Column: Visiting Bethlehem and Taybeh


Today, we visit two towns in the Palestinian Territories associated with the birth of Jesus.

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. After Emperor Constantine declared that Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, he sent his mother Helena to the Middle East to identify Christian sites. She concluded that Jesus had been born in a cave in Bethlehem beneath a temple to Adonis. Constantine demolished the temple and replaced it with a church, dedicated in A.D. 339. Emperor Justinian rebuilt the Church of the Nativity in its current form in A.D. 565, making it the oldest church in the world. A star in the cave beneath the church marks what some believe is the stone where Mary lay while delivering Jesus.

According to traditional English translations of Luke, Jesus was placed in a feed trough (manger) after his birth because there was no room in the inn. A Palestinian house in Taybeh, a few miles from Bethlehem, suggests a different story. The house, similar to those in Jesus’ time, includes a stable and manger in a cave beneath the house. The main floor includes a small guest room, called “kataluma” in Greek. “Kataluma,” translated as “upper room” in the story of Jesus’ Last Supper, is the word translated as “inn” in the story of Jesus’ birth. A growing number of scholars believes Luke reports that Jesus was born in a stable under the house, either because the kataluma upstairs was filled or, more likely, was not considered an appropriate place for a birth. This interpretation aligns with the ancient tradition, reflected in the Church of the Nativity, that Jesus was born in a cave. An unavailable guest room also seems more likely than an overcrowded inn in first-century Bethlehem, a town much too small to support such a facility.