Constantinian Authenticity: Bethlehem

Recently I examined the assertions of a scholar, Joan E. Taylor, in her book Christians and the Holy Places: the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, to the effect that none of the holy sites on which Constantine built churches in the Holy Land were authentic.   She devoted an early chapter of her book to refuting claims that Mamre was an authentic Christian site. This was, however, simply skirmishing, and she acknowledges in the final pages of her book (p. 307) that she only dealt with Mamre first to establish the fact that Christians could talk about “restoring” a site even when they didn’t previously own it. She was, I think, saving her real fire for the sites of Bethlehem, Golgotha, and the Mount of Olives. We will examine the claims for authenticity in Bethlehem first. Ms. Taylor of course does not categorically deny that Christ was born in Bethlehem. She does leave open the possibility that He was born in Nazareth instead (p. 112). What she denies is the authenticity of the cave purporting to be the place in Bethlehem in which Christ was born.

It will be well to set out the literary evidence for the authenticity of the cave, and then examine her case against that evidence.

First of all comes the voice of St. Justin Martyr, writing in about 155 A.D. In his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 78), he writes, “About the birth of the child in Bethlehem: when Joseph could not find any lodgings in the village, he went to a nearby cave, and Mary gave birth to the child here and laid Him in a manger, and there the Arabian magi found him. I have already quoted Isaiah’s words in which he predicted the symbol of the cave…” Justin here refers to Isaiah’s words in the Greek Septuagint of Is. 33:16, which indeed he already quoted to Trypho in chapter 70 of his Dialogue. The Isaiah text reads: “This one will live in the high cave of a strong rock; bread will be given to him, and his water will be assured”. Justin is here pointing out to Trypho that this Scripture was fulfilled in Jesus, when He was born in a cave in the strong rock. The point here of course is not whether Justin in correct in applying the words in Is. 33:16 LXX to the birth of Christ. The point is that Justin felt sure enough that He was in fact born in a cave to think of Christ when he read those words. Thus in the mid-second century, it was commonly believed that Christ had been born in a cave in Bethlehem.

The next piece of evidence is from the so-called Protoevangelium of James. This is an apocryphal work, an imaginative reconstruction of the events preceding Christ’s birth, which was very popular in Christian circles, despite its (we now know) very limited historical value. The author of the work seemed to know little of Palestinian geography, but that is not the point. The point is rather that the work witnesses to what Christians of that day thought about the circumstances of Christ’s birth. The work is hard to date with precision. Wikipedia dates it to ca. 145 A.D., or the middle of the second century, calling attention to the fact that Origen (184-254) seemed to know of the work. The scholarly M.R. Rhodes in his The Apocryphal New Testament said that “it is as old as second century” (p.38). In the Protoevangelium we read, “They drew near to Bethlehem within three miles…And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to [Joseph], ‘Take me down from the donkey, for that which is within me presses me to come forth.’ And he took her down from the donkey and said to her, ‘Where shall I take you to hide your shame, for the place is desolate.’ And he found a cave there and brought her into it, and sets his sons by her, and he went forth and sought for a midwife of the Hebrews in the country of Bethlehem”. From this text we see that it was commonly thought that Christ was born in a cave outside the town.

The next piece of evidence is from Origen, writing around the early third century. In his reply to the pagan critic Celsus (Against Celsus 1.51) he refers to the birth of Christ. Here he writes, “If anyone wishes to have further proof to convince him that Jesus was born in Bethlehem besides the prophecy of Micah [Micah 5:2] and the story recorded in the Gospels by Jesus’ disciples, he may observe that in accordance with the story in the Gospel about His birth, the cave in Bethlehem is shown where He was born and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. What is shown there is famous in these parts even among people alien to the Faith, because it was in this cave that the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born.” Origen makes the statement that the actual cave with its manger was well-known by the locals of Bethlehem, and as such was shown not just to inquiring Christians but also to non-Christians as the cave where “the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born”. Origen had visited the Holy Land himself, and lived in the northern city of Caesarea. He took some scholarly interest in visiting the holy places, and referred to what local guides said. Given his words, its seems unlikely that he did not visit Bethlehem itself while he lived nearby up the coast. As such he would have spoken with these locals himself.

