Was Jesus Born in a Barn in Bethlehem

By: Dr. John Ankerberg; ©2012
The questions: Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Was He really born in a barn? In answer to these question, we’re posting an excerpt from a television series we did several years ago. This except also addresses the question of the census and the timing of Jesus’ birth.

Was Jesus Born in A Barn in Bethlehem?

Dr. John Ankerberg: Matthew states: Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king [Matt. 2:1]. Luke writes, “Joseph also went up from Galilee from the city of Nazareth to Judea to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,” and then he tells us this is where Mary gave birth to her firstborn son [Luke 2:4-7].

Soon, millions of people around the world will celebrate Christmas, and look to Bethlehem as the place where Jesus was born. But some scholars cast doubt on whether Jesus was ever born there. They claim the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem does not mark the place where he was born. So we will travel to the city of Bethlehem to investigate that question. We talked with Jewish archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay, who was awarded the distinguished prize for archaeology in Israel. We asked him what archaeologists have discovered about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the site upon which it sits.

Dr. Gabriel Barkay: Following the Six Days War some archeologists have studied the site of the Church of Nativity and found out that it is right on top of the ancient mound or ancient tel of early Bethlehem. Bethlehem of First Temple Period of the Davidic Dynasty’s time, and Bethlehem of the time of Jesus, was built right on the site where today the complex of the Church of Nativity is built. Excavations by the Italian scholar, the late Father Bellarmino Bagatti revealed under the complex of the church a series of caves. Most of the caves were dwellings of antiquity. So it is very much plausible that we deal in the case of the Church of Nativity where the real site which existed in the time of Jesus.

Ankerberg: Now, if you enter into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the guide will take you down some stairs and show you a cave. Archaeologists have discovered that at the time of Jesus, people in Bethlehem built their houses to make provision for the occasional guest. Most homes were multi-leveled. They had a lower room or cellar that was usually used as a storeroom. In areas like Bethlehem, where there were caves, a cave beneath the house or in back of the house would be used as a storeroom for food or supplies. It could also be a place where the family animals would be fed and sheltered at night; they would be protected from the cold, thieves and predators.

When Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, made the journey to Bethlehem, they were returning to his ancestral home, the place from which his family originated and where undoubtedly some relatives still lived. In Jewish society in Jesus’ day, the family was made up of an extended group of people with a patriarch at the head. Married children and their children usually lived with or near the father and mother. Relatives from other towns were welcomed by the patriarch and brought under his protection during their stay in his village.

Dr. Hillel Geva is an archaeologist who has worked on some of the most important archaeological excavations in Jerusalem since 1967 and is editor of the leading Hebrew journal on biblical archaeology. Here is an example of a rich man’s house that was excavated in Jerusalem that had two or three guest rooms.

Dr. Hillel Geva: We are in a house from first century AD, one of the largest buildings that were uncovered in the Jewish quarter. This is a model of the house we are in. Where we are sitting now is the courtyard: all paved, square, surrounded by many, many rooms. The living rooms are here, two or three stories high, mosaic floors, wall painting, stone tables, very wealthy construction of those days. Here down below, courtyard surrounded by the service wings, where the servants used to live, washrooms, ritual baths; and all kind of storerooms also were down here in this wing.

Ankerberg: Notice, in a wealthier home like this, a third room or even a fourth room would be added for guests and for entertaining. The word for guestroom is the Greek word kataluma. It is also sometimes translated inn. Luke used this word in the Christmas Story in chapter 2 when he wrote: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the kataluma, the guestroom, the inn” [Luke 2:7]. Here, Luke is probably referring to the third room, the guestroom, in the family home in Bethlehem.

Kataluma is the same word used by Luke in chapter 22 to refer to the upper room where Jesus had the Last Supper. It, too, was a guestroom in a home. Luke uses a different word in the Parable of the Good Samaritan to describe the inn where the Good Samaritan took the man who was robbed. These facts may shed new light on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.

Dr. Claire Pfann is a faculty member at the Center for the Study of Early Christianity and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of the Holy Land. She is an expert on Jewish birth practices and the culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus. I asked her to summarize some of the information found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke concerning the birth of Jesus.

Dr. Claire Pfann: Now, they don’t have a lot of information to tell about Jesus’ childhood or infancy; with just two chapters they could hardly cover 30 years. However, they do share at least 12 very important items in common, including the names of his parents, Joseph and Mary, the fact that He’s descended from the house of David, the fact that His conception was divine, that there was an angelic announcement concerning His conception, the choice of the name Jesus before His birth is shared by both Matthew and Luke, as well as the birth at Bethlehem and the subsequent move of His family to Nazareth. So they have a skeletal amount of information that they share in common about the infancy and childhood of Jesus, and they present it in their infancy narratives.

