Was Jesus Born in a Cave?

Place of Jesus Birth?

Representation of Cave Grotto, Vatican City, January 2010


There are nativity scenes in many places today.  In Bethlehem, the place that is touted to be the birthplace of Jesus is a below ground cave.

Was Jesus born in a cave? Is there any scriptural basis for this idea? Was Jesus born in the “Church of the Nativity”?

If not, where is it likely that the idea of being born in a cave came from?

These and other questions are answered in this article.

What Does the Bible Teach About the Place of Jesus’ Birth?

The Bible contains some information about the place of Jesus’ birth:

1…Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…(Matthew 2:1, NKJV throughout)

4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

Whether Jesus was born in a building for humans and then moved to a manger is not specified. But what is specified is that he was laid in a manger, which is a place that fodder (like hay) was placed to feed livestock such as cattle and sheep.

This was fulfilled in the New Testament:

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.'”

7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-11)

From this account we learn that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Furthermore, when the wise men visited Jesus, He was NOT in a manger nor a cave, but instead was in a house.

Despite the fact that the wise men came to a house, over a thousand years ago, the spot related to this grotto showed the wise men depicted in the church there:

The Church survived the Persian invasion of 614, when all the other churches of the Holy Land were destroyed, because a mosaic over the main door, now gone, showed the Wise Men dressed as Persians – which, of course, they were. (Mander P. The Church of the Nativity – the oldest church in the world. Copyright © 2010 St Mary-On-The-Rock, Ellon. http://www.stmarystjames.org.uk/the-holy-land/14-holy-land-information/69-the-church-of-the-nativity viewed 02/27/10).

The wise men may or may not have been Persian (the Bible simply states that they were from “the East”). But they did not come to a cave or grotto to see baby Jesus–they came to a house. And a house that was apparently in, not outside of, Bethlehem.

Justin Martyr Believed that Jesus Was Born in a Cave

While the Gospel accounts do not so specify, Justin Martyr (and the group that he apparently supported) believed that Jesus was born in a cave.  It may be interesting to note that since Mithras was believed to have been born out of a rock/cavern (Ulansey D. The origins of the Mithraic mysteries: cosmology and salvation in the ancient world. Oxford University Press US, 1991, p. 36), Justin actually claimed that the followers of Mithras got this from Isaiah.

Notice what Justin taught:

And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave…they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah’s words?…’he shall dwell in the lofty cave of the strong rock. Bread shall be given to him, and his water [shall be] sure…’…

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… Then I repeated the passage from Isaiah which I have already written, adding that, by means of those words, those who presided over the mysteries of Mithras were stirred up by the devil to say that in a place, called among them a cave, they were initiated by him (Justin. Dialogue with Trypho, Chapters LXX and LXXVIII).

Justin is confused here–no birth is discussed in the passages of Isaiah that Justin referred to.  Justin is apparently claiming that the devil read Isaiah, and thus had the followers of Mithras claim that Mithras came from a cave.  Justin’s reference to Isaiah 33:16 does not in any way point to the birth of Jesus in a cave (it actually appears to be a reference to God’s promise to protect His most faithful in the time of the end, see There is a Place of Safety for the Philadelphians. Why it May Be Petra). This should be obvious because the context in Isaiah is plural (not unique to Jesus) as the expression “who among us” (Isaiah 33:14, KJV) is a discussion of the plural.

Furthermore, while Roman Catholics (and others) still sometimes claim Jesus was born in a cave below ground, even the Douay OT translates a portion of Isaiah 33:16 as “He shall dwell on high, the fortifications of rocks shall be his highness”, which eliminates the idea that this passage is discussing a below ground cave.

It would seem that Justin had been earlier (and unknowingly) been influenced by one who had exposure to Mithraism and Justin was looking for justification of a position that someone had told him (which he had believed). Justin was apparently trying to claim that the followers of Mithras claimed a cave because of Isaiah–yet his use of that text does not support this position. Also, as Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1), and simply being near it, as Justin claims, seems to be in conflict with scripture.

It strongly appears that Justin’s initial exposures to “Christianity” came from some who had a distant tie to Mithraism as Justin often claims as “Christian” beliefs that are not found in the Bible (the Bible nowhere, for example, states that Jesus was born in a cave), but instead have a basis in Mithraism.  And several of his Mithraic-related beliefs ended up being accepted by the Greco-Roman churches (for more details, please see the article Do You Practice Mithraism?).

