The Shepherds’ Field - Franciscan
Exploring the Shepherds' Field
Location - Beit Sahour
Map Coordinates - 31.707371, 35.229692
Merged Gospels story - 10
There are three shrines known as the Shepherds' Field in the eastern part of Beit Sahour (meaning House of the Night watch) - one maintained by the Roman Catholics, another by the Greek Orthodox, and a third by the Protestants. The Greek Orthodox and the Franciscan sites have both been excavated, and there have been churches and monasteries at these locations since the 4th century or earlier. The Gospels do not indicate which of these sites is the most authentic, since the shepherds were surely nomadic in their coverage of the area surrounding Bethlehem.
On the north ridge of Beit Sahour, about a quarter mile north of the Orthodox Monastery of the Shepherds Field is the Catholic site, located in an area called Siyar el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep).
It is also believed that this hill is the place where Boaz saw Ruth from the country of Moab, gleaning, and he was attracted to her (Ruth Chapter 2). Ruth ultimately married Boaz, and they became parents of Obed, the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David. Thus, Bethlehem became known as the "City of David" and it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:1-5).
The sign above the arched entrance to the field says, in Latin, Gloria In Excelsis Deo, which is translated as Glory to God in the Highest. This phrase is taken from Luke 2:14, when a vast array of angels was heard by the shepherds, glorifying God and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest.”
This chapel was built in 1953 with donations from Canada, and its shape is said to be reminiscent of the tents of nomadic Bedouin tribes. The only light in the interior comes from skylights in the dome symbolizing both the relationship between earth and sky, and the light that shone from the angels during their annunciation to the shepherds.
The Three Altar Paintings.
The angels’ announcement to the startled shepherds.
The shepherds pay homage to the baby Jesus.
The shepherds afterward celebrated the birth of the Messiah.
Soot on the Ceiling.
There are two caves frequently visited by tourists, both of which have soot-blackened ceilings, evidence of the many centuries of campfires that burned in these rooms.
All the Historic Churches on this Site.
Church #1. The very first church on this site was actually a cave church which seems to have existed before the legalization of Christianity. In an age when Christians were persecuted for their beliefs, worshiping underground was probably the only means by which these believers could gather without being detected.
This cave church features an altar that replaced a more ancient version. There is also a baptistry on the east side of the room, and a long, narrow escape tunnel on the south side which was probably carved to allow people to flee if they were detected by hostile individuals
Here we found a baptismal font inside what was probably an illegal cave church.
Church #2. There are the remains of a surface-level 4th-century church, which the Catholic custodians here believe was commissioned by Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. While the late fourth-century lady pilgrim Egeria described the church that Helena built, this one is probably not it. From her description, Egeria was describing the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Shepherd’s Field to the south.
There is also an ancient cistern, used to catch water for human consumption. This was probably built in the Byzantine years to serve the needs of the monastery above it. You can see by the plaster on the wall that this room was once waterproof.
Church #3. In the 6th century there was a larger church built on this same site, which was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD. Where this church stood was not the best of locations, because the ground is not level. However, the fact that the second church was built exactly over the previous one seems to indicate a special remembrance was tied to this site.
Church #4. Finally, a modest 7th-century AD monastery was built, which also was destroyed in the 10th century AD. This monastery included a bakery, wine presses, animal pens and a baptismal font. In fact, many of the stones used to build the earlier churches were reused to construct this monastery.
The Bible is filled with many references to shepherds and sheep. Such great Old Testament patriarchs as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds at some time in their lives.
However, in Jesus' time, shepherds had a bad reputation. Jewish Rabbinic literature lists "shepherd" as among the most despised occupations. Most of the time they were thought of as thieves and were generally considered dishonest. This is far from the positive image of a shepherd leading his flock to green pastures and still waters as presented by the twenty-third Psalm, which still is one of the most beautiful images of shepherding ever written.
Therefore, it is very significant that shepherds were the first to hear the announcement of the birth of the Messiah, and were the first evangelists of the good news of Christ. On this night, the most humble and despised ones among us became the most honored!