The cave lies underneath the iconostasis and altar in the 4th-century Church of the Nativity. (photo: George Martin)
The main portal of the Church of the Nativity. (photo: George Martin)
Pilgrims gather near the altar marking the site of the manger. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)
An Armenian priest celebrating the Eucharist at the altar of the Nativity. (photo: George Martin)
Pilgrims who first visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem are usually surprised, even dismayed, by what they see. They set out on a six-mile drive from Jerusalem with Christmas carols and images of manger scenes running through their minds. But these days their bus will encounter a military roadblock. Bethlehem is in the occupied West Bank. Even though tourist buses are waved through, the checkpoint is a reminder that the Holy Land is torn by the conflicting claims of two peoples to one land.
It is hard to hum Silent Night while looking out a window at soldiers holding automatic weapons.
Once in Bethlehem, pilgrims walk through Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity. The door of the church reveals something of the buildings complex history. A soaring arch formed the entrance in the sixth century; crusaders blocked most of it up 600 years later, making a smaller portal. Some centuries after the crusaders, most of their doorway was in turn blocked up to prevent looters, it is said, from driving carts into the church. Now pilgrims must stoop into the church cautiously, so as not to bump their heads on the low stone lintel.
The interior of the church may strike one as barren. One 15th-century visitor described it as a barn without hay. For me it has the elegance of antiquity; a testimony of centuries of devotion.
A final surprise comes when pilgrims are led down a steep flight of steps into a cave beneath the sanctuary and shown a 14 pointed silver star set in marble beneath an altar. Here, they are told, Jesus was born of Mary. Here? pilgrims usually react in disappointment, No, it cant be here. Jesus wasnt born in a cave.
Ah, but the most ancient traditions indeed speak of a cave as the place of Jesus birth. And a careful examination of what the Bible tells us indicates that these ancient traditions are true.
The accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels are brief. Mark and John provide no account at all, and Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod. It is Luke who provides the most complete story and it is only one verse long! Luke tells us that Joseph came to Bethlehem with Mary, who was with child, and while they were there the time came for her to give birth:
and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Wrapping a newborn in strips of cloth was standard practice in the first century. It is the last part of the verse that is intriguing: Mary laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
To our ears, this sounds like Bethlehems inn was booked for the night, so Joseph had to take Mary elsewhere. Inn was translated from the original in Greek, katalyma, which means a lodge or guest room, or simply a room. Later in Lukes Gospel, Jesus instructs Peter and John to ask the owner of a house for a katalyma to celebrate the Passover meal (Lk 22:11). It is possible that the room described by Luke in the infancy narrative belonged to a relative of Josephs; Josephs family was of Bethlehem.
In describing the birth of Jesus, Luke may have only been saying that there was no suitable space in the room where they were staying for Mary to give birth. They may have gone to an adjacent room, otherwise used to shelter animals.
The houses of ordinary people at the time of Jesus commonly consisted of one room. Cooking was done in a courtyard, and there might be auxiliary rooms for animals or storage, but the actual living space was a single room. At night the family would sleep on mats unrolled on the floor.
Another factor: in the limestone hills of Judea, houses were sometimes built in front of, or over, caves. This practice can still be seen today in some of the older homes in Palestinian villages. Caves make fine animal shelters and in such a cave one might find a manger, which in the original Greek means either a feeding trough for animals or a place where animals are fed.
Ancient tradition places the birth of Jesus in such a cave. The earliest testimony comes from St. Justin Martyr, who was born around 100 A.D. in Neapolis (the Nablus of today), which is 30 miles from Bethlehem. Around 150 A.D. he wrote:
When the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger.
Justin Martyrs testimony is significant not only because of its early date, but also because he was a native of Palestine and familiar with local traditions.
The Protoevangelium Jacobi, an apocryphal book written around the time of Justin Martyr, also describes the birth of Jesus taking place in a cave. Although it was never accepted as inspired scripture by the church, some elements of the Protoevangelium have become part of Christian tradition; the names of Marys parents, Joachim and Anne, are examples.
Origen, an Egyptian scripture scholar who moved to Palestine around 235 A.D., also speaks of Jesus birth:
With respect to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, if anyone desires to have additional evidence, there is shown in Bethlehem the cave where he was born, and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith. It is being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped by Christians.
In other words, it was common knowledge in the third century, even among non-Christians, that Jesus was born in a specific cave in Bethlehem.
It was not until the Emperor Constantine granted his edict in the fourth century that Christians were free to practice their faith in the Roman Empire.
The first church in Bethlehem was built by St. Helena, Constantines mother, and it was raised over the cave that tradition identified as the birthplace of Jesus. This church was dedicated in 339, and portions of its floor mosaics are visible under the floor of the present church.
A later emperor, Justinian, ordered that Helenas church he rebuilt and enlarged, and it is basically Justinians church, dedicated in 530, that visitors enter today. It is a large cross-shaped Roman basilica with three apses and antique Roman capitals and columns. The shrine was refurbished by the crusaders in the 12th century, but it still bears the heavy patina of its antiquity. The remnants of the wall mosaics in the nave of the church are examples of the crusaders work.
Depictions of the birth of Jesus in the Eastern Christian tradition commonly depict the birth of Christ in a cave. These iconographic schemes, which are adhered to as rigidly as dogma in the Orthodox tradition, are based on Byzantine and Syriac compositions.
Why then do our manger sets usually include an ox, an ass and a thatched hut as the manger of Jesus birth? These elements are the fruit of traditions developed in Western Europe. In the West the manger meant an animal shelter rather than a feeding trough. St. Francis of Assisi erected a manger scene in December 1223 in the Italian town of Greccio. Thomas of Celanos early biography of Francis mentions that an ox and an ass were a part of his manger, and they have been in our Christmas cribs ever since. It is not entirely clear whether Franciss manger was a hut or a cave. But since Europeans kept their animals in barns or huts rather than caves, it was inevitable that popular imagination would eventually portray the birthplace of Jesus as a hut.
There is nothing wrong with our popular imaginings of events in the life of Jesus, as long as they help us reflect on the significance of these events. Still, it is often a great surprise for those who grew up with Christmas cribs to step down beneath the Church of the Nativity and enter a cave to venerate the birthplace of the Saviour of the World.
George Martin, a frequent contributor to this publication, travels often to the Holy Land.