submit to his law (Isa 2, 4, 11, 32, 60).


The Slaughter of the Innocents

Click photograph for higher-resolution version.

The Messiah, of course, was a threat to sinful men whose rule he will bring to an end. As soon as Herod heard that the prophecy of Messiah's birth was fulfilled, he gave orders to execute all of the young boys in Bethlehem. This photo shows Herod's palace-fortress, the Herodium, looking toward Bethlehem. Herod's efforts were thwarted by the Lord and a few months later, his decaying corpse was interred on the right (northeastern) slope of this hill. No one today celebrates Herod's birth, rejoices in his life, or anticipates his return.

All of these photos are available in a free PowerPoint presentation as well as a limited pdf version. Readers are welcome to use these images for personal study and teaching. Commercial use requires separate permission. 

These photos come from current and forthcoming collections produced by BiblePlaces.com, including Judah and the Dead Sea, Southern Palestine, Traditional Life and Customs. We especially recommend the Pictorial Library of the Bible Lands as well as The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection.



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All contents 2016 Todd Bolen. Text and photographs may be used for personal and educational use with attribution. Commercial use requires written permission.