BETHLEHEM—The pitch seems to be everywhere this Christmas season: For as little as $59.95 (plus postage and handling) you, too, can own a piece of the place where Jesus was born.
In reverential tones, actor Ricardo Montalban describes a filigreed cross, centered with a stone that he says “witnessed” the birth of Jesus.
The offers have been broadcast in more than 35 countries, from the United States to Argentina and the Philippines. They have been seen on the Fox network, the Discovery Channel, VH-1, local television affiliates and on Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Print advertisements have appeared in such publications as Catholic Digest, Biblical Archaeology Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York and these pages as well.
More than 400,000 of these “sacred relics” have been sold—complete with documents that purport to their archaeo-logical authenticity—since the campaign began in Christmas 1994, promoters say.
But the mayor of Bethlehem and authorities of the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the official custodian of the Cave of the Nativity, are crying foul. “I think people must know the truth … this is no, no, no, not from the cave where Christ was born,” said Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij.
Greek Orthodox officials are also adamant that the Cave of the Nativity has never been touched and that stones from this holy site would never be offered for sale. Archbishop Spyridon, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, expressed dismay at the marketing campaign.
“The Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate in goodwill and love, reminded his followers to beware of ‘wolves in sheep's clothing,’ who, like the Pharisees, scribes and hypocrites, forgot the prophetic commandment to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God,” Archbishop Spyridon said in a statement from New York Dec. 13.
Promoters of the California-based Nativity Stones Collection insist that their critics are quibbling over semantics. The stones, they say, came from a common wall between the Cave of the Nativity and the adjacent St. Jerome's Cave, as well as from a nearby passageway under the Church of the Nativity.
The stones were “taken from a place not more than 10 feet away” from the star that marks the place where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus, said Diane Keith, of Pacoima, Calif. Keith's father, Stanley Slotkin, an amateur archaeologist, claims to have collected the stones in 1963. “It's all the same thing,” Keith said, referring to the adjoining caves, which are located beneath Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
But the printed advertisements explicitly claim that the stones were taken from the Cave of the Nativity: “In 1963, renovations were made to the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem— the recognized birthplace of Jesus Christ,” the advertisements say. “The mayor of Bethlehem approved the shipment of excavated stones from the cave to the United States. Documented by both the mayor and the Israel Museum, these sacred relics have been in safekeeping for many years. Now you can share these relics through the Nativity Cross.”
In Bethlehem, current Mayor Freij denies that the stones came from the Cave of the Nativity. And officials at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, whose signatures are on the Nativity Collection documents, profess ignorance of the entire affair. “I really don't remember” (signing the documents), said Yael Israeli, chief curator of the Israel Museum, adding that the museum has never dealt with any excavations at or near the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem, which was controlled by Jordan in 1963, is today administered by Palestinian authorities. “The whole thing seems very strange to me, very fishy,” she said.
The site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has traditionally been recognized as the birthplace of Jesus since the early fourth century, although archaeologists note that there is no hard evidence to confirm this. For centuries, nations and religious groups have jostled for control of the site.
Today, a large church complex sits on top of a network of several caves, including the Cave of the Nativity, considered by many Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, and caves where St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin 400 years after the birth of Jesus, lived and was buried.
According to Keith, her father, founder of the Abbey Rents party and medical supply rental company, visited Bethlehem in 1963, when Mayor Elias Bandak invited him to watch the expansion of the cave network at the Church of the Nativity site. Slotkin expressed interest in the stones that were being removed during the construction and reportedly Bandak offered them to Slotkin. In 1964, Keith said, about a ton of stone was shipped to her father, who kept it in a vault, occasionally giving stones to friends, to the sick, or donating them to charities for fund raising.
Slotkin, now 92, wanted the stones to be “distributed around the world to those who would benefit and to the faithful,” Keith said. So she and other family members hired a designer to create the cross and other pieces now for sale. They also arranged for a portion of the proceeds to be donated toward the upkeep of the holy site. In other countries, Keith said, distributors are asked to give a portion to local charities.
