Bethlehem and Nazareth are the places most associated with the life of Jesus prior to his public ministry.
Therefore, what better way to dismiss the Christian faith than claim that these towns never existed at the time of Jesus? They are the product of later, fanciful legends and promoted as a way of making a fast shekel out of religious tourism. James Randi, a popular American magician and atheist, boldly declares: ‘There simply is no demonstrable evidence from the Nazareth site that dates to the time of Jesus Christ’.
A similar claim is made regarding Bethlehem. Though occupied in earlier times, some say it was abandoned during the time of Jesus. Israeli archaeologist Aviram Oshri has identified a different Bethlehem, nearer Nazareth, as thriving at the time of Jesus. Oshri comments: ‘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 seven kilometres than the other Bethlehem which is 150 kilometres’ (NPR News). The fact that the Gospels nowhere mention a donkey does not instill confidence in Oshri’s research. But what about the facts? Were Bethlehem and Nazareth inhabited during the early years of Jesus?
Bethlehem is sometimes dismissed because the Church of the Nativity that tourists visit only dates from 327 AD, long after the time of Jesus. But the question to ask is why was a church to venerate the nativity built here? The history of association with the nativity is much older. Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD), who only lived 40 miles away from Bethlehem, identified a cave in the town as the site of Christ’s birth. Origen (c.185-254 AD) describes visiting the cave himself. Over 200 years of tradition, before the church was built, identify the site and give it authenticity. Furthermore, Bethlehem has revealed evidence of first century occupation, including pottery from that time.
The hamlet of Nazareth
What about Nazareth? In some ways, the first-century evidence is quite similar to that of Bethlehem. There is no evidence of a large city, monumental buildings or wealthy citizens at the time of Jesus. But there is evidence of an agricultural community. Pottery, a winepress and burial caves have borne witness to this period of habitation. In 2009 archaeologists revealed the remains of a stone -built house dating to the time of Jesus. It is estimated that Nazareth was a hamlet of about 50 houses during the first century.
First-century Nazareth and Bethlehem were the kind of locations that leave little evidence in the archaeological record. Little wealth means no monumental buildings and few coins or durable goods. However, new material continues to come to light. A discovery of an ancient bathhouse in 1993 may yet prove that Nazareth was more significant at the time of Jesus than previously thought.
Critics dismiss the Gospels because there is no evidence for the ‘cities’ of Nazareth or Bethlehem at the time of Jesus. This objection arises from a misunderstanding of the Greek word polis, often translated ‘town’ or even ‘city’ (Matthew 2.23; Luke 2.4). But what is the difference between a hamlet, village, town or city? A textbook on town planning would need a precision over words like village or town that need not apply elsewhere. Matthew and Luke are not using this term in some technical sense. Their concerns are not with town planning but with recording history.
There is no reason to doubt the existence of Bethlehem and Nazareth, but there is reason to think again if we imagine them as large, wealthy cities. The reason to think again is because of what the Bible itself says. Of Nazareth, Philip asked: ‘Can anything good come out of there?’ (John 1.46). Of Bethlehem, prophecy already indicated its obscurity at the time of Christ’s birth. As the New Living Translation puts it: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among the people of Judah’ (Micah 5.2). Jesus did not hail from a great city like London, New York or even Jerusalem, but from obscurity. Which leaves us the question, why do we still know so much more about this one man than his home towns? We don’t worship sacred sites, but we do worship an historical Saviour.
Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.
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