88. Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity

Entrance to Cave where Jesus was Born in the Church of the Nativity

This is my fourth annual Christmas post. That is hard to believe. This year, I thought that I would do something different. Instead of taking a philosophical or theological approach to Christmas, I decided to take more of a historical and archaeological approach and discuss the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This church not only has very important historical significance, but it also has very personal significance for me. Not only have I visited this church, but when my daughter came into the Catholic Church as a young adult, she celebrated Mass and took her First Communion there on Christmas Eve.

I have been to Israel three times and have stayed in Jerusalem each time. Bethlehem is only 8.8 km, or about 5.5 miles, from Jerusalem. In America, this would be a ride of just a few minutes, but it seemed much longer in Israel. First of all, we had to wait for a bus, and then, on the way, we had to stop at a military checkpoint. Even though Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, it lies in the West Bank, which, as you would expect, creates security concerns. The city of Bethlehem lies in an area populated mainly by Arabs, most of whom are Muslims, but a small minority are Christians.

Just as an interesting aside, we hired a Muslim driver to take us around Bethlehem. We asked him to take us to the Church of the Nativity first, but instead, he took a detour. Rather than going to our requested destination, he took us to visit a couple of Palestinian refugee camps in the area around Bethlehem. There are about 20 such camps in the West Bank. I must say, it was truly an eye-opening experience. I am grateful that he took me there as it completely changed my perspective on the Palestinian issue. Being on-site is a lot different from just consuming what the mainstream media, whether right or left, constantly feeds us.

Bethlehem’s Old and New Testament Significance

As small as Bethlehem is and has been—never more than a few thousand people—this hill town just east of Bethlehem has packed a powerful punch in history. King David was born here and anointed as King of Israel by Prophet Samuel. It is not surprising that Jesus Christ, who was patterned after John the Baptist, was also born in the same town. The New Testament calls Jesus the “Son of David,” and the Old Testament designation is Messiah.1

Even though Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he grew up in the region of Galilee. The northernmost region of what was then the Roman province of Syria Palestine, also called Roman Palestine. This caused some confusion during Jesus’ life about whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. In St. John’s Gospel, we hear the people saying:

On hearing his words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘He is the Messiah.’ Still others asked, ‘How can the Messiah come from Galilee?  Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’ Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

-John 7:40-44

The fact that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem was settled 750 years before his birth. Micah, the Jewish prophet who prophesied in the latter half of the 8th century B.C., stated the following:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.

-Micah 5:2

A couple of things are worthy of note here. Firstly, Micah connects Bethlehem to its former name, Ephrathah, which dates back to the book of Genesis. It is also the burial place of Jacob’s wife, Rachel. Ephrathah comes from the Hebrew root word, meaning “fruitful.”3 Bethlehem means “house of bread,” which is significant, as I discussed in the Christmas Post 27. Since, Jesus referred to Himself as the Bread of Life, which has come down from heaven to feed the world.4 Putting this all together, Micah emphasizes the ancient as well as contemporary usage of Bethlehem to say that the birthplace of the Messiah signifies the fruitfulness of life that would come to the world through him.

Another point to be made is that the origins of the Messianic promises did not start with Micah. But it can be traced way back through the Old Testament Scriptures, really to the beginning in Genesis, Genesis 3:15, to be exact. So, over two thousand years of several hundred prophecies preceded the birth of Jesus. No other figure, religious or otherwise, has had such verification of his or her authenticity.

Bethlehem: The First 300 Years After the Birth of Christ

Suppose the history of Bethlehem in the Old Testament is remarkable. Despite its humble origins, this town became a center of worship after Jesus’ birth. We must remember that Palestine, as it was called, remained a Roman province for quite some time after Jesus’ birth. Not only that, but we must remember that Rome remained pagan for the first 300 years of Christianity. Since Christians were persecuted and the Romans outlawed the Christian faith during that time, it would make sense that they would not be able to establish an official church in Bethlehem.

Not only that, but the Romans did what they could to obliterate the name and memory of Christ from the earth. The site of the birth of Christ would have been not only remembered by the early Christians but also used as a gathering place for, at least, informal worship and covert as well. This site became known as the Nativity Grotto. We do know that in 135 A.D., Emperor Hadrian designated that site as a worship site for Adonis, the human lover of Aphrodite, the very popular goddess of love and desire.5 Why would he do this except for the fact that this location had become a place where Christians gathered to venerate Christ? As such, the Nativity Grotto is the oldest center of continual Christian worship in the world.6

This is verified by the early church father Jerome, who, in 420 A.D., claimed that the Nativity Grotto had indeed been consecrated to the worship of Adonis and that Hadrian planted a grove there to “completely wipe out the memory of Jesus Christ from the world”.7 We see how well that turned out. In the modern West, people are not so much trying to wipe out the name of Christ. Rather, they are just completely ignoring him, hoping that he will just go away. That will also come to futility since one must recognize the King of heaven and earth, walling him off with our secular, materialistic worldview.