A little while later, Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340), famous as first church historian, wrote his Demonstration of the Gospel, a work written to prove the truth of Christian Faith, marshalling the usual prophecies from the Old Testament. Concerning Christ’s birth, he writes (in 3.2.47), “And moreover, the definite place of His prophesied birth is foretold by Micah, saying: ‘And you, Bethlehem, House of Ephratha, are the least that can be among the thousands of Judah. Out of you shall come a leader, who shall feed My people Israel. And his goings forth are from the beginning from the days of eternity.’ Now all agree that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, and a cave is shown there by the inhabitants to those who come from abroad to see it. The place of His birth then was foretold.”  A little later in the same work (7.2.14) he writes, “And to this day the inhabitants of the place, who have received the tradition from their fathers, confirm the truth of the story by showing to those who visit Bethlehem because of its history the cave in which the Virgin bore and laid her infant.” Later still in the same chapter he writes, “Yes, indeed, I think that it was clearly revealed here that the God of Jacob…would dwell among men, and that He would be born nowhere else but in the place at Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, in the spot that is even now pointed out, for there no one is witnessed to by all the inhabitants as having been born there in accordance with the Gospel story, no one remarkable or famous among all men, except Jesus Christ.” Eusebius therefore testifies that the local Bethlehem inhabitants can point out the very cave in which Jesus was born.

St. Jerome wrote about this site also, and actually lived in the famous cave when he retired to Bethlehem in 386. In his Epistle 58, he writes about how the site had previously been a pagan grove sacred to Tammuz: “As for Bethlehem, now our most sacred place, and that of the whole world… it was overshadowed by the grove of Tammuz, that is of Adonis; and in the cave where the infant Christ had cried the lover of Venus was mourned.” Such pagan shrines were not unusual in Palestine; we have seen that pagans also revered the sacred oak at Mamre as a pagan site. Jerome’s words are evidence that prior to Constantine’s building over the cave, the site was a pagan grove for Tammuz/ Adonis. (Indeed, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lecture 12.20, given in the middle of the fourth century, confirms that “a few years ago the place was woody”.)

Together these literary witnesses constitute an impressive case for the authenticity of the cave site as the place of Christ’s birth, yet Taylor attempts one by one to discredit the credibility of the ancient literary witnesses. Regarding Justin’s witness, she opines that perhaps Justin, being from Palestine where caves functioned as stables, simply read a cave into Luke’s account of Christ’s birth in the stable, and that he was not reflecting a received tradition at all.   This is unlikely, given that the Protoevangelium, written about the same time, reflects the same tradition. Justin is not inventing the existence of a cave and then reading it into the Isaiah text—especially since the Isaiah text does not read immediately like a Messianic prophecy. Rather, Justin’s far-fetched application of the cave in Is. 33:16 LXX is only likely given that he already knew that the birth was in a cave and thus read Isaiah in that light.

Taylor also suggests that Justin was ignorant of the cave’s existence, since the wooded Tammuz grove was in Bethlehem, whereas Justin locates the cave outside the town (“somewhere nearby the village, but nevertheless outside it”; Taylor, op. cit., p. 100). But Justin does not say the cave was outside the village, but rather simply “nearby” the lodgings—note: nearby the lodgings, not nearby the village. Taylor is pressing Justin to find in his writings more geographical accuracy than is there. Justin could care less about whether the cave was inside the village or outside it; his sole point was that the birth in the cave fulfilled the ancient prophecies. Further, the boundaries of small villages like Bethlehem could easily shift, and it is precarious to base arguments on whether or not a cave was thought to be in Bethlehem or nearby it, or how far from the city a wooded area extended. What is more certain than shifting boundaries is that the witnesses of the fourth century were more likely to know such geographical details than anyone writing now.

In dealing with Origen’s witness, Taylor suggests that “all his words really tell us is that the pagan people of Bethlehem believed that Jesus was born there. The probability is that the pagans arrived at this notion by an identification of Jesus with Adonis, not from any ancient tradition” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 104). In particular, Taylor suggests a confusion of the name “Adonis” with the Syriac word “adawni” (“my lord”). Taylor again: “It would perhaps have been natural for a Christian visitor from Jerusalem to ask the locals about a cave where ‘my lord’, adawni was born” (p. 106).

