Did You Know that Jesus Was Born in a Cave?

Did You Know that Jesus Was Born in a Cave?

As a child, the day after Thanksgiving was the day our Christmas decorations were brought down from the attic. My grandmother is skilled in ceramics, and she long ago gave us a Nativity scene that she lovingly made herself. I fondly remember taking these pieces out of storage and arranging them on our coffee table. Most Nativity scenes today look much the same, with similar animals and people.

And yet, it never really occurred to me that Jesus could have been born anywhere other than a wooden barn, as the Nativity scene is often portrayed today. Our Lord was certainly placed into a manger as the Gospels record, but the actual location of this manger was a cave.

As most converts to the Orthodox faith might understand, I was a little confused when I first saw the icon of Nativity. What most stood out is that the Christ child and Mary are shown in a cave on the side of a rocky hill, rather than a wooden barn.

While odd to anyone who did not grow up in the Orthodox Church, the tradition of Christ being born in a cave is rather ancient.

The Gospels do not give specific details as to the whereabouts of the manger—other than being in or near the village of Bethlehem—but early Christian philosopher St. Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 150) tells us in Dialogue with Trypho (78):

Along with Mary he is ordered to proceed into Egypt, and remain there with the Child until another revelation warn them to return into Judea But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us today, I shall again remind you of the passage.

The portion of Isaiah he quotes is ch. 33, vv. 15–16 (as in the Old Greek):

One walking in righteousness, speaking a straight way, hating lawlessness and unrighteousness and shaking off his hands from gifts, making his ears dull, lest he hear a judgment of blood, shutting his eyes, lest he see unrighteousness—this one will live in the high cave of a strong rock.

Justin draws a connection between Isaiah’s prophecy and the birth of Jesus Christ in a cave. Exactly as portrayed in our icons of his nativity.

Incidentally, while it might seem strange to us in the West, keeping animals in caves was—and is still to this day—common in Palestine:

The Scriptures, Josephus, and all travelers speak of the numerous caves that are found throughout Palestine. They were used for dwellings, for fortresses and places of refuge, for cisterns, for prisons, and for sepulchers. Travelers used them as inns, robbers as dens, herdsmen as stalls, husbandmen as granaries. Many of these caves were very large. One is mentioned (Jdg. 20:47) being large enough for six hundred men. —Samuel J. Andrews, The Life of Our Lord upon the Earth

The oldest-functioning Church structure in the world today—the Church of the Nativity—is at the site of this cave in Bethlehem. Under the joint oversight of both the Orthodox church of Jerusalem and the Roman Catholic church, this structure was constructed by the Emperor St. Constantine the Great in 327, two years after the First Ecumenical Council. The cave below the surface is where the very spot of Christ’s birth is revered by faithful tourists, with the church structures on the ground above.

Besides Isaiah and the writings of St. Justin, there are at least two other sources of antiquity that speak of Christ’s birth in a cave.

Pseudo-Matthew, or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew (ca. 6–7th century) records (ch. 13):

He commanded the blessed Mary to come down off the animal, and go into a recess under a cavern, in which there never was light, but always darkness, because the light of day could not reach it.

And the venerable Protoevangelium of James (ca. mid-2nd century) records:

And the Magi went out. And, behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it stood over the top of the cave. And the Magi saw the infant with His mother Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

And of course, in the hymnography of the Church:

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with a star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!
—Kontakia of the Nativity, Tone 3

May we all receive with joy the blessed Incarnation of our Lord, who was born in a cave for our salvation.

G. V. Martini

About G. V. Martini

G. V. Martini works as a senior product manager for a software company and is a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church. He and his family attends St. Innocent Antiochian Orthodox Church in Everson, Washington.

Feast Days

6 comments:

  1. Gabe,

    Do you have any thing you’ve already written (or could write) to make simple a couple things?:

    1. Why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th

    2. December 25th versus January 7th in Russia

    1. Sure!

      1. The great feast of Annunciation has a far older pedigree in the Church, and has always been celebrated as a fixed feast on March 25. Christmas, when adopted in the eastern churches (from the West) was affixed to December 25, nine months from the Annunciation, when Christ was conceived in the womb of the Ever-Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.

      2. December 25 on the Julian Calendar is the equivalent of January 7 on the Gregorian or revised Julian Calendars in the West. This will eventually become January 8 as the Julian Calendar continues to lose time (I believe by the year 2100).

        1. Hey Jim!

          The earliest textual evidence of which I’m aware is St. Gregory of Neocaesarea’s First Sermon on the feast (3rd century): http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0609.htm

          At the very least, it predates the celebration of Nativity/Christmas in the east, which was introduced around a century later by St. John Chrysostom (who brought it from the west).

  2. To add to your answer, there is a common understanding among many of the Church Fathers, when commenting on the annunciation to St Zacharias recounted in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke that Zacharias was burning incense and serving during the festivities around the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) which is usually falls during the month of September according to the current Gregorian Calendar (it would vary based on the Jewish use of a lunar rather than solar calendar). If Yom Kippur is underway when St John the Forerunner’s birth is announced and we take St Luke at his word that it was six month’s later that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Theotokos to announce the birth of Christ, and then follow ahead from there another nine months, we come to December.

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