In search of the real Bethlehem

Created by pastorbuddy on 3/14/2009

Notebook: archaeology

In search of the real Bethlehem
By Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent

AS THE shops fill with Christmas goods, a mere two months ahead of the festival itself, the words and image of “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” will spread across cards and giftwrap. In the view of a leading Israeli archaeologist, Bethlehem really did lie still at the time of Christ’s birth, because there was no little town there, and the Nativity took place elsewhere — at another Bethlehem much closer to Nazareth.

“There is a complete absence of information for antiquities from the Herodian period — that is, from the time around the birth of Jesus,” Aviram Oshri says inArchaeology. “The vast database of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) describes Bethlehem as an ‘ancient site’ with Iron Age material, and the 4th- century Church of the Nativity and associated Byzantine and medieval buildings.

“Following the Six-Day War in 1967, surveys showed plenty of Iron Age pottery, but with the single exception of a publication that mentions Herodian sherds found in a corner of the church, there is surprisingly no archaeological evidence that ties Bethlehem in Judaea to the period in which Jesus would have been born.” A contemporary aqueduct running through the locality suggests that there was no settlement, since such works did not cross built-up areas.

In the 1990s, as one of the IAA’s staff archaeologists, Mr Oshri carried out rescue archaeology at the rural settlement of Bethlehem in Galilee, and was surprised to find a substantial ancient community of the time of Christ. “We know that Bethlehem of Galilee was a “bustling centre of Jewish life around the time of Jesus’s birth,” he says. “There were residential areas, and a workshop for making stone vessels used in Jewish purification rituals.”

In the 19th century there were suggestions that the Galilee site could have been the “real” Bethlehem, but there was at the time no archaeological evidence to back them up. Since then, evidence of surprisingly strong early Christian interest has been found, including a large 6th-century church with mosaic floors, one of the largest in Israel. It “raises the question of why such a huge house of Christian worship was built in the heart of a Jewish area,” Mr Oshri notes.

There is still the thorny point of the Gospel testimony, with both Matthew and Luke describing Bethlehem in Judaea as the birthplace of Christ, but Mr Oshri notes that it was also the legendary birthplace of King David more than 1,000 years before, and attaching the Nativity of Christ to the location would reinforce His reputed descent from David. It would also bring in the Old Testament prophecies, such as Micah v, 2 — “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that that is to be ruler in Israel” — that foretell the coming of a Messiah, albeit one who will “waste the land of Assyria with the sword”.

Bethlehem of Galilee is itself known in the Old Testament, mentioned by Joshua as a town of the tribe of Zebulon, and as the refuge of guardian priests who fled to Galilee after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It may never displace its Judaean homonym in Christian belief, but the discrepancy in the archaeological evidence for the two places at the appropriate date remains an intriguing source for speculation.

Archaeology 58, no. 6: 42-45.