Was Jesus Born in Nazareth or Bethlehem, Part V - What about Bethlehem of Galilee?

In parts I, II and III of this series, I introduced my approach and examined what the Bible had to say about Jesus’ birthplace. In part IV, I examined the non-canonical gospel claims about Jesus’ birth. Now, I turn my attention to one last area: what about the claim by archaeologist Aviram Oshri that Bethlehem of Galilee was the real birthplace of Jesus? According to the website Religious Tolerance:   

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.

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'."

I have searched the web for further support of this claim. I have found no details behind Aviram Oshri’s research and discoveries. Aviram Oshri’s website (www.bethlehem-of-galilee.org) is not functioning so I cannot see what evidence, if any, he has posted there is support of this assertion. But what I can gather from a number of other sites that reference his work is that Aviram Oshri is making the assertion based on three claims. First, there is no archaeological evidence that Bethlehem was occupied during the period that Jesus was born. Second, there is a little town called Bethlehem in Galilee (near Nazareth) that was occupied at the time that Jesus was born and some of the locals believe that Jesus was really born there. Third, he found the “remains of the strong fortification walls among olive trees on the edges of Bethlehem of Galilee, and he suggests early Christians built it to protect the real site of Jesus’ birth.”  

General Objections

Several points can be made in response to this. First, as a general matter I have found no other archaeologist making this same assertion. If Aviram Oshri is correct, he is the lone voice crying that Bethlehem of Galilee is the actual birthplace. So, there is certainly no reason to believe or accept that this is a mainstream position. Of course, many teachings both inside and outside the church have started out as minority positions, so this alone is not sufficient to holding Aviram Oshri to be wrong on this matter.  Additionally, I have found no early Christian tradition claiming Bethlehem of Galilee as the place of Jesus' birth. Rather, as shown by part IV, even the non-canonical gospels assert that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. In short, Aviram Osrhi’s claim cannot be confirmed or denied using resources available on the Internet, has apparently garnered little to no enthusiasm among archaeologists, and has no confirmation from the earliest traditions or histories in the church.

Did Bethlehem of Judea exists in 6 BC to 4 BC?

Second, the idea that Bethlehem of Judea was not occupied during the time of Jesus’ birth is a claim that, at best, stands on the proposition that we have no direct archaeological evidence that Bethlehem exited at the time of Jesus’ birth. In other words, he is correct in his claim that we don’t have direct physical, archaeological evidence of Bethlehem of Judea’s existence for the period around 6 BC to 4 BC when Jesus is believed to have been born. However, his claim falls under the old adage, “Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.” 

There is no question that Bethlehem existed as a functioning town as far back as 700 BC because a seal found in 2012 clearly identified Bethlehem as being a town in Israel during the First Temple period. (See, Oldest Extra-Biblical Reference to Bethlehem Found.)  It is also clear that Bethlehem exited after the time of Jesus as a church (the Church of the Nativity) was built on the location in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. According to Smithsonian Magazine, "The Church of the Nativity was built around A.D. 330 by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine and was mostly destroyed—possibly during a Samaritan rebellion in A.D. 529—though parts of the original mosaic floor remain. Thus, it is clear from archaeological and historical evidence that Bethlehem was in existence prior to 330 AD." (See, Endangered Site: Church ofthe Nativity, Bethlehem).

Moreover, we know that the ancient church father, Jerome, lived in Bethlehem of Judea from 386 AD to his death in 420 AD. He reliably reports that the cave where Jesus was born (which is the site where the Church of the Nativity was built) had been used by those who worshipped the Roman Pantheon as a site for the worship of Adonis since 150 AD until taken by Constantine for the building of the Church of the Nativity. (See, Where Was Jesus Born? (And When?) Bethlehem…Of Course, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor). Thus, we know that Bethlehem was in existence since at least 150 BC from extra-biblical historical evidence.

