The New Testament says Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but one rogue Israeli archaeologist says it is far more likely the Christian savior was born in Bethlehem of the Galilee, more than 60 miles from Jerusalem.
Aviram Oshri spent nearly eleven years excavating artifacts in Bethlehem of the Galilee — an ancient biblical village near Nazareth that was later settled by German Templers — which he believes show that the traditional account of Jesus’s birthplace may be wrong.
But when he produced his findings for his employer, the Israel Antiquities Authority, he found his proposal dismissed and called “worse than a joke.”
The town of Bethlehem of Judea, about six miles south of Jerusalem, has always been considered the birthplace of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth and later moved to Nazareth up north. In another account, Joseph and Mary, who was then nine months pregnant, traveled more than 175 kilometers (68 miles) from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea, Joseph’s hometown, in order to be counted in a Roman census.
That never made sense to Oshri.
“How would a woman who is nine months pregnant travel 175 kilometers on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem of Judea?” he asked. “It makes much more sense that she would have traveled seven kilometers,” the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem of the Galilee.
Getting Jesus to Bethlehem of Judea is an important part of the Christian savior’s history. Those who believe that Jesus was a descendent of the House of David tend to believe that he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, where King David had been born a thousand years earlier.
Oshri can list a host of details and historical facts that throw doubt on what has long been considered the accepted version of Jesus’ birth and childhood.
He begins with the lack of antiquities from the Herodian period in Bethlehem of Judea, which was the time around the birth of Jesus, a fact that is corroborated by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
But Oshri took it much further, particularly once he began excavating in Bethlehem of the Galilee.
He first heard from the locals that Jesus was born in the northern town, and not in the south. A local Christmas tree grower, Yossi Jaeger, who buys the idea, jokingly calls it Oshri’s “conspiracy theory.”
During eleven years of excavations, Oshri found a massive Byzantine-era church, with a cave hidden under the apse, as well as parts of a wall that may have circled the village and another two-story building that could have been an ancient khan or guesthouse. All would be from the period of Jesus’ life.
He says he has other proof as well.
“How did Mary and Joseph meet?” he asked. “She’s from Tzippori and he’s from Bethlehem of Judea, and what are the chances that they would meet when they live so far away from each other in the ancient world? Zero. But Bethelehem of the Galilee and Nazareth and Tzippori are very close to each other.”
Oshri published his findings in the journal Archaeology in 2005, two years after he completed the dig. He said that Protestants were open to it, but those who are more orthodox in their beliefs, such as Catholics and the Greek and Russian Orthodox, were not willing to accept his ideas.
Neither is the Antiquities Authority.
Oshri ended up moving onto other digs because he didn’t have a choice, even though he said he’d love nothing more than to excavate the church again as well as the cave beneath.
Uzi Dahari, the deputy director of the Antiquities Authority, says it won’t happen, because the ancient church is just one of the Byzantium churches built when Helena, Constantine’s mother, came to Israel and built churches around Israel.
“There’s no connection, there’s nothing that suggests Bethlehem of the Galilee could be connected,” said Dahari, calling Oshri’s thinking impossible. “There’s nothing scientific to prove it,” said Dahari, before throwing his own curve ball. “Anyone who does research and deals with this says that Jesus, the person, was born in Nazareth, and his family was from Nazareth,” said Dahari. “The whole story of Bethlehem of Judea was just to tie him to the house of King David. It’s just a religious excuse.”
Oshri, however, holds out hope. He says the authority would allow him to excavate further if it had the money, and has tried to fundraise himself.
He even asked Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, for funds.
“He said if Bethlehem of the Galilee was in Jerusalem, he could have done it,” said Oshri.