Finally, we have the testimony from Origin of Alexandria, who wrote this about the grotto in 248 A.D.

In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshiped and reverenced by the Christians.

-Origin, Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI

The Emperor Constantine Builds a Church in Bethlehem

In 306 A.D., Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire. He ruled until 337. Even though he was still a pagan, he had been sympathetic towards Christianity ever since he saw a vision telling him to conquer in the name of the cross right before entering a significant battle against his enemy. Finally, in 312, he became a catechumen but waited until he was on his deathbed in 337 to become baptized.

One thing that I always hear and read is that Constantine “made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.” This is not true. In 313 A.D., the Edict of Milan was issued, which granted legal status to Christianity, a sect that was once persecuted and outlawed. However, it was not until 380 that Emperor Theodosius I outlawed all other religions except Christianity, thereby making it the official religion of the Roman Empire.

But amid many legalized forms of worship, Constantine greatly favored Christianity over all the others. His mother, Helena, a devout Catholic as well, reinforced this tendency in her son. One of the most significant things that Constantine and Empress Helena did was to travel to the Holy Land to locate significant sites about the faith, such as the place of the crucifixion and resurrection, as well as the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. They did this in response to a large project that was instituted in 326, one year after the Council of Nicaea, to build churches commemorating important events in the life of Christ.8

During my visits to Jerusalem, I discovered that Helena traveled throughout the city, asking locals to take her to important sites, including the birthplace of Jesus. These events took place less than 350 years ago, so the memory of them would still be fresh in the minds of the Jerusalem community, especially events of such significance. To put it into perspective, this is about the same amount of time that has passed since the British founded the city of New York in 1664 until now

Construction on the first church in Bethlehem began in 326 and ended with a dedication on May 31, 339.

The Basilica of Constantine at Bethlehem

The template for important Roman buildings, whether civil or religious, was the basilica. The designs varied but were mainly rectangular buildings with an immense central aisle that eventually came to be known as the nave. Colonnades usually delineated side aisles. There was an apse at one end, sometimes two, where a magistrate was seated where objects of religious devotion were placed.

This is a typical example of a floor plan of a Roman Basilica. This one has an apse at both ends.

Bethlehem and the Church

Here is an example of a basilica built by Constantine c. 310 at Trier. This one was used to receive Constantine’s political clients.

Bethlehem and the Church
Basilica of Constantine at Trier, 4th century

This one is now converted into a Catholic church. But notice how the central aisle facing the apse gives the internal structure a sense of majesty, power, and authority. Although this one does not have the side aisles or the colonnades.

Here is an external view of the same structure:

Bethlehem and the Church
Basilica of Constantine at Trier, 4th century

Here is an interior view of a beautiful Catholic Church, the Euphrasian Basilica, built in what is now Poreč, Croatia. Originating in the latter half of the 4th century, it follows the design of the Roman basilica. This one has the side aisles separated by the colonnades.

Bethlehem and the Church
Euphrasian Basilica, 4th century

I present all this to illustrate the architectural mindset at the time and how builders fashioned the early Catholic Churches in the Roman Empire after this model. This later transformed into what we now call the Romanesque style of the Catholic Church that thrived from the 10th to the 13th centuries in Europe. Below is an example of such a Romanesque Church. Notice how they reuse the ancient Roman columns and Corinthian Columns. This Cathedral, constructed between 1099 and 1319, is a classic example of Romanesque architecture based on the old Roman basilica model.

Bethlehem and the Church
Modena Cathedral, Italy

It is not surprising then that the first church built by Constantine at Bethlehem was based on this model. Below is a reconstruction of what it may have looked like.

Bethlehem and the Church
Rendition of Constantine’s Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

When early Christians built their churches, they included an open atrium at one end. This Catholic church in the Roman Empire is another example. Notice the atrium.

Bethlehem and the Church

Why do you think that they added an atrium? The answer is simple. They wanted to model it after the Old Testament Hebrew Tabernacle of Moses. The New Testament Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Tabernacle worship. These details are explained in chapter the book of Hebrews, chapter 9. They wanted to reflect this in their architecture.

Here is the Tabernacle floorplan:

Bethlehem and the Church

What similarities do you see? It is pretty obvious. Notice the theological thought that the early Christians put into their architecture, how they wanted it to reflect the person and work of Jesus Christ. At the same time, they were not Gnostics. They had no qualms about taking something as common as a Roman basilica and transforming it into a theological statement about Christ while, at the same time, making it beautiful.

