Christian Sites in Jerusalem

Bethphage is a Christian religious site on the Mount of Olives east of historical Jerusalem. In fact, Bethphage is mentioned in the New Testament as the place from which Jesus sent his disciples to find a colt upon which he would ride into Jerusalem. The Synoptic Gospels mention it as being close to Bethany, where he was staying immediately prior to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Probably in the time of Jesus, it was a Jewish village.

A Little More About Bethphage

The meaning of the name Beitphage can be deduced probably from Hebrew. Because the village grew figs (Pagi in Hebrew is an unripe fig); and indeed in the New Testament it is said that Jesus, on his way from a Bethany to Jerusalem, wanted to pick a fig that grew nearby and did not find fruit on the tree. The incident is described in the Gospel according to Mark 11

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Mark 11, 12-14:

Unknown villagers living there, the owners of the colt according to Gospel of Luke 19:33, permitted Jesus’ disciples to take the colt away for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There is an annual Palm Sunday walk into Jerusalem which begins here. Eusebius (Onom 58:13) located it on the Mount of Olives. It was likely on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and the limit of a Sabbath-day’s journey from Jerusalem, that is 2000 cubits. There is the Franciscan Church of Bethphage at a likely location.

The Location of Bethphage

According to the Gospels, the location of Bethphage is on a mountainside. Now the three synoptic gospels describe the story of the colt which Jesus asks his disciples to bring to him on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem. The literary evidence about the Second Temple period Jewish village joins archaeological finds in the compound of the Franciscan church of Bethphage on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.

As Jesus approached the descent of the Mount of Olives he received a reception worthy of a king from the crowd of admirers and followers who placed their clothes on the way; waved palms and cheered him “Welcome in the name of the Lord.” And called him “Son of David” and “king of Israel.” This is the source of the custom of carrying palms for the Palm Sunday procession.

“6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David” […]”

Matthew 1, 6-9

Although in the Christian tradition it is accepted that Jesus’ entry into the city was on Passover. In fact, after a close reading of the biblical account, it can be noticed the Jewish practices of the Feast of (Tabernacles) Sukkot. For example, lulavim (palms); the recitation of “Hosea Na”, and “Welcome in the name of the Lord.” In addition, getting figs is also possible only around Tabernacles (Sukkot)and not during Passover.

Archaeology in Bethpaghe

A niche cave typical of the Jerusalem burial form in the late Second Temple period was found at the site; including ossuaries and pottery vessels. In addition, agricultural facilities such as wineries were also found. Furthermore, the site also contains the remains of two churches: a Byzantine church and above it the remains of a Crusader church.

The most fascinating find at the site is the rock known as the Stele of Bethpage that was unearthed during the dedication of the Franciscan Church in the 19th century. It is a large stone block belonging to the crusader apse of the Church. The rock dates to 1170 and is decorated on four sides with scenes from the New Testament: the resurrection of Lazarus; the mission of the two disciples to find Jesus a colt; the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and Jesus with Martha, and Mary. The Crusaders believed that Jesus used this rock to get on the donkey. The rock is now fenced with an iron lattice and behind it is a mirror so that the decorations can be easily seen on all sides. See the photo below!

The Modern Church of Bethphage

The modern church at Bethphage was built in 1883 on the remains of previous churches. The church was renovated and a tower was added in 1954 by Antonio Barluzzi. The church was built in the Crusader style and stands out in its difference from the nearby Greek Orthodox Church, which has a red-tiled roof.

Furthermore, the frescos on the rock were restored in 1950 by the artist Cesare Vagarini who later also adorned the walls of the new church with frescoes in a similar style. In fact, the murals depict an audience preparing for the procession of Jesus. On another wall are Jewish priests holding a scroll containing words from the Gospel according to John 12, 19. Decorating the windows, sentences said to Jesus as he entered the city are written in Latin.

“The Pharisees, therefore, said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.”

John 12, 19

Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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