All over the Middle East, there are a variety of sites considered sacred in the Christian faith, among other religions. Considered the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem is filled with religious tourists every Christmastime, despite the fact that Jesus preached that holy places didn’t exist. In the mid-second century, Justin Martyr, a Christian writer, wrote of a cave in Bethlehem that was supposedly the location of the Nativity. The Gospel of James also mentions a cave, but it is unclear if they’re discussing the same caves. Alexander, the bishop of Jerusalem, and scholar Origen of Alexandria, began seeking out holy sites during the third century.
The cave in Bethlehem wasn’t the only cave receiving historical and religious significance in the Bible. Just outside of Jerusalem, in a cave on the Mount of Olives, found itself the focus of Christian recognizance in the Acts of John. Calvary, the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, was first located during the fourth century. Scholars during that time believed that Calvary was located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. However, modern scholars believe that Calvary, also known as Golgotha, is located outside of the city of Jerusalem. Jesus Christ’s burial tomb outside of Jerusalem was identified around the second century. This tomb is allegedly where Jesus was buried and resurrected.
Eusebius, a Roman historian from the fourth century argued that Hadrian constructed a Roman temple over Jesus’ tomb to oppose Christianity. Eusebius came to this conclusion because Hadrian had built a temple right by a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, as well as a building a temple near a Samaritan shrine on Mount Gerizim.
The fourth century appears to be a popular time to identify important Christian holy sites. During this time, scholars identified Gethesemane, the site where Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, in addition to identifying Tabgha, the site of the Sermon on the Mount by the Sea of Galilee. Just outside of Bethlehem, scholars located Shepherds’ Fields, where angels announced the birth of Jesus. They also located the site of Eleona, the olive grove church on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven.
During the fourth century, two places in Nazareth were discovered as well. One was the site of the Annunciation, where Jesus’ mother Mary met and conversed with the angel Gabriel. The other site was Jesus’ childhood home, where he learned the trade of carpentry from his father Joseph.
In Life of Constantine, the historian Eusebius wrote of three large churches that were built in the fourth century on holy sites mentioned in the Gospels. These churches were the previously mentioned, Eleona, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Church of the Nativity. These churches were all built over pre-existing caves in their respective locations.
While on the topic of caves, there is some evidence to suggest that early Christians may have followed a trail around the caves to travel to them in sequential order as they occurred in the Gospels. While there is no definitive proof of this, it’s definitely a viable theory. Just like people in our modern day and age make pilgrimages to holy sites for their respective faith, their earlier counterparts are no different.
Even though rigorous and extensive archaeological and historical finds typically weren’t made until the 19th century, it appears that early fourth century writers and historians connected the dots as far as holy site locales go. Many sites and cities sacred to the Christian faith are also important and meaningful to the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Muslims. Despite all of the conflict over the millennia or so in that region, the sites have remained vital locations of importance to many practitioners.