Journalists Discover Debate Over Birthplace of Jesus

A piece by Sheera Frenkel in the Times quotes archaeologist Aviram Oshri on the birthplace of Jesus (available via syndication at the Australian):

Archaeologists have long believed that Mary may have given birth to Jesus in Bethlehem of the Galilee, a hillside village far away in northern Israel.

“I think the genuine site of the Nativity is here, rather than the well-known site near Jerusalem,”… “Bethlehem in the Galilee was inhabited by Jews at the time of Jesus, whereas the other Bethlehem? There is no evidence that it was a living site, an inhabited area in the first century,”

…Unfortunately, said Mr Oshri, modern construction in the village has probably destroyed archaeological evidence. An ancient church was discovered in 1965 when a road was built, but earlier roadworks had gone through part of the site.

“…The church was very large, and built over the site of a cave. It was very similar in structure to the church of the Nativity,” he said.

The story has also been summarised by the Telegraph. It comes a mere seven years after Oshri wrote about the same thing in Archaeology magazine, and a mere four years after his theory was featured in National Geographic magazine (scroll down here).

As Frenkel indicates, Jesus’ historical birth in Galilee has been a mainstream scholarly position for decades, although the existence of two Bethlehems is of less significance than the fact that the Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke were written with Messianic prophecies from the Hebrew Bible in mind.

In fact, a serious scholar defending the traditional view is more of a news story, which is why everyone ought at least to be aware of a 2007 article from the Biblical Archaeological Review by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (recently seen on BBC1 talking about St Paul with David Suchet, and as spirited as ever despite obvious poor health). Murphy-O’Connor’s piece is paired against an article by Steve Mason, who lays out the case for Nazareth as the birthplace.

But either way, Oshri doesn’t help to move the discussion forward. His point about the church also appears in the 2008 National Geographic:

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.

The reasoning here is unconvincing: these structures date from centuries later, and there’s no way that they would have been erected to embody some kind of rival tradition to the Church of the Nativity.

The debate is also addressed in a new book by the Pope, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (pp. 65-66); the Telegraph noted this in passing while getting over-excited by the fact that the book also contains the well-known detail that Year 1AD is merely an approximate date for the birth of Jesus. The pontiff - unremarkably - maintains the traditional view on Bethlehem on the grounds that Matthew and Luke are two independent traditions.

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