The Church of the Nativity marks the traditional location where Mary gave birth to Yeshua. It is located in Bethlehem, a biblical site and modern city just 25 miles (10.9 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. This church is a must-see during your pilgrimage to Israel. It has an incredible history and unique artifacts.
History of the Site
The writings of Justin Martyr (from roughly 160 AD) are the first written record of a cave being revered as the birthplace of Yeshua. Later, the writings of Origen and Eusebius from the 3rd century AD affirm this.
In 135 AD, the Romans attempted to get rid of the venerated cave by turning it into a worship place for the Greek god Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and desire. The Church of the Nativity is clear evidence that this attempt was unsuccessful.
History of the Church
The Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in Israel (that is not in ruins). The current basilica was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD. Justinian built it over an older church that was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. Both churches were built over the cave traditionally venerated as Yeshua’s birthplace.
In 614 AD, the Persians invaded Israel and destroyed numerous churches. They intended to destroy the Church of the Nativity but allegedly spared it because of a unique mosaic on the interior wall depicting the Magi in Persian attire.
In 1009 AD, the Church of the Nativity was spared again from al-Hakim’s decree to destroy it. Then, from 1165-69 AD, the Crusaders repaired and renovated the church, only to have it desecrated by the Turks in 1244 AD. The roof was severely damaged and the mosaics on the wall were ruined.
In 2012, the Church of the Nativity was established as a World Heritage Site and $15 million were granted for repairing its roof, walls, and mosaics.
What to See?
Upon entering the Church of the Nativity, notice how small and unimpressive the entrance door is. It is known as the Door of Humility since it requires visitors to stoop down to enter the site where Yeshua humbled Himself and become a man. The entrance was intentionally made smaller during Ottoman rule to prevent looters from driving their carts in.
There are mosaics and mosaic fragments along the walls and floor of the church; their dates range from the 4th century AD to the Crusaders. The pink, limestone columns (still standing from the Constantinian church built in the 4th century AD) have Crusader paintings on them. Make sure to take a look at these on your way down to the Grotto of the Nativity.
The Grotto of the Nativity is located underneath the church. It is a rectangular room (expanded cave) accessible by a flight of stairs near the altar. In it, a silver star marks the location where Yeshua was traditionally born. Whether this is the exact location of Yeshua’s birth or not, it is an excellent place to ponder and remember this miraculous event.