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Where Was Jesus Born? Exploring 10 Historical Truths

Where was Jesus born? Let’s journey back over 2,000 years to explore the place where Jesus the Messiah was born.

Jesus’ birth is literally the basis of the modern calendar that is used all over the world.[1] Currently, we are about to enter the year 2024. In many places the date is still abbreviated as A.D. based upon the Latin expression Anno Domini, which means “the year of our Lord” or, now, more commonly as C.E. (an abbreviation for “Common Era”). Everything before the birth of Jesus is considered B.C. (“Before Christ”) or, often now, B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”).

The calendar our world uses tells us that it has been roughly 2,024 years since his birth. But where was Jesus born?

Historically, Christians have believed that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Not everyone is convinced, however. Some skeptics doubt or disbelieve that he was born there or that he even existed as a historical person. Mormons believe he was born in Jerusalem, for the Book of Mormon states that “he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers” (Alma 7:10).

Yet there is good evidence that Jesus was a real person and that he was born in Bethlehem. Let’s review ten historical truths which provide support for the belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was an ancient town, still in existence, about five miles outside Jerusalem and located just inside the Palestinian West Bank.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bethlehem_Location.png)

In what follows, I will be drawing from the Bible, the work of historians/archaeologists, and my own personal explorations of the site in modern Bethlehem, which I have visited twelve times.[2]


“Bethlehem was an ancient town, still in existence, about five miles outside Jerusalem and located just inside the Palestinian West Bank.”


1. The Old Testament points us to the general area of Bethlehem.

The concept of the coming Messiah, described in the Old Testament, was based upon God’s promises to King David, who was himself from Bethlehem (see below). There are many prophecies given about the birth of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament. One of the earliest was given in Genesis 49 by Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob prophesied about the future birth of a Messiah (the scepter noted a king). He is the one that would receive the obedience of the nations.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.” (Genesis 49:10)[3]

When the tribes of Israel conquered the land of the Canaanites (many years after Jacob’s prophecy), the tribe of Judah was given the land around Bethlehem. Anyone born in Bethlehem would have been from the tribe of Judah. At the bottom of the following map of ancient Israel, you can see the area given Judah. Note Bethlehem at the top of Judah’s region, just south of Jerusalem.

(https://www.israel-a-history-of.com/12-tribes-of-israel.html)

David, son of Jesse, the second king of Israel, was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). He was from Bethlehem. God sent the prophet Samuel to select and anoint him at Bethlehem.

The event is described in 1 Samuel 16:1 when God told Samuel, “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” 1 Samuel 17: 12 explains, “Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah” (see also 1 Samuel 20:6).


“God sent the prophet Samuel to select and anoint him at Bethlehem.”


God was so pleased with David as a king, early in his reign, that God made a commitment to him that one of his descendants would be the Messiah. The promise to David is described in 2 Samuel 7:12-13:

“When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” 

Over four hundred years later, God described the Messiah in the book of Ezekiel. He referred to the Messiah as being “David” in Ezekiel 37:24-25.

“My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.”

With this background in mind, it is easy to anticipate that the Messiah, as a descendant of King David, who was from Bethlehem, would also be from Bethlehem.

2. The book of Micah explicitly prophesied (around 700 B.C.) that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The prophet Micah is explicit about the location for the birth of the Messiah. In the period before 700 B.C., there was great turmoil in Israel. The Northern tribes were defeated and the survivors taken off to Assyrian captivity in 721 B.C. The Southern tribes and Jerusalem felt threatened, and many wondered about God’s promises to their forefathers. Would the Messiah still come?

During this time God gave Micah a specific prophecy that in the future, the Messiah, like his ancient forefather David, would be born in Bethlehem.

“‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’ Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son . . .” (Micah 5:2-3)

This passage is so explicit and clear that in the time of Jesus, Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah was regularly assumed by the leading priests and scholars (see Matthew 2:1-5).


Where was Jesus born? “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”


3. Two of the Gospels explicitly state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

There are four Gospels in the New Testament. These are books that tell the life story of Jesus, from his early days through his death, resurrection, and ascension back to heaven at the end of his life on earth. They are biographies about Jesus (and more). Two of the Gospels are clear on where Jesus was born, as they are the two Gospels which narrate Jesus’ birth.

