DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Bethlehem last night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They gathered at the Church of the Nativity and stood in long lines to see the grotto that is thought to be where Jesus was born. Just this year, the church was deemed a U.N. World Heritage Site and Christmas is the event of the year in the West Bank town. But Israeli archaeologists say they have strong evidence that Christ was born in a different Bethlehem, a small village in the Galilee. Sheera Frankel reports.
SHEERA FRANKEL, BYLINE: One hundred miles north of where the pilgrims gathered, shepherds still guide their flocks through green unspoiled hills and few give notice to the tucked-away village with the odd sounding name: Bethlehem of the Galilee. Except for archaeologists, who have excavated there. They say there is ample evidence that this Bethlehem is the Bethlehem of Christ's birth.
AVIRAM OSHRI: I think the genuine site of nativity is here, rather then in the other Bethlehem near Jerusalem.
FRANKEL: That's Aviram Oshri, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who has excavated here extensively. He stands on the side of a road that now cuts through the entrance to the village. It was the construction of this road that led to the discovery of the first evidence that Bethlehem of the Galilee may have had a special place in history.
OSHRI: It was inhabited by Jews. And I know it was Jews because we found the remnants of an industry of stone vessels, and it was used only by Jews and only in the period of Jesus.
FRANKEL: Aviram also found artifacts which showed that a few centuries later the community had become Christians and had built a large and ornate church. He says there is significant evidence that in early Christianity this Bethlehem was celebrated as the birthplace of Christ. The emperor Justinian boasted of building a fortification wall around the village to protect it. The ruins of that wall, says Oshri, still circle parts of the Galilee village today. He thinks that many early scholars would have concluded that this Bethlehem was the birthplace of Christ.
OSHRI: And 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 seven kilometers, rather then the other Bethlehem which is 150 kilometers.
FRANKEL: He adds that there is evidence that the other Bethlehem in the West Bank, or what Israelis call Judea, was not even inhabited in the first century.
Paula Fredriksen, an American scholar of the historical Jesus, says that early Christianity only started to pay attention to the Judean Bethlehem in the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
According to the Old Testament, Judean Bethlehem was the city of David, where the future messiah would be born. Fredriksen says that it would make sense for early Christianity to focus on that Bethlehem.
PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The Bethlehem that's the only Bethlehem that matters for the tradition is David's Bethlehem. And David's Bethlehem quite specifically is in Judea.
FRANKEL: Oshri draws similar conclusions. He says that for devout Christians, the story of Jesus and his birth is inextricably linked to the internationally known city of Bethlehem.
How do you think Christians would react to finding out that Bethlehem that they thought about...
OSHRI: ...is wrong? I don't think it will have any influence. The tradition is one thing. People will go on believing. And I can understand it.
FRANKEL: For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frankel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM")
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.