Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Other Bethlehem Outside Judea

TWH: You might have never heard this before, but there was another Bethlehem. This one in Galilee. We are of course most familiar with the Bethlehem in Judea. Why? Well, because the authors of two canonical Gospels specifically mention the geographical region of this township.
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his start in the east and have to worship him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea. For this is what has been written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of your shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'" (Matt. 2:1–6)
Matthew thrice references Judea/Judah when speaking of Bethlehem in Matt. 2:1–6. It seems pretty clear from the biblical account where Bethlehem was located. So what of this Bethlehem of Galilee? Well, think about this first: Are there townships in the United States with the same exact name? Think about Wilmington. There's one in North Carolina, one in Delaware, one in Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, etc. I haven't been to them all, but the one in North Carolina, up to this point in my travels, is by far my favorite. Just imagine how many places in the United States are named Washington, after the famous Revolutionary War general and first president of the Republic. Certainly there are towns with unique names, places such as Lizard Lick, North Carolina. Yes, that's really the name of a town in my beloved home state. Is there any indication that Bethlehem is one of those unique names in first century Israel? No. In fact, the text in Matthew might suggest the existence of another first century Bethlehem. And, whether it does or not, we have a record of the existence of another Bethlehem in Joshua, located in . . . the land of Zebulon . . . and where is Zebulon associated with? ––Galilee (e.g., see Isa. 9:1–2).

Well, the text itself may indicate that there was at least one other place in first century Israel called Bethlehem. Why do we say that? Because Matthew and Luke both reference Judea/Judah with Bethlehem. Luke's reference in chapter 2 seems more like a geographical reference to help his audience know to where Joseph and Mary traveled in the narrative. Matthew's use though is slightly different, and the most important for our consideration here. When Matthew says Jesus was born in "Bethlehem of Judea," we can understand this a couple of ways: (1) Matthew wants his audience to know that Bethlehem was in Judea so that they will connect his birth to the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7); (2) "Bethlehem of Judea" was a way in which people in the first century referred to this city, so as to distinguish it from the another Bethlehem located in a region outside of Judea (e.g., Bethlehem of Galilee). A third option is both were intended by Matthew.

We have a reference to Bethlehem in the land of Zebulon in Josh. 19:14. The other references to Bethlehem––with the possible exception of Bethlehem in Judges 12:8–10, which mentions Ibzan of Bethlehem––refer to Bethlehem of Judea/Judah. In fact, we find in the Old Testament the distinguishing phrase that Matthew uses (e.g., Ruth 1:1–2). The Bethlehem of Galilee was very near Nazareth, the Bethlehem of Judah very near Jerusalem.

So what all does this mean? What difference does it make? Well, to me it matters little in one sense: It doesn't have any merit at all as a possible alternative birthplace of Jesus. It's interesting to learn about other towns in Israel's history, in part because we sometimes glance over these details, especially when we read Old Testament texts (though we shouldn't do so, I admit). Others have called into question the veracity of the geographical region mentioned by Matthew and Luke in connection with Jesus' birth. I can understand it on one hand. We don't refer to Jesus as "Jesus of Bethlehem." We call him "Jesus of Nazareth." In fact, he called himself a member of this community. It was his home town (Mark 6:4). But as I discussed in the previous post (see here), Jesus probably discussed the place of his birth less than someone today might expect. While his birth in Judea was necessary in order for him to be the legitimate heir to the throne of David, he need not point to these prophecies on a regular basis to justify his messianic claims. Jesus was performing miracle after miracle after miracle, and, according to him, this, along with his proclamation of the good news, was ample demonstration that he was from God and the long awaited Messiah. For example, when the disciples of John the Baptist were sent by their teacher to inquire as to whether Jesus was the one all Israel had been waiting for, Jesus answered by quoting from Isa. 35:5 and 61:1: "Go and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." By the way, just a quick tangent . . . notice that Jesus mentions nothing about the prisoners being set free. Pretty interesting considering his answer was being sent to one who was locked up at the moment.

Inna Lazareva wrote an article for The Telegraph two years ago at this time. The title was "Israel's 'other Bethlehem': have Christians celebrated Jesus's birth in the wrong place all these years?" You can read it here. One of the archaeologists Lazareva quotes says the following about why he is convinced that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Galilee: "I have no doubts because the whole surroundings of Jesus’s life was the Galilee and the Kineret." Of course Jesus' ministry was not confined to Galilee. The couple of years were, with occasional trips to Jerusalem for festivals and religious observances. The last winter and spring were spent either heading to Jerusalem or within its borders. The same archeologist says it is unlikely that Mary could travel to Judea at this point in his pregnancy and then carry this child to a live birth. The travel would have disrupted her pregnancy in the most tragic way possible. The God who did all that we read in Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2 could certainly protect the child in Mary's womb for such a travel.

What does it mean if Jesus was not born in Bethlehem of Judea? Well, the Davidic promises cannot be associated with him. He would no longer be a valid consideration for heir of David's throne and Christians would need to turn their attention to someone else. But there is no evidence that really supports this claim that Jesus was born some eight miles from Nazareth. It might be more convenient, given the association of Nazareth with the life of Jesus, but the best option is still the traditional one: That Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.

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