Notice the modern Christian church below. What theological statement does this modern church building communicate? What can we learn about Jesus, if anything, by looking at this structure? Which type of architecture communicates a religion that is cold and lifeless, the modern one below or the ancient and medieval ones pictured above?

Bethlehem and the Church
Modern Christian Church

Justinian’s Basilica of the Nativity, 6th Century

Regrettably, during the Samaritan Revolts of the early to mid-6th, Constantine’s Church of the Nativity was burned down and destroyed.9 In the aftermath, it was the Byzantine emperor Justinian I who took the initiative to rebuild the church. He died before its completion, c. 565. It was this structure, aside from repairs and alterations, that survives to the present day, making it one of the oldest active Christian churches in the world.

A lot has changed politically since Constantine built his basilica. A little over fifty years after Constantine died in 337, the Roman Empire split into the Latin West and the Byzantine East. Eventually, the Western Empire fell in 476, leaving only the Byzantine Empire.

Starting from around 1130 to 1170, the Crusaders in the Holy Land undertook extensive renovations of the church, not only the basilica itself but the surrounding grounds as well.10 Crusader domination of the Holy Land was not to last, for in 1187, Saladin conquered the Holy Land, placing it under Islamic rule. Saladin was a very wise ruler who practiced toleration. As a result, there were no adverse consequences to the Church of the Nativity. Greek Christians have permission to continue to serve in the church. By this time, the Christian Church had split into the Catholic Latin West and the Greek Orthodox East.

In 1227, two Armenian monks replaced the door of the narthex with a beautifully crafted door containing inscriptions in both Armenian and Arabic. This door, below, has survived to the present day.

Bethlehem and the Church
Wooden Armenian Narthex Door, 1227

The Drastic Decline of the Church of the Nativity

In 1229, the Holy Roman Emperor in the West and the Sultan al-Kamil reached an agreement, granting control of the Holy Sites back to the Crusaders. The condition attached to this arrangement was that Muslim pilgrims would be permitted to visit the cave.11 This control lasted until the Mamluk Muslim Turks took over in 1244. In 1863, someone unearthed the church treasures that had been hidden underground. The church suffered considerable damage during this period, particularly to the roof, although it remained undestroyed. Even under Mamluk rule, the church continued to be utilized by Christians. Eventually, in the 14th century, Catholic Friars regained control of the church and held it until Ottoman rule.

During Ottoman rule in 1517, the Church of the Nativity experienced a prolonged period of decline and disrepair, as the nave served common rather than religious purposes. During this time, control of the church changed hands several times between the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox Church. The history of this church, like most things in the Middle East, is very complex, as you can imagine.

When it seemed like things could not get any worse, between 1834 and 1837, a series of earthquakes did incredible damage to the structure. The Ottomans controlled the church until 1852 when Napoleon III forced them to recognize Catholic France as sovereign authority over the holy sites in and around Jerusalem. Ottoman rule in the Holy Land finally ended in 1917 during WWI.

The Restoration of the Church of the Nativity

Beginning in the 15th century, individuals made a series of repairs over the years. However, these attempts proved insufficient to cope with the ongoing deterioration of the structure. Finally, in 2010, the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) reached an agreement to restore the church’s roof and other structures. Despite the majority Muslim population of the P.A., they acknowledge the church’s significance as a world heritage site. Consequently, it is considered a national treasure, attracting over 1 million visitors annually.

The 18 million-dollar restoration project, which began in 2013, finally came to completion in 2022. Donors raised money from all over the world. Mazem Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, said the following:

This restoration wasn’t a choice. It was a duty. We could not allow the church to deteriorate, so it is here for the next generations. The restoration will ensure that the church will survive for at least 500 more years without major interventions, and hopefully survive another 2,000 years.15

-Mazem Karem, CEO BDF

The Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Churches jointly own the church today, with the Greek Orthodox holding the majority share.

The Present-Day Church of the Nativity

Bethlehem and the Church
Tourists in Manger Square

Above is Manger Square, where sometimes several thousand people gather on Christmas Eve. Manger Square is an extension of the Outer Courtyard of the church.

Bethlehem and the Church
Outer Courtyard of the Church of Nativity

Around the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1516, authorities lowered the entrance door to prevent people from bringing their horses and cattle into the nave. The “Door of Humility,” measuring only 1.2 meters high, now requires people to bow low to enter. How appropriate is it to worship a Savior who bowed low to enter the world as a baby in a cave in the hills of Judea? Also, the façade of the church is very atypical for a Catholic church, which is usually much more ornate. This symbolizes that the Savior or the world, the Son of God, came, not in ostentation but in the form of a baby born in a cave.

