The Orthodox Shepherds’ Field
Exploring the Shepherds' Tomb
This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.
Location - Beit Sahour
Map Coordinates - 31.701961, 35.226561
Merged Gospels story - 10
This monastery is located in the village of Beth Sahour (meaning house of the night watch), being named in remembrance of the night that the shepherds heard the announcement from an angel that Jesus had just been born in the town of Bethlehem.
The first church constructed at this site was built inside of a cave, and it is believed that this church was commissioned around 326 AD by Empress Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great.
The Modern Church.
The modern church was completed in 1989, and it is one of the most colorful and unique Greek Orthodox churches in the Holy Land. The red-colored stained glass gives this entire church a rosy overcast.
There is an ancient tradition that this was the place where the shepherd boy, David, tended his flocks, and where he wrote many of his Psalms, which ended up in our Old Testament. Tradition also tells us that this is where shepherds were grazing their flocks when the angels appeared to them, proclaiming the birth of Jesus.
The dome inside the church.
This church is built with the traditional floor plan of almost all Orthodox churches. Worshippers in Orthodox shrines believe that when they are in a church they are as close to God as they are ever going to be. Many of these shrines don’t have pews or benches, and the worshippers are required to stand, which, they believe, is the posture that one should have in the presence of God. The chairs around the sides of this church are there for the aged and the infirmed.
Which is the most authentic shepherd’s field shrine?
There are three shrines in Beit Sahour that celebrate the annunciation to the shepherds. This one is owned by the Greek Orthodox church. There is another in the custody of the Franciscans, and there is a protestant shrine at the local YMCA. In the first century sheep were probably grazing at all three of these locations. But the question is, where did Saint Helena build the first church?
That answer probably comes from the Spanish lady pilgrim Egeria, who arrived at this site in 384 AD. She said that when she visited the church here, it was in a valley near Bethlehem. Of the three shrines claiming to be The Shepherd’s Field, this is the only one that is in a valley.
Where were the shepherds when they heard the angel?
The Annunciation to the Shepherds.
The early fourth-century historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, tells us that a thousand paces from Bethlehem was a two-story watchtower called Migdal Eder, which means tower of the flock. This tower allowed shepherds to keep watch over their flocks from an elevated position, thus guarding them against predators. Eusebius tells us that the angels appeared to the shepherds at this tower.
Where was the tower, Migdal Eder? That answer comes from Saint Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem, and he identified this particular spot as the location of that watchtower. If that’s true, it means that the angels spoke to the shepherds somewhere in this vicinity.
All the Churches Built and Rebuilt on this Site.
Church #1. As I mentioned, the first church on this site was built inside a cave
Church #2. The second church was a Byzantine chapel constructed above the cave in the 5th century. Tradition tells us that this church was built by Saint Paula, the faithful servant of Saint Jerome, who also lived just west of here in Bethlehem. However, this above-ground church was destroyed when the Samaritans revolted against the Byzantine rulers in 530 AD.
Church #3. Shortly after that, in the sixth century, a third church on this site was built by the Christian Emperor Justinian, who also built a monastery here as well. Once again, both the church and monastery were destroyed in a raid by the Persian army in 614 AD.
Church #4. The fourth church was built in 632 AD by the Emperor Heraclius. It survived for about 300 years, and the ruins of that church are the remains that visitors can see today.
Ruins of the 7th-century church.
This room was once a shelter for shepherds. Of all the churches that were commissioned by Helena, this is the only one where people still worship in the original building. All of her other churches were destroyed and rebuilt throughout the centuries.
The Original Cave Church.
The reason that this cave is called a church, and not just a crypt beneath a church, is because this room was the original church at this location. As an Orthodox church, it has the same traditional architectural design as all Orthodox churches do, with the icons, the iconostasis at the back of the church, and the main altar hidden behind this wall. Only priests are allowed to go back behind the iconostasis.
The Early Mosaics on the Floor.
In windows on the floor you can see parts of the mosaic of the original cave church. One of the interesting features of these mosaics is that they contain crosses. The Greek Orthodox church at large prohibited the use of crosses on church floors in 427 AD, believing that it was disrespectful for a cross to be on a floor. That means that this cave church was built sometime before the year 427 AD.
During the Persian raid on this site in 614 AD there were Christian monks who lived in the nearby monastery. These monks were slaughtered by the Persians, and you can see some of their remains in a glass case.
The remains of monks who were martyred in the Persian raid of 614 AD.
The Tomb of the Shepherds.
Ever since the fourth century, this niche has been regarded as the tomb of the shepherds, in the belief that they were buried in the same field where they tended their sheep.
Luke 2:17 says that the shepherds made known abroad the word about the thing spoken to them by the angels concerning Jesus. This means that these shepherds were the world’s first evangelists, proclaiming the Good News regarding what they heard and saw after receiving a personal invitation to look into the face of their Creator.
In the Hebrew culture, shepherds were the lowest of the lowly – the most simple and uncomely people in society. Up until the day Christ was born only five New Testament persons are known to have received the Good News of Jesus: Mary, Joseph, Zacharias and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist) and the unborn John the Baptist.
But in this case, the fact that God has now been incarnated on the earth was a message not initially delivered to kings, priests, the wealthy or the mighty, but to the poor; the most unbecoming of all common people.
As it was then, so it is now (see 1 Corinthians 1:25-27). This was a sign of how the Gospel would go forth forevermore.
Why did God choose shepherds?
The shepherds were also chosen, not just because they were shepherds, but because they were local and immediate. While it is true that any current visitor to Bethlehem, or any of its local residents could have played this role in Mary’s life, the nature and humble character of the shepherds added so much more meaning and symbolism.
There also appears to be a connection between the common profession of the shepherds and of Jesus Himself. This symbolism is hard to deny. During the ministry of Christ, His countenance more closely resembled the occupation of a shepherd than any other profession. This means that their short visit with the Holy Family on Christmas night was simply a meeting between humble shepherds and the Good Shepherd (see John 10:11,14).
Could that be the reason why God drew shepherds to Jesus’ stable? Could the presence of the shepherds be a mere foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate role in life? The amazing thing about Jesus is that He was not only a shepherd, but He was also a sacrificial lamb. (Not only is He called a shepherd eleven times in the New Testament, but at least twenty times He is referred to as a lamb.)
As Mary and Joseph pondered the words of the shepherds they could have easily concluded that this happened as a sign that Jesus Himself was to become a shepherd. This notion probably supported their decision to relocate their new family to Bethlehem after they escape to Egypt. However, they quickly changed their minds when they learned that the murderous Archelaus had succeeded to his Father’s throne, that of King Herod (Matthew 2:22).
As Jesus called lowly fishermen to Himself in His adult life, so He called shepherds to Himself in His infancy. It seems that God is always using the humble to advance His high calling.
At the end of the Nativity Story, the Gospel of Luke says, “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all those things they heard and saw, as it was spoken to them” (Luke 2:20)
The response of the shepherds to the birth of Jesus was simply to imitate the celebration of angels (since both are said to have glorified and praised God.) In other words, the first Christmas was celebrated on earth exactly as it was celebrated in Heaven.