Jesus was born around 7 BC, a few years before the death of Herod the Great. The gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us he was born in Bethlehem. In the Old Testament, Bethlehem is the ancestral home of the royal family of David; the site of Rachel's tomb is nearby.
On a mountain ridge about 2,500 feet high, Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem. Today under the control of the Palestinian authorities a massive building program is transforming the ancient small town into a bustling city (right).
The Church of the Nativity (above), the goal of tourists to Bethlehem, is built over a complex of grottos that has been venerated as the site of Jesus birth since the 1st century. The present church, built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century, is one of the few buildings to survive almost completely intact from early Christian times. Archaeological surveys confirm that Church of the Nativity is in the area where the town of Bethlehem was located during the Roman period and that the caves under the church were in use at that time. right: place in the Church of the Nativity marked as the place of Jesus' birth
Was Jesus born in a cave?
Many western Christians are surprised when they visit Bethlehem to learn that Jesus was probably born in a cave. Our ideas about the life of Jesus, including his birth, come from the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which depict the manger as a wooden structure. The artists who created the images never went to Israel so they drew from their own experience in Europe. In Europe animals were kept in mangers built of wood. In Bethlehem, even today, the people use the caves, which are everywhere, for storage, to shelter animals and even to live in. Many houses in Bethlehem are built in front of caves, just as they were in Jesus' day.
Bethlehem: Signs of Danger
Anyone who reads the infancy narratives in the gospels becomes aware before long of an atmosphere of tension and danger underlying the serenity and joy of Jesus' birth. That sense of foreboding takes on tangible form when one actually visits Bethlehem and becomes aware of the ruins of the Herodium (above), Herod's mountain fortress which loomed over the little town at the time of Jesus birth like a great bird of prey. The soldiers ordered to carry out the slaughter of the innocents probably stormed out of that fortress and descended on the town at a moments notice, fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah:
"Thus says the Lord, 'A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.'" (Jeremiah 31.15)
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