new bethlehem find

old news and strange assumptions

Surprise, surprise: on Christmas day, a media outlet (NPR) gave us something potentially tantalizing (or even scandalous) about Jesus.[1] What was it this time? As the headline indicates: an archaeological “dig finds evidence of another Bethlehem.” To which I responded: Yeah, so? Happy days that there’s now physical evidence of its past existence, but that it existed is not necessarily groundbreaking (pardon the pun).

A moment’s notice of Joshua 19.10-16 (esp. v. 15) will reveal that some knowledge of this other Bethlehem has been available for some time.[2] Moreover, I recall learning about this other Bethlehem while in Bible College (late 90s), in both Old and New Testament courses; and I cannot think of how many times I’ve seen it mentioned in commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel, both recent and fairly old ones.[3] In other words: awareness of this other Bethlehem is old news, my friend. There’s got to be something else up your sleeve if you’re making a fuss.

Well, it doesn’t take long to find out: this other Bethlehem is the more likely candidate for Jesus’ birth. Oh, here we go. Not only do we have the personal take of Avarim Oshri but also, apparently, “there is ample evidence that this [other] Bethlehem is the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth.” Oh really? Watcha got? 1) Jews lived in the village. You mean, there were Jews living in other parts of Israel–if not the rest of the Roman Empire–in the first century CE? Oh the humanity! (please note the sarcasm) C’mon dude, even Strabo knew that much. That Jews lived in Bethlehem of Galilee is evidence of nothing other than Jews lived in that village. What else you got?

2) Site of a church and Justinian’s wall. I’ll admit that the early church erecting buildings on (supposed) sacred sites about as enthusiastically as the British Empire planted flags around the globe, but that does not necessarily prove anything. The underlying premise of Oshri’s assumption is that every sacred site has historical relevance and that those who constructed such sites were never wrong in their history. This is premise is not without its flaws. It is quite possible (even plausible) that some sacred buildings were erected in wrong places–albeit with right (or at least respectable) intentions.

With regard to Justinian’s wall, I must confess remedial knowledge. However, after several searches I was unable to find any reference (other than the NPR article) to Justinian fortifying Bethlehem of Galilee with a wall. In fact, all of the sources I read indicated that the wall in question encircled Bethlehem of Judea, and that he rebuilt the Church that had been razed in that city. Now, if Oshri’s argument is: Justinian built a wall around Bethlehem (i.e. ambiguous term), and there is a wall in Bethlehem of Galilee that dates to the time of Justinian, ergo that is the wall Justinian built; I have to say the argument is rather weak (if not fallacious).[4] Anything else?

3) Practical, comfortable travels. Specifically Oshri claims: “It makes much more sense that Mary rode on a donkey, while she was at the end of the pregnancy, from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Galilee which is only 7 kilometers rather then the other Bethlehem which is 150 kilometers.” Sure, such a journey makes perfect sense for those who enjoy modern comforts and who seek any and all ways to avoid personal discomfort. But such a filtered reading does not overturn the possibility that Mary did journey the 150 kilometers on a donkey and did so because that was the only way (unless she walked a bit). In other words: just because you cannot fathom making such a trip doesn’t mean they didn’t make it. Ancient people, in many ways, were made of tougher stuff. Keep it coming.

5) Bethlehem of Judea as a ghost town. Oshri believes the city “was not even inhabited in the first century.” Seriously? Sure, Bethlehem is strangely absent in 1-2Maccabees and Josephus says nothing about, but that is hardly proof of a ghost town. It is entirely possible that this Bethlehem was a minor village at the time and not worthy of much notice. Like Justinian’s wall, I am happy to be convinced otherwise about the state of Bethlehem of Judea in the first century CE. But until then, I see no reason to be persuaded in the least by this argument. What else?

6) Fredriksen’s take on the 4th century. Here I tread more carefully and less snarkily, primarily because I respect Fredriksen’s scholarship and contributions to the study of Christian origins. However, respect does not preclude disagreement; it only tempers the way in which disagreements are expressed. Fredriksen is quoted as saying, “early Christianity only started to pay attention to the Judean Bethlehem in the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.” Two problems in this claim deserve attention, and I’ll begin with the latter: Constantine never declared Christianity “the official religion of the Roman Empire”; he did, however, grant Christianity official status as a religion in the Empire, which is quite different. Christianity as the Imperial religion came with Theodosius in 391 CE.

The other problem I have is with the assertion that, “early Christianity only started to pay attention to the Judean Bethlehem in the fourth century” (emphasis added). If by “pay attention” it is meant, see the Judean Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth, then I cannot accept the premise that this only took place in the fourth century. For example: Irenaeus, Justin Martyr (also here), Origen (also here), Tertullian, all either mention or attest to the Judean Bethlehem as the city of Jesus’ birth (cf. also Cyprian [and here] who affirms the prophecies concerning the Judea Bethlehem; and Novatian, by implication). Thus, they paid attention. If, however, “pay attention” means build sacred buildings on sacred sites, then I could see some merit to the fourth century claim. But if that is the argument, then it’s not very convincing. Please tell me you have more.

Sadly, however, the (supposedly) compelling evidence ends after a few passing remarks about traditional associations. From this Oshri gives his final two cents: “How does Oshri think Christians would react to finding out that Bethlehem that they thought about is wrong? ‘I don’t think it will have any influence,’ he says. ‘The tradition is one thing. People will go on believing. And I can understand it’.” I like how the question presupposes the case has been settled–i.e. Judean Bethlehem is the wrong location. (I “like” this in the sense that I like hemorrhoids). Personally, that case was not made with the evidence given.

What troubles me more is that Oshri seems to perceive Christians categorically as a bunch of fiddlers on the roof, and that by altering the location of Jesus’ birth nothing substantial changes. The cynic in me wants to say: it appears that an alternate theory is being suggested so as to move Christian teachings of prophetic fulfillment away from the place where such prophecies were fulfilled.

[1] And while I’m thinking about it, I’m going to make a prediction that will be more certain than anything proffered by C.T. Russell, H. Lindsey, H. Camping and even the Mayan calendar: somewhere near Easter, the media will spew forth something else about Jesus they think is new and exciting, controversial or even damning.
[2] Interestingly, no where in the article is this text cited; rather the find is touted as something unexpected, which is a bit misleading.
[3] And by “old” I don’t mean commentaries that came out when your parents were kids, I mean “old” as in 19th century–i.e. the time when you thought your parents were kids.
[4] I am happy to be corrected on this point if anyone knows of any evidence to the contrary.