The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

When visitors come to Bethlehem I usually start by telling them that I am going to debunk the Christmas story the way they have learned it. Especially the idea that Jesus was born in a stable. Most people have some kind of nativity set under their Christmas tree and most of the time it is a set with Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, some animals maybe shepherds and wise men in a wooden stable.

When you visit Bethlehem you will realize that the birthplace of Jesus was not a stable the way that we imagine a stable from our foreign perspectives.

Jesus birthplace was a cave in Bethlehem

If you have listened to my podcast episodes then you know that Palestine is the land of caves. And that caves have been used every since the first human species came out of Africa, as dwellings and as places to store food, as production houses, as tombs and definitely also as stables for the animals.

So when we visit the Church of Nativity we are going to visit a church that is built OVER a cave that was in use more than 2000 years ago as a place where animals could spend the night and the cold days when they were not out in the fields.

And you will have to go down the stairs into the ‘cave of the nativity’ to reach the place that is believed by many to be the place where Mary delivered Jesus.

Now before I start describing you the church and telling you more about the history of the building, let’s start with the biblical account of the birth of Jesus and also get to some differences in understanding between the local Christians and foreign Christians about what happened.

The story Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Palestine was under Roman rule and the Roman emperor was Caesar Agustus. The Roman empire was big so it was divided into different provinces, each with its own governor. The governor of the region of Syria and Palestine was called Quirinius. The provinces were often subdivided again in smaller territories and Bethlehem was situated in an area that was called Judea. And Judea had its own client king, called Herod the Great. He ruled Judea but he was subordinate to Rome.

This is the political context of the time of the birth of Jesus.

In the Bible book of Luke we can read that “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that census should be taken of the entire Roman world (This was the first census that took place while Quirinuis was governor of Syria) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

There is a debate between scholars if this event actually really took place and whether the inhabitants were really required to go to their hometowns to register for the census. Some scholars and theologians will say that this part of the story was added by the author to make a strong connection between Jesus and the family line of David. David was the King that 1000 years before the birth of Jesus was born in Bethlehem and when he became King he had, according to the Bible, not archaeology, he had established a large Kingdom and he was and still is seen by the Jewish people as their great ancestor who King. And in the Bible there are several prophecies that predicted that the Messiah would be born from the line of King David. So in order to make sure that people will believe that Jesus is the Messiah Luke added the element of the census.

No room in the inn

Then we read in the book of Luke that “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manager, because there was no room for them in the inn”.

The Greek word that is used for ‘the inn’ is ‘katalyma’ that can be translated as inn but also as a guest room or guest chamber. As Bethlehem was a very small town 2000 years ago and it wasn’t on any major trade route, it is unlikely that there were inns in the town.

Local Christian Palestinians also stress that in the culture it is common that if you come to stay in your hometown you definitely stay with family members and not in any kind of inn or guesthouse.

The houses in those days were built with an upper floor where you would host guests and a ground floor where you did all the household work and where you would keep your animals. And you have to imagine the area where Bethlehem is, it is on the mountain range, which consists of limestone and has a lot of natural caves. So many people would build their house near a cave that could be used for storage and for the animals.

Now imagine that Joseph and Mary arrived after a journey of probably three days walking to Bethlehem and they would knock the door of an uncle or other relative of Joseph and maybe he did not have space in his guestroom because there were already other guests who arrived before them. And he would try with another uncle or a cousin or a far far cousin and all people already had guests due to the census. So that means, there was no space in the katalyma, in a guestroom. That’s why his uncle then suggested that they can use the cave next to the house to stay there…

Of course we will never know how it exactly went. Stories definitely change over time. They can be adapted to fit a certain narrative. And there are additions made to the story and details that get lost. And if you are from a different part of the world then you imagine the story in your own setting and context and you come up with a wooden stable, and that’s alright, it’s not a big deal BUT you WILL be surprised when you come to the Church of Nativity and realize that the birth took place according to local tradition in a CAVE.