Ankerberg: Do we know when Jesus was born?

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi: We have a good idea. Josephus tells us that there occurred an eclipse in the spring of 4 BC when Herod died and we know that Jesus was born when Herod was still alive.

Ankerberg: Historians think Jesus was born before April of 4 BC. Why? Evidence from Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5 tell us Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still living. Herod died while Jesus was less than two years old, according to Matthew 2:15. Historians have calculated Herod’s death happened in 4 BC. They’ve done so on the basis of Romans records and the writings of Josephus where he tells about an eclipse of the moon that occurred the year Herod died. That eclipse has been dated as happening about March 12 of 4 BC. Further, Josephus tells us that the Passover that year occurred soon after Herod’s son Archelaus assumed the kingship. Historians know the Passover occurred on April 17 of 4 BC. Therefore, when you put all these facts together, since Jesus was born shortly before Herod’s death, he must have been born before April 4 BC or possibly a short time before that in 5 BC.

But what about the census under Quirinius? For those who believe that the gospels are accurate historical records of Jesus’ life, one of the most difficult problems in the New Testament is the census Luke presents in Luke 2. Luke writes: “Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child” [Luke 2:1-4].

So, Luke tells us Augustus took a census before Jesus was born, and this was the reason Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem. However, critics say there are five reasons why Luke’s account is historically incorrect. First, there is no known evidence of an empire wide census in the reign of Augustus. If it occurred, wouldn’t it be mentioned by one or another of the ancient historians who recorded this period? Second, in a Roman census, Joseph would not have been required to travel to Bethlehem and he would not have been required to take Mary with him. Third, a Roman census could not have been carried out in Herod’s kingdom while Herod was still alive. Fourth, Josephus records a lot about Herod but does not mention a Roman census in Palestine. Fifth, Quirinius was not appointed governor of Syria and Judea until AD 6, many years after Jesus was born.

In light of these facts, did Luke make vast historical errors in his chronology of events? All of this continues to be brought up by many critical scholars today.

Yamauchi: Quirinius, we know, was governor leader in AD 6 when there was a census and there was a revolt led by a man called Judas of Galilee. And there are several proposed solutions to this well known problem. One solution, of course, is that Luke was clearly in error here; that he didn’t have correct information. Yet Luke is the most careful of all the Gospel writers to try to correlate events in Judea with Roman events. He knows that Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus; that Jesus began His ministry in the reign of Tiberius and so forth.

Ankerberg: Let’s answer some of these objections. When Luke states that a decree from Caesar Augustus went out that all the world should be taxed, was he talking about just one empire wide census? No, according to Roman historian A. N. Sherwin White. The censuses were taken in different provinces over a period of time. But Caesar Augustus was the first one in history to order a census or tax assessment of the whole provincial empire. Luke uses the present tense to indicate that Augustus ordered censuses to be taken regularly throughout the empire rather than only one time.

Second, papyri collected in Egypt have shown that the Romans undertook periodic censuses throughout their empire. In Roman Egypt, for example, from AD 33 until 257 AD, 258 different censuses were taken at 14-year intervals. This evidence has been known for a number of years, and substantiates Luke’s reference to Augustus’ census, but it seems to work against the Lucan account in terms of the year when Jesus was born. Why? Because the 14-year intervals do not intersect with the year of Jesus’ birth in 4 BC. But concerning that problem, the newly published Dictionary of New Testament Background states: “Evidence indicates that Egyptian censuses were taken at 7 year intervals during the reign of Augustus and can be established with indirect and direct evidence for the years of 11-10 BC, 4-3 BC, AD 4-5, and AD 11-12.” This information is based on documentation presented in The Demography of Roman Egypt by Bagnell and Friar, a book published by Cambridge University Press in 1994.

Third, there are other reasons to believe a census was taken by Caesar Augustus in 4 or 5 BC. Augustus knew of Herod’s paranoia. Herod frequently changed his will and then would kill the family member he had put in charge if he were to die. Each time he changed his will and the one who would succeed him, he had to get permission from the Roman emperor to do so. So, Emperor Augustus knew what was happening in Palestine. It is very reasonable to assume that Augustus, anticipating the problems that would come about when Herod died, would want to take a census of Herod’s territory and might well have extended the Egyptian census of 4-3 BC or performed something like it in Judea. The mentioning of the census in Luke 2:1 is the only historical reference of this census from antiquity, yet it rests on a plausible reconstruction of events.

Yamauchi: So again, this is a case where we do have something recorded in the New Testament which is not directly correlated by extra-biblical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it did not happen however. Because there are many things that occur only in a given text without corroborative evidence of other texts or inscriptions.

