The Christmas story:
In what town was Jesus born?
Was he born in Bethlehem in Judea, or in Nazareth, or in another Bethlehem?:
Christian tradition states
that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea (now Palestine). This is about six
miles, (10 kilometers), south of Jerusalem "on the east side of the
'Patriarch's Highway' that ran along the ridge between Shechem and Hebron."
The Church of the Nativity
in Bethlehem was built by Constantine the Great, circa 330 CE.
It was badly damaged during a Samaritan revolt, was demolished, and was rebuilt
circa 530 CE. It is believed by many Christians and Muslims to have been built over the
precise location of Jesus' birth. The spot of Jesus' birth is identified by a hole
in a 14 point star located in a underground cave beneath the church.
However, the location of Christ's birth is not certain.
Matthew 2:1-6 quotes Micah 5:2 as one proof that Jesus was
the anticipated Messiah. Micah predicted that out of Bethlehem would "come a
ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel."|
The picture drawn by
Matthew is of an engaged couple who were living in Bethlehem at the time of
||Luke 2:1-7 describes Joseph and Mary as residents of
Nazareth in the Galilee. They would have had to travel for about a week to cover the approximately 90 miles
(140 km) from Nazareth in the Galilee south to
Bethlehem in Judea. 2 Luke says that they had to do this in order to take part in the Roman census and taxation. Jesus was born while
they were in Bethlehem. This version of the Christmas story seems a little strange,
for many reasons:|
In 1st century Judea women
"...were considered second-class citizens,
akin to slaves."
Joseph would be required to register with the authorities, because "the
husband was the spiritual and legal head of the house."
3 The presence of his teenaged fiancé or wife would be redundant. Mary would hardly have made the
100 mile trip while about 9 months pregnant unless it was absolutely necessary. Joseph would
have traveled without Mary, and probably in a group to give better protection
from bandits. 4
Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority
(IAA), has said: "Basic medical knowledge tells you that a heavily pregnant
woman could not ride a donkey that kind of distance without losing her baby."
5 Although medical knowledge was
primitive in those days, that much information would have been generally known. Joseph
and Mary would not have had access to a method of transportation other than
walking on foot or by riding on an animal.
There is no record of a worldwide census as stated Luke having been made in the last
decade BCE. If one had been conducted, it would have been
so disruptive that its effects certainly would have been recorded at the time in
documents. A local census was taken by Quirinius during 6 CE, but that would have been when Jesus
was about ten years of age. Also, it was held in Judea, but not the Galilee
where the Gospel of Matthew said that Joseph lived. 6
||It makes absolutely no sense to require Jews and other
inhabitants of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral town
for registration. The economy of the Empire would be devastated if
everyone had to make such a visit. The transportation facilities
would be hopelessly overloaded. Censuses are generally taken where
people live -- in ancient times and now.
||Circa 6 BCE, when Jesus was believed to have be born, it would have been
impractical to require adults to return to the ancestral city of their
tribe. Because of the extermination and scattering of Jews in the Northern
Kingdom, and the enslavement and exile of the remaining Jews in Babylon of
whom relatively few returned, many, if not most, Jews in Judea at the time would not be
aware of their tribal identification.
Mark 6:1 contradicts Matthew by identifying Nazareth as Jesus'
birthplace ... as his "hometown." |
|| John 7:41-43 also contradicts Matthew. It
has people in a crowd rejecting Jesus as the Messiah because the Messiah was
expected to come from Bethlehem in Judea, whereas Jesus was known to have come from
Galilee. It can be argued that both Mark's and John's passages are compatible with Luke's account, assuming that Joseph and
Mary returned quickly from Bethlehem in Judea to Nazareth.|
There are numerous references in New Testament that identify Jesus as coming from
Nazareth. The early Christians were called "Nazarenes." Jesus
was called "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus the Nazarene" or "Jesus the Nazorean" -
and never "Jesus of Bethlehem." 6
Perhaps the most important reason to suspect the accuracy of Matthew and Luke is that Bethlehem in Judea did
not exist as a functioning town between 7 and 4 BCE when Jesus is
believed to have been born. Archaeological studies of the town have
turned up a great deal of ancient Iron Age material from 1200
to 550 BCE 7 and lots of material from the sixth century CE, but
nothing from the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE.
Aviram Oshri, a senior
archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority wrote in Archeology
" 'Menorah,' the vast database of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA),
describes Bethlehem as an 'ancient site' with Iron Age material and the
fourth-century Church of the Nativity and associated Byzantine and
medieval buildings. But there is a complete absence of information for
antiquities from the Herodian period--that is, from the time around the birth
of Jesus. 8
According to National Geographic:
"Many archaeologists and theological scholars believe Jesus was actually
born in either Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee, a town just outside Nazareth,
citing biblical references and archaeological evidence to support their
conclusion. Throughout the Bible, Jesus is referred to as 'Jesus of Nazareth,'
not 'Jesus of Bethlehem.' In fact, in John (7:41- 43) there is a passage
questioning Jesus' legitimacy because he's from Galilee and not Judaea, as the
Hebrew Scriptures say the Messiah must be. ..."
Aviram Oshri, a senior
archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, says, 'There is
surprisingly no archaeological evidence that ties Bethlehem in Judea to the
period in which Jesus would have been born'."