  • Matthew 2:1 states it succinctly: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod . . .”
  • Luke 2:4 includes Bethlehem as part of describing how Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, traveled to Bethlehem because of his lineage: “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

The Gospel of John also mentions Bethlehem in connection with Jesus’ birth. John 7:42 describes a question by someone perplexed that Jesus grew up in Galilee, up North, many miles from Bethlehem: “Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” As the Gospels of Matthew and Luke narrate, Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the South (Joseph’s ancestral home) because of a census but was raised in a small town called Nazareth in the North (in Joseph’s actual town).


Where was Jesus born? “Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”


4. Luke teaches that shepherds came to Bethlehem from fields nearby.

Although Bethlehem sits on the edge of a desert, there were good fields in the area outside the town for sheep to graze. Luke 2 describes how an angel came to shepherds in their fields at night to tell them about the birth of Jesus which had taken place “in the town of David” (2:11). Then a great company of angels appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:15 then states what happened next:

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”

The picture below is one of the key places shepherds watched sheep outside ancient Bethlehem. This particular site was marked from ancient times as the “Shepherd’s Field” and is now the home of a Greek Orthodox church. This field contains a tower that was used by shepherds as early as two thousand years before the time of Jesus’ birth.

Also nearby is a Roman Catholic area, under Franciscan custody, that also could have been the field where the angels appeared to the shepherds.

No one knows if one of these fields was the exact location described in the Bible, but one of them could have been. What is clear is that they are from the general area in which the angels appeared. These locations help us to visualize what it was like near Bethlehem when Jesus was born. They corroborate the general geographic and historical background to what Scripture teaches.


“These locations help us to visualize what it was like near Bethlehem when Jesus was born.”


5. The Magi followed a star to Bethlehem.

The Magi were considered wise men and would have consulted books of wisdom in the ancient world. By the first century, many Magi had thriving and complex astronomical systems through which they examined and interpreted the sky.[4] The Gospel of Matthew describes the Magi as men who came from somewhere in the East to honor the newborn king.[5]

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2)

The Magi were then sent to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Many attempts have been made to identify the star based upon astronomy going back through time. However, it may not be possible to find an exact astronomical event or alignment because ancient Magi likely used various types of calculations like geography and weather which are not reflected in the modern science of astronomy.


Where was Jesus born? “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?'”


When looking to Bethlehem from the Shepherd’s Field or on the way to Bethlehem from other areas, it is easy to have your attention drawn up to the sky because you typically look up to the town from the bottom of the hills that lead up to it (especially as you get closer). When they looked up to Bethlehem, could the Magi have witnessed a constellation that signified a specific location? Could they have looked up and seen a comet move through the sky (comets were called stars in the first century)? We do not know exactly what happened, but the Gospel of Matthew tells us that something happened in the stars.

6. King Herod looked for Jesus in Bethlehem—and slaughtered male children there.

The Magi first traveled to see King Herod in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:3). Herod then called together “all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law [and] asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written,’” according to Micah 5:2-3.

But Herod was duplicitous, according to Matthew 2:7-8:

“He contacted the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’”

Herod was evil and a notoriously paranoid ruler. When the Magi failed to return and report the child’s whereabouts, Herod then tried to kill the baby Jesus by killing all the male boys in Bethlehem, ages two and under (Matthew 2:16).


“He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'”


The description of Herod from Matthew fits the man who is well-known to us not only by written historical records (extra-biblical), but also from the buildings he left behind. A great builder, Herod designed many palaces, and the remnants of some of the palaces are still in existence. For example, just outside of Bethlehem is his palace called Herodium. The following picture shows the location; it was a mini-mountain that he turned into a palace.

(Herod’s Herodium Palace today)

Herod stands out as a ruler in history so prideful, self-centered, and easily threatened that he missed the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the most important ruler ever born in history.

7. The earliest writers after the New Testament tell us that Jesus was placed in a manger in a cave in Bethlehem.

The Old Testament and Gospels point clearly to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah. Then, in early church history, various Christian writers tell us about the place in Bethlehem where he was born.

Luke 2:7 describes that Mary wrapped Jesus in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. The Greek word translated “guest room” in versions of the English Bible is kataluma. This word could mean a guest room or an extra space which was used as a guest room.