How sure are scholars that this is indeed the birth cave of Jesus?

Scholars look at some of the earliest mentions in written records and it is around 150 years after Jesus’ birth that the Infancy Gospel of James, which is NOT part of the Bible, but an apocryphal book, mentions the birth of Jesus in a cave. A little later there is another mention of the birth cave by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho.

In the third century the writer and theologian Origen who was educated in Alexandria writes the following:

If anyone, not being satisfied with the prophecy of Micah and the history recorded in the Gospels by the disciples of Jesus, desires additional evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let him consider the fact that in Bethlehem there is shown the cave where he was born, and in this cave there is the manger in which he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and all of this is in conformity with the narrative in the Gospels regarding his birth. And it is well known in these places, even among those who are enemies to the faith, that in this cave was born he who is worshiped and regarded with wonder by Christians, Jesus.”

A pagan temple on the birth cave of Jesus

Another argument that is often made, is that Roman Emperor Hadrian who did not want the Jews and Christians in Judea to worship their ONE god and not to honor HIM, made an effort to stop all the Jewish and early Christian worship. He expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and he built a Temple on the location where the tomb of Jesus was. We talked about this in the podcast about the Holy Sepulcher church and just a few weeks ago they excavated remains of this Temple under the Holy Sepulcher church! And about Bethlehem the theologian and translator of the Bible to Latin, Jerome, he writes that when he came to Bethlehem it was deserted and covered by a wooden grove dedicated to a rural god (Thammuz) Which is understood as an active attempt of the Romans to make this a place of pagan worship.

Also the Bishop of Nola in Italy writes the following: “for the emperor Hadrian, in the belief that he could destroy the Christian faith by the dishonoring of a place, dedicated a statue of Jupiter on the place of the passion and Bethlehem was profaned by a grove of Adonis.

In around 315 AD the Greek historian Eusebius says that ‘the cave is shown there by the inhabitants to those who come from abroad to see it’

So those were some examples of mention of the cave in early documentation.

Queen Helena and her son Constantine in the holy land

And then in the year 326 the mother of the new Roman Emperor Constantine, Queen Helena, comes to visit the Holy Land and she orders the building of a basilica over the site of Christ’s birth. This is mentioned in the book “ Life of Constantine” written by Eusebius. And a few years later in 333 a traveler to the region, who is known as ‘the Bordeaux pilgrim’ because nobody knows his name, but he left a travel diary and he refers to the basilica built-in Bethlehem by Constantine that was dedicated on 31 May 339

The first church in Bethlehem

Now the first church building had an octagon shape ‘martyrion’ built over the cave.

This was very common in the Byzantine time to build an eight sided building over a place where an important biblical event had taken place. We see the same for example in the first church of the Holy Sepulcher, but also the house where Jesus used to stay with Peter in Capernaum had an octagon shaped building built over the remains of the house, there is a beautiful example close to where I live on the road towards Bethlehem, called the Kathisma church, where Mary is said to have rested on a stone before entering Bethlehem. You can see the foundation of the octagon shaped Martyrion just beside the Hebron Road, a bit before the Mar Elias Monastery on the left.

So there was an octagon shaped building over the cave and then a basilica right next to it, in the same direction as today’s church. And to remind you that the basilica was originally a public building in Roman time, with a specific lay out, a long middle nave and one or two aisles on each side of the nave, separated by columns. When Constantine started building the first churches, that was the style of building they knew for larger gatherings so they used the basilica style to build the first churches and later we started to use that word to refer to a church.

The Basilica church

The word basilica comes from the Greek word Basileus (Greek was still commonly used in that time) and that means King, so basilica means royal. And the Greeks had the basilica stoa, the place where the King received guests, so the Romans took this word for their public buildings.

From this time period they have discovered the original mosaic floor that they found underneath a floor that was made in the 6th century. The 4th century mosaic floor has recently been renovated and it is protected by wooden planks that are usually lifted so that you can see the mosaic floor.