Bethlehem and the Church
“Door of Humility”

The door of humility leads through a small narthex into the nave.

Bethlehem and the Church
Nave with Chancel at the far end in the Apse
Bethlehem and the Church
The Chancel

In the Greek Orthodox religion, an iconostasis, a wall of icons, usually blocks the altar and sanctuary from view. In the above photo, the altar and sanctuary are in the apse behind the iconostasis.

The basic basilica structure of the original Constantine church, built in the 6th century, has been preserved, as you can see. We have the nave and the sanctuary (Chancel), with a large central aisle flanked by two smaller aisles on either side. 44 Corinthian columns delineate the aisles. If you consider the outer court, then we have the threefold division of the outer court, nave, and Chancel patterned after the outer court, holy place, and most holy place of the Mosaic Tabernacle. The outer court has replaced the atrium of Constantine’s church.

Bethlehem and the Church

The Chancel is on the east end of the church. Until modern times, it was typical for Catholic churches to face the East, a tradition that goes back to the Old Testament. There are several reasons for this, one of them being the fact that the East is the direction of the rising sun, symbolizing the coming of the Messiah.

Beautiful Mosaics

Beautiful mosaics completed in 1169 adorn the walls of the church. We know this because of a dedication inscription by one of the artists, Ephraim the Monk.

Take a look at these beautiful mosaics:

Bethlehem and the Church
This angel was discovered during the restoration

Believe it or not, some floor mosaics from Constantine’s original basilica still survive:

Trapdoors revealing floor mosaics from Constantine’s original nativity church, 4th century

Grotto of the Nativity

Finally, the question has to be asked: Where is the cave where Jesus was born? When I visited Israel for the first time, my daughter, who had been going to school over there, was my tour guide. She jokingly said, as we visited various sites, that everything in the Bible happened in a cave, and then they built a church over top of it.

Well, in this case, it was true. Builders constructed the Church of the Nativity over the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave where Jesus was born. So, from the main level of the church, one must descend via stairs to the cave itself. Here is a photo of the grotto:

A nun prays at the location where Jesus was born
A star marks the spot where the Savior came into the world

Our Savior, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness.

-St. Leo the Great

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Deo Gratias!

Featured Book:

From Amazon: The present work is the first monographic book published in English since 1910 on the history of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. In comparison to other Holy Land monuments, the latter underwent relatively minor alterations over time: spared from the destructions that affected other holy sites, such as the Holy Sepulcher, the Basilica at Bethlehem stands out for its still well-preserved architecture, dating from the late 6th century, and its exuberant mosaic decors completed in 1169, in the period of Crusader rule in Palestine. 

Footnotes and End Notes:

  1. See 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 110 for Old Testament references and Matthew 15:22, 21:19; Mark 10:48, Romans 1:3, and 2Timothy 2:8 for New Testament references.
  2.  Genesis 35:16-19, 48:7
  3. “Ephrathah” in Holman Bible Dictionary (Holman: Tennessee, 2003), 500-501
  4. Gospel of John 6:51
  5. Ricciotti, Giuseppe, (1948). Vita di Gesù Cristo. Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, p. 276 n
  6. For a detailed introduction to the history of the site and its architectural, spatial, and figural mise-en-scène since Antiquity to the present cf. Bacci, Michele (2017), The Mystic Cave. A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.
  7. Ricciotti, Giuseppe, (1948). Vita di Gesù Cristo
  8. Roth, Leland M. (1993). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning, (First ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 278, 282. 
  9. Hoyland, Robert G.; Williamson, H. G. M. (2018). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land, Oxford University Press. p. 163
  10. Hazzard, Harry W. (1977). A History of the Crusades. Vol. IV
  11. Bacci, Michelle, The Mystic Cave. A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, p. 210
  12. Ibid., pp. 223-237
  13. World Monuments Fund, Church of the Holy Nativity Last updated 2019
  14. Orthodox Times, Restoration of Church of the Nativity nears completion, Jan. 3, 2022
  15. National Catholic Register, Preserving Christ’s Birthplace: Restoration of Church of the Nativity Nears Completion, December 23, 2021
  16. Bacci, Michelle, The Mystic Cave. A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, p. 241

Further Reading:

Alessandri, Claudio, The Restoration of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, May 31, 2023, 460 pages, ISBN 9781032570365

Bacci, Michelle, The Mystic Cave. A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, Published by Libreria Editrice Viella, 2017, ISBN 13: 978886788199

 Kuhnel, Bianca; Kuhnel, Gustav; The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, The Crusader Lining of an Early Christian Basilica, Schnell & Steiner (November 30, 2018)

Strickert, Fred, The Church of the Nativity, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (November 4, 2013)

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