O Little Town of Bethlehem

Where was Jesus born? Depending on who you ask, the answer might surprise you.

Image: BibleMapper.com, Plotted by the author.

According to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. Both Matthew (Mt 2:1) and Luke (Lk 2:4) are clear on this point. Furthermore, according to Micah 5:2, “the ruler of Israel” would come from Bethlehem Ephrathah, which was in the territory of the biblical tribe of Judah. Thus, the chief priests and teachers of the law informed King Herod that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem in Judea (Mt. 2:5).

Today, critics suggest the gospel writers erred and Jesus was born in another location.

Aviram Oshri believes that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem of Judea, but rather Bethlehem in Galilee. He claims the archaeological evidence suggests Bethlehem of Judea was not even inhabited in the first century, and that it makes more sense that a pregnant woman would travel from Nazareth to nearby Bethlehem of Galilee, rather than Bethlehem of Judea, which is 150 km away. 2 Others point out that most New Testament writers are silent on the birthplace of Christ, and that he was known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” suggesting it is more likely that he was born there.2  How does one respond?

Nazareth?

“Mary’s Well” in Nazareth, as seen in ca. 1880. Photo: Felix Bonfils / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Regarding Nazareth, James Murphy-O’Connor notes, “…the silence of Paul, Acts, Mark, John and some Jewish and Roman historians who fail to mention Jesus’ birthplace is irrelevant. Deductions from silence will appeal only to those who have already made up their minds. The most that we can derive from these sources is that Jesus was believed to have come from Nazareth.”3 The title “Jesus of Nazareth” conveys that he was from that town, which is true, even if he wasn’t born there. His parents were from Nazareth (Luke 1:26; 2:4), and he grew up in Nazareth (Matt. 2:23). In a similar way, I was born in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, but only lived there for a matter of months before my parents moved to Northern Ontario. I grew up in Hilton Beach, which I consider my hometown, not Oshawa. There is no contraction between Jesus being born in Bethlehem of Judea and people referring to him as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Bethlehem of Galilee?

Photo: The Lumo Project / FreeBibleImages.com

Bethlehem of Galilee was located about 5 miles (8km) northwest of Nazareth in the territory allotted to Zebulun (Josh. 19:15). While it is closer to Nazareth, but one need not imagine that it would be improbable for a woman in Mary’s state to make the journey to Bethlehem of Judea. Indeed, people from Nazareth made the journey to Jerusalem for the feasts three times per year. No doubt, many a pregnant woman made the trek. Despite our incredulity in the modern world regarding the difficulty of walking (or riding on a donkey, if the Christmas cards are accurate), people in the ancient world thought nothing of traveling great distances. Moreover, no ancient tradition places Christ’s birth at Bethlehem of Galilee; rather the gospel writers are clear that it was in Bethlehem of Judea that Jesus was born.

Bethlehem of Judea

The Bethlehem Bulla – the earliest archaeological evidence that Bethlehem existed during the First Temple period. Photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Bethlehem of Judea is located about 5 miles (8 km) south of Jerusalem in the tribal area of Judah. Its history stretches back into Old Testament times, with its first mention in Gen. 35:19, where it is also called Ephrath/Ephrathah. Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” is the primary setting for the book of Ruth (David’s great-grandmother), and the hometown of King David (1 Sam. 16:1-4).

In May 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a bulla (a clay seal impression) bearing the name of Bethlehem that dates to the 7th or 8th century BC.4 It is a “fiscal bulla,” and an administrative bulla that was used to seal a tax shipment from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. This is the earliest reference to the town of Bethlehem outside of the Bible. 

An aerial view of Bethlehem in 1937. Photo: Zoltan Kruger / National Photo Collection of Israel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Bethlehem in the New Testament-Era

While archaeological evidence from the first-century AD village of Bethlehem is scant (due primarily to a lack of excavation), it is not absent, as some claim. An archaeological survey of Bethlehem in 1969 produced pottery from various time periods, including the Iron Age II (1000-586 BC), Roman Period (63 BC – AD 324), and Byzantine Period (AD 324-638).5  

In 2015-2016, excavations near the Church of the Nativity were carried out under the direction of Dr. Shimon Gibson and Dr. Joan Taylor. Their team unearthed an abundance of potter and artifacts dating to the first century AD.6 In an interview on-site, Gibson stated, “This is the Southwest corner of the Church of the Nativity…We’re sinking a trench down to the early levels, and we have, without doubt, pottery dating to the time of Jesus. What we’ve been able to prove up until now is the existence of a village from the time of Jesus. This is very important.”7

These excavations in 2014-2015 near the Church of the Nativity discovered evidence of the first-century village of Bethlehem. Photo: Courtesy of Joel Kramer

The Church of the Nativity and the Cave Beneath

An aerial photo of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo: Larry Koester / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Arguably the most famous structure in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, which was originally constructed during Constantine’s reign over a cave where it was said that Jesus was born.8 Over the centuries the church was expanded, and excavations inside the church confirm the historical records of an octagonal basilica dating to the time of Constantine beneath the current church.9

The Birth Cave beneath the Church of the Nativity. Photo: Todd Bolen / BiblePlaces.com

