National Geographic : 2017 Dec
46 national geographic • december 2017 was the site of the Nativity grotto, the delegates erected an elaborate church, the forerunner of the present-day basilica. Many of the scholars I spoke to are neutral on the question of Christ’s birthplace, the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call. To their minds, the old adage that I learned in Archaeol- ogy 101—“Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”—applies here. if the trail of the real Jesus has gone cold in Bethlehem, it grows much warmer 65 miles north in Galilee, the rolling hill country of north- ern Israel. As the names “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Jesus the Nazarene” suggest, Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small, agricultural village in southern Galilee. Scholars who understand him in strictly human terms—as a religious reformer, or a social revolutionary, or an apocalyptic proph- et, or even a Jewish jihadist—plumb the political, economic, and social currents of first-century Galilee to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission. By far the mightiest force at the time shaping life in Galilee was the Roman Empire, which had subjugated Palestine some 60 years before Jesus’ birth. Almost all Jews chafed under Rome’s ironfisted rule, with its oppressive taxes and idol- atrous religion, and many scholars believe this social unrest set the stage for the Jewish agitator who burst onto the scene denouncing the rich and powerful and pronouncing blessings on the poor and marginalized. Others imagine the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture molding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice. In 1991 John Dominic Crossan published a bomb- shell of a book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the theory that the real Jesus was a wandering sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore striking parallels to the Cynics. These peripatetic phi- losophers of ancient Greece, while not cynical in the modern sense of the word, thumbed their unwashed noses at social conventions such as floor cut open to reveal the earliest incarnation of the church, built in the 330s on orders of Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine. Another series of steps takes us down into a lamp-lit grotto and a small marble-clad niche. Here, a silver star marks the very spot where, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was born. The pilgrims ease to their knees to kiss the star and press their palms to the cool, polished stone. Soon a church official entreats them to hurry along and give others a chance to touch the holy rock—and, by faith, the Holy Child. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest Chris- tian church still in daily use, but not all scholars are convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. Only two of the four Gospels mention his birth, and they provide diverging accounts: the traditional manger and shepherds in Luke; the wise men, massacre of children, and flight to Egypt in Matthew. Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judaean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birth- place of the Messiah. Archaeology is largely silent on the matter. After all, what are the odds of unearthing any evidence of a peasant couple’s fleeting visit two millennia ago? Excavations at and around the Church of the Nativity have so far turned up no artifacts dating to the time of Christ, nor any sign that early Christians considered the site sacred. The first clear evidence of veneration comes from the third century, when the theologian Origen of Alexandria visited Palestine and noted, “In Beth- lehem there is shown the cave where [Jesus] was born.” Early in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sent an imperial delegation to the Holy Land to identify places associated with the life of Christ and hallow them with churches and shrines. Having located what they believed Might it be possible that Jesus Christ never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention?