Was Jesus Born at the Church of the Nativity?

History Q & A

Ms. Chen is a student at the University of Washington and an intern at HNN.

The Church of the Nativity, located about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the heart of Bethlehem, is traditionally regarded as the site of Christ's birth. The church is built over a cave identified by 2nd century apologist St. Justin Martyr as the site of the manger where Jesus was laid after his birth.

The belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is based mostly upon the birth narratives of Christ provided in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:


And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:4-7)

According to this passage, Jesus' parents were from Nazareth, but traveled to Bethlehem in order to be counted in a census; this leads to Jesus being born in a manger in Bethlehem, rather than his parent's native home in Nazareth. In the book of Matthew, Jesus is also born in Bethlehem. But his parents are said to have been from Bethlehem. And he isn't born in a manger, much less a cave. (Matthew 1:18-2:12)

The contradictions in the accounts and their unreliability -- there is, for instance, little historical evidence of a census being taken at the time, as Luke states -- have led many scholars to believe that Jesus may not have been born in Bethlehem at all, a belief that would effectively devalue the significance of the Church of the Nativity.

According to Robin Lane Fox, the discrepancies can easily be explained."Early Christian tradition," he says,"did not remember, or perhaps ever know, exactly where and when Jesus had been born." What was important, Fox suggests, was that Jesus be identified with Bethlehem because in the Old Testament it was prophesied that the messiah would be descended from David and David was from Bethlehem.

Where was Jesus actually born? Probably in Nazareth. He is often referred to as"Jesus of Nazareth," and it was naming convention at that time to call someone by the town where one was born, if not by the name of the father. So if Jesus was indeed born in Nazareth, or possibly in another Bethlehem (in Galilee) as some suggest, then the Church of Nativity may be nothing more than a church built on top of an unimportant cave.

The actual birthplace of Jesus is of no real consequence to the Christian faith; whether born in Bethlehem in a manger or in a house in Nazareth, the emphasis of the Christian church is on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.


Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1991).

"The Search for Jesus" (beliefnet.com).

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More Comments:

shaquita pepper - 12/22/2003

no one knows the day nor the hour when jesus christ was born. so we should not continue to speak on something we dont know.the scripture says ye do error in the scripture.

rajquintus - 8/25/2003

Iwant jesus hostory & pictures

George Wolf - 5/28/2002

I visited the Church of the Nativity in 1970.

The tour group was shown around the church and at some point we were led into the cave under the church -- only you can't tell it was ever a real cave because it's long since been finished with nice walls.

A narrow alcove frames the spot where the infant Jesus once lay, with a star on the floor and cermonial lamps hanging from the ceiling (in a space about two or three feet high).

One discovers that there are actually two alcoves (in the same cave) which are the "true" spot. Because my group was American, we were shown the Roman Catholic True Spot. If we'd been from Russia or Greece, we would have been shown the Greek Orthodox True Spot.

Other than whether you swear by Eastern or Western tradition, there is really no way to tell which is the real true spot. In fact, as the article explains, the point is probably moot. At the time, I was so moved by what I saw that I shouted out, "George Washington slept here!" I was of course promptly shushed by my fellow Americans.

I had three thoughts:
1. The Door of Humility was neat because the guide told us it kept out Crusaders' horses (I was nineteen then).
2. To that time in my life, that church was the oldest building I'd ever been in.
3. Palestine and Israel constitute the World's Oldest Tourist Trap.

During the seige, I thought to myself that even had the two sides been raving anti-clerical Maoists, they wouldn't have dared wreck that old church. It brought everybody too much business.

Thanks for reading,
George Wolf