Cave of the Nativity

Upon the arrival of Joseph and Mary at Bethlehem, Luke ii. 6-7 they could find no room at the inn, and took refuge in a cottage where the babe was born, and laid in the manger.

The village of Bethlehem, " house of bread," lies about six miles south of Jerusalem on the way to Hebron. There was another city or village of this name in Zebulon, (Josh, xix. 15,) whence this is called, to distinguish it, BethlehemJudah. It is not mentioned in the catalogues of the cities of Judah. In Genesis (xlviii. 7) it is called Ephrath, and in Micah (v. 2) Ephratah—an epithet given it because of its fruitfulness. It appears in Scripture chiefly in connection with the house of David, and seems never to have been a place of much importance. " The Jews are very silent of this city ; nor do I remember that I have read any thing in them concerning it besides those things which are produced out of the Old Testament." 4 Micah speaks of it as little amongst the thousands of Judah. It was here that the fields of Boaz lay, in which Ruth gleaned, (Ruth, ii. 4;) and here the son of Obed was born. Hither came Samuel, and anointed the youthful David to be the successor of Saul. That the Messiah should be born here was expressly declared by the prophet Micah, (v. 2 ;) and the Jews seem to have had no question as to his meaning, nor ever to have doubted the literal fulfilment of the prophecy. (Matt. ii. 6 ; John, vii. 42.)

1 See, however, Sepp, ii. 68. a Olshausen, Michaelis.

3 So Lange. * Lightfoot, iii. 100.

Bethlehem lies on the eastern brow of a ridge that runs from east to west a mile in length, and is surrounded by hills. From the highest point of the ridge there is an extensive view toward the south and east, in the direction of Jericho, the Dead Sea, and the mountains of Moab beyond. There are deep valleys both on the south and north ; that on the north stretches toward Jerusalem, and in it olives, figs, almond-groves, and vineyards are found. The village has one street^ broad, but not thickly built. The present inhabitants are chiefly occupied in the manufacture of holy trinkets and relics, beads, crosses, &c, for the pilgrims who visit Jerusalem.

The exact spot where the Lord wras born, has been the subject of anxious investigation and of zealous controversy. All the information upon this point that the Scriptures give, is contained in the words of Luke, that when Joseph and Mary arrived at Bethlehem, they could find no plac^ at the inn, or khan; and that, when Jesus was born, she was compelled to put the new-born babe in a manger, cjxtTvrj. From this statement some have inferred that the manger was in a stall connected with the inn itself;1 but this is hardly consistent with other features of the narrative. That the place in which she took refuge was a stall, or room where cattle were lodged, may fairly be inferred from the mention of a manger.

1 Wilson, Lands of the Bible, i. 392; Kitto, Life of Christ, 62.


The place now shown as the Lord's birthplace is a cave southeast from the town, and now covered by the Latin convent. The tradition that connects this cave with His birth is very ancient.1 Robinson (ii. 416) speaks of it as " reaching back at least to the middle of the second century." Justin Martyr (150, A. D.) mentions it; as also Origen about a hundred years later. Queen Helena erected a church over it, (325 A. D.) Here came Jerome, (400 A. D.,) and dwelt for many years. So far then as early tradition can authenticate a place, this seems well authenticated.2 Yet there are objections which have led many to deny the truth of the tradition.3 The point then demands some further examination.

The objection, that Luke says nothing of a cave, is not important. His purpose is simply to show the humble and friendless state of the infant child, and this is done by the mention of the circumstances that there wTas no room for his parents in the inn, and that when He was born He was laid in a manger. Any other particulars were for his purpose unnecessary.

A more important objection is that drawn from the fact, that tradition makes caves or grottoes to be the sites of so many remarkable events. That, as was long ago said by Maundrell, " wherever you go, you find almost every thing represented as done under ground," naturally awakens our incredulity. Yet, on the other hand, they could not have been so generally selected for such sites, unless there were some grounds of fitness in the selection. The scriptures, Josephus, and all travellers speak of the numerous caves that are found throughout Palestine. They were used for dwellings, for fortresses and places of refuge, for cisterns, for prisons, and for sepulchres. Travellers used them as inns, robbers as dens, herdsmen as stalls, husbandmen as granaries. Many of these caves were very large. One is mentioned (Judges xx. 47) large enough for six hundred men. Bonar,1 in reference to the cave of Adullam, says: " you might spend days in exploring these vast apartments, for the whole mountain seems excavated, or rather honey combed." Pococke speaks of one large enough for thirty thousand men.

1 See Thilo, Codex Apoc, i. 881, note.

3 See a full statement of the evidence in Patritius, iii. 293.

3 So Hitter, Robinson.

These caves, so numerous in the light limestone formation of Judea, and easily wrought into any shape, and always dry, were naturally thus applied to many uses. We need not he surprised to find them connected with many remarkable events, and hallowed by sacred associations. The traditions that connect them with the history of Jesus are neither to be indiscriminately received, nor indiscriminately rejected. Whether a particular event did, or did not, take place in a grotto is to be judged of according to its intrinsic probability, and the amount of evidence. Whilst no unprejudiced person will be disposed to put the site of the Annunciation to Mary, or of the Agony, or of the Ascension, in a cave, yet all recognize the cave as a fitting place for the sepulchre. Whether a cave was, or not, the birthplace of the Lord, must be judged of by its own merits.