Interestingly, The Catholic Encyclopedia even states the following about that writing of Justin’s:

In both “Apologies” and in his “Dialogue” he gives many personal details, e.g. about his studies in philosophy and his conversion; they are not, however, an autobiography, but are partly idealized…his “Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon”…This account cannot be taken too literally; the facts seem to be arranged with a view…This interview is evidently not described exactly as it took place, and yet the account cannot be wholly fictitious.

Hence, even The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that there are intentional accuracies in Justin’s writings–so they should not rely on them (see also Justin Martyr: Saint, Heretic, or Apostate?).

Yet, The Catholic Encyclopedia even cites Justin’s statements for partial “proof” of the speculation of a cave birth:

About 150 we find St. Justin Martyr referring (Dialogue with Trypho 78) to the Savior’s birth as having taken place in a cave near the village of Bethlehem ; such cave stables are not rare in Palestine. (Cf. Massie in Hast., Dict. of the Bible, III, 234; Expository Times, May, 1903, 384; Bonaccorsi, “Il Natale”, Rome, 1903, 16-20.) The tradition of the birth in a cave was widely accepted…It is reproduced also in the apocryphal gospels (Pseudo-Matt., xiii…) (Arbez, Edward. Bethlehem. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 26 Dec. 2009 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02533a.htm>).

It is disappointing that the Church of Rome actually refers to Justin’s statements (which have to be referring to an above ground cave) as partial proof that Helena picked the correct location with the “grotto of the nativity”. It also should be pointed out that Justin’s location is interpreted to have Jesus born near Bethlehem–but the Bible says Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1).

Since “Pseudo-Matthew” (a false, non-authentic gospel) was cited as proof of the tradition, perhaps it should be quoted below:

When, therefore, Joseph and the blessed Mary were going along the road which leads to Bethlehem, Mary said to Joseph: I see two peoples before me, the one weeping, and the other rejoicing. And Joseph answered: Sit still on thy beast, and do not speak superfluous words. Then there appeared before them a beautiful boy, clothed in white raiment, who-said to Joseph: Why didst thou say that the words which Mary spoke about the two peoples were superfluous? For she saw the people of the Jews weeping, because they have departed from their God; and the people of the Gentiles rejoicing, because they have now been added and made near to the Lord, according to that which He promised to our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: for the time is at hand when in the seed of Abraham all nations shall be blessed.

And when he had thus said, the angel ordered the beast to stand, for the time when she should bring forth was at hand; and 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 when the blessed Mary had gone into it, it began to shine with as much brightness as if it were the sixth hour of the day. (Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter 13. THE GNOSTIC SOCIETY LIBRARY. http://www.gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm viewed 02/27/10 )

Notice that in this cave account, Mary had to get off the animal and go into a cave that never had light. This would not be case if it was a cave that had a manger. There would have to have been light to get the animals in it, put the fodder in the manger, get the animals out, etc. No one would have put a manger in an area that no light could ever get to. Thus, this “tradition” does not seem to make logical sense as proof of a cave birth. Catholics should not realy on false gospel accounts for proof of a cave birth.

The Protoevangelium of James (another false account, apparently from the mid-second century) also claims a cave birth and is similar to the prior account:

Mary , how is it that I see in your face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said to Joseph : Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting. And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the {donkey}, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the {donkey}, and said to her: Whither shall I lead you, and cover your disgrace? For the place is desert. And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem…

And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary…

And, behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judæa. And there was a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judæa, for Magi came…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. (The Protoevangelium of James, Chapters 17,18,19,21. Translated by Alexander Walker. The term “donkey” substituted for prior term. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0847.htm> viewed 02/27/10.)

This account is not mentioned in the Bible and suggests that Mary gave birth in a desert. It also contradicts scripture by claiming that the wise men (Magi) came to a cave as opposed to a house. Again, another cave birth account that should not be considered to be as a reliable tradition.

Origen Taught Jesus Was to be Born in Bethlehem by Scripture and That by Tradition the Birth was in a Cave

Concerning the birth of Jesus, Origen (late second/early third century) taught:

Now the Scripture speaks, respecting the place of the Saviour’s birth— that the Ruler was to come forth from Bethlehem— in the following manner: “And you Bethlehem, house of Ephrata, are not the least among the thousands of Judah: for out of you shall He come forth unto Me who is to be Ruler in Israel; and His goings forth have been of old, from everlasting.” (Origen. Contra Celsus, Book I, Chapter 51. Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04161.htm> viewed 02/27/10)

And the above is basically correct.

However Origen then seems to credit tradition for a cave location:

…there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places (Ibid).

If this was the same cave of Justin and Helena, this would be a problem since that cave was not technically in old Bethlehem. Thus, the tradition could not be correct.

