What Is the Truth About Bethlehem and Christmas?
“WHEN we think of the Mystery of Bethlehem we cannot prevent questions and doubts from coming to our mind.”—Bethlehem, by Maria Teresa Petrozzi.
‘Why questions and doubts?’ you may ask. After all, the various beliefs concerning Christmas, and the sites connected with these beliefs, are founded on fact. Or are they?
When Was He Born?
Regarding the birth date of Jesus, Maria Teresa Petrozzi asks: “When exactly was the Redeemer born? We would like to know not only the year but also the month, day, hour. Mathematic precision is not granted us.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia supports this: “The date of the birth of Jesus Christ can be calculated only approximately.” It says regarding the date attributed to Christ’s birth: “The date of December 25 does not correspond to Christ’s birth but to the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti, the Roman sun festival at the solstice.”
So you may ask, ‘If Jesus was not born on December 25, when was he born?’ From Matthew chapters 26 and 27, we understand that Jesus died at the time of the Jewish Passover, which commenced April 1, 33 C.E. Moreover, Luke 3:21-23 informs us that Jesus was about 30 years of age when he commenced his ministry. Since his earthly ministry lasted three and a half years, he was about 33 1/2 years old at the time of his death. Christ would have been a full 34 years old six months later, which would thus be about October 1. If we count back to see when Jesus was born, we reach, not December 25 or January 6, but about October 1 of the year 2 B.C.E.
It is also noteworthy that during the month of December, Bethlehem and its surroundings are subject to wintry cold weather, chilling rains, and sometimes snow. One does not find shepherds with their flocks outside at night during that time. This is not a recent weather phenomenon. The Scriptures report that Judean king Jehoiakim “was sitting in the winter house, in the ninth month [Chislev, corresponding to November-December], with a brazier burning before him.” (Jeremiah 36:22) He needed the heat to keep warm. Further, at Ezra 10:9, 13 we find clear evidence that the month of Chislev was “the season of showers of rain, and it is not possible to stand outside.” All of this indicates that weather conditions in Bethlehem in December do not fit the Bible’s description of the events connected with the birth of Jesus Christ.—Luke 2:8-11.
At What Place?
What is the proper view of the site that was part of the inspiration for the Crimean war (1853-56), which ‘bloody struggle’ claimed the lives of over a hundred thousand French soldiers? Is that spot really the birthplace of Jesus?
To begin with, the Bible itself does not mention the precise site of Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke confirm that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the Messianic prophecy at Micah 5:2, which had predicted that “the one who is to become ruler in Israel, whose origin is from early times,” would come from Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:1, 5; Luke 2:4) Both Gospel accounts mention only the bare essentials, namely, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and, according to Luke, that the baby was bound with cloth bands and laid in a manger.—Luke 2:7.
Why did the Gospel writers not add more details? Maria Teresa Petrozzi observes: “The Evangelists neglect these details, evidently because they consider them meaningless.” In fact, it is evident that Jesus himself did not consider the details of his birth as especially meaningful, for he never once is quoted as mentioning either his birth date or the precise site of his birth. Even though born in Bethlehem, Jesus did not regard that place as his home, but the area of Galilee was referred to as “his home territory.”—Mark 6:1, 3, 4; Matthew 2:4, 5; 13:54.
A reading of John 7:40-42 shows that people in general were ignorant of his birthplace, thinking that he was born in Galilee: “Some were saying: ‘The Christ is not actually coming out of Galilee, is he?’” Based on what was recorded at John 7:41, The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem concludes: “That such discussions arose does not in itself disprove the fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem; but at least it shows that many of His associates were unaware of it.”
It is obvious that during Jesus’ own earthly lifetime, he did not advertise the details of his birth. No emphasis was put on the site of his birth. What, then, is the basis for the belief that the Nativity Grotto is the spot where Joseph brought Mary for her to give birth?
Petrozzi candidly admits: “It is not possible to know for sure whether the grotto was one of the numberless natural caves existing in the neighborhood of Bethlehem, or a cavern used as a stable in an inn. However, the tradition which goes back to the first half of the 2nd cent., is explicit; it is a grotto-stable.”—Italics ours.