Archaeologists tell us that Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was a small village. It is very unlikely that there was a commercial inn of any kind. Instead, Joseph probably turned up at the home of his family or his extended family, but because the home was crowded and there was no private place for Mary to give birth, they camped out in the stable.


Where was Jesus born? “Joseph probably turned up at the home of his family or his extended family, but because the home was crowded and there was no private place for Mary to give birth, they camped out in the stable.”


Luke 2:7 tells us that Mary “wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger.” Mangers kept food for the animals, and most mangers were made of stone in the first century.

(https://biblicalisraeltours.com/2014/12/the-manger/)

In addition to being made of stone, mangers were also often kept in caves turned into stables for animals. That is right; most Israelites in small towns in the first century kept their animals in caves. Archaeologist Jim Flemming describes it this way: “The Gospels do not mention the word ‘stable.’ They simply say the baby was laid in a manger. Almost all mangers were in caves.”[6]

The early Christian writer and defender of the faith Justin Martyr (100–165 A.D.) writes that when Joseph could not find room at the inn, “He moved into a certain cave near the village, and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger.”[7] There is good reason to believe this information to be accurate and to come from a specific tradition in the area of Bethlehem, as Justin was born about 40 miles to the north of Bethlehem (near modern Nablus), and he would likely know that early tradition.

(https://dwightlongenecker.com/the-cave-of-our-re-birth/)

The tradition of Jesus’ birth in a cave was also known independently to the anonymous second-century A.D. author of the Protoevangelium of James. According to this noncanonical gospel, Joseph and a pregnant Mary were traveling to Bethlehem when Mary cried, “‘Take me down from the donkey, for the child within me presses me, to come forth.’ Joseph asked, ‘Where shall I take you and hide your shame? For the place is a desert.’ Joseph guided Mary into a nearby cave, where she gave birth. Later, a brilliant star directed the Magi to the cave.”[8]


Where was Jesus born? “The tradition of Jesus’ birth in a cave was also known independently to the anonymous second-century A.D. author of the Protoevangelium of James.”


8. The early residences of Bethlehem marked the spot.

Jesus’ birth in a cave in Bethlehem is the earliest tradition, and it is likely that the earliest inhabitants of Bethlehem marked the location. The cave became the focus of pilgrimages of early Christians, as confirmed by the early church father Origen (A.D. 185–254). He reports that “there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he [Jesus] was born.”[9] The cave, it appears, attracted regular visitors, including the church father Origen himself sometime between A.D. 231 and 246.

It is hard to imagine that people simply invented the cave tradition, particularly because, as there is reason to suspect, the cave was not always accessible to Christians in the days of Justin and Origen. It is very interesting to find that the church father Jerome (A.D. 342–420), who lived in Bethlehem from A.D. 386 until his death, describes how the cave had been converted into a shrine dedicated to the pagan god Adonis:

“From Hadrian’s time [A.D. 135] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years…Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth’s, most sacred spot…was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz, which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”[10]

A similar thing happened in Jerusalem over the areas where Jesus was crucified and buried. It appears that the Romans, in their attempts to stop Christians from worshipping at the place of Christ’s birth and death, erected places of pagan worship.


“The cave became the focus of pilgrimages of early Christians, as confirmed by the early church father Origen.”


Local Christians in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem were not permitted to worship regularly at these locations because the Romans had converted the special areas of Jesus’ birth and death into pagan shrines. Yet, as we will see below, by trying to undermine Christian history, the Roman authorities helped preserve the original sites.

The Christians in the area did not simply select another site. The birth cave was noted and held in special regard. They were bound to a specific cave.[11] The evidence suggests that they preserved the local memory of the exact location for almost 200 years.

9. The oldest continually used church building in history is in Bethlehem marking the spot.

Many of the major sites from the life of Jesus were made into church buildings when Christianity was first legalized (in the early 300s). Constantine, the Roman emperor at the time, became a Christian and made Christianity legal. Helena was Constantine’s mother and an important person to note as we retrace the steps of Jesus. She helped her son embrace Christianity, and then used her power to ensure that this new faith spread. When her son made Christianity legal, she traveled to the land of ancient Israel.