The Location of the Church of the Nativity and the Gospels ARE Evidence for Jesus' Birthplace

But as the article by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor quoted above notes, while the Church of the Nativity was only built in 330 AD, it is evidence for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 330 years prior. He notes:

That the cave had become the focus of pilgrimage is confirmed by the early church father Origen (185–254 A.D.), who reports that “there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he [Jesus] was born.”3The cave apparently attracted regular visitors, including Origen himself sometime between 231 and 246 A.D.

It is difficult to imagine that the Bethlehemites invented the cave tradition, particularly because, as there is reason to suspect, the cave was not always accessible to Christians in the days of Justin and Origen. According to the church father Jerome (342–420 A.D.), who lived in Bethlehem from 386 A.D. until his death, the cave had been converted into a shrine dedicated to Adonis: “From Hadrian’s time [135 A.D.] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years…Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth’s, most sacred spot…was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz,b which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”4

Local Christians were probably not permitted to worship regularly in what had become a pagan shrine. The fact that the Bethlehemites did not simply select another site as the birth cave suggests that they did not feel free to invent. They were bound to a specific cave.5 To preserve a local memory for almost 200 years implies a very strong motivation, a motivation that has nothing to do with the Gospels. 

Additionally, as evidenced in Part II of this series, there is strong evidence from the fact that the Gospels themselves were written and being circulated by the mid-60s AD. It is almost impossible to imagine that the authors of Gospels would knowingly insert in the Gospels that Jesus was born in a town that did not exist (where many people would still be alive who would know that Bethlehem of Judea did not exist at the time the Gospel authors claimed Jesus was born). Talk about halting the then-infant religion in its tracks, such an obvious error would have been a death-knell for Christianity.

So, while I accept Aviram Oshri’s assertion that there is no direct archaeological evidence for the existence of Bethlehem in the time period of Jesus’ birth, I think that there is little doubt from the historical evidence that it did exist and that the archaeological evidence will one day be discovered.

Bethlehem of Galilee and the Fortress

Aviram Oshri’s second claim states that Bethlehem of Galilee did exist at the time of Jesus and a fortress outside of town in a grove of olive trees “strongly suggests” it was built to protect the site of Jesus’ birth. According to the abstract of his article “Where Was Jesus Born?” in Archaeology, Oshri says that when he was doing archaeological work in the area of Bethlehem of Galilee, “some of the people who lived around the site told me how Jesus was really born there, not in the south [at Bethlehem of Judea].”

Aviram Oshri, however, says that he cannot access the fortress site. According to Two Little Towns Of Bethlehem And A Nativity Riddle: Dominic Waghorn Explains:

The problem for Oshri is that the key piece of evidence has been destroyed. In the 1960s the Israelis built a road through the ruins of the early Christian church in the heart of his Bethlehem. The cave underneath the church was only partially damaged but he cannot get permission or funding to excavate it.

So, the evidence for his claim consists of stories told by unnamed individuals in the town of Bethlehem of Galilee about a fortress that was destroyed in the 1960s and which he cannot access. This has all of the earmarks of a conspiracy theory. The idea being that the powers that be (who really rule the Christian religions) have conspired to first destroy the site and then deny him access to protect the story of Jesus’ birth.

I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to buy that one in light of the rather clear history to the contrary. 


Weekend Fisher said…

If you're interested, there's one more line of argument that may be helpful: the early Christians referred to the Roman tax/census archives -- still existing in their day -- as a witness of Jesus' birth. Justin Martyr (that's early) was specific in saying that the Roman archives recorded Jesus' birth in Bethlehem of Judea. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.xxxiv.html

Take care & God bless
BK said…
Good info, WF. Thanks.
Jason Engwer said…
Thanks for writing the series, BK. You've made some good points.

If you're interested, or anybody else is, here's a link to a series of posts I've written on the subject. In those posts, I argue that the Bethlehem birthplace is implied in John's gospel, is implied by Paul, and is corroborated by multiple non-Christian sources as early as the second century, among other lines of evidence.

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