Israel’s ‘other Bethlehem’: have Christians celebrated Jesus’s birth in the wrong place all these years?

A Christian worshipper is seen inside the Grotto, where Christians believe Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, at the Church of Nativity ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Wednesday. Ammar Awad/Reuters

Nobody pays much attention to Christmas in Bethlehem. There are no stalls selling toffee apples, no gaudy lights or decorations. Instead of a nativity play, posters advertise a pantomime by ‘Kofiko the monkey and friends.’

This is the small village of Bethlehem in the Galilee, located in northern Israel. And unlike the larger and better-known city of Bethlehem in the West Bank some 100 miles south, where thousands flock to to sing carols in Manger Square each year, there is not a single Christmas tree in sight.

Yet some insist that this patch of northern Israel is in fact the real place of Jesus’s birth. It is a claim that has provoked furious debate amongst archaeologists.

“I’m positive”, says archaeologist Aviram Oshri from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, when asked how sure he is that Christians have been paying homage in the wrong Bethlehem all these years.

“I have no doubts because the whole surroundings of Jesus’s life was the Galilee and the Kineret”, he says, referring to nearby areas of northern Israel, including the sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have walked on water.

Bethlehem in the Galilee is located just over eight miles away from Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived. With Mary nine months pregnant, they could have reached the Galilean Bethlehem in just under three hours. The Bethlehem in the West Bank would have taken almost two days of continuous travel by donkey to reach – something Dr Oshri considers implausible given Mary’s condition.

“Mary rode on top of the donkey at the end of her pregnancy – and I asked myself, what are the chances that the baby would still be alive if she rode all the way to Bethlehem in Judea [West Bank]?”, said Dr Oshri. “Zero. Whereas the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is possible”…