Maria Teresa Petrozzi and R. W. Hamilton, along with various other students of the history of Bethlehem, indicate that Justin Martyr, of the second century C.E., was the first to claim that Jesus was born in a grotto, without specifying which one. Hamilton concludes regarding Justin Martyr’s statement: “This is a passing reference, and to assume that St. Justin had in mind a particular cave, still more that he was referring to the present Cave of the Nativity, would be to press too hard the evidence of a single word.”
In a footnote Hamilton writes: “An account of the Nativity which occurs in the apocryphal ‘Book of James’ or ‘Protevangelium’, written about the same period, also introduces a cave, but describes it as lying half-way to Bethlehem. So far as it has any historical value the story suggests that the tradition was not yet linked with any single spot, certainly not with the Cave of the Nativity.”
Third-century religion writers Origen and Eusebius tie the tradition as then known to a particular site. Hamilton reasons: “Once the story had become attached to a particular cave it was not likely to wander; and it is safe to infer that the cave shown to visitors soon after A.D. 200 was identical with the present Cave of the Nativity.”
W. H. Bartlett, in his book Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem (1842), surmised regarding this grotto: “Though the tradition that this is the birth-place of our Saviour, is of respectable antiquity, being mentioned by St. Jerome, who lived and died in a neighbouring cell, the spot is at variance with probability, as although it may occasionally happen that caverns are used as stables in Palestine, this is deeper underground than would be convenient for such a purpose; and when we consider, in addition, the tendency of the monks to fix the scene of remarkable scriptural events in grottoes, perhaps from the impressiveness of such spots, the presumption against the site appears almost conclusive.”
What can we conclude from the historical evidence at hand and, more important, from the Scriptural fact that neither Jesus nor his disciples assigned any importance to his birthplace? It is evident that when Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, fixed the site of the Church of the Nativity in the year 326 C.E., she did so on the basis of what Hamilton cites as ‘association by long tradition.’ It was not on the basis of historical or Biblical proof.
This leads to the further conclusion that the actual site of Christ’s birth is unknown. Is it logical, therefore, that the faithful are to go on pilgrimages to such places as the Grotto of the Nativity and venerate them? If, indeed, such were required of Christians, would not Jesus himself have informed his disciples of the obligation or even that kind of wish on his part? Would it not be recorded in God’s Word, the Bible, for the world of mankind to read? Inasmuch as such evidences are conspicuously absent from the Holy Scriptures, we do well to inquire what Jesus did consider worthy of commemoration.
Search as we may, the only occasion we will find that Jesus’ disciples were to commemorate through the generations was his sacrificial death. He died in the spring, shortly after celebrating his last Passover meal with his disciples. On that occasion he directed his faithful disciples to have a symbolic meal using unleavened bread, like matzoth, and red wine. Regarding this simple ceremony, which first took place April 1, 33 C.E., he commanded: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.”—Luke 22:19, 20.
In obedience to this Scriptural command from Jesus himself, Jehovah’s Witnesses the world over annually celebrate the Memorial of Christ’s sacrificial death. They do not hold this Christian gathering at some special location in an upper room in Jerusalem, for Jesus did not specify that. But throughout the world, they assemble in their Kingdom Halls and at other suitable meeting places in their locality. The next celebration will take place on March 30, 1991, after sundown. You are invited to attend at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses nearest to your home.
To attend this important celebration in obedience to Jesus’ command, you do not have to travel to Jerusalem or to Bethlehem. Neither Jesus nor his disciples attributed importance to places as focal points of Christian worship. On the contrary, Jesus told a Samaritan woman, who centered her worship at Gerizim, a mountain in Samaria, north of Jerusalem: “Believe me, woman, The hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you people worship the Father. Nevertheless, the hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him.”—John 4:21, 23.
Those who worship the Father with spirit and truth do not depend on special sites, such as Bethlehem, or on objects, such as images, in their worship. The apostle Paul said: “While we have our home in the body, we are absent from the Lord, for we are walking by faith, not by sight.”—2 Corinthians 5:6, 7.
However, you may still ponder, how can one worship God in a manner acceptable to him? The next time one of Jehovah’s Witnesses comes to your door, please ask him or her.
[Picture on page 5]
In winter, snow may blanket the ground near Bethlehem. Would shepherds sleep outside with their sheep?
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.
[Pictures on page 7]
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and its underground grotto
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.