For those who have never visited Israel, in the video above film director Pearry Teo provides a 360 degree virtual tour of what is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Just move your mouse over the video for a full panoramic view. Our tour guide is Danny Herman.
Located in Bethlehem which today is part of Palestine, the Church of the Nativity covers the opening to a cave or Grotto, where you walk down stair to view where it is traditionally believed Jesus was born.
On the floor, you can see the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. A ‘silver star’ marks where the manger sat — installed in 1717, for good reason some question if this is the exact spot.
They even note where the Magi stood when they came to worship the Christ.
We can’t be absolutely sure the cave is the location where Jesus was born. The original version of the chapel claiming this as the place was built by Constantine in 333 AD — at the insistence of his mother. Obviously, there was a consensus at that time this was the location.
There have been numerous renovations and additions to the site including a complete rebuild in 565 after the church was destroyed in the Samaritan revolt.
This makes it one of the oldest Christian churches in the world still in use today. In 2012, UNESCO recognized the Church of the Nativity as a World Heritage site.
So what evidence do we have that this is where Jesus was born?
The earliest reference to the site being the birthplace of Christ is found in the writings of Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist who lived between 100 – 165 AD.
He described it this way:
“But 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, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found him.” (Dialogue with Trypho)
A Greek philosopher Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD), similarly described the cave as being the birth place of Jesus. He added that this was even attested by those who were not Christians.
The Bible doesn’t give us much information on where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Both Luke (Luke 2:1-18) and Matthew (Matthew 2) state Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 NASV)
Since a manger was a feeding trough for animals, it is generally believed Jesus was born in a stable attached to the inn. However, Justin Martyr seems to suggest they went to a completely different location.
This indication of a stable does not remove the cave from the running because even today houses in Palestine are built in front of caves that are still used to house animals.
From the Biblical record, we do not know if Joseph and Mary moved to inn’s stable or found a completely different place. All we do know is that it was a spot where animals were kept, so this cave could certainly fit the bill.
Matthew adds that when the Magi showed up, the family was now living in a house.
9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11 NASV)
This obviously took place sometime after Jesus’s birth, and by this point the family had found accommodations.
Though it is possible this Grotto is the place where Jesus was born, the spot on the cave floor marking where the magi actually stood is probably not correct.
As a site of importance to both Christians and even some Muslims, the Church of the Nativity receives about 2 million visitors each year.
Ironically, the Church of the Nativity is partially blamed for starting the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and Turkey. At this time, Bethlehem was under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
The Church of the Nativity was a very important religious site and there was conflict between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church for control of this historic site. The dispute was quite heated at times.
Two events took place that led to the conflict.
In 1847, the silver star marking the spot where Jesus was born was stolen.
In 1852, the Greek Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic church had reached an agreement and shared joint custody of the church. However, the next year there was a riot where the Catholic church briefly gained control of the Church of the Nativity. There were a number of Greek Orthodox monks killed during the chaos.
The Russian Tsar Nicholas, who was Orthodox, previously angered by the loss of the star was outraged by the death of the Orthodox Monks and blamed the Turkish police for what happened. Nicholas believed the Turks actually supported the Roman Catholic Church in the riot.
Nicholas was looking for any excuse to invade the Turkey and this was his justification — meaning if he didn’t have this reason he would have concocted another one. But Nicholas would lose this brief war when both the English and French joined the Ottoman Empire in the conflict.
Today the Church of the Nativity is co-managed by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic. Each group has a monastic order at the site. This has led to actual confrontations between the various groups of monks, at times requiring the Palestinian police to break up the fights.
- Take a virtual tour of the REAL nativity scene: 360 video shows the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem: Daily Mail
- Feature Image: Church of Nativity, Bethlehem Credit: Jordan Pickett/Flickr/Creative Commons