The crosses have been a source of great joy for those who own them, Keith said. The infomercials include testimonials from people who said they have been healed or experienced other miracles after receiving the cross or praying with it. “Wearing the cross gives you a sense … that you're being protected … that you are in the hands of Christ,” said one woman identified as Harriet Baker.
Freij, a Palestinian Christian, has been mayor of Bethlehem since 1972 and is minister of tourism and archaeology for the Palestinian Authority. Freij has acknowledged that the Nativity stones could have been removed during the 1963 excavation of St. Jerome's Cave, which is adjacent to the Cave of the Nativity. “There were renovations in St. Jerome's Cave and certainly stones were taken out, but that does not mean the stone came from the place where the Lord was born,” Freij said.
Each Nativity Cross comes with a “certificate of authenticity” from the Rev. George Bandak, identified as a “priest of the Church of the Nativity” in Bethlehem and an official-sounding “collector's certificate” that states the shipment of stones was “certified by both the Mayor of Bethlehem and the Israel Museum of Jerusalem.”
Responding to requests for further documents, the vendors send copies of a 1964 letter from former Mayor Bandak confirming shipment of “a quantity of rocks” removed from “the St. Jerome Cave which is adjoining the Cave of Nativity … and which belongs to the same rocky mass”; and a 1987 letter from the Israel Museum confirming that the “excavated rocky mass” from “the renovation of St. Jerome's Cave and the adjoining Cave of the Nativity” was shipped to Slotkin in 1964.
But the documentation is not authoritative. The former mayor is now dead. And Greek Orthodox officials say the priest, whose relationship to the church or mayor could not be confirmed, had no authority to authenticate artifacts from the cave. Only the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem has such authority.
Despite the criticism, Diane Keith is adamant that the stones are authentic. “These are not stones picked up somewhere in Bethlehem…. These are from the very wall of the Cave of the Nativity,” she said.
But the Rev. Sylvester Berberis of New York, a priest assigned to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem from 1969 until 1975, asserted that the Cave of the Nativity “has never been touched.” Roman Catholics, who oversee the Cave of St. Jerome, agree. “The renovation (of St. Jerome's Cave) expanded the caves,” but there has “never been” renovation work done in the “real grotto” of the Nativity, said Frederick Munz, director of the Franciscan Study House in Jerusalem.
It may be semantics, but in a region where major international disputes break out over which religious groups have responsibility to sweep the floors of holy sites, even semantics have important political and theological implications.
Semantics aside, Mayor Freij expressed dismay at the worldwide advertising campaign for the Nativity jewelry. “The former mayor never knew this would be used for commercial purposes,” he said. Freij confirmed that the city of Bethlehem received $20,000 in 1995 from the sale of the crosses designated for upkeep of the shrine. Another $5,000 was given to a Greek Orthodox charity. But because the holy site is well-maintained by religious organizations, Freij received permission from Keith to use the money “to help poor people.” Keith denied that selling the cross is a commercial venture. “We're not making money on this,” she said, adding that “it's given so much joy and happiness to people.”
The Nativity Cross sales campaign has created discomfort for some publications and broadcast organizations that have run ads or participated in promotional campaigns for the jewelry.
Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, said the fact that the ad ran in the November/December 1996 issue of his magazine does not mean the publication has approved or endorsed it. “There's no doubt that people over the millenia have been moved by relics of one kind or another. People like something that connects,” Shanks said. But he added his magazine generally discourages people from collecting antiquities “because of the possibility they could be taking the wrong thing or feeding the looters.”
When Montalban appeared as a guest on Pat Robertson's 700 Club Dec. 5, the actor presented the host with a Nativity Cross necklace. Robertson's co-host, Terry Meeuwsen, told viewers they could receive information about purchasing a necklace by calling the 700 Club's general number.
Christian Broadcasting Network spokeswoman Patty Silverman emphasized that it was not an endorsement, but part of a regular “courtesy” given to guests who want to promote a book, CD or other product. “Pat [Robertson] referred to it as something symbolic, that's all,” Silverman said.