Birth of Jesus and the Church of the Nativity
Bethlehem, about September 6 BC

In Christian tradition, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem marks the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. It is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. First-time visitors are sometimes startled, even disappointed, by its fortress-like appearance (below left) which results from a 12th century AD Crusader reconstruction to make it more defensible. Defying its status as one of Christendom's holiest shrines, it seems dilapidated and battered, not at all beautiful. Still, for a building that has survived destruction by the Persians (614), a mad caliph (1009), earthquake (1834) fire (1869) and a Israeli army siege (2002) against suspected Palestinian militants who had taken refuge there, its dignity remains intact.

The church has only one entrance (above right) and it shows several changes. The moldings of the entrances of the 6th century AD church are still visible, and the central door shows signs that it was twice made smaller by the Crusaders. First, they inserted a doorway with a pointed arch. Later they walled up the upper part; then they reduced it even farther, to the present small size, to keep riders on camels and horses from entering and to prevent looting. Known as the "Door of Humility," Iit is only four-feet high, forcing visitors entering the church to bow in reverence.

Immediately inside the "Door of Humility" is the church's narrow narthex, originally a single long porch with three doors leading into the main part of the church. A single low doorway now gives access to the wide nave (below left) which survives intact from the church of Justinian, although the roof is 15th century, with 19th century restorations. Thirty of the 44 Corinthian columns carry paintings of saints, 20 of which are identified by inscriptions, although lighting conditions make them hard to see (note particularly Cathal of Ireland, Canute of Denmark, Norway and England and Olaf of Norway). One column painting has the date 1130 AD. The columns, which were originally gilded, are of polished red limestone quarried near Bethlehem, most of them reused from the original 4th century AD basilica. (Photo from

Trap doors in the floor reveal parts of the mosaic floor (above right) from the original church built in the 4th century AD by the emperor Constantine, now 2 feet below the present floor level. The geometric forms are a reminder of the early Judeo-Christian tradition of refraining from the use of human figures, a literal interpretation of the Second Commandment ban on carved or "graven images."

The gray patches on the white walls above the columns seen in the photo of the interior (above left) are surviving sections of the golden mosaics (below left) applied to the walls in the 12th century AD (one inscription gives the date as 1169) by Greek artists from Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The mosaics depicted (according to a description by a man who saw them intact in 1494): the genealogy of Christ according to Luke and the early provincial councils convened to settle doctrinal issues and heresies held in the cities of Ancyra, Antioch, Sardis, Laodicea and Carthage; the genealogy of Christ according to Matthew; and the church councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcadon. Other subjects included a Tree of Jesse (now gone), Doubting Thomas, the Ascension and the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (below right).

The square mosaic tiles were arranged to reflect the light from the windows into the opposite aisles, and it is the destruction of most of these mosaics that, in part, makes the church seem so gloomy; another contributing factor was the 6th century AD looting by the Ottoman Turks of the white marble that once lined the walls; it was used for construction on the Haram esh-Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem.

From the nave, steps lead up to the altar area at the point where the arms of the church's cruciform floor plan intersect. Directly ahead, in front of the altar, is the iconostasis (below left), or icon screen which, in keeping with Greek Orthodox tradition, separates the congregation from the altar, much like the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The iconostasis opens to the people at the reading of the Gospel. In Orthodox belief icons, or images are not simple pieces of art; they are windows through which the worshiper finds true communion with God and all those who have labored for the Christian faith.

To the left (north) of the altar area is the Armenian Altar of the Three Kings (above right) dedicated to the Magi.

To either side of the the main altar, semi-circular stairways (above left) lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity. At the bottom of the stairs is the 40-foot-long, 10-foot-wide Grotto of the Nativity (above right). Here the vestments are white; but the colors change in accordance with the liturgical calendar.

Within the grotto, the eye is immediately drawn to the Altar of the Birth of Christ (below left) with its 14-point silver star (below right) on a marble slab. The 14 points of the star are said to represent the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian Exile, and fourteen from the Exile to the birth of Christ (see the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17). A Latin inscription around the opening reads: "Hic de Virgine Maria a Jesus Christus natus est" ("Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary").

It is common to see pilgrims kneel to kiss the star. In 1847 the star was stolen, starting a dispute that led indirectly to the Crimean War of 1853. Three steps lower down, on the right, is the Altar of the Magi (below left) commemorating the visit of the "Magi" and the Altar of the Manger (below right), said to be where Mary placed the newborn Jesus. On Christmas Eve a wooden image of the baby Jesus is taken from the adjacent Church of St. Catherine and solemnly placed on the Altar of the Manger, where it remains until Epiphany, the Orthodox Christmas, on January 6th.


The birth of Jesus and all the questions surrounding it


Jesus birth date: not the year "0" ???

Before our present calendar, and until the 500s AD, events in Western civilization were dated A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, in Latin), "from the founding of the city" (that is, Rome). In the 6th century, a learned monk-mathematician-astronomer named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little, also short or humble) was assigned the task of devising a new calendar based on the birth of Jesus. He knew, or thought he knew, the date of Herod the Great's death, and placed it 749 years after the founding of Rome (in 4 BC according to our calendar). For some inexplicable reason he dated the birth of Jesus 753 years after the founding of Rome (four years after Herod died). In actuality Herod, who died in the spring of 4 BC (according Dionysius' newly revised calendar), was very much alive at the time of the visit of the Magi of Matthew's Gospel. Thus, because of Dionysius' miscalculation, our present calendar is at least four years behind!

When exactly was Jesus born?

Jesus had to have been born some months before Herod's death, some time between 6 and 4 BC, literally before his time. While Jesus could have been born as early as 7 BC, that would have made him too old for the "about thirty years old when he began his ministry" in Luke 3:23. For the sake of this narrative we will use 6 BC.

The details of Jesus' birth are found only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both agree on several basic matters:

Aside from these, the accounts have significant differences, simply because each was written to a different audience: Matthew directed his to Jews, while Luke wrote to Gentiles.

Another Bethlehem???

According to both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew specifies that it was in "Bethlehem in Judea," while Luke identifies it as "Bethlehem the town of David." Both meant the same town, located some 5 miles south-southwest of Jerusalem's walled Old City. The terms "in Judea" and "town of David" were added to distinguish the city from another Bethlehem (modern Beit Lehem) in the territory of Zebulon, about 8 miles northwest of Nazareth.

Some familiar terms from Luke's birth narrative defined...

Caesar - Greek kaisar; of Latin origin; meaning severed. The surname of Julius Caesar, which was adopted by his grand nephew Octavian. Afterwards it was part of the title for all successive Roman emperors.

Augustus - Greek augoustos, from Latin august, meaning venerable. The title granted by the Roman senate to Octavian as the first Roman emperor; the title subsequently conferred upon all Roman emperors.

Quirinius - Full name Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (Greek Cyrenius "warrior"); served as governor of Syria twice, first at the time of Jesus' birth and second, when Jesus was about 12 or 13 years old. Both times a census was held to determine taxation.

Jesus' Life Home n Journey to Shepherd's Fields at Beit Sahour