I do hope my post this week finds you well If you are locked down like I am, markets falling, pandemic raging, loved ones distanced from you -I urge you to read this extra long mail before the new year looms on the horizon. Whether you are religious or not the message of love is universal.
You may or may not know there are two Bethlehem’s in Israel; one in the South near Jerusalem and the other in the North near Nazareth. Gospel accounts of the Jesus’s birthplace are only found in Matthew and Luke –not mentioned in Mark or John, or in the Gospel of Hebrews, otherwise known as the Aramaic Matthew. It is Bethlehem in Judea that is referred to in Matthew and Luke. The other Bethlehem is in Galilee, known as Bethlehem of Zebulun, approximately six miles outside of Nazareth, whereas the Judean Bethlehem is some 68 miles away. One has to question why Joseph, who lived in Nazareth, would have taken a pregnant woman on such a long journey to comply with a census demand in the South when the Roman administrative centre for the North was Sepphoris -less than five miles away?
For that matter why would he need to take Mary, since the registration of wife, siblings, and other dependants was made by men, or otherwise by women in powerful positions who owned land. The purpose of the Roman census was to establish who could be taxed. We are told by the gospels that Joseph was betrothed to Mary and they both lived in, or in the proximity of Nazareth. If that were true at the time of the birth, or nine months before -they would have been breaking Jewish law and living in sin. Joseph, we are told was a carpenter, yet his work would have included building or repairing dwellings, making agricultural tools, and have required skills to work metal, make drains and culverts. And we must not assume he worked on his own but had or was part of a business employing others. And according to Apocrypha writings Joseph had sons older than Jesus.
How come Jesus’s birth took place in or near Bethlehem?
It is well documented a riot took place in Sepphoris around 4 – 5 BC. The Jewish population rebelled against Roman & Herodian authority which resulted in the city being burned and 2000 Jews crucified. Tenable reasons for Joseph and Mary not being in Nazareth when Jesus’s birth took place are (1) they were on their way to Mary’s family who lived in Sepphoris and Jesus was born prematurely (Anne the mother of Mary and Joachim her father, according to New Testament Apocrypha Gospel of James, lived there), or (2) they were fleeing from Sepphoris to escape the conflagration and birth took place before they could reach home. There is no evidence of a census during that period of time.
Mount Carmel is but a few miles from Bethlehem and dotted with caves, as also are the Galilean Hills at the top of which is Bethlehem, and in those days Bethlehem was a large town, not a village. The Essenes had a community on Mount Carmel and some of their calling lived in villages and towns of Galilee –this branch of the Essenes, by far the largest, were known as Nazorean’s. there is reason to suppose Joseph was a Nazorean -his son James the Just became leader of the Essene community in Jerusalem in later years.
The Way of the Sea was a coastal plain that extended the length of Israel, from Judea, Samaria to Galilee and beyond. Shepherds at that time were regarded socially as the lowest of the low and were of two kinds; those who lived and tended flocks close to villages and towns and the more nomadic groups who moved up and down the Way of the Sea. The nomadic shepherds were mostly of mixed blood, hailing from the desert regions East of Israel, and those with roots in Galilee and Samaria. The Samaritans were at odds with the Judeans and had been so for some 400 years as they believed their Pentateuch bible was the authentic word of Moses and Abraham. They were also more liberal than the Judeans and allowed intermarriage with non-Jews.
I’ve provided this background so you may better understand the scenes described in my poem, ‘A Shepherd’s Tale’.
Consider, discuss, decide as you must. A boy
of nine I was, given to play? Yes-
but impatient to grow. A minder of sheep
and goat, not quite a shepherd, you understand.
Arab Jewish Samaritans, lowborn we were
under Roman rule in the land of Moses.
Tent dwellers; nomadic in the Way of the Sea
we moved our flocks from pasture to fold
over plain, hill slope, through mountain pass.
Self-sufficient, our mixed blood had no ties
in towns and we were shunned in cities.
At that time there was much disquiet,
camel borne travellers would hail us
seeking safe passage to Damascus
anxious for news, telling of homes destroyed
of livestock lost. Herod by the sea of salt
in hope of cure, still covetous of power.
Riots and Roman soldiers everywhere.
It was the hottest time of year -too hot.
