Jesus of Nazareth (maybe)

Jesus of Nazareth (maybe) December 28, 2012

When does a story grow stale? Does the length of time between first publication of a story and subsequent re-tellings matter? Or, if the news is not common knowledge, is it proper for a reporter to retell the story without acknowledging earlier accounts? My mind turned over this question after reading a piece that reported some archeologists believe Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

“Come all ye faithful…to the ‘wrong’ Bethlehem?” appeared on 24 Dec 2012 in the Times and was syndicated at the Australian. It began:

TENS of thousands of people are streaming into Bethlehem, on the West Bank just south of Jerusalem, to celebrate Christmas in the cradle of Christianity. Few know that they might be in the wrong Bethlehem.

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,” [said Averim Oshri, a senior archeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority] “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.”

The Telegraph ran a story on its website summarizing the Times article, and on 26 December 2012 the author of the original article re-wrote the story for National Public Radio. The NPR story “Dig Finds Evidence Of Another Bethlehem” began:

Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Bethlehem Monday night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s the major event of the year in that West Bank town. But Israeli archaeologists now say there is strong evidence that Christ was born in a different Bethlehem, a small village in the Galilee.

About 100 miles north of where the pilgrims gathered, shepherds still guide their flocks through green unspoiled hills, and few give notice to the tucked-away village with the odd sounding name: Bethlehem of the Galilee. But archaeologists who have excavated there say there is ample evidence that this Bethlehem is the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth.

“I think the genuine site of the nativity is here rather than in the other Bethlehem near Jerusalem,” says Aviram Oshri, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority which has excavated here extensively. He stands on the side of a road that now cuts through the entrance to the village. It was the construction of this road that led to the discovery of the first evidence that Bethlehem of the Galilee may have had a special place in history. “It was inhabited by Jews. I know it was Jews because we found here remnants of an industry of stone vessels, and it was used only by Jews and only in the period of Jesus,” Oshri says.

On its face, this is a nice, timely story. Just the sort of thing to run round Christmas. The author noted in the second paragraph of the Times story that the debate over the birthplace of Jesus has been a subject of debate, but should she have mentioned this debate has been ar0und for over 100 years?

In 1898 Sir William Ramsay wrote Was Christ born in Bethlehem? — the first major modern English-language study of this question — which has yet to be settled by the Biblical scholars fraternity. The issue has been raised by the “Jesus Seminar” group of scholars and was mentioned in a 2001 Washington Post article entitled “The Story of Jesus’s Birth, Revised; Modern Scholars Challenge Details of the New Testament Accounts of Christ’s Infancy”.

In 2007 the Biblical Archaeological Review ran articles by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor defending Bethlehem as the site of Jesus’ birth and Steve Mason who laid out the case for Nazareth. Recent books that have addressed this topic include Bruce Chiltons’ Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012). While the Telegraph‘s review of the Benedict’s latest book hyped the shocking news (to the Telegraph) that the Pope believes Jesus was not born on 25 December in the year 0, it also mentioned that Benedict accepts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth as Bethlehem.

I was critical of the Telegraph for hyping the non-story about the date of Jesus’ birth. Should the Times/NPR be taken to task also? The theory propounded by Dr. Oshri to the Times in 2012 was the same one he presented in Archaeology magazine in 2005. Now Archeology is a scholarly publication that also has a general readership, so missing that story is no crime. But Dr. Oshri’s argument also appeared in a 2008 National Geographic post entitled: “Bethlehem of Judea–or of Galilee?”

What then is news worthy about this story? The question of where Jesus was born has been debated for over 100 years, and Dr. Oshri’s claims had their first public airing in 2005. Is it enough that most people are unfamiliar with them to warrant a new story? But if so, should not there be an acknowledgement of what has gone before, or how Dr. Oshri’s discoveries advance the scholarly argument? How was this news?


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  • mdevlin

    Wow. I read the articles from the Biblical Archaeology Review that you mentioned back in 2009, I think, when I ran across their website and downloaded the Birth of Jesus e-Book. I was recently thinking that next year’s “Christmas controversy” news bombshell would be that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem. I’m surprised to learn how close I was to being right. I used to be a copy editor, so I understand that publications want to produce relevant content, but they should acknowledge the age of theories, like those concerning where Jesus was born. Perhaps they should treat such stories as evergreen news features. Otherwise, they look newer than they are, and I think that’s revisionist and a bit irresponsible. I know what it’s like to have non-Christians confront you with what they just read in a paper or watched on TV, acting like they have you outsmarted.

  • mollie

    On the other hand, flawed “debunking of Christianity” stories are my favorite holiday tradition.

  • Jerry

    In so far as the story is about history or archeology, then it should be evaluated on that basis as you’ve done. And that’s fine. That means I read the story and your analysis as not a religion story but as a science/history story about religion.

    You are also right in questioning whether or not this is a news story or a piece that was run because of the season. It does not seem as though the story contained anything new but a review type of story is just fine with me. Unfortunately I bumped up against a paywall so I could not read the Australian account.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Matthew 2:1 says “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea”. Luke 2:4-6 states that Joseph took Mary “into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem”. What mere archeological evidence could prove that two relatively contemporaneous accounts are incorrect? If we credit Matthew’s account of Herod’s murder of children in Bethlehem, it is reasonable that many families would have moved out of that town for a time, changing its character for much of the First Century. It could have even physically relocated to another site to avoid reminders of that horror. There seems to be no other mention of Bethlehem in the New Testament, consistent with an interruption in tbe town’s history after that trauma.

  • MJBubba

    Matthew quoted prophecy (Matt 2:17-18): Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
    It might help to know that Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem in Judea.

  • cken

    Does arguing over specifics in anyway change the spiritual meaning or the essence of the story? To debate the literal accuracy of the Bible is the work of the devil (assuming the devil exists) in as much as it causes us to miss or overlook the enigmatic spiritual truths hidden in the allegories.

  • Daniel

    In my view, journalism is, at its best, a branch of science. Insofar as articles like this extend our knowledge of humankind and nature, they are good. Insofar as articles contribute to mere idiosyncratic posturing and foppery, they are not good. Thus, I am willing to tolerate speculation as long as it doesn’t contradict otherwise knowable tangibles. Shouldn’t what we already know guide our inquiry into what we don’t yet know?