Saint Jerome monastery in Bethlehem

About 50 years after the Church was built, a priest and theologian by the name of Hieronymus, also known as Saint Jerome, established a monastery at the church. This Jerome or Hieronymus became known for his effort of translating the Bible from Hebrew to Latin. By that time the Bible was available in Hebrew and Greek and some books were translated in Latin, but always based on the Greek an not the original Hebrew. So he came to live in Palestine in order to learn Hebrew and he worked on a direct translation from Hebrew to Latin that is called the Vulgate.

He was sponsored by a rich widow from an aristocratic family by the name of Paula. She also moved to live in Bethlehem with her daughter Eustochium. We can see these women depicted in the cave where Jerome translated the Bible, on a painting near the altar and also on the bronze doors that give entrance to the Saint Catherine Catholic Church next to the Church of Nativity. But we will talk about that when we get into the church in our virtual tour. Let’s first finish of with the history of the church itself.

The Samaritan revolt

So built and dedicated in the 4th century with a monastery added to it by Saint Jerome it stood until the year 529 when the Samaritans revolted against the Byzantine rule and they destroyed many churches during the revolt including the Church of Nativity. They basically set fire to the church. It did not take long for the church to be rebuilt under the leadership of Emperor Justinian who did not only rebuilt it but also added three apses and the narthex. The narthex is the area in which people who have not been baptized can enter but they can not continue further into the church building. The octagon was replaced by the apses and a transept was added so that the nave and transept now formed the shape of a cross, that became very common in the design of churches. The cave of the nativity was now under the chancel in the eastern most part of the church.

The Justinian Church in Bethlehem

This new church was decorated with a big mosaic panel on which they depicted the three wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus. As it was written that they came from the East, they chose to depict them in a Persian style dress.

And THIS is most probably the reason why we can still visit the church that was dedicated in 533 under emperor Justinian, although there are a lot of later additions and renovations, but in its chore it is the building from the 6th century, the oldest christian church still in use, that survived the attacks of the Persians in 614. Because when the Persians destroyed all the churches and monasteries in the area they decided to leave the Church of Nativity undisturbed when they saw the Persian dresses on the mosaic facade and they though: hey they look just like us! This building must have something to do with our culture and traditions.

Omar ibn al Khatab prays in the Church of Nativity

So the Nativity Church survived the Persians and soon after the Byzantines were defeated by the Muslim armies that arrived with Omar ibn al Khatab in 638

When he arrived to Palestine he made a pact with the archbishop Sophronius in Jerusalem and generally the Christian population of Palestine was treated well by the new Muslim rulers. Every tour guide will tell you about the visit of Omar ibn el Khatab to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and that he respected the holy places. In Jerusalem he is said to have refused the invitation to pray inside the church because he didn’t want Muslims to come and claim the holy site if he prayed there. In Bethlehem there is a different story that is circulating among the locals and that is, that he did pray inside the Church, in southern apse but that he proclaimed publicly that Muslims should not claim the Church as Muslim holy site and that they should come and visit only as individuals and not pray inside the church. To be clear: for Muslims Jesus is an important prophet and they do respect him a lot. They just don’t see Jesus as the son of god and the Messiah.

Fast forward now to the year 1009 in which the Fatimid Muslim Caliph el Hakim, also known as the mad caliph, ordered the destruction of churches in the holy land. This is the year in which the Holy Sepulchre church was attacked severely and destroyed. But despite the orders of el Hakim, the Muslims did NOT attack the Nativity Church and some would explain that by saying that Muslims had been allowed to use the southern transept of the church, Omar ibn el Khatab had prayed there, so they did not want to harm the church.

About 90 years after this event with el Hakim, the Crusaders enter the scene in 1099. They change quite a bit and add new structures to the church including a hospital and hospice for poor pilgrims. They also add two bell towers on either end of the narthex.