Ankerberg: But what about Luke’s statement, “this was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria”? When Luke says this was the first census that took place under Quirinius, the Greek word prote, usually translated “first”, according to some Greek scholars can also be translated “prior”. If that is Luke’s meaning, then he would be referring to a census taken prior to the one taken when Quirinius was governor in 6 AD. Is it possible that a prior census was taken, or even taken by Quirinius himself?

Well, historians know that Quirinius had a government assignment in Syria between 12 BC-2 BC. He was responsible for reducing the number of rebellious mountaineers in the highlands of Pisidia. As such, he was a highly placed military figure in the Near East and highly trusted by Emperor Caesar Augustus. Augustus, knowing of the turmoil in Herod the Great’s territory, may well have put his trusted friend Quirinius in charge of a census enrollment in the region of Syria just before the end of Herod’s life. The time period from 7 to 6 BC also coincides with the transition period between the rule of the two legates of Syria: Saturninus from 9 to 6 BC and Varus from 7 to 4 BC. The transition of power between these two men took place between 7 to 6 BC, and Augustus again may have appointed his friend Quirinius to step in and conduct a census taxation when he could not trust anyone else. Again, Luke’s statement has a plausible foundation in history.

Yamauchi: Probably the best explanation might be trying to interpret the Greek text to indicate that this was a first census prior to the later census.

Ankerberg: Next, what about the criticism that in a Roman census Joseph would not have been required to travel to Bethlehem, and he would not have been required to bring Mary with him? Well, now historians have found that in AD 104, Vivius Maximus issued an edict that states, “It is essential for all people to return to their homes for the census.” This indicates it was plausible for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem as Luke indicates. In fact, it is just one of the many reasons scholars have found why Mary would have needed to go with Joseph on his trip to Bethlehem. Claire Pfann suggests another.

Claire Pfann: I think that we find a few basic presuppositions that are just our own modern skepticism and really don’t deal with the reality of the fact that, if Joseph and Mary had come to live together as a married couple at this point, why on earth would he leave her at home when he faced a prolonged absence, waiting for the census to be accomplished?

Ankerberg: Then, what can be said to those who say a Roman census could not have been carried out in Herod’s kingdom while Herod was alive? This is simply not true. Records have now been found that show the emperor did take censuses in vassal kingdoms like Herod’s. In fact, when Herod died, his domain was divided among his three sons, and Augustus ordered that taxes be reduced in the territory of one of his sons. It proves the Roman emperor was not afraid to intervene in one of his vassal kingdoms.

Further, it is now known that in 8-7 BC Herod came into disfavor with Augustus and was thereafter treated as a subject rather than a friend. It resulted in Herod’s autonomy being taken away from him.

Third, historians have also discovered that the people of Herod’s domain took an oath of allegiance not just to Herod, but to both Augustus and Herod, which proves there was a greater involvement of Augustus in Herod’s realm. Finally, Luke’s account points to a census taken before Herod the Great’s death and the division of his kingdom. Why? It would have been highly implausible to think that after Herod’s kingdom had been divided between his three sons in 4 BC that people in Nazareth under Herod Antipas would have traveled to Bethlehem, the territory belonging to Archelaus for purposes of taxation. It makes more sense that such traveling would have been done when all the territories were under Herod’s rule himself and Augustus called for an overall census.

So, since it has been proved that Augustus had taken censuses in other vassal kingdoms, and since Herod had come into the emperor’s disfavor, and since Herod was having troubles in his own realm with his sons, it is more than probable that Augustus would have wanted to conduct his own census, assessing Herod’s kingdom, while Herod was still alive. And this is exactly what Luke recorded.

Claire Pfann: Well, I think I would say the things I’m certain about concerning the birth of Jesus are certainly the things that both Matthew and Luke share in common and tell us. He was born of the family of David. He was born to a woman named Mary who was a virgin, betrothed or engaged to a man named Joseph, and yet who had not yet come to live with him. His birth was announced through an angelic visitation. His conception was unique and divine in human history. His birth took place in Bethlehem. It was accompanied by unique signs. And the family later moved to Nazareth and made their home there.

Ankerberg: Were the Gospels written so long afterwards that the Gospel writers could get away with bringing in something that was completely fictitious like a virgin birth and nobody else knew about it?

Claire Pfann: If anything, they wanted to protect against forgeries and falsehoods. Clearly, something was so extraordinary and unique about Jesus that, from the beginning, His disciples were willing to risk persecution, martyrdom and death in order to spread His message. There was something extraordinary about Him, and that extraordinary aspect extended all the way back to His conception.

Ankerberg: So whenever you hear some critical scholars claim that the events surrounding the story of the Nativity are not true, remember there is a lot of historical and archaeological evidence that undergirds and validates the information given in the Gospels about when and where Jesus was born.

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