David, Bethlehem, and the scribes
To this day, archaeologists cannot be certain where the settlement of Bethlehem was located. The scribes who penned the Jewish scriptures were also in doubt, for in several cases they found it necessary to identify Bethlehem with another unlocated settlement called Ephrath/Ephrathah: “So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachelʼs tomb, which is there to this day” (Gen 35:19–20; cf. 48:7). However, Jewish scripture clearly locates Rachelʼs tomb to the north of Jerusalem (1 Sam 10:2; Jer 31:15). This anomaly has long caused both Jewish and Christian scholars a good deal of consternation.
The Jewish scribes who penned the Torah call the person from Ephrath an “Ephratite.” To add to the confusion, however, at times they equate Ephrathite with Ephraimite—that is, with one from the hill country north of Jerusalem.18
Thus, Bethlehem is sometimes located in Ephraim, north of Jerusalem, and sometimes in Judea, south of the great city. A likely explanation for this contradictory situation is that the southern location of Bethlehem began with Judaismʼs need that its great champion and elect of Yahweh, David, come from the region about Jerusalem, namely, from Judean soil.
The Jerusalem scribes localized David, Bethlehem, Ephrathah, Yahweh, and whatever else they desired to Judea. Note, for example, how the following well-known verse emphasizes the townʼs Judean location:
Indeed, the origin was “old, from ancient days,” for the mythical Beit-Lahmu had long been revered as gateway to gnosis and immortality. Having made “Bethlehem of Judah” the home of David, the scribes proceeded to give the ʻplaceʼ a history. They did so with an engaging story of Davidʼs ancestry— the book of Ruth. There we read of the villageʼs leading man, Boaz; of how the whole town was excited when Ruth and Naomi arrived (1:19); and of how Ruth, a model of propriety and decency—now the wife of Boaz—became the ancestor of the future King David (4:13, 17). It is a beautiful story, one so edifying that no one might suspect that the town did not even exist when it was penned.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, *who are one of the little clans of Judah,* from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2, emphasis added.)
Thus the Jerusalem scribes transformed the gate of gnosis into the place of origin of Judaismʼs greatest king. Their aim was for greater things to happen in Bethlehem, all at the service of Yahweh. Indeed, an important scene in the book of Ruth occurs at the very gate in Bethlehem, which we have seen was of such significance in the older religion:
Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May Yahweh make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem…” (Ruth 4:11)
The name which Judaism “bestowed” in Bethlehem was that of King David. Yet, we may ask: If the birthplace of that celebrated king is entirely mythical, then could its favorite son have existed at all?
The cave of Bethlehem
We have seen that the Jerusalem scribes required a Judean home for King David, but one may wonder how his hometown came to be finally localized nine kilometers south of Jerusalem, at the place we now know as Bethlehem. Did something recommend this spot?
In fact, it was not the Jerusalem scribes who localized Bethlehem, but Christians of much later times. Amazingly, the birthplace of Jesus was not determined until the time of Constantine in the early fourth century. About 315 CE the Christian monarch authorized construction of a basilica over the very spot Jesus was allegedly born—a cave.22
This cave was not in a settlement but in a forest, as we know from reports of the church fathers.23 It was no ordinary cave, however. For a long time it had been a center of the cult of Adonis. Jerome relates (about 395 CE) that the Roman emperor Hadrian constructed a sanctuary to Adonis at the site. If true, Hadrianʼs activity would have been about 135 CE. Jerome further states that “the lover of Venus [Adonis] has been planted in the cave in which the infant messiah was born.”
We may ask, then, why the Christians of Constantineʼs time chose a center of pagan worship as the birthplace of Jesus? The answer to this question requires some investigation into the nature of the god Adonis.
The name Adonis appears only in the West and is a graecism of Adonai, Hebrew for “My Lord.” Adonis is not uniquely a western divinity. He is merely the Levantine name for the Sumerian god Dumuzi, known in Hebrew as Tammuz. In Sumerian, Dumu-zi means “Son of Truth” or “True Son” (cf. “Son of God”). He was a water god who brought vegetation and prosperity to man, but who was killed and resurrected annually in a cycle that follows the seasons.24 One of the hallmarks of Dumuzi-Tammuz-Adonis rites was the devotion of women, particularly the mourning for the dead (absent) god in the dry summer months. Women weeping for Tammuz are even mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel (8:14–15). They do this at the gate of Jerusalem, and it is impossible not to think of the women “looking on from afar” at Jesus’ crucifixion (Mk 15:40 & parallels).
There is presently some confusion in the scholarly literature regarding Dumuzi and an allegedly separate female deity, Dumuzi-Abzu, “True Daughter of the Abzu.” It is my suspicion that these two deities are aspects of one androgynous god—or, rather, of one god who has transcended gender. This element becomes significant in the gnosticism of late antiquity, as we see in passages where male and female no longer exist.25 Transcending gender implies control of the passions—another theme much in evidence in gnostic Christian sources.26 As son/daughter of the abzu, Dumuzi is the offspring of god Ea/Enki. More particularly, s/he is the offspring of the god of underworld (unseen) gnosis.
