“O Little Town of Bethlehem” has always been sung by Christians each year as a testimony to remember the birth of Jesus, deemed by Christians to be the Savior of the World, the Lord who was born of the virgin Mary, placed in a feeding trough, and worshipped by eastern astrologers and the angels at His birth. For centuries, Christians have never doubted that Christ was born in “the city of David,” the place known as “Bethlehem”.
New evidence has surfaced from Aviram Oshri, an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist, that seems to suggest a new place of Jesus’ birth: while it is true that the name of the place was “Bethlehem,” it is not necessarily true that the city of Bethlehem is the place. Rather, the Bethlehem in which Jesus was born was the village of Bethlehem in Galilee rather than the city of David. What are the reasons for Oshri’s conclusion?
- The village was inhabited by Jews in the first century, while the city of Bethlehem was uninhabited in the first century
- Mary’s travel to the village of Bethlehem would have been easier to make (7km) than her journal to Bethlehem City (150km)
- Christians did not pay attention to the City of Bethlehem until the fourth century, when Constantine made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion
Claims #1 and #3 are those that only Oshri would be able to demonstrate via archaeological evidence. He does not supply the evidence in the report above, however. These two claims are statements that can only be assessed for their merit through the evidence. The claim that Christians had no notion of the city is simply not true; Greek manuscripts provide evidence that “Bethlehem of Judea” is what the writers of Scripture believed would be the birthplace of Jesus. Even Luke, believed to be Paul’s physician, provided an accurate account of what he gathered from discussions with eyewitnesses and the texts themselves (Luke 1:1-3).
In some sense, it does seem more believable that Mary and Joseph would travel to Bethlehem City than the village of Bethlehem. The reason for this concerns the unusual circumstances surrounding the travel of the Jewish couple to Bethlehem City in the first place. The book of Luke attests to the necessity placed upon the couple to travel so far (Luke 2:1-3). This is not to say that staying in Galilee to have the baby does not make sense to the ordinary person. It does; most pregnant women do not travel that far for the sake of leisure travel—unless some particular reason motivates them. In Mary and Joseph’s case, it was the empire census.
To credit Oshri, a number of Christians would still believe, even if Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem instead of Bethlehem City; in my case, however, I believe because it seems plausible to me that Mary and Joseph would travel so far: not only was it prophesied that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem City (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:5-6), but it would also make sense if an empire census was conducted.