I recently read a report prepared by an archaeologist from the Israeli Antiquities Authority which stated that Bethlehem could not have been occupied during the Herodian Period (the time of the birth of Jesus Christ) because no ruins or other archaeological evidence from that period had been found in or around Bethlehem. He did state that evidence of both earlier and later periods had been found, but that Herodian artifacts were completely absent. I am aware that Herod’s fortress palace, the Herodium, was only about 5 km distant from the site of the town itself, which would indicate to me that there were occupied settlements in the area. But what about Bethlehem itself? Is there archaeological evidence to support its’ occupation during the time of Christ’s birth? Thank you for your time and consideration.
Like I already said (note: see the previous question about Nazareth), I believe that the evidence for the occupation of Bethlehem Ephrathah in the first century is apparently not as strong, at least for now, as the evidence for the occupation of Nazareth. This situation may change in the future, but that would be speculation. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it should be noted that the evidence for the occupation of Bethlehem is less well supported by physical evidence in the first half of the first century AD.
In addition, another one of my arguments about Nazareth is weaker with regard to Bethlehem. What I mean by this is that Jesus was not know as the Bethlehemite and his followers were not known as Bethlehemites. This makes it somewhat less far fetched to believe it possible that the Bethlehem connection could have been invented later. I believe that a reasonable person might conclude that the southern Bethlehem may not have been occupied at the time Jesus was born. I do not believe this is the most likely conclusion, but it is not an irrational one (whereas only an extreme presupposition/bias would lead to the conclusion that Nazareth was not occupied).
I still believe that the evidence for Bethlehem Ephrathah being occupied in the first century is still fairly strong (even if it is not overwhelming). First of all, both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Skeptics can say what they want, but the New Testament is a remarkably reliable historical document. If Matthew says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then I believe he was. Matthew was certainly in a position to know. He knew Mary and Jesus’ brothers James and Jude. Matthew was in a vastly superior position to know whether Bethlehem was occupied in the first century. Writing in the first century, he clearly said that it was. I do not think Matthew is lying. Luke was a very careful historian, as proved by his great attention to detail and his consistent reliability whenever he can be checked.
Add to this, even if we are willing to believe that Matthew and Luke both conspired to lie about the birthplace of Jesus–a conclusion I think is not likely at all–would they invent the birth of Jesus in a town which did not even exist? I think not. What I am saying is that even if we can conclude that they lied about where Jesus was born, it is not reasonable to believe that they made up a birth in a place that every person in Judea knew did not even exist. They were not so foolish as to invent a story which was known by all to be patently false. Thoughtful liars make up believeable lies. I conclude from the fact that both Matthew and Luke report the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem that, at the absolute minimum the city did exist and it was at least populated at the time the gospels were written.
I also believe that they are not lying and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.