Even though Dumuzi was popularly known as the husband of Inanna, and Adonis as a youthful and beautiful male, the androgynous nature of the god was indeed part of Syrian religion:
In Syria where Adonis reigned, the cave of Bethlehem was the center of mysteries and celebrations of the androgynous god. Women came and mourned his/her mystical death. This place was consecrated to Astarte and Tammuz, in the sacred forest which surrounded it…
The cave of Adonis became the cave of Jesus. One divinity succeeded the other without popular belief being seriously troubled, or even being able to distinguish the elements which separated the one from the other. The same crowds which came to celebrate Adonis at the cave in Bethlehem now came to celebrate Jesus with equal enthusiasm, equal faith, knowing only that the symbol for the eternal sun was now being rejuvenated under a new name.27
There is a deeper reason why women metaphorically wept over the death of Adonis. There is an old tradition that this epitome of virility (an “Adonis” still carries this meaning) had transcended passion, that he had fled from the female, and that he had even emasculated himself. This is why the females weep: their “Adonis” is no longer available. As it happens, he had escaped into gnosis. Sublimation of the passions through gnosis is an integral aspect of subsequent Gnostic Christian “heresies.” It also survives in the New Testament, as we read at Mt. 19:12: “There are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.”
Since Paleolithic times man has descended into caves to contact the transcendent, as we witness in the famous cave paintings of Lascaux and other places in southern Europe.28 In the Bronze Age, Enki/Ea was master of the abzu, the underworld ocean representing gnosis. Wells and springs were openings to that abzu from the world above. Similarly, caves were sacred openings to the underworld, as we see in the mystery religions of late antiquity.29 It was there that hidden, secret wisdom was to be found, mediated by Sybils, chthonic deities, and by the quintessential gnostic messenger from the underworld, the snake—an animal which lacks eyelids (is ever vigilant), which sloughs its skin (does not die), and which is perfectly formed to descend and ascend through crevasses in the ground.
In short, the Christian Church located the birthplace of the Son of God over a cave dedicated to Adonis, a cave which had metaphorically led to gnosis. It should not escape us that ʻthe entrance leading to gnosisʼ is precisely the significance of Beit-Lahmu, that is, ʻBethlehem.ʼ We have seen in Part 2 of this series that the Lahmu gods ‘guarded’ (Heb. natsar) the gate leading to the beyond. In the Mesopotamian cosmology of the Bronze Age this gate was quintessentially in the West where the sun daily descended into its underworld grave—Mt. Hermon in the northern region near Dan and at the headwaters of the Jordan River. Any opening into the earth, however, was a ‘gate’ to the underworld, and hence sacred. In the Old Testament, wells are often the places of revelation, discovery, and communication with the divine. (Cf. Beersheba, Beer-Lahai-Roi, and the well at Aram Naharaim [Gen 24:10 f.] where Isaac’s servant found Rebecca.)
This view persists well into classical times. Consider, for example, the Mystery Religions, in which a sacred mediator sits in a cave (a place connecting with the underworld)—often directly over a crevasse—and there she delivers oracles, gnostic secrets from the realm below. In this we see the long overlooked connection between gnosticism and the so-called Mystery Religions.
The Church similarly celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25, the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun with which Mithra was identified. Since the Stone Age that day had marked a great annual celebration, the time when the sunʼs light visibly returns to man after the long summer/fall declination—the ʻresurrectionʼ of god.30
In such ways, religions do not start from scratch, as it were, but import useful elements from older religions. Judaism had done something similar with “Bethlehem.” This had been a mythical place representing the gate to gnosis, Beit-Lahmu. Still mythical, it became the literary hometown of David. Thus, Jews and Christians transformed what had been precious to pagans into what is precious to them.
NEXT: Crossing the Jordan
18. Judg 12:5; 1 Sam 1:1; 1 Kg 11:26.
19. Nielsen, chp. 4:129, 136.
20. These scribes are known as the Aaronides and are associated with the “Priestly” source in the documentary hypothesis (see below).
21. Bethlehem of Judea was settled much later (see next section). The only Iron Age Bethlehem to pass the test of archaeology is Bethlehem in Zebulun (Jos 19:15).
22. The birth stories of Matthew and Luke mention no cave. It is in second century extra-canonical works such as the Protevangelium of James (chp. 18) and the writings of Justin Martyr (Dial. With Trypho 78).
23. In 347 CE Cyril of Jerusalem writes that “Bethlehem was enclosed by a forest until the constructions of Constantine.” Information for this section is drawn partly from P. Welton, “Bethlehem und die Klage um Adonis.” Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins, 99 (1983) 189–203.
24. In some accounts Dumuzi/Tammuz descends into the underworld for six months of the year and is ʻbrought back to lifeʼ by Inanna.
25. See, e.g., Gospel of Thomas 22; Mt 5:27–28; 19:11–12; Lk 23:29; Rev 14:3–5, etc.
26. See ʻencratiteʼ works including the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Book of Thomas the Contender, Exegesis of the Soul, Dialog of the Savior, Authoritative Teaching, and Testimony of Truth—all found at Nag Hammadi.
27. H. Vincent and F. Abel, Bethléem: Le Sanctuaire de la Nativité. Paris: V. Lecoffre, 1914:12–13. Translation by RS. Vincent writes l’éternel symbole solaire, literally “eternal solar symbol,” though “eternal son” (rather than “sun”) would be just as apposite.
28. Salm, “Paleolithic Religion,” and the writings of D. Lewis-Williams.
29. See J. Ustinova, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth. Oxford: University Press, 2009.
30. For several days before and after Dec. 21 the sunʼs weak force appears unchanged. It is four days after the theoretical winter solstice that the sun first appears to ‘strengthen.’