Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

December 24th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

The Church of the Nativity  in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is considered sacred by followers of both Christianity and Islam. The tradition that Jesus was born in a cave just outside of Bethlehem is attested to by Justin Martin (ca. 100-165). Origin of Alexandria (184-ca. 254) wrote that the cave was regularly pointed out by locals.1  (When I was there a few years ago, however –after getting off the local bus from Jerusalem– none of the locals I asked seemed to know what I was talking about when I asked for directions to the Church of the Nativity!).

The first church basilica on the site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, in 327 and was completed in 333. That church burned down in 529. The basilica that stands today was erected in 565 by Emperor Justinian I. Crusaders made repairs and built additions during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with permission and help of the Byzantine Emperor. The compound has been expanded over the years.2

Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities administer and maintain the site. The basilica over the grotto of Christ’s birth is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The 565 church is a five aisled Roman style basilica with an apse at the eastern end over the grotto. The basilica is entered through a very low door called the “Door of Humilty” supposedly built such to prevent men on horse back –or even an umounted horse– from entering. The original mosaic floor of the 6th century church is covered with wooden flooring but a section can be viewed through a trap door. The rafters of the open timbered ceiling were donated by King Edward IV of England. Winding stairways on either side of the chancel lead down to the grotto.3

“The Grotto of the Nativity  enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is denominationally neutral, although it features primarily Armenian Apostolic influences. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger.

“The adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church, was built in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends which followed Vatican II. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Certain customs still observed in this Midnight Mass predate Vatican II, but must be maintained because the “status quo” (the customs, rights and duties of the various church authorities that have custody of the Holy Places) was legally fixed by a firman in 1852, under the Ottoman Empire, that is still in force to this day.”4

Original church basilica erected 327-333

(Above: Richard Krautheimer with Slobodan Curcic, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture [Revised], [New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1986] p59)

Ground Plan of the original first Church of the Nativity showing opening in floor over the the Grotto of Christ’s birth and stairs descending to the Grotto.

(Above, edited: original diagram at

Market street leading up to the church from the local bus (from Jerusalem) stop. Photo: Bernard Dick

“Manger Square” and current Church of the Nativity. Photo: Bernard Dick

Nave of the 565 Church of the Nativity looking toward the apse which is over the Grotto. Photo: Bernard Dick

Original mosaic floor of the 565 church. Photo: Bernard Dick

Looking back down the nave from the apse. Photo: Bernard Dick

Greek Orthodox apse and chancel over the Grotto. Photo: Bernard Dick


(Drawing source:

Altar in the Grotto over the spot of Christ’s birth. Photo: Bernard Dick

The spot of Christ’s birth. Photo: Bernard Dick

I apologize for taking up so much space with pictures so I hope it is an interesting post for Christmas!

Merry Christmas!






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8 Responses to “Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem”

  1. susanalouette says:

    Lovely! I was also there a few years ago but your pictures and history give me a better perspective on what I saw. Isn’t it interesting how close Bethlehem is to Jerusalem? It seemed like going from Rochester to Fairport, only with soldiers checking you in.
    Dona Nobis Pacem from a former St. Salome parishioner.

  2. Monk says:

    What a nice Christmas treat! Thanks for sharing and Merry Christmas to you too!

  3. Bernie says:

    We couldn’t get a taxi from Jerusalem to take us there. Too risky they would say. We took the bus as I said. Going back we stopped at a checked point and everyone had to get out of the bus –everyone except us! It was a little scary.

    After seeing the church and walking around town for a while we hired a taxi to take us out to an Orthodox monastery. We were made to wait a long time to gain entry. Meanwhile, Russian pilgrim groups came and went. We finally sent the taxi driver in to see what he could do to speed things up. He came out and said the abbot didn’t want us there because we were Americans and Roman Catholics! He wouldn’t let us in.

    The taxi driver was a nice fellow. He told us about the political situation from the Palestinian point of view and the problems he has had with the Israeli guards –as a taxi driver– at the check points. Invited him to lunch with us which he did. Learned a good deal about local life. I tried to give him more money for his efforts but he wouldn’t take it.

  4. benanderson says:

    great post, Bernie. Nice to have something uplifting today. In honor of this church, I will do the limbo into OLV tonight.

  5. Diane Elizabeth says:

    House Churches…where are the pictures of the very FIRST CHURCHES….HOUSE CHURCHES?

  6. Bernie says:

    Diane Elizabeth,
    I have no pictures of house churches because, as far as anyone knows, no house churches have survived. As I mentioned in response to a comment you made on the St. Nicholas Church post, the only house church we know anything about in any material way is the one at Dura-Europos and all there is to look at there are ruins.I would refer you to the response I made to your earlier comment regarding the St. Nicholas Church.

    I will try and do a post on the house churches sometime in the near future. There are no photographs, however, only artists or archeological drawings of conjecture.

  7. Bernie says:

    Diane Elizabeth,
    If you are REALLY interested in house churches I encourage you to click on the following links to my online book “The History of Christian Art”. You can learn about the earliest evolution of Christian churches from the house churches up through the fifth century.

    You will then know everything I know.

  8. Nerina says:

    Bernie, I didn’t know you had an on-line book!! Thanks for providing links.

    Merry Christmas.

    P.S. I just listened to a great “Sunday Night Live” on my mp3 player which talked about Sacred Art and Architecture. I immediately thought of you. It is the most recent show archived on EWTN.

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