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A silver star marks the traditional site Jesus' birthplace in a grotto underneath Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

Jesus’ Birthplace And The Holy Land’s Ancient Pilgrimage Routes

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A researcher has presented new evidence of the earliest Christian pilgrimage route ever discovered. The theory represents a direct challenge to the origins of traditional Christian geography and pushes back the timeline a nudge. Questioning “ how” the sacred topographies described in the Bible might have functioned, Professor Ken Dark of England’s University of Reading believes the holy sites, including Jesus’ birthplace, became pilgrimage sites much earlier than is generally believed.

The researcher initially set out to discover “when” exactly Christians began traveling to holy sites in the Holy Land that were associated with Biblical events. However, during the course of his study, the professor found evidence suggesting fourth-century imperial church-builders “inherited, rather than created” the locations of Christian significance, and that the holy sites had emerged gradually over many centuries.

Jesus’ Birthplace And The Origins Of Christian Pilgrimage

The Holy Land is a sprawling matrix of ancient holy wells, shrines, tombs, churches and sacred monuments. Among these, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is worshiped as the site of Jesus’ birth. However, until now it was unclear as to when these sites were first deemed sacred and visited by Christian pilgrims . Now, the new study by Dr Dark, that was published in “ Henry Myers Lecture ” of the Royal Anthropological Society in London, points towards mid-second century AD records as evidence of the earliest pilgrimages.

 

 

In the 2nd century AD, the Christian writer, Justin Martyr, mentioned “a cave” in Bethlehem that was believed to have been the location of the Nativity scene. Furthermore, also dating from the second century AD, The Gospel of James also mentions “a Nativity cave” in Bethlehem. Dr Dark is clear that while these sources, and others, might all be referring to different caves, with none of them being the place Jesus was born, these records demonstrate that Bethlehem was connected with the birth of Jesus only a couple of generations after the publication of the Gospel of John .

By the 3rd century AD, writes Dark, prominent Christians like Alexander the bishop of Jerusalem, and the famous scholar, Origen of Alexandria, “searched for places mentioned in the Bible.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel is considered the place where Jesus died and the “cave” location of his Resurrection. (Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel is considered the place where Jesus died and the “cave” location of his Resurrection. ( Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

Study Changes The View Of Early Christian Spiritual Centers

Dark suggests the first-century AD tomb within Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre , later worshiped as Christ’s burial place and the location of his Resurrection, might have been revered for their connection to Jesus as early as second century AD. This, says the researcher, is suggested by the 4th century historian Eusebius who noted the Roman emperor Hadrian “building a temple over Christ’s tomb in opposition to its Christian associations.”

Dark said archaeological evidence suggests “a monumental Roman building” was erected on the site of the Holy Sepulchre later than the first-century tomb, but before the fourth-century AD Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Dark eventually realized that most of the 4th century pilgrimage sites associated with Jesus in the Gospels referenced “artificial caves - deliberately cut into the rock rather than natural cavities, or actually located inside such caves.” And long before the stone-built churches were raised at these sacred sites, Dark postulates, they were most probably associated with various Biblical events .

A group of pilgrims on their way to be baptized in the River Jordan, Israel. (Marc Jedamus / Adobe Stock)

A group of pilgrims on their way to be baptized in the River Jordan, Israel. ( Marc Jedamus / Adobe Stock)

Finding The Oldest Christian Pilgrimage Route In The World

At Bethlehem, the early fourth-century AD Church of the Nativity was designed to display the original cave and the altar beside it. According to Dark, the church and its altar, were precisely positioned to harness the “pre-existing religious importance of the cave.” Basically, the later church builders enshrined the natural cave sites within the bodies of their structures, effectively controlling the flow of the pilgrims, and their entry fees of course.

If Dr Dark’s theory is correct, these early cave-shrines and later churches, represent some of the earliest specifically Christian structures known to archaeology. And with so many variations in the building dynamics measured within the churches, Dark speculates they seem to have resulted from “separate local initiatives.” And he says that if the Biblical events commemorated at these sites were indeed the primary reason these later churches were built, then the string of caves might have followed a holy narrative sequence.

By this, Dark means pilgrims might have followed a set course around a string of cave shrines, learning of Gospel events. In conclusion, if accepted by the greater academic community, Dr Dark’s theory presents the oldest evidence of Christian pilgrimage ever discovered.

Top image: A silver star marks the traditional site Jesus' birthplace in a grotto underneath Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. Source: Cezary Wojtkowski / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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