Sr. Louise Zdunich


March 23, 2015

QuestionI was surprised recently to read a brief article that indicated we celebrate the wrong place for Jesus' birth as we read it in the Gospels with angels announcing his birth to the shepherds.


AnswerPrior to the Israelite monarchy, Bethlehem was the home of the Levites who acted as priests in Ephraim for Micah. It was Micah who predicted Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was destroyed in the second century.

In 325, Emperor Constantine's mother Helena had it rebuilt but it was badly damaged and rebuilt again in the sixth century. Bethlehem's greatest importance in the Old Testament was that it was David's family home and where he was anointed king.

Most Bible writers identified which Bethlehem they were speaking about to avoid confusion. They did this by mentioning nearby locations or by referring to the southern Bethlehem as Bethlehem of Judea or Bethlehem Ephrath (Ephrathah).

Bethlehem of Judea is located eight km south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. It was known as the "House of Bread" as food would have been plentiful there.

Celebrating the West Bank Bethlehem ties this region with Jewish history more than the Galilean rural area does.

The Galilean location, Bethlehem of Zebulum, is located 11 km northwest of Nazareth. This Bethlehem is known in Arabic as "House of Flesh." Its moderate climate resulted in fertile fields, groves and vineyards.

It is natural that the southern Bethlehem near Jerusalem would be designated as "of Judea" for this referred to ancient tribal territories as well as the Roman region called Judea. In Genesis 35.16-20, as she was dying, Rachel gave birth to her son Benjamin.

Rachel was buried on the way to Ephrath or Bethlehem. Thus Ephrath could be either a region in which Bethlehem was located or an alternate name for Bethlehem.

Reference to Ephrathites as being from Bethlehem, Judea is in Ruth 4.11: "May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem."

First Chronicles 2.51 says Salma, an Ephrathite, was the founder of Bethlehem. David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse who was from Bethlehem in Judea.

Anointed King over Israel, David was the most famous citizen of Bethlehem and he was called an Ephrathite.

He was a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz who were residents of Bethlehem. When Samuel was commissioned by God to appoint David as successor to King Saul, Samuel went to Bethlehem to anoint David.


The Galilean location, Bethlehem of Zebulon, currently Beit Lahm close to Nazareth, is the more likely birthplace of Jesus.

Jesus lived in Nazareth and much of his teaching was around the Sea of Galilee. Travelling to the Bethlehem in Galilee, located only 12 km away, could have taken a little less than three hours, making it a feasible trip for Mary who was about to give birth to Jesus.

A trip to the West Bank location would have taken almost two days, making it more difficult to arrive in Bethlehem without stopping for the birth.

Perhaps, the evangelists wanted to show the West Bank trip of Jesus and his mother as a reflection of Jesus' whole life.

This location would be symbolic of the arduous trip that Mary and Joseph had undertaken to get to their destination as it shows more clearly that Jesus' life from his birth to his crucifixion was his ultimate sacrifice given for us freely.


That suffering was predicted by Simeon at Jesus presentation in the Temple and exemplified when Jesus was "lost" in the Temple.

One cannot speak of Bethlehem without mentioning the star which guided the wise men from the East to find Jesus. The traditional site of the manger in which Jesus was laid is a cave under the great Church of the Nativity has the place of the manger marked by a star with the inscription in Latin: "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary."

This is the site visited frequently by those paying homage to this mighty king and Son of God who began life in such a lowly place.

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