" 'If the historical Jesus were truly born in Bethlehem,' Oshri adds, 'it
was most likely the Bethlehem of Galilee, not that in Judaea. The
archaeological evidence certainly seems to favor the former, a busy center [of
Jewish life] a few miles from the home of Joseph and Mary, as opposed to an
unpopulated spot almost a hundred miles from home.' In this Bethlehem, Oshri
and his team have uncovered the remains of a later monastery and the largest
Byzantine church in Israel, which raises the question of why such a huge house
of Christian worship was built in the heart of a Jewish area. The Israeli
archaeologist believes that it's because early Christians revered Bethlehem of
Galilee as the birthplace of Jesus. 'There is no doubt in my mind that these
are impressive and important evidence of a strong Christian community
established in Bethlehem [of Galilee] a short time after Jesus' death,' he
Oshri, however, doubts that Bethlehem of Galilee will be recognized as
the birthplace of Jesus any time soon. 'Business interests are too important,'
he says. 'After all this time, the churches do not have a strong interest in
changing the Nativity story'." 9
As usual, there is a division within Christianity along conservative/liberal
||Conservative Christians usually believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both refer to Bethlehem
then that must have been Jesus' place of birth. It is confirmed by the prophecy
in Micah 5:2 which implied that the Messiah would be born there.
Some liberal Christians are convinced by the lack of archaeological
evidence in Bethlehem, Judea and the presence of archaeological evidence in
Bethlehem, Galilee. They conclude that he was probably born in the Galilee. Further,
according to theologians Don Cuppitt and Peter Armstrong, "...our first
principle of historical criticism must be: be wary of any details in the
gospels which have close parallels in the Old Testament." 10 Their reasoning was that
Christians in the first century CE diligently searched
the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) for references for the coming Messiah.
They would have found the reference to Bethlehem, Judea, in Micah 5:3
and assumed that Jesus must have been born there. So, the authors of Matthew
and Luke would have followed this tradition by inventing a story to match
the Hebrew Scriptures.
An alternate birth location Bethlehem of Galilee:
A small hamlet existed in Galilee that was also called Bethlehem -- "Bethlehem
HaGalilit" in Hebrew. It was
located very close to Nazareth.
Bruce Chilton, author of "Rabbi Jesus" comments:
"Bethlehem in Hebrew means 'house of bread,' a common name for
settlements with mills capable of producing fine flour, rather than the
course grade most Israelites used for their daily needs. In 1975, amid the
musty, damp and badly lit back shelves of the University Library in
Cambridge, I first learned of a Galilean Bethlehem, near Nazareth, from an
obscure study of the Talmud published during the nineteenth century. I was
surprised by the dearth of discussion of this place in New Testament studies
as the possible site of Jesus' birth, especially since a northern Bethlehem
is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Joshua 19:15)....Now, however,
archeological excavations show that Bethlehem in Galilee is a first-century
site just seven miles [12 km] from Nazareth, so my former reserve can be put aside.
There is good reason to surmise that the Bethlehem to which Matthew refers
was in Galilee." 11
Aviram Oshiri wrote in Archaeology magazine:
"I had never before questioned the assumption that Jesus was born in
Bethlehem in Judea. But in the early 1990s, as an archaeologist working for
the IAA, I was contracted to perform some salvage excavations around
building and infrastructure projects in a small rural community in the
Galilee. When I started work, some of the people who lived around the site
told me how Jesus was really born there, not in the south. Intrigued, I
researched the archaeological evidence for Bethlehem in Judea at the time of
Jesus and found nothing. This was very surprising, as Herodian remains
should be the first thing one should find. What was even more surprising is
what archaeologists had already uncovered and what I was to discover over
the next 11 years of excavation at the small rural site--Bethlehem of
Excavations between 1992 and 2003 have uncovered
the remains of a large church and monastery built circa 500 CE.
Oshri said: "There is no doubt in my mind that these are impressive and
important evidence of a strong Christian community established in Bethlehem a
short time after Jesus' death." He is certain that the structures are
Christian because of the oil lamps with crosses, baptismal font, bronze cross,
and pig bones found on the site.
With the fabulous success of
The Da Vinci Code, and the newly preserved and
translated Gospel of Judas, and the rising interest in
Gnosticism -- one of the three main divisions within
the early Christian movement -- present-day conservative Christians are probably not in a mood to
relocate Jesus' birth from its traditional location. It has been a settled issue
for over a millennium and a half.
Funds for Oshiri's archaeological study have run out. He is attempting to raise additional support so that the investigations
can continue. 7
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Terry Hulbert, "Jesus' Birth," Ancient Sandals, at:
"Born in Bethlehem," The Jesus Police, undated, at:
"Life of Jesus - First Century Context of Palestine (Israel), Jesus Central,
Pheme Perkins, "Reading the New
Testament. 1988,". Paulist Press (1988). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Jonathan Cook, "The search for the real Bethlehem," Aljazeera,
"Bethlehem in biblical lore," The Jerusalem Post, (2000), at:
"Iron Age (1200 - 550 BCE)," Boston University, at:
Aviram Oshri, "Where was Jesus Born?," Archaeology magazine,
Volume 58 Number 6, 2005-NOV/DEC, at:
Marisa Larson, "Bethlehem," National Geographic, 2008-JUN-17, at:
Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong, "Who was Jesus," British Broadcasting Corp., (1977), Page 45.
Out of print; You may be able to order this book safely
from Amazon.com online book store
Bruce Chilton, "Rabbi Jesus," Doubleday, (2000), Page 8. Read
reviews or order this book
Aviram Oshiri, "The archaelogical [sic] research of Bethlehem of Galilee
& Jesus birth place," at:
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Last updated 2011-MAR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson