A visit to the Nativity sites of Bethlehem is not complete without a stopover in the place where the Gospel of Luke tells of the Angel’s first proclamation of the Birth of Jesus to the shepherds watching over their flocks.
Today, two locations adjacent to the municipality of Beit Sahour possess the official title of Shepherd’s Field, one Greek Orthodox and one Roman Catholic, each with it’s own unique history. Beit Sahour pays homage to its past via its name as the “Town of the Night Watch”.
Despite the difficulty of identifying a particular field that corroborates with biblical accounts, both sites have been excavated and contain varying evidence of long-practiced traditions of observance of the biblical report of the angelic proclamation in the nearby region.
The Greek Orthodox Site
The earliest evidence of this site’s enshrinement dates back to the beginning of the 4th century when a mosaic floor with inlaid crosses was assembled inside a natural cave. Early accounts from travelers like Egeria and Arculf appear aligned with descriptions of the site and later prohibitions of the kind of mosaic artwork present help to date the site some time before 427.
The desire for a larger church led to the expansion of the cave’s opening and interior. Still later, a chapel was built above the cave that faced various subsequent expansions following the gradual increase in visiting pilgrims as well as new constructions following both the site’s destruction by the Persians in 614 and a later fire. Despite the series of ills that have befallen the site over the centuries, the church remained in use by locals until the mid 20th century when the current church was built.
The Roman Catholic Site
Across the street from the current Franciscan site lie the remains of a Byzantine-era monastery, the builders of which traced the site’s use back to a group of 1st century nomadic shepherds. Later in the 6th century, stones from the original apse of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were utilized to expand the original monastery, which was then destroyed by the Persians in 614 and abandoned.
The modern site of the Shepherd’s Field was consecrated by the Franciscan Order relatively recently in 1954 but lacks any cogent archaeological evidence that would point to a tradition of observance over any extended period of time. The most significant of these absentee facts is the lack of any noteworthy cave that would have been utilized as an early place of commemoration and veneration.