The fact that Origen was expelled by the bishop of Alexandria in 231 A.D. and “two councils were held at Alexandria, one of which pronounced a decree of banishment against Origen while the other deposed him from the priesthood”, plus the fact that certain of his teachings were condemned in the sixth century (see Prat, Ferdinand. “Origen and Origenism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 28 Feb. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11306b.htm) by the Catholics should give them further pause to rely of his account that there really was a cave location for Jesus’ birth.

Helena Selects a Below Ground Cave as the Site of Jesus’ Birth

While Justin was aware of Mithras legends of a cave birth, those who were part of the Mithras religion were perhaps even more aware of it.

Therefore, it should be of little surprise that in the fourth century, the mother of the Mithras-following Emperor Constantine in 326-327 A.D. authorized the construction of the so-called “Church of the Nativity” over a 20 feet below ground cave location (Herring G. An introduction to the history of Christianity: from the early church to the Enlightenment. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, p. 54;  Kitto J, Taylor J.  The popular cyclopadia of Biblical literature: condensed from the larger work.  Gould and Lincoln, 1854. Original from Harvard University, Digitized Oct 23, 2007, p. 150 ).

Because of its steepness and depth, this is a location that would be basically impossible for cattle and/or sheep to be able to be herded in and out of.

Here is more information about it:

Bethlehem…At the farthest extremity of the town is the Latin convent, connected with which is the Church of the Nativity, said to have been built by the empress Helena. It has suffered much from time, but still bears manifest traces of its Grecian origin; and is alleged to be the most chaste architectural building now remaining In Palestine. Two spiral staircases lead to the cave “called the ‘Grotto of the Nativity,’ which is about 20 feet below the level of the church. This cave is lined with Italian marbles, and is lighted by numerous lamps. Here the pilgrim is conducted with due solemnity to a star inlaid in the marble, marking the exact spot where the Saviour was born, and corresponding to that in the firmament occupied by the meteor which intimated that great event; he is then led to one of the sides, where, in a kind of recess, a little below the level of the rest of the floor, is a block of white marble, hollowed out in the form of a manger, and said to mark the place of the one in which the infant Jesus was laid…

There has been much controversy respecting the claims of this grotto to he regarded as the place in which our Lord was born. Tradition is in its favour, but facts and probabilities are against it…Against tradition, whatever may be its value in the present case, we have to place the utter improbability that a subterranean cavern like this, with a steep descent should ever have been used as a stable for cattle, and, what is more, for the stable of a khan or caravanserai, which doubtless the ‘inn’ of Luke ii. 7 was. Although therefore it is true that cattle are, and always have been, stabled in caverns in the East; yet certainly not in such caverns as this, which appears to have been originally a tomb. Old empty tombs often, it is argued, afford shelter to man and cattle; but such was not the case among the Jews, who held themselves ceremonially defiled by contact with sepulchres, besides, the circumstance of Christ’s having been born in a cave would not have been less remarkable than his being laid in a manger, and was more likely to have been noticed by the Evangelist, if it had occurred: and it is also to be observed that the present grotto is at some distance from the town, whereas Christ appears to have been born in the town, and whatever may be the case in the open country, it has never been usual in towns to employ caverns as stable for cattle. (Kitto J, Taylor J, p. 150)

Since the below ground grotto is not a place that a real manger would be located, it could not be the place of Jesus’ birth.

According to Jerome, this particular cave was once a place where “lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus”:

Even my own Bethlehem, as it now is, that most venerable spot in the whole world of which the psalmist sings: the truth has sprung out of the earth, was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz , that is of Adonis ; and in the very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus. (Jerome.  Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 58, to Paulinus, Chapter 3.  Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001058.htm> viewed 02/26/10).

The Bible is clear that God was not impressed when the children of Israel engaged in ceremonies for Tammuz; the God of the Bible considered it to be an abomination (Ezekiel 8:13-14). Tammuz was a Babylonian god which later became called the Greek god Adonis. Some have argued that Hadrian placed the Adonis statue there to defile the place of Christ’s birth, and while that may have been Hadrian’s intent, it seems odd that a subterranean cave located outside of old Bethlehem could possibly have been the place of Christ’s birth. Cave locations clearly had non-biblical connections and that may be why this one was selected as the nativity spot.