With respect, this presupposes a tremendous amount of stupidity, both on the part of the visiting Christians (who for some reason confined themselves to speaking Syriac or Hebrew, rather than the international language of Greek, in which the words “my lord” were not adawni, but kyrios mou) and also on the part of the locals. Could the local Bethlehem pagans really have thought that Christians were inquiring of them where Adonis was born? Whatever happened in small town Bethlehem when visiting Christians came asking in which cave their Founder had been born, it is supremely unlikely that the locals showed them the cave over the grove of Adonis by way of a simple mistake. Would none of visitors have used the name “Jesus” in their inquiries? In the words of Origen, “What is shown there is famous in these parts even among people alien to the Faith, because it was in this cave that the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born”—thus the locals knew that the visitors were looking for the cave of “the Jesus who is worshiped and admired by the Christians”—not that of Tammuz or Adonis.

For Taylor, after the local pagans convinced the Christians, either through mistaking Adonis with Jesus or through deliberate malice, later writers like Eusebius and Jerome simply assumed its authenticity and repeated the error. Taylor is emphatic that there was no connecting link between the locals who received the shepherds’ report of the birth and who knew of the cave’s location, and later generations. But is this credible? Bethlehem was a small town in the first century, and the birth of a child within one of the caves, witnessed by the local shepherds (Lk. 2:15-16) would have been long remembered by the locals—especially so since the shepherds told all the rest of the townspeople that they thought the baby born in the cave was destined to be the Messiah (Lk. 2:17-18, 11). Given the accuracy of Luke’s reportage, it is unlikely that the small town would easily forget the shepherds’ news or the location. Later inquirers like Luke and those who came after him would have had no trouble in such a small town tracking down the families in which those stories were preserved. It is true that there is no evidence for widespread Christian veneration of the Bethlehem site in the early years when later immigrants to the area created a grove for Tammuz in the area. As said in the previous post, given the Christians’ threatened and marginalized position in society and the expense of travelling, such early pilgrimage is hardly to be expected. But that does not mean that some of the locals of Bethlehem would have forgotten where the site was.

Ms. Taylor, it is safe to say, would not be moved by these arguments. For her, “it is very unlikely that the accounts of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem are historical” (p. 143), so the Biblical record of locals receiving information from the shepherds would carry little weight. For her even the fact of the crucifixion is not completely certain: “It is almost certain,” she writes, “that the crucifixion of Jesus actually happened” (p. 143). Almost certain? It is difficult to respond to such extreme scepticism—certainly within the confines of a brief blog post. We must content ourselves with assuming, for purposes of this blog, that the Biblical records give more or less reliable information.

To sum up and place in historical perspective: if Justin and the author of the Protoevangelium writing in the mid-second century knew of the cave of the place of the birth, then the geographical tradition must predate that by at least a generation. That places the tradition within the first century—i.e. passed on by grandfathers or great-grandfathers of the people who spoke with the shepherds. Thus a ten year old boy learning of the news from his father in (say) 6 B.C. would be about only 42 when Christ died, and if he lived to the age of 70 he would die at 54 A.D. If this child had a boy at the age of 20, this boy living to the age of 70 would die at 74 A.D. Another generation brings one within the time when such information would be available to those passing it along to Justin Martyr. It does not take a very robust faith to believe that a family receiving news from local shepherds that they had heard angels declare that the Messiah had been born in a local cave would preserve that information as part of their family lore for several generations. It is this family lore that accounts for Justin’s information and those coming after him. Taylor’s argument assumes that such a link was severed, and that no one was present from the local population to preserve such an astonishing bit of news. This seems frankly incredible. More likely by far is that the locals would have retained these local traditions—as Justin, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome assert that they did. Taylor’s methodology of suspicion is itself not to be trusted. My money is on the long memories of a small town, and the acumen of inquiries coming to access those memories a few generations later.

Next time: a look at Taylor’s view of Golgotha.


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