Is There Any Evidence That Jesus Was Born in Bethlehem of Judea as the Gospels Record?
By Pastor Ron Jones, © The Titus Institute, 2006
Every Christmas the secular press usually writes about some topic that generally attacks the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.
In the November/December 2005 issue of Archaeology magazine an article appears entitled “Where Was Jesus Really Born?” It speaks of a city in Galilee that was found whose name was Bethlehem. It poses the question, “Could this be the town in which Jesus was born rather than Bethlehem of Judea which Matthew and Luke record?”
There were apparently two towns at the time of Christ named Bethlehem. Because the Bethlehem of Galilee was much closer to Nazareth than the Bethlehem of Judea, some are saying that the Bethlehem of Galilee must be the birthplace of Jesus not the Bethlehem of Judea as Matthew and Luke record.
However, the premise that Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem of Galilee rather than Bethlehem of Judea lacks evidence, both archaeological and literary.
There is archaeological evidence that a town named Bethlehem existed in Galilee at the time of Christ, but there is no archaeological evidence at all that Jesus was born there. Also, there is no literary evidence. None.
On the other hand, there is both literary and archaeological evidence that Bethlehem of Judea was the birthplace of Jesus.
The literary evidence begins with the Gospel records of Matthew and Luke.
Matthew 2:1 records,
”Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem…”
Luke 2:1-7 records,
”And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Both Gospel accounts state clearly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.
Matthew further records that this was exactly what God had foretold. In Matthew 2:1-6 when Herod calls the Jewish leaders together to find out where the messiah was to be born, the Jewish leaders responded that it was in Bethlehem of Judea as the prophecy of Micah 5:2 reveals.
This is the testimony of the apostles that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea according to the OT prophecy. It was not Bethlehem of Galilee.
The belief that Jesus could have been born in another Bethlehem is based upon the assumption that Matthew and Luke did not write their gospels, but rather that they were written by later Christian editors who put together traditions handed down from the early disciples and changed the historical facts to conform to the OT prophecies.
However, the early church believed that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle of that name and the Gospel of Luke was written by Paul’s close associate.
Irenaeus (130—200), a church father, gave the belief of the early church in his “Against Heresies” (3.1.1—2) when he wrote,
“So Matthew brought out a written gospel among the Jews in their own style when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the church. But after their demise Mark himself, the disciple and recorder of Peter, has also handed on to us in writing what had been proclaimed by Peter. And Luke, the follower of Paul, set forth in a book the gospel that was proclaimed by him. Later John, the disciple of the Lord and the one who leaned against his chest, also put out a gospel while residing in Ephesus of Asia.” (Black, Why Four Gospels?, p.38)
This is the earliest tradition of the church. It was also the strong belief of the church that when Matthew and Luke both wrote that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, they were accurate.
Both men were in a position to know where Jesus was born. Luke most likely interviewed Mary who was still alive at the time he wrote. Matthew traveled with Jesus for three years. I am sure that Jesus told him the story of his birth according to the prophecy of Micah 5:2.
Also, it would have been very easy to verify the accuracy of the statement that Bethlehem of Judea was the birthplace of Jesus. Mary was still alive and living with John the apostle after Jesus ascended into heaven. People who had lived in Bethlehem of Judea could also verify that they knew Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus for the one to two years they lived there before they fled from Herod to Egypt.
There is also other literary evidence from the early church corroborating the Gospel accounts. About 150 A.D., Justin Martyr who was an early church apologist wrote in his Dialogue with Trypho about Bethlehem of Judea being the birthplace of Jesus in two places.
In 34.1 he wrote,
“And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus, ‘And you, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, are not the least among the princes of Judah, for out of you shall come forth a Ruler, who shall feed My people.’ Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea.”
Later he wrote in 78.6,
“But on the occasion of the first census which was taken in Judea, under Cyrenius, he went up from Nazareth, where he lived, to Bethlehem, to which he belonged, to be enrolled; for his family was of the tribe of Judah, which then inhabited that region. Then along with Mary he is ordered to proceed into Egypt, and remain there with the Child until another revelation warn them to return into Judea. But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger.”
Justin mentions a cave. Caves were commonly used in the first century as stables.
This is significant evidence because Justin was an apologist in the second century attempting to convince others of the true identity of Jesus Christ. Here he is showing them that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to the OT prophecy. He repeats what Matthew and Luke state and adds the detail about the cave. Justin could not afford to be wrong about where Jesus was born. His credibility and ministry as an apologist was at stake.
Later, Origen, another church Father writing around 248 A.D., in his apology “Against Celsus” writes of a cave in Bethlehem of Judea that the early Christians widely accepted as the birthplace of Jesus.
Origen wrote (1.51),
"In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the rumor is in those places and among foreigners of the Faith that indeed Jesus was born in this cave". (Catholic Encyclopedia Online, “Bethlehem” article)
There is a site in Bethlehem that the original Church of the Nativity was built upon by Constantine in 339 A.D. His mother Helena had gone in search of important locations of the Christian faith. She settled on this one because of the tradition of the Christians in that area.
Although we cannot be sure if this was the exact cave that is mentioned in Justin and Origen, this is evidence from three sources, two literary and one archaeological, that there was a cave in Bethlehem of Judea where Jesus was born wherever it was located.
Again, Bethlehem of Judea as the birthplace of Jesus has been the historical tradition of the church, which has not wavered since the beginning.
Articles like these that attack the veracity of the Gospels is based on the erroneous belief that Jesus was a mere man that did not fulfill these prophecies. Later followers wrote the Gospels and purposely conformed the life of Christ to these prophecies so they could say that Jesus was the messiah and Son of God.
The point that is so often neglected by these “scholars” is this: the reason that the apostles and the early disciples believed that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God, is that he fulfilled these prophecies of the messiah. There was no need to change anything. The apostles handed down the truth about the life of Christ through the Gospels and the early church accepted them based on their apostleship and all the other evidence circulated by various eye-witnesses at that time who could easily deny any false claims such as the birthplace of Jesus.
These “scholars” ignore the historical evidence for the veracity of the Gospels and continually put forth unsupported hypotheses. The question that should always be asked of these individuals is “Where is the historical evidence for your proposition?”
So I ask, “Where is the historical evidence that the first century town of Bethlehem of Galilee was the birthplace of Jesus? Yes, there is evidence that a town named Bethlehem existed there, but where is the evidence that it was the birthplace of Jesus?” So far, there is none.