Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I Saw Three Ships On Christmas Day

This post ran originally on December 19, 2009.

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning...

O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day in the morning.


The Christmas carol "I Saw Three Ships" dates from at least the 17th century, and may be another version of "Greensleeves," on which the carol "What Child Is This?" is based. Like most Christmas carols, the song strives for a specific religious message, rather than historical accuracy. If someone actually saw three ships sailing into Bethlehem, they were most likely camels, the so-called "ships of the desert." Bethlehem then, as now, is landlocked.

Ships and boats, however, do figure in the story of Jesus; they are mentioned more than 50 times in the New Testament alone. The so-called "Jesus Boat," (a full-scale replica is pictured above) discovered near Kibbutz Ginosar (on the Sea of Galilee) in 1986, has been dated to the traditional time of Christ in the first century AD. The 25-ft long craft shows signs of being repaired multiple times over decades, leading some scholars to guess it may have seen continuous use over nearly a century. Carrying a crew of up to five, it is typical of the kind of boat used on the lake at that time for fishing and even passenger transportation.

The eastern Mediterranean has enjoyed a bustling maritime trade almost since the beginning of recorded history. The Phoenicians sailed ships into and out of this area from 1500 BC to about 300 BC. The Philistines of the bible traded in this area until about 1100 BC. Greeks, Egyptians, and others also sailed these shores. The Romans, who ruled this area at the time of Jesus, learned much about how to build and run a ship from their defeated enemy Carthage, a colony of the Phoenicians.

Things hadn't changed much by the first century AD. Wide, round-bottomed ships plied the shores of the Med, powered mainly by sails, but also by long, parallel banks of oars. Navigation was primitive: ships rarely left sight of the nearest shore and would pull right up on the beach in the event of threatening weather, or at night.

There wasn't as much fishing activity in the Mediterranean waters off the Holy Land as in the Sea of Galilee, but there was heavy trade to Greece and beyond in ceramics, stone work, and most of all in purple dye. Bulk products, like grain, were exclusively shipped by sea. Then, as now, it was much more economical to carry such products by ship than overland.

The vessel carrying Saint Paul to Rome in the middle of the first century AD would have been a vessel much like this. A typical vessel of the time might have been as big or bigger than the ships Columbus sailed to the new world fourteen centuries later.

The photo above is used with the kind permission of HolyLandPhotos.org. More on the Jesus Boat at Sacred Destinations.com.


1 comment:

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