Bethpage (Bethphage) Essential Guide Notes

Bethpage (Bethphage)
Matthew 21:1;Mark 11:1;Luke 19:29

Bethpage (lit. “house of green figs” in Aramaic), is a village atop a spur on the southern section of the Mount of Olives chain. Due south east of the peak of the Ascension church memorials (there are three today), the village remains are near the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Because it is on the eastern edge of Jerusalem and is mentioned together with Bethany, the village memory was nearly overtaken by the other cities, were it no for a small Crusader shrine to mark Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday.

The Gospels seem to place it at the “gateway to Jerusalem and next to Bethany” (Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29).  Each day of the Passion Week, the Gospel writer’s record that Jesus taught on road between Jerusalem and Bethany. The “Mounting Stone” or stele of Bethpage displays its original Twelfth Century frescos on the chalk. The artwork above shows the people of the Palm Sunday Procession. A more recent piece in the apse mimics the scene (below). The church compound is still the site of the assembly for the Procession of the Palms each year.

Clemens Kopp (The Holy Places of the Gospels, 1963) relates that Jerome accepted the meaning of the name of the place as “house of jawbones”, an identification accepted also by Origen. Kopp further asserts the place was the same as the “Ancona”, a memory location on top of the mount of Olives referred to by Theodosius (530).

There is no proper identification of the village of Bethpage (archaeologically speaking) though a small part of Kafr et Tur is thought to cover some ruins of the site.  This town is also mentioned in the Talmud sometimes as the official boundary of ancient Jerusalem. The discussion in the Jewish writings (Menachot 7B) reveals the “wall of Bethpage” was the most distant point to which the bread of thanksgiving could be carried on Sabbath. Properly understood, this reflected the idea that the “Sabbath day’s journey” was terminated at the wall of the village. The chapel to recall the mounting of the donkey by Jesus has some documented history. The structure marks a memory place that was referred to by a number of Christian travelers.

Some interpret the saying Egeria (384) “there is a place where Jesus met Lazarus’ sisters” as this place, but it is likely the reference is to Ein Shemesh east of Bethany. Epiphanius suggests (750-800) the site of the mounting was about 1000 paces from the place of the Lazarion. It is further attested by Bernard the Monk (870). Though the place was referred to, it does not appear that it was recalled by a chapel until the Crusader period. The Crusader fortress church was apparently destroyed, as the chapel of the present was erected atop its ruins in 1883 (and updated in 1923).

Within the chapel is the “mounting stone”, a senonian base frescoed with scenes of the Jesus’ work in the area. The north side of the stone shows the mounting of Jesus, the south shows the raising of Lazarus, the east shows people with palm branches, and the west shows the faces of saints. Though little of the village is extant, there are some tombs (and a wine press) behind the chapel at Bethpage. Two types have been surveyed: Kochim (2nd Temple Period) and Arcosolia (Byzantine Period). With the tombs and site survey material, it is possible to demonstrate the village as occupied between C2 BCE and C8 CE (according to O’Connor, p. 115).

Palm Sunday:

Because the history of the village is tied so strongly with the Palm tree, the imagery should be briefly explored. Many scholars note the palm appeared to be a symbol of Jewish nationalism and of the inevitable victory of “God’s people”. Evidence for this includes the historical notation that Bar Kochba coins of the revolt reportedly came with year of revolt and palm branch. This same image appears to be carried into the Christian view of Heavenly procession in Rev. 7:9-17 for the Lamb’s ultimate victory. Simon Maccabeus entered with a palm procession in 136 BCE according to 1 Mac.13:51; 2 Mac. 10:7;14:4. Later, the “Judea captive” coin minted under Emperor Vespasian showed a woman with her back against a palm tree (70 BCE). Because the area is more than eight hundred meters above Sea level, only two varieties of palms will readily grow there – fan and date palms. The palm is referred to in the local lore of the region. The Arabic saying recalls the palm has “its head in fire, its feet in water”. The Biblical references to the palm include the powerful words of the Sabbath Psalm (92): “The righteous is like the palm tree.” The rabbis taught the palm was a symbol because it was straight (Song of Songs 7:7-8). Others noted its simplicity, strength and exceptional root structure.

The Palm Sunday entry of Jesus to Jerusalem appeared to be an open identification by the Gospel writer to the promise of Zechariah 9:9 and the approach of Messiah. By sending two disciples into the village, this appears an overt symbolic gesture as Jesus rode from the village of Bethpage, the start of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1).

Fig Trees:

Though Scripture indicates that Jesus went to Bethany in the evenings when in Jerusalem, He likely passed through Bethpage on his way to and from Jerusalem making Bethpage (place of unripe figs) the vicinity of the cursing of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-20; Mark 11:12-14, 20,21). Because of this, and the fact that the name of the village is “house of green figs”, it is worth also noting a few details about the fig while examining the memory of this village. Two distinct Hebrew words are used for the fig. One word refers to the unripened or “green” fig (pag-e). This early fig comes out simultaneous to the opening of the buds with leaves. The “pag” comes out as early as Pesach.  (If there is an early spring Pesach, there will be no or small pags. These green figs were collected in the ancient world and stored for the midwives. When a child was born that did not desire to nurse, the white milky fluid of the pag was used to create a thirst “draw” (glandular reaction) in the child, causing the child to nurse. As this was accomplished by squeezing the pag, it is likely this is what the Proverbs 22:6 “train up” was referring to. The second word for the fig is the common term “ta’anah” (ripe fresh fig). This is sold at full size in the market for eating with honey on the table, or is allowed to dry.

The dried variety has been allowed to remain on the tree, with a “pricking” that has opened the shell of the thick skin. An insect finds its way in the break in the skin, and lays eggs inside the fruit. The larva eat throughout fruit, but what they leave behind is what gives the aged T’anah a delicious sweet taste. The cursing of the fig tree in the passion walk of Jesus to Jerusalem was likely a preparation teaching for the disciples of all that they would experience in the Temple. Jesus curse a tree with leaves but no fruit. Later the same day, according to the Gospel account, he did the same to Temple leaders that had “leaves of religion” but few “fruits of faith”. (cp. Mt. 21:18-22 (1 day)//Mk. 11:13-14; 20-26 (2 days) Another important passage from the Gospels on the fig was the reference Jesus made that you cannot “gather a fig from thistles”. The point of the saying was simply that (Mt. 7:16) everyone is truly known by the type of fruit they produce. Often misread, Jesus is not referring to the amount of fruit, but rather the nature of the fruit.

Another reference to this plant was Jesus’ cryptic statement, “I saw you under the fig tree” in the initial adult encounter of (Jn. 1:47-50) Nathaniel and Jesus. Some scholars have rightly posed the idea this may be a reference to an early meeting in their lives. Since the rabbis taught the best place to study Torah was under the fig tree (probably because of the shade and nice smell), many synagogues had figs planted beside as late as the Talmudic period. The reference may be to the idea, “I saw you while we were children at school”. There are numerous other stories of the fig tree in the Bible, including the saying of the prophets Jeremiah (Jer. 24:7 good fig; bad fig). In addition, in the teachings of Jesus the fig tree destroyed is a symbol of God’s judgment in some stories. (cp. Lk. 13:6-9)