The Nativity Grotto
This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.
Location - The Church of the Nativity
Map Coordinates - 31.704261, 35.207363
Merged Gospels Story - 9
Under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem there is a system of caves (see the map below). One of these is called the Nativity Grotto, and it is in this room that Jesus Christ made His appearance to mankind - where the world first looked into the face of God.
The Hebrew word Bethlehem means house of bread. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 6 verse 35, Jesus called Himself the bread that came down from heaven, making His worldly debut in a town called House of Bread. That probably isn’t a coincidence.
This cave measures 40 feet by 10 feet – about the size of the average school bus. It was smaller when Jesus was born, but when Helena built the church this cave was enlarged to accommodate the many pilgrims who were coming to worship there.
Below is a map showing the cave system under the Church of the Nativity.
The cave system under the Church of the Nativity.
How do we know that this is the exact place where Jesus was born?
It’s not difficult to figure out. In 135 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian tried to erase the memory of Christianity by covering up the sites that Christians considered holy. He did this by erecting shrines or Temples to pagan gods.
Over Calvary and Jesus’ tomb Hadrian erected a temple to Venus and Jupiter respectively. As I stated earlier, very close to this spot he planted a grove of trees dedicated to Adonis, the Greek god of vegetation and physical beauty. Directly over this cave he built a shrine to Adonis. All of this is told to us in the words of Justin Martyr (pictured below) who was alive when Hadrian did this, and who wrote sometime around 160 AD.
As in the case of the Holy Sepulcher, instead of erasing the memory of Christianity Hadrian succeeded in marking the exact site where Jesus was born. This is, in part, is how the tomb of Jesus was located, and it’s how early Christians identified the birthplace of Jesus.
Secondly, we have four ancient authors who all tell us that Jesus was born in a cave.
1. The Protoevangelium of James, written early in the second century.
2. Justin Martyr, a few years later.
3. Origen of Alexandria confirmed this early in the third century.
4. The historian Eusebius wrote about it early in the fourth century.
Modern archeologists have also determined that this cave was in use before the birth of Jesus.
The Fires in the Church.
After a fire in 1869 AD the walls in the cave were lined with a heavy leather veil, behind which asbestos was applied to protect the room against future fires. There was another fire in 2014 AD. Even today you can still see soot on the ceiling that was never cleaned off, and this has become part of the sacred history of this place.
Results of the fire at the Church of the Nativity in 2014.
The Star with a Black Hole.
The Nativity Altar with the 14-point star.
When you’re inside the grotto your eye is immediately drawn to the Nativity Altar, with its 14-point silver star. These fourteen points recall the genealogy of Jesus, as recorded in the book of Matthew, where Matthew says that there were 14 generations between Abraham and David, then 14 generations to the Babylonian captivity, and finally 14 generations until the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:17).
There is a Latin inscription around this star that reads “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary". At the very center of the altar is a hole in the floor, where pilgrims can reach down and touch the actual stone floor of the cave.
The linens around this altar all change their color, based on the season and the holidays that are being celebrated at the time.
The shepherds who were watching their flocks by night (Luke 2:8) were probably not the first people outside of Jesus’ immediate family to see Him. The Protoevangelium of James, a history of Jesus’ birth, written sometime around 150 AD, claims that Mary had a midwife. This is likely true because Mary and Joseph were only betrothed at this time, and so his presence at her delivery would have been considered inappropriate. This midwife would have been the first person to watch the Christ child come into the world. Hers would have been the first hands to touch Him.
The midwife Emea and a local woman named Salome gave Jesus His first bath.
The Three Lamp Stands Representing the Magi.
Three brass lamp stands outside the Altar of the Manger.
The three large lamp stands in this room represent the Magi who came to visit Jesus. No one knows if there were only three Magi, but that’s been the traditional number, probably because there were three gifts that were given by them to Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
The Altar of the Manger.
The manger in this cave was actually a feeding trough for animals. While it may seem very unsanitary for a newborn infant to lie in a place where animals eat their food, this simply speaks of the humble circumstances that greeted the Son of God.
The Altar of the Manger.
The original manger that Jesus slept in was removed sometime before 385 AD. We know this because Saint Jerome, who came to Bethlehem about this time, felt very badly that he never got the chance to see Jesus’ original manger, and all he saw in its place was a silver replica (and even that is gone). Tradition tells us that the manger was not made of stone, but of wood.
The historic wooden manger of Jesus is currently enshrined in Rome, and is viewable at the Church of Saint Mary Major (seen in the photo below). A chip from this manger is also on display at Saint Catherine’s Church here in Bethlehem.
The Altar of the Manger at the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome.
The Altar of the Magi.
Opposite the Altar of the Manger is the Altar of the Magi. However, most scholars believe that the Magi didn’t visit Jesus here, but rather their destination was a place called the Milk Grotto, which was the traditional home of Jesus’ early childhood.
The Altar of the Magi.
Mary and Joseph probably didn’t stay in this cave for more than a day or so, because, after all, it was a stable, and very soon afterward they found a place of shelter that was more suitable. We know that they eventually ended up at The Milk Grotto, which was a few blocks away, and this could very well be where they soon went.