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The Christmas story:

In what town was Jesus born?

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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." 1

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.

bullet 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 Jesus' birth.
bullet 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:
bullet In 1st century Judea women "...were considered second-class citizens, akin to slaves." 3 Only 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
bullet 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.

bullet 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 many Roman 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
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet Mark 6:1 contradicts Matthew by identifying Nazareth as Jesus' birthplace ... as his "hometown."
bullet 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.
bullet 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

Archeological evidence:

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 magazine:

" '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 says.

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 lines:

bullet Conservative Christians usually believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both refer to Bethlehem in Judea, 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.
bullet 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 Galilee." 8

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

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Terry Hulbert, "Jesus' Birth," Ancient Sandals, at:
  2. "Born in Bethlehem," The Jesus Police, undated, at:
  3. "Life of Jesus - First Century Context of Palestine (Israel), Jesus Central, at:
  4. Pheme Perkins, "Reading the New Testament. 1988,". Paulist Press (1988). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. Jonathan Cook, "The search for the real Bethlehem," Aljazeera, 2004-DEC-20, at:
  6. "Bethlehem in biblical lore," The Jerusalem Post, (2000), at:
  7. "Iron Age (1200 - 550 BCE)," Boston University, at:
  8. Aviram Oshri, "Where was Jesus Born?," Archaeology magazine, Volume 58 Number 6, 2005-NOV/DEC, at:
  9. Marisa Larson, "Bethlehem," National Geographic, 2008-JUN-17, at:
  10. 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 online book store
  11. Bruce Chilton, "Rabbi Jesus," Doubleday, (2000), Page 8. Read reviews or order this book
  12. Aviram Oshiri, "The archaelogical [sic] research of Bethlehem of Galilee & Jesus birth place," at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2011, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2011-MAR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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