Interestingly, The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that other grotto locations are likely and that perhaps even Jerome was aware of it:

Other grottoes to the north and north-west connected with that of the Nativity are associated, mostly by recent traditions (c. fifteenth century), with the narratives of Matthew 2, mainly, and with the memory of the great scholar St. Jerome and his company of pious and learned friends (Sanders, Etudes sur S. Jérome, Paris, 1903, 29f.). (Arbez, Edward. Bethlehem)

However, again notice that it is really only tradition (and not scripture itself) that is the basis for those claiming a cave location. The appeal to Matthew 2:1 only proves that the location needed to be in Bethlehem, not a cave. The idea that Jesus was born in a cave simply is based upon tradition and does not come from the Bible.

Does December 25th have a relationship to a cave?

There are at least two pagan traditions that tie December 25th in with caves.

One had to do with the founding of Rome and the observance of Saturnalia:

The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 may have begun was built near a pagan shrine as part of an effort to spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.

Italian archaeologists last month revealed an underground grotto that they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. A few feet from the grotto, or “Lupercale,” the Emperor Constantine built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was first celebrated on Dec. 25…

It opted to mark Christmas, then celebrated at varying dates, on Dec. 25 to coincide with the Roman festival celebrating the birth of the sun god, Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome’s La Sapienza University, told reporters Friday. The Basilica of St. Anastasia was built as soon as a year after the Nicaean Council. It probably was where Christmas was first marked on Dec. 25, part of broader efforts to link pagan practices to Christian celebrations in the early days of the new religion, Mr. Carandini said. “The church was built to Christianize these pagan places of worship,” he said. “It was normal to put a church near these places to try to ‘save’ them.” Rome’s archaeological superintendent, Angelo Bottini, who did not take part in Mr. Carandini’s research, said that hypothesis was “evocative and coherent” and “helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage from paganism to Christianity.” (Scholars link 1st yule church to pagan shrine. Washington Times – Dec 23, 2007 ROME (AP). http://washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071223/FOREIGN/924350661/1001 viewed 12/24/07).

The other had to do with the birth of Mithras. Mithras (sometimes spelled Mithra) was a sun-god. Mithraism seemed to enter the Roman Empire about a century before Jesus was crucified. Mithras was believed to have been born out of a rock in an “underground cavern” (Ulansey D. The origins of the Mithraic mysteries: cosmology and salvation in the ancient world. Oxford University Press US, 1991, p. 36).

And notice the connection between Mithras and December 25th according to The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Helios Mithras is one god…Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra…The 25 December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season. (Arendzen J.P. Transcribed by John Looby. Mithraism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York )

Thus two pagan events were celebrated on December 25th that related to caves. Christmas was a relatively late development in the Roman church:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church (Martindale C. Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika. Christmas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).

In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun (Sechrist E.H. Christmas. World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, Chicago, 1966, pp. 408-417).

The December 25th date was adopted apparently because the Greco-Roman church was filled with people who did not care that this was the Saturnalias/Mithra birthday (see also Do You Practice Mithraism?), so calling it by the name of Christ somehow was believed to make the sun rebirth activities more acceptable.

This is the most likely reason why a cave location is believed by many to be the birth of Jesus.

Was Jesus Born in the Grotto of the Nativity?

The idea that Jesus was born in a cave seems to be unbiblical. Consider the following:

  1. The Bible teaches that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1).
  2. Baby Jesus was laid in a manger (Luke 2:7).
  3. The early “traditions” that Jesus was born in a cave all come from heretical sources.
  4. A manger location 20 feet below the ground down a steep passage is not possibly a place that animals were brought in and out of.
  5. One or more pagan deities were worshipped that allegedly came from caves.
  6. Pagan celebrations involving December 25th existed prior to Christ, and even Greco-Romans did not observe that date until probably the fourth century.
  7. The “traditions” that claim Jesus was born in a cave contradict the biblical account and/or the possibility of Jesus being born in a below ground cave.
  8. The wise men visited Jesus in a house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11), not a cave.

Jesus was not possibly born in the “Grotto of the Nativity”.

And the “traditions” that allegedly support the “Grotto of the Nativity” appear to be in conflict with scripture. They appear to be more connected to pagan beliefs and practices.

Some articles of possibly related interest may include the following:

Was Jesus Born in the Grotto of the Nativity? Was Jesus born in a below ground cave? Was Jesus born below the “Church of the Nativity”? Were the wise men there?
Is Keeping Christmas a Sin? Is keeping Christmas acceptable for true Christians? What are some scriptures to consider?
What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days? Do you know what the Catholic Church says were the original Christian holy days? Was Christmas among them? Is December 25th Jesus’ birthday or that of the sun god?
Did Early Christians Celebrate Birthdays? Did biblical era Jews celebrate birthdays? Who originally celebrated birthdays? When did many that profess Christ begin birthday celebrations?

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