Jesus' Birth: Church of the Nativity
Bethlehem, about September 6 BC
In Christian tradition, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem marks the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. It is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. First-time visitors are sometimes startled, even disappointed, by its fortress-like appearance (below left) which results from a 12th century AD Crusader reconstruction to make it more defensible. Defying its status as one of Christendom's holiest shrines, it seems dilapidated and battered, not at all beautiful. Still, for a building that has survived destruction by the Persians (614 AD), a mad caliph (1009 AD), earthquake (1834 AD) fire (1869 AD) and a Israeli army siege (2002 AD) against suspected militants who had taken refuge there, its dignity remains intact.
The church nave (above) survives intact from the church of Justinian, although the roof is 15th century, with 19th century restorations.
The gray patches on the white walls above the columns seen in the above photo of the interior are surviving sections of the golden mosaics applied to the walls in the 12th century AD (one inscription gives the date as 1169) by Greek artists from Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The mosaics depicted (according to a description by a man who saw them intact in 1494): the genealogy of Christ according to Luke and the early provincial councils convened to settle doctrinal issues and heresies held in the cities of Ancyra, Antioch, Sardis, Laodicea and Carthage; the genealogy of Christ according to Matthew; and the church councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcadon. Other subjects included a Tree of Jesse (now gone), Doubting Thomas (dated 1155 and presumably created by Ephraim and Basiliius), the Ascension, and the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (below).
The square mosaic tiles were arranged to reflect the light from the windows into the opposite aisles. But, only 1,400 square feet of the mosaics remain from the original 21,528 square feet that once adorned the walls. And it is the destruction of most of these mosaics by rain leaking through the roof that, in part, makes the church seem so gloomy; Another contributing factor was the 6th century AD looting by the Ottoman Turks of the white marble that once lined the walls, which was used for construction on the Haram esh-Sharif (Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem.
Trap doors in the floor reveal parts of the mosaic floor (above) from the original church built in the 4th century AD by the emperor Constantine, now 2 feet below the present floor level. The geometric forms are a reminder of the early Judeo-Christian tradition of refraining from the use of human figures, a literal interpretation of the Second Commandment ban on carved or "graven images."
Thirty of the 44 Corinthian columns carry paintings of saints, 20 of which are identified by inscriptions, although lighting conditions make them hard to see (note particularly Cathal of Ireland, Canute of Denmark, Norway and England and Olaf of Norway). One column painting has the date 1130 AD. The columns, which were originally gilded, are of polished red limestone quarried near Bethlehem, most of them reused from the original 4th century AD basilica.
Update Restoration of the Church of the Nativity
The three Christian denominations that once shared an acrimonious joint custody of the pilgrimage site — the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches and the Franciscan order of Roman Catholics — were persuaded by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to allow Italian master craftsmen, working alongside structural engineers and wood scientists, to perform the first major documented restoration since Venetian carpenters rebuilt the roof in 1479.
Beginning in 2013, restorationists have been working in a mammoth effort to restore the church,.The roof and windows have been restored and mosaics that had become barely visible over centuries have been painstakingly brought back to full color, one tile at a time.
In the course of the work a seventh angel (adding to the existing six) that had been hidden under plaster for decades was uncovered by use of thermal cameras, similar to those used during military night operations.
The birth of Jesus and all the questions surrounding it
Jesus birth date: not the year "0" ???
Before our present calendar, and until the 500s AD, events in Western civilization were dated A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, in Latin), "from the founding of the city" (that is, Rome). In the 6th century AD, a learned monk-mathematician-astronomer named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little, also short or humble) was assigned the task of devising a new calendar based on the birth of Jesus. He knew, or thought he knew, the date of Herod the Great's death, and placed it 749 years after the founding of Rome (in 4 AD according to our calendar). For some inexplicable reason he dated the birth of Jesus 753 years after the founding of Rome (four years after Herod died). In actuality Herod, who died in the spring of 4 AD (according Dionysius' newly revised calendar), was very much alive at the time of the visit of the Magi of Matthew's Gospel. Thus, because of Dionysius' miscalculation, our present calendar is at least four years behind!
When exactly was Jesus born?
Jesus had to have been born some months before Herod's death, some time between 6 and 4 BC, literally before his time. While Jesus could have been born as early as 7 BC, that would have made him too old for the "about thirty years old when he began his ministry" in Luke 3:23. For the sake of this narrative we will use 6 BC.