Bethlehem – Ancient Roots
Bethlehem is about six miles south of Jerusalem in Israel. It is primarily thought of as a New Testament city, but is actually extremely old. The first Biblical reference to Bethlehem comes from Genesis 35:19, when Rachel is buried “on the way to Bethlehem.” There is some debate as to which Bethlehem is connected to the story of Rachel, since the Bible mentions a few different locations over hundreds of years. There is this Bethlehem of Judah, a Bethlehem of Galilee (Joshua 19:15), and possibly a Bethlehem of Benjamin (Nehemiah 7:26; Genesis 35:16, 19; 48:7; 1 Samuel 10:2; Jeremiah 13:4-7; 18:23).
Bethlehem – Rachel’s Tomb
“Rachel’s Tomb” can be visited in Bethlehem today, and is considered the third holiest site in Judaism. There are debates over the actual burial location of Rachel, with most following the Biblical text placing it away from Bethlehem, on the road to the city. Tradition only places Rachel’s Tomb there as early as the 4th century AD. Bethlehem is also mentioned in the Amarna Letters of the 14th century BC. Originally located east of the “Patriarchal highway” running north-south through Judah, it was a fertile area.
Bethlehem – Prophecy Fulfilled
Bethlehem was also for many years home to Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate while living there in a cave near the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Modern Bethlehem is home to the largest Palestinian Christian community and one of the oldest Christian communities, although it has shrunk substantially in recent years because of emigration. Bethlehem is also mentioned in the book of Judges, is the main setting in the book of Ruth, and according to the book of Samuel, where King David grew up. The most significant aspect of Bethlehem, however, is the location of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The prophecy in Micah 5:2 says, “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
This prophecy is fulfilled at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, and John 7:42 explains this prophecy as referring to the Christ. Matthew and Luke also give an account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and many pilgrims and scholars have attempted to figure out just where in Bethlehem Jesus was born. Jerome and Paulinus of Nola write that a grove of Adonis was placed in Bethlehem, and Jerome’s writing even suggests that it may have been over the very cave where Jesus was born (Jerome, Letter 58 To Paulinus. Paulinus of Nola Epistle 31.3). These writings come from before the time of Emperor Hadrian (ca. 117 AD), and thus, within 100 years of the birth of Jesus.
The famous early Christian historian Justin Martyr wrote in the 2nd century AD that Joseph and Mary stayed in a cave near the village, and the 2nd century Protoevangelium of James says the same (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 78. Protoevangelium of James 18:1-2). The church father Origen also wrote in the 3rd century that Jesus was born in a certain cave (Origen, Contra Celsum 1.51). In about 326 AD, Helena, mother of Constantine, had a church erected over the cave. This event was recorded by Eusebius, Sulpicius Severus, and Sozomen writing in the 4th and 5th centuries (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.41-43. Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History 2.33. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 2.2.1).
If Jesus was really born in a cave in Bethlehem, that cave may have been part of a house or a shelter for the animals. Luke writes that there was no place for them in the inn, better translated guestroom, and so the next place of shelter available would have been either another house built in a cave (some houses in this period in Roman Palestine were built in caves) or in a shelter for storage or animals.
Bethlehem – The First Nativity Scene
Today, the Church of the Nativity stands over this cave in Bethlehem. The church mostly dates to the 6th century construction of Emperor Justinian, but additions and modifications were made during the medieval era. When excavations were done in the 20th century, remains of a Constantine era church were discovered, presumably the one that Lady Helena had built. There is a mosaic floor about two feet underneath the current floor that some archaeologists believe is from the original church. Excavations indicated that the first church built on the site was in the shape of a square with sides of 87 feet, and the basilica was divided into four rows of nine columns each. On the east end of the church, connecting to the main building, an octagon shaped structure was built over the cave as a shrine, about 26 feet long on each side.