The idea that Christ was born in a cave in Bethlehem of Judea is an ancient tradition. In AD 150, Justin Martyr wrote that Christ was born in a cave near Bethlehem.10 In AD 248, Origen wrote, “in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born Jesus who is worshiped and reverenced.”11 In the fourth century AD, Jerome moved to Bethlehem and lived in a grotto next to the cave of Christ’s birth. He wrote of the “very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry” and that Bethlehem was thus the “most venerable spot in the whole world.”12 In his book, “Where God Came Down: The Archaeological Evidence,” Joel P. Kramer notes that a series of caves beneath the Church of the Nativity “were excavated in 1949-1950 by Bellarmino Bagatti, who found evidence establishing that thy were in use in the first century AD.”13

A diagram showing the various construction phases of the Church of the Nativity and the caves beneath (the dotted lines). This reconstruction was done by Bagetti in 1952. Source: Journal of Cultural Heritage

While the biblical text makes no mention of a cave, neither does it mention a stable; Luke simply records that baby Jesus was laid in a manger (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). People have assumed the unmentioned stable because of the presence of a manger. However, numerous permanent stone-carved or plastered stone-built mangers have been discovered on the ground floor of houses from biblical times.14 People in ancient Israel would sometimes keep young, vulnerable, or special animals safe inside the home at night.

Moreover, the Greek word translated as “inn” (kataluma in Luke 2:7) is perhaps better translated as “upper room,” as it is in Luke 22:11 where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Luke could have used the Greek work for “inn” (meaning a place of public lodging – pandocheion), as he did in Luke 10:34, the story of the Good Samaritan, which even has an innkeeper (pandocheus).

The archaeological and textual evidence suggests that Mary and Joseph were not stuffed in a barn out behind the local Motel 6 in Bethlehem, but rather occupied the manger room on the ground floor of a relative’s house because the upper room was already occupied. There need not be a discrepancy between a cave and a manger room in a house, as some domestic structures were built against a cave, which would have housed the manger room.15

Summary

The biblical text, written tradition, and the archaeological evidence all affirm that Bethlehem of Judea was indeed occupied during the first century AD. The gospels of Matthew and Luke explicitly state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, fulfilling the ancient prophecies that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah. The tradition of the birth cave is mentioned in writings from the second, third, and fourth centuries, culminating with the construction of the Church of the Nativity. In summarizing the evidence, archaeologist John McRay stated, “The tradition that Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem [of Judea] is long and solid. There appears little reason to doubt its essential trustworthiness.”16

The reality is that Bethlehem of Judea was one of numerous small villages that surrounded Jerusalem in the first century; William F. Albright estimated that it had a population of about 300 people when Jesus was born.17 That Jesus was born in a small, out-of-the-way village would certainly be consistent with the humble way our Savior entered the world. Yet at the same time it is significant that the King who would reign forever on David’s throne (Luke 1:32-33) was born in town that David himself grew up in.

NOTE: Finding up-to-date archaeological information on first-century Bethlehem in a single source is sometimes difficult. I highly recommend Joel P. Kramer’s book, Where God Came Down: The Archaeological Evidence, which has the best summary of information I’ve yet found. You can buy it at ABR’s online store, Amazon, or better yet, through your local Christian bookstore.

Cover Photo: Bethlehem in 1856, by A. Salzmann / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Endnotes:

1 Sheera Frenkel, “Dig Finds Evidence Of Another Bethlehem.” NPR. Dec. 25, 2012. https://www.npr.org/2012/12/25/168010065/dig-finds-evidence-of-pre-jesus-bethlehem (Accessed Nov. 24, 2021).

2 Steve Mason, “O Little Town of…Nazareth?” Biblical Archaeology Review. 16.1 (Feb. 2000), 53.

3 Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Where Was Jesus Born? Bethlehem…Of Course.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 16.1 (Feb. 2000), 42.

4 “Earliest Archaeological Evidence of the Existence of the City of Bethlehem already in the First Temple Period (May 2012),” Israel Antiquities Authority.

5 S. Gutman and A. Berman, “Chronique Archéologique,” Review Biblique 77 (1970), 583. Quoted by Joel P. Kramer in Where God Came Down: The Archaeological Evidence. (Brigham City: Expedition Bible, 2020), 92.

6 Joel P. Kramer. Where God Came Down: The Archaeological Evidence. (Brigham City: Expedition Bible, 2020), 92.

7 Joel P. Kramer (Director), “Born in Bethlehem,” Uploaded by SourceFlix.com, Dec. 9, 2016. https://vimeo.com/195056291 (Accessed Dec. 4, 2021).

8 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.41-43.

9 Randall Price and H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 237.

10 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 78.

11 Origen, Contra Celsum, I, LI.

12 Jerome, Epistles, 58.3.

13 Joel P. Kramer. Where God Came Down: The Archaeological Evidence. (Brigham City: Expedition Bible, 2020), 93.

14 Gary A. Byers, “Away In A Manger, But Not In A Barn.” Bible and Spade, Vol. 29.1 (2016), p. 7. Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/images/articles/Away-in-A-Manger.pdf (Accessed Dec. 6, 2021).

15 Randall Price and H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 235.

16 John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991), 157.

17 William Albright and C.S. Mann in The Anchor Bible, Matthew (New York: Doubleday, 1971), quoted in Gordan Franz, “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” Associates for Biblical Research. Dec. 8, 2009.  https://biblearchaeology.org/research/chronological-categories/life-and-ministry-of-jesus-and-apostles/2411-the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-historical-fact-or-legendary-fiction (Accessed Dec. 6, 2021).

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