For centuries, Christians have been making the pilgrimage to Bethlehem to pay their respects to Jesus — except they may have been making a wrong turn.
According to NPR and the London Times, the son of Mary wasn't born in the little town of Bethlehem in Palestine's West Bank area. Instead, archaeologists think it's the little village called Bethlehem of the Galilee, about 100 miles north.
As if shifting a well-traveled holy route wouldn't be awkward enough, the United Nations just designated Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November — the first for Palestine. This year, AFP reported that an estimated 15,000 are visiting Bethlehem. People even pay homage online: Searches on Yahoo! have rise for "bethlehem" (+109%), "o little town of bethelem lyrics" (+50%), and "bethlehem israel" (off the charts) in the past day.
The hypothesis isn't a new one among scholars, and the Israeli Antiques Authority (IAA) has been talking about evidence unearthed in an excavation that may point to where the real manger lies. "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," IAA senior archaeologist Aviram Oshri explained to NPR, adding that West Bank's Bethlehem (also called Judea) didn't even have residents back in the first century.
Religious scholars have noted how the Bible refers to Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth." In 2008, the National Geographic points to a passage (John: 7:41-43) noting how his origins from Galilee counted against him.
Oshri wrote about how the evidence changed his mind for Archaeology magazine in 2005:
I had never before questioned the assumption that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. But in the early 1990s, as an archaeologist working for the IAA, I was contracted to perform some salvage excavations around building and infrastructure projects in a small rural community in the Galilee. When I started work, some of the people who lived around the site told me how Jesus was really born there, not in the south. Intrigued, I researched the archaeological evidence for Bethlehem in Judea at the time of Jesus and found nothing. This was very surprising, as Herodian remains should be the first thing one should find. What was even more surprising is what archaeologists had already uncovered and what I was to discover over the next 11 years of excavation at the small rural site--Bethlehem of Galilee.
The IAA stopped the excavations in 2006, citing a lack of funding; right now nobody's investing in any more digs at the Bethlehem of the Galilee. Oshri doesn't think any new evidence would change anything anyhow. "I don’t think it will make a difference to people,” Oshri told the London Times. “Christianity is leaning on the Old Testament, and in the Old Testament the Messiah should come from the house of David and Bethlehem near Jerusalem."