Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity—Appropriately Unassuming

Bethlehem’s main attraction centers on the oldest standing church in Israel. The ancient structure marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, and yet, it isn’t much to look at.

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity—Appropriately Unassuming

(Photo: The front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

Built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian, the Church of the Nativity sits on top of the location of the original octagonal church Constantine’s mother, Helena, constructed just a few centuries after Jesus.

When I went there earlier this year, it looked altogether uninspiring and unassuming.

To me, that’s appropriate.

Was Jesus Really Born Here?

Early and strong tradition supports that Mary gave birth to Jesus in the cave beneath the church. A star on the ground today even marks the traditional spot of the Nativity, which means “the Birth.”

Tradition is far from infallible, but we have no reason to doubt it without good reason. The location of Jesus’ birth remains one of the oldest and strongest traditions:

  • In the 2nd-century, Justin Martyr and the Protoevangelium of James both mention Jesus’ birth as occurring in a cave.
  • In the 3rd-century, Origin saw the cave where Jesus was supposed to have been born. This represented the same place where the present Church of the Nativity stands today.
  • The floor of the modern church has panels removed revealing an earlier floor with beautiful mosaics from the original church Constantine constructed.

This first part of this video by ABC gives a nice look inside the church.

Surviving Destruction

  • As tradition goes, the church survived the invasion of the Persians in AD 614 because they saw images of the Magi on the walls.
  • Again the church survived destruction by the Egyptian al-Hakim in 1009 because of the relationships between Christians and Muslims among the locals.
  • More recently, the church has been threatened by age and the elements, badly needing repairs.
Bethlehem Church of Nativity interior

(Photo: Bethlehem Church of Nativity interior. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

Today’s Church of the Nativity

Today, Bethlehem claims more than 30,000 residents—hardly the “little town” of Jesus’ day.

In front of the church today, a large courtyard called Manger Square accommodates pilgrims who gather every Christmas Eve. The traditional Western celebration begins on December 24, followed by the Greek Orthodox Christmas on January 6 and the Armenian observance almost two weeks later.

When I first saw the exterior of the church, it looked anything but inspiring. Then it hit me: Jesus came into the world the same way: unassuming, humble, as one who serves.

Until He comes again, we should adopt the same attitude.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. —Philippians 2:5–7

Question: What do you think about this church? To leave a comment, just click here.

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  • Jdkist1@mac.com

    Brother Wayne,
    The embedded video was ABC, rather than CBS, as you posted. Thank you for your faithfulness.

    • Thanks for that correction! I’ve fixed it now. 🙂

  • JFKAR

    I agree with what you say about the case being strong for it as the genuine site of Jesus’ birth (as is the case for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well), but for some reason the possibility that such sites aren’t authentic makes it impossible for me to get much out of them spiritually.

    And people kissing the star in the “basement” (and the “Stone of Anointing” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) really puts me off. I like the later, Byzantine and Crusader stuff most.

    I once caught an Orthodox service in the Church of the Nativity with people chanting the liturgy in Arabic. That was hauntingly beautiful. But usually I just encounter a long queue of sunburnt tourists in there, often talking loudly, which kind of spoils the atmosphere.

    • I know what you mean. The Holy Sepulcher bothered me initially, until I looked past those who worshipped in ways I regard as strange and simply embraced the site as holy (set apart) because Jesus’ presence there made it significant. Nothing warm and fuzzy or spooky—just a connection of the metaphysical truths with physical places.

  • SeattleAl

    Wayne, I have to disagree with you a bit. I think the tradition that Jesus was born here is very thin. Pretty much everything in the Protoevangelium of James is suspect. Do you also think Mary grew up living in the temple? By the 3rd century all sorts of strange stories about Jesus were in circulation.

    I think the context in Luke’s narration, that there was no space in an “upper room”, simply means Jesus was conversely born in a lower room of a house. Could that house have had a cave as a storage area? Sure, but the cave under the Nativity church is a part of a series of caves, not a simple extension of a home into a limestone hillside.

    I think this is a great place to remember Jesus’ birth, as good as any place. But I think those of us who love the Holy land and these ancient places are too ready to drink the ‘tradition’ Kool-Aid when it comes to some of these shrines and lose some historical objectivity.
    —Al Sandalow

    • It is a little difficult, Al, to remain completely objective when history and tradition intertwine. I’m certainly not suggesting that the Protoevangelium is without error. But neither does Helena finding wood from the “true cross” nullify the likelihood that the Holy Sepulcher is authentic. The best we can do is remain humble about our assertions—however convinced we are about them.

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