There, with the support of Roman Empire officials, Helena helped organize the construction of three church buildings at locations from the life of Jesus that had been identified and revered by the earliest Christians: the locations of his birth, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. These actions are wonderful gifts to us because the church buildings became permanent markers, ensuring that people through the centuries would know the precise locations of these events from Jesus’ life.

The church building called The Church of the Nativity was originally commissioned after Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in A.D. 325-326, over the cave at the site that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. That original basilica was likely built between A.D. 330 and 333 and was dedicated on May 31, 339.[12]


Where was Jesus born? “The church building called The Church of the Nativity was originally commissioned after Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in A.D. 325-326, over the cave at the site that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus.”


The building has been continually used since the 300s to this day. You can see the outside of the building in a picture that I took below.

Inside the church building, you will find places where the original floors from the 300s are still visible, as in the picture that I took below.

10. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built over a specific cave.

The Church of the Nativity, built in Bethlehem in the 300s, was built over a specific cave. This was also the location where Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, likely built a pagan temple to stop Christians from making pilgrimages to this location to worship. The pagan temple was removed, and it became a place where Christians once again gathered to worship. In his attempt to stop Christians from worshipping at the spot, Hadrian provided future Christians with direction to the historical spot.

Let’s be clear that Scripture does not teach us to honor this archaeological location. And the history for the location of the cave is not failsafe. Yet the historical evidence is strong. You can travel to Bethlehem, as I have done on twelve different occasions, and enter a church building that marks the likely place of Jesus’ birth.


“In his attempt to stop Christians from worshipping at the spot, Hadrian provided future Christians with direction to the historical spot.”


Once inside the church building, visitors travel to the far end of the building where they find an entrance to the ancient cave. Visitors and worshippers must bend down to enter the cave. The picture I took below shows you the steps down into the cave.

You can follow the steps down into the cave and you’ll see a stone marker inside the cave. The stone marker has a star within it that marks the traditional spot where the manger may have been placed. No one knows for sure.

***

At Christmastime, when we remember the birth of Jesus, we can know that he was born in a historic town we can still visit: Bethlehem. We know it because of the Old Testament promises, especially Micah 5:2-3 which tell us that the Messiah will be born there. The New Testament is also explicit that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and it describes shepherds and wise men coming to worship him there. The earliest Christians after the New Testament noted that he was born in a cave in Bethlehem, and that cave, from the earliest days, was marked. By the early 300s, The Church of the Nativity was built over the cave, which is still intact to this day.


“At Christmastime, when we remember the birth of Jesus, we can know that he was born in a historic town we can still visit: Bethlehem.”


Thus, Christmas provides a needed reminder that our faith is not in a God who remains distant and aloof, but in a God who entered human history, becoming one of us in order to restore us to himself.


[1] The modern calendar was developed by Dionysius Exiguus in 525 C.E. He sought to establish a calendar based upon the year Jesus was born. Merrill Fabry, Now You Know: When Did People Start Saying That the Year Was ‘A.D.’?, Time, August 31, 2016, https://time.com/4462775/bc-ad-dating-history/accessed July 4, 2021.

[2] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Where Was Jesus Born? Bethlehem…Of Course, Bible Review, Feb 2000, 40-45, 50.

[3] All Scripture references are in NIV.

[4] Nathan Steinmeyer, What Was the Star of Bethlehem? Bible History Daily, Dec 20, 2023

[5] Bryan Windle, “Who Were the Magi?” Bible Archaeology Report, Dec., 22, 2022

[6] James W. Fleming, Turning Points in the Life of Jesus (Biblical Resources, LaGrange, GA: 1999).

[7] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 78.6.

[8] Protoevangelium of James 17–21, quoted in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, Gospels and Related Writings, rev. ed., English trans. ed. by R. McWilson (Tübingen: Mohr, 1990; Cambridge, UK: James Clark & Co. and Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1991), pp. 433–435.

[9] Origen, Contra Celsum 1.51.

[10] Jerome, Epistle 58.

[11] For the location of the cave in the first-century town, see Shemaryahu Gutman and A. Berman, “Bethléem,” Revue biblique 77 (1970), pp. 583–585. The excavation of the cave is reported by Benjamin Baggati, “Recenti Scavi a Betlemme,” Liber Annuus 18 (1968), pp. 181–237.

[12] Nathan Steinmeyer, “OnSite: Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity” The Biblical Archaeological Society, December 19, 2022

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