My father the elder shepherd of our band
decreed we leave the plain of Armageddon
skirt the Galilean hills and drive
to Mount Carmel and fold there in cool caves
the pasture good, the Kishon river close.
Unusual for time of year it rained unexpectedly.
Wet and freshened I explored cave and gully
gaping at rock paintings, sling shooting
hawk foolish enough to target our flock.
When night fell there was talk about events
on the highway, riots in Sepphoris.
Mahmud was our Rabbi, a Samaritan
Who taught us boys by rote from a scroll.
He would disappear for days on end,
reappear warning of wolves, thieves in hiding,
bringing herbs, fruits, figs, salt preserved fish,
feet, hands, and body bruised and bleeding.
But not this time -from the tomb of Rachel
he had seen columns of soldiers, pillars of smoke,
people fleeing carnage, a forest of crosses.
He arrived much distressed. Nearby, he said,
there is a camel camp of Persian men,
star diviners, here for some special event.
So deep the dreamless sleep I slept, when roused
I complained of being woken. My father’s
command to dress was brusque and impatient.
Mother soothingly said be quick no time to rest.
Sheep and goat were want to break the folds
and strange lights had appeared in the heavens.
Girding mantle, grasping staff, sling, and pipe
I joined the men grouped around a fireside
where Mahmud, repeated yet again
to disbelieving ears, of a vision given
in prayer, how an angel of the lord appeared
announcing birth of a messiah to all men.
How he had run to the Kishon River
to impart this news to the Persian men,
and they, exclaiming in response said this
was the proof, the final proof they sought.
And without delay broke camp and headed east.
The river shining phosphorus in the night.
Did I hear a voice as we knelt in prayer?
For when Mahmud said follow me, I knew
the angel would want us shepherds go!
Find the birthplace, give tribute to the child.
More in fear I think, of unearthly things,
Claiming protection of the women folk,
some herders stayed with the folded flock.
For me this was adventure, side by side
my father leading with Mahmud we trod
the Magi’s tracks. An uphill beaten track
Nazorean’s often trod beyond Bethlehem
to Elijah’s tomb. In silent awe we came
to where the light was strongest; there halted
by a well-dressed Jew, then let pass. Mahmud
having yet again spoken of his vision.
We entered a cave, two donkeys tethered
looked at us curiously –and there
in a lamp lit area no bigger than a tent
a babe in swaddling clothes lay in the arms
of a woman and before them, three Magi.
Also, an Arab woman, an older sage-like
Jew and a fearsome looking man whose smile
belied his looks. The air perfumed –a scent
so strong my head whirled with feelings.
We knelt on the hard stone in a presence
of many persons unseen; God’s angels
I know them now to be. We presented
lamb and kid –the best of the litters
we had, and in turn were given sweet wine.
Yet I was not allowed, and she, seeing this
beckoned me to drink from a leather gourd
that hung from the cradle bed, a sweet
warming juice. I drank gazing as I did upon
the new-born baby’s face. Then not asked
but sure of rightness I began to play my
shepherd’s pipe. With eyes closed he smiled,
as if somehow, he had heard me play before.
The tune was new to me and full of majesty,
my fingers moving my brain asleep
I lost all sense of time, only just aware
of his mother’s happy face; the attention
of all that were in that holy place.
As dawn began to show we took our leave.
My father with pride made much of my tune.
There was curious talk about the older man,
was he her husband? Why birth in a cave?
They were not poor, and the Magi had
given gold! There had been talk of Herod,
more so the riots and of Rome’s steel hand.
Yet for all this talk as we returned, the paths
aglow, I sensed my nomadic life would never
be the same again. We had gained in status
been received as equals –us lowborn
shepherds; and feted at a godlike event!
Yet despite this, seeds of doubt took root.
The holy book lost its magic -I questioned
why Jews and Gentiles warred, sacrificial lambs,
the militancy of God. Instead, I dreamed of union
in remembrance of the child, believing
he would one day share our daily bread
forever hopeful that our souls might wed.
Consider, discuss, decide as you must
the burden of proof is a human need.
My shepherd’s tale, straightforwardly said
is to you a plea -that in the body’s Keep
your soul should no longer groan and weep
but celebrate the Love that is Heavens Bread.