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How the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, has survived conquerers and time

SHARE How the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, has survived conquerers and time

Crosses are lit on the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during the Christmas tree lightning ceremony in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press

The Protoevangelium of James and St. Justin Martyr, both dating to the middle of the second century, offer the first evidence that a cave in Bethlehem was being venerated as the birthplace of Christ. That’s quite early. By the middle of the third century, the controversial Christian thinker Origen knew of a cave and a manger there. By the fourth century, large numbers of Christian pilgrims were coming to the small city.

In A.D. 326, either to accommodate those pilgrims or to attract them, or both, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great ordered the construction of a church in Bethlehem — a square basilica, to which was attached an octagonal chapel. Visitors could stand in that chapel and gaze down into an exposed complex of caves.

Unfortunately, the Constantinian church was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt of A.D. 529. Shortly thereafter, the emperor Justinian — who also erected Constantinople’s great Hagia Sophia (see “The dramatic story behind one of the world’s greatest churches” on deseret.com for more about the history of the Hagia Sophia) — commanded that it be rebuilt.

Of that church, the Patriarch Sophronius, visiting early in the seventh century, wrote “When I see all the glistening gold, the well-fashioned columns and fine workmanship, let me be freed from the gloom of sorrows. I will also look up at the design above, at the coffers studded with stars, for they are a masterpiece of heavenly beauty. Let me go down also to the cave, where the Virgin Queen of all bore a Saviour for mankind.”


Christian worshipper prays in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press

Although longer and differently designed than Constantine’s church and with a floor roughly two yards above that of the original building, it reused Constantine’s polished pink limestone columns and its north and south walls matched those of the earlier structure.

The church that visitors to Bethlehem see today is essentially Justinian’s. When the Persians invaded the area in A.D. 614, destroying virtually all Christian churches, the Church of the Nativity was spared. Why? Because the Byzantine mosaics on its façade depicted the Magi who worshiped the infant Jesus clothed as Persian holy men.

The Church of the Nativity was again spared during the Arab conquest of A.D. 634. Indeed, the caliph Umar prayed in it four years later. On Christmas Day 1101, it was the scene of Baldwin I’s coronation as ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1192, the great Saladin, victorious Muslim leader of the counter-Crusade, permitted Christian services in it to continue.

Time, however, has taken its toll.

The mosaic on the façade is long gone. And, while Justinian’s church had three massive entrance doors, the northernmost of them is essentially invisible behind an 18th-century buttress and the southern door is covered by an Armenian monastery.

Modern visitors approach the Church of the Nativity across part of what was once the courtyard of Constantine’s structure. And, while the lintel of Justinian’s massive original central doorway is still visible, as is the outline of a Crusader-era door’s somewhat smaller pointed arch, they enter today through the so-called “Door of Humility,” which is all that remains — and which is so low that people are obliged to bow as they come in. The Ottoman Turks deliberately made it small in order to prevent the carts of looters from having easy passage.


The Church of the Nativity that was closed as a preventive measure against the coronavirus is seen in Bethlehem, West Bank, Friday, March 6, 2020.

Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press

Thirty of the church’s columns bear Crusader-era paintings of the Virgin and Child and various saints, although age and poor interior lighting make them difficult to see. Similarly difficult to discern are the wall mosaics, mostly dating to the 1160s, that once covered all or most of the interior. Much of the church’s marble was carried off after the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Palestine in the 16th century. Happily, though, parts of a fifth-century mosaic pavement are still visible through massive wooden trapdoors in Justinian’s higher floor. 

In 1852, Roman Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox were granted (sometimes very uneasy) joint custody of the church, with the Greek Orthodox being given specific responsibility for the traditional Grotto of the Nativity. To enter and exit that cave, visitors must navigate rather steep marble steps and pass through Justinian’s sixth-century bronze doors. In the grotto, a silver star is set in the marble flooring above the precise spot where the Prince of Peace is said to have been born.

A dispute over that star (placed by Catholics, with a Latin inscription) and its disappearance (allegedly stolen by Greek Orthodox monks) served as a pretext for the 1853-1856 Crimean War, in which the United Kingdom, Sardinia, France and the Ottoman Empire defeated the Orthodox Russian Empire.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.