The Roman-Byzantine period

Basilica of Constantine  reconstructed by R. W. Hamilton

Religious freedom was proclaimed following the Edict of Constantine in 313 AD, and a new era began for all the places of Christian worship. With the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and through the strong will of the Empress Helena, following the necessary excavations construction works began for the Church of the Nativity, thus restoring a measure of dignity to the holy place preserved within.

The works finished in 333, mention of this being made by the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux (Itinerarium 598). Bethlehem became a great religious center and, with the arrival of St. Jerome in 384, a new phase began as the town became a magnet for a new monastic way of life. Jerome made a major contribution to the history of the Church through his translation, at the request of Pope Damasus, of the Vulgate Bible.

Another individual who played a major role in the development of monasticism in Bethlehem, for both men and women, was the Roman patrician Paula who, along with her daughter Eustochium, arrived in Bethlehem in 386 and used much of her inherited wealth to finance the construction of two monasteries near the places of Jesus’ Nativity.

Following Jerome’s death in 420, monastic life in Bethlehem declined and in the following century the town was conquered by the Samaritans of Nablus, who during their revolt (521 to 528) against the Byzantine emperor sacked the churches and monasteries, and harshly attacked the Christians (529). After these sackings and following the destruction of the Church of the Nativity, in 531 the Roman emperor Justinian, at the request of St. Sabas, restored the sanctuary and rebuilt the city which at that point was in ruins. At that time the largest of the tympanums was decorated with a mosaic depicting the Magi in Persian costumes.

This detail turned out to be very fortunate, for during the invasion led by Chosroes in 614 the basilica was spared from destruction because the Persian army took fright at the sight of the mosaic. In 629 Emperor Heraclius reconquered the Palestinian territories from the Persians.

St. Jerome