Crusaders in Bethlehem

And the first Crusader King, Baldwin I is then crowned King over the Jerusalem Kingdom on the 25th of December of the year 1100 in the Nativity Church.

65 years later there is a big renovation project by the Crusaders and that is the time in which the wall mosaics are made and the columns are painted. I will talk more about them in a bit.

Since the Crusader time there have been several renovations, some additions and small changes to the church, I mean we are talking about a period of about 800 years until today, so definitely things did not stay exactly the same but the church we see today in its essence is the same as the church that the Crusaders used to visit.

And before we start our virtual visit to the church, I want you to realize that this church has always been in use by the local Christian community. It is definitely one of the most visited churches by foreign pilgrims and it has a very important value for Christians all around the world, but it is also the church in which local Christian Palestinians get baptized, marry, have funerals and the church is shared by different church denominations and that’s something we should also talk about before entering the church!

Custody of the Nativity Church

I don’t want to go too deep into this subject but in general, the church is divided between the Orthodox Church, the Catholics and the Armenians. The Orthodox is the oldest, longest existing church in the holy land and traces its roots back to early Christianity. The Catholics really made their entrance to the holy land in the Crusader time and with the establishment of the Franciscan order, named after Francis of Assissi. He visited the holy land in the 13th century and established a good connection with the Muslims and met with Malik al Kamil, the nephew of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt.

From the 14th century the Franciscans managed to become custodians over several of the holy sites and churches in Palestine.

Because there were several important holy sites that not only the Franciscans but also the other Christian denominations made a claim to, there were many quarrels and even real fights between these Christian groups about who had custody over these places. The situation became very tense in 1847.

The stolen silver star of the Church of Nativity

In that year the silver star that the Catholics had placed on the floor in the cave to mark the spot where Jesus was born, was stolen and this had much bigger consequences than only a fight between the clergy in the church. Because the Catholics were supported by the French who wanted to have a foothold in the holy land and the Orthodox were supported by the Russians, and of course some other geopolitical interests, the theft of the silver star from the Nativity Church was one of the events that contributed to the Crimean war that lasted three years from 1853 until 1856.

The Status Quo of the holy sites

The Ottoman Sultan Abdulmajid decided to define exactly in an official document who was responsible for what part of the church, who could use which part of the church for services at what times, which routes to take, who will clean where and who has the keys and everything that would make it absolutely clear on how to share the space. Not only for the Church of the Nativity, for all the shared holy sites, a total of nine sites. This understanding about the use of the holy sites is called the Status Quo. And nothing can be changed, moved or renovated without the consent of all the groups that are involved. If you heard the episode about the Holy Sepulcher church then you may remember the immovable ladder on the facade of the church, which is a result of exactly this Status Quo.

The Church that we are about to enter is mainly shared between the Orthodox and the Armenians. The Catholics have a small altar in the Nativity Grotto but they have all their Church services in the next door Saint Catherine Church.

Nativity Church Bethlehem UNESCO world heritage

The Nativity Church is UNESCO world heritage since 2012. It was originally on the list of World Heritage sites in danger because of the bad situation it was in. But after the renovations that took place it was taken of the ‘in danger’ list in 2019.

The siege of Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity in 2002

And one last important event to mention before we start the virtual tour, is that in the year 2002 the Israeli army entered into several Palestinian cities during the uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli military occupation. The city was under siege for over forty days. A group of about 200 Palestinians sought refuge inside the Church of the Nativity and the Israeli army then besieged the church and killed 8 people and wounded 40. One of the people who was shot dead was the bell ringer of the church, Samir Ibrahim Salman.

The siege of the Nativity Church sparked global outrage and the Vatican got involved as well as the Greek Orthodox Church. Eventually a deal was brokered to end the siege and thirteen of the Palestinians who survived the siege were exiled to European countries and a further 26 were sent to the Gaza Strip.

You can still see some of the bullet holes of this attack when you visit the courtyard of the Saint Catherine church.

> The next episode is an audio tour inside the Church of the Nativity