Thus looking upon this tradition, we find no sufficient reason why it should be wholly rejected. Probably there is some measure of truth in it. It is indeed hard to believe that the present cave, so deep down and inaccessible, could ever have been used as a stall for cattle. Perhaps the fact may be that this cave, in its original shape, was connected with a house forming its rear apartment, and used as a stable. To this house went Joseph and Mary, when they could find no room at the inn, and when the child was born, it was laid in the manger as the most convenient place. Arculf, (a. D. 700,)2 describing the cave as it was in his day, says: " At the extreme eastern angle (of the ridge) there is a sort of natural half-cave,

1Land of Promise, 24fi. 2 Early Travels, 6.

the outer part of which is said to have been the place of our Lord's birth: the inside is called our Lord's manger. The whole of this cave is covered within with precious marble." Willibald (a. r>. 722) says: " The place where Christ was born was once a cave under the earth, but it is now a square house cut in the rock, and the earth is dug up and thrown from it all around, and a church is now built above it." Thus the small cave that originally existed in the rear of the dwelling, and was used as a stable, has been gradually converted into its present shape.

This view of the matter is defended by Thomson, (ii. 533.) " It is not impossible, to say the least, but that the apartment in which our Saviour was born was in fact a cave. I have seen many such, consisting of one or more rooms in front of, and including a cavern where the cattle were kept. It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the babe was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of the farmers of this region. That house may have stood where the convent does now, and some sort of a cave, either natural or made by digging the earth away for building, and for the roofs of houses, may have been directly below, or even included within its court." Elsewhere (ii. 98) he thus speaks of the manger, which he identifies with the "crib" mentioned by Isaiah (i. 3)—"It is common to find two sides of the one room, where the native farmer resides with his cattle, fitted up with these mangers, and the remainder elevated about two feet higher for the accommodation of the family. The mangers are built of small stones and mortar in the shape of a box, or rather of a kneadingtrough, and when cleaned up and white-washed, as they often are in summer, they do very well to lay little babes in. Indeed our own children have slept there in our rude summer retreats on the mountains."

We may then conclude that tradition has not in this case erred. The site of the Lord's birthplace must long have been remembered by the shepherds, (Luke ii. 16,) and been generally known in the region round. But the present condition of the cave is doubtless very unlike its original condition. It has been greatly enlarged and deepened, and space made in various directions for the various accessory grottoes and sepulchres which are now shown. In this way all the statements of Luke can be easily reconciled with the tradition. Here was the cave in the rear of the house, and used for cattle. In a manger, as the most ready and fitting place, the babe was laid. Hither came the shepherds, to pay their adorations, and here probably still later came the Magi. These remarkable events would not easily pass from men's memories, and some knowledge of the spot where they occurred could not well have escaped the early disciples. ,

The church that now stands over the cave of the nativity was built by the Emperor Justinian upon the site of that built by the Empress Helena, A. D. 330.1 Adjoining it are the Latin, Greek, and Armenian convents, whose monks have a common interest in it for purposes of worship. It is now much dilapidated, though, as the oldest Christian church in the world, it continues to possess great architectural interest. The cave of the nativity is 38 feet long by 11 wide, and a silver star in a marble slab at the eastern end marks the precise spot where the Lord was born. Here is the inscription : Hie de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est. Silver lamps are always burning around, and an altar stands near, which is used in turn by the monks of the convents. The manger in which the Lord was laid was taken to Rome by Pope Sixtus V. and placed in the church of St. Maria Maggiore, but its place is supplied by a marble one. A few>feet opposite, an altar marks the spot where the Magi stood. The walls are covered with silken hangings.

Tobler's Bethlehem, 104.

The usual exaggeration of tradition may be seen in the many apocryphal sites gathered around the central one. In adjoining grottoes are shown the chapel of Joseph and the chapel of the Innocents, where the children murdered by Herod were buried. A stone is also shown that marks the spot where, in the firmament above, the star stood still that guided the Magi in their journey. Of more interest to the Christian scholar is the cave, now converted into a chapel, where Jerome lived, studied, and prayed. It is said by Stanley, (436,) that during the invasion of Ibrahim Pasha the Arabs took possession of the convent, and found by the removal of the marbles, &c, with which it was encased, that the grotto of the nativity was an ancient sepulchre. If this were so, it is highly improbable that Joseph and Mary wrould have entered it. But the statement needs confirmation.

That the Lord was born very soon after their arrival at Bethlehem, may be fairly inferred from the fact that " there was no room for them in the inn."

Tobler's Bethlehem, 104.