There are Two Bethlehems — In Which One was Jesus Born?

I received an email from one of my daughters the other day. She wrote, “Since riding a donkey when pregnant would have been so hard for Mary, do you think Jesus was born in the other Bethlehem, which is closer to Nazareth?” She was, of course, inquiring about the journey Joseph and Mary made just before Jesus’ birth.

Since she wrote instead of phoning, I figured she was at work and was having a discussion with someone about this biblical subject. Just knowing about a second town of Bethlehem in Israel would be impressive to many people, because that is not a well-known fact. And discussing such subject matter was impressive to me, for it lets me know she reflects upon biblical ideas and thoughts every day, not just once a week at a church service. Anyone who examines a map of Israel in detail may raise the same question as my daughter. Bethlehem of Galilee is in the north country, near Nazareth, while the other, Bethlehem of Judea, is much further south, near Jerusalem.

Here is a short version of the story preceding Jesus’ birth. The Roman emperor issued a decree that a census was to be taken throughout Rome and everyone needed to return to their ancestral town to be registered (Luke 2:1-3). Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Traveling to Bethlehem of Galilee (in the north) while pregnant and riding on a donkey would seem more logical, since it is a much shorter distance, then traveling the greater distance to Bethlehem of Judea.

Others have also thought of this possibility.

Not long ago, an archeologist, Aviram Oshri, had a similar thought. He was excavating in Bethlehem of Galilee, and said he found evidence, “which he believes show that the traditional account of Jesus’ birthplace may be wrong.” He found a “Byzantine-era church, with a cave hidden under the apse,1 as well as parts of a wall that may have circled the village and another two-story building that could have been an ancient khan or guesthouse. All would be from the period of Jesus’ life.”2

Thinking about the difference in travel time, Oshri stated, “How would a woman who is nine months pregnant travel 175 kilometers [108 miles] on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem of Judea? It makes much more sense that she would have traveled seven kilometers [4.4 miles].”3

Personally, I think he was fudging the distance a bit, for my research indicates the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem of Judea is really about 113 kilometers (70 miles).4 Besides, Mary and Joseph didn’t voluntarily choose to make this trip, they were commanded to do so, by the government.

Let’s face it, migrations necessary across large areas of land were never easy in the days before modern transportation, and pregnant women weren’t exempt from the hardships. It may not have been easy, but they made the trips anyway.

In the United States, where I live, pioneers settled the west of our country by crossing this vast land in wagons and on horseback, before any automation-like transportation was invented. Many were pregnant women and they went not tens or miles, or even hundreds of miles, but they had to transverse thousands of miles without any roads to travel upon. And they birthed babies along the way, too.

But, inaccurate distance and lack of understanding the necessities of travel long ago, are not the only things I found wrong with Oshri’s theory. Evidently he doesn’t know or understand scripture, because there are biblical reasons that indicate it was Bethlehem of Judea that was the birth site of our Lord. Even an article in The Times of Israel in Jerusalem stated, “when he produced his findings for his employer, the Israel Antiquities Authority, he found his proposal dismissed and called ‘worse than a joke’.”5

The Bible specifically states the city was Bethlehem of Judea. “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child” (Luke 2:4-5, NRSV).6 And in the Old Testament, there is a prophecy about Jesus being born in Bethlehem of Judea (also known as Bethlehem of Ephrathah).7

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days, (Micah 5:2).

Not only is this city of Bethlehem the birthplace of Jesus Christ, it is also the renowned City of David. “It was here in young David’s hometown that the prophet Samuel anointed him to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13).”8 Also, even earlier in biblical history, the first mention of Bethlehem of Ephrathah is in the first book of the Bible, as the burial site of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel.9 “So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem),” (Genesis 35:19). It was through this hereditary line that Jesus was born.

This mountainous early Canaanite settlement, some 2600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, has always been connected with the patriarchs. It is situated along an ancient caravan route and considered a melting pot of peoples and cultures.10

Did Mary ride on a donkey?

Now, what about that comment concerning a pregnant woman riding a donkey? “The Gospels do not specify whether Mary and Joseph walked or used a donkey for transportation.” Actually, there is no biblical account about what mode of transport was used.11

Although there is no mention of Mary using a donkey in the New Testament account, it was a popular way of traveling at that time. However, there were common hazards along major trade routes, so “most modern biblical scholars say that it is more likely that the Holy Family traveled in a caravan of people,”12

One author makes a good case for a caravan. “Mary and Joseph were not the only ones taking the journey. More than likely, the routes between cities were crowded with travelers [because of the census]. Nobody would consider taking a trip like this alone. It would not have been safe, as the territory between towns was not policed and bandits would have been a real concern. The people probably traveled in great caravans for convenience and safety. Mary and Joseph would have been amongst the vast migration of people.” Most caravans would have included individuals walking, as well as using camels, and accompanied by wagons pulled by other animals.

Nevertheless, I should mention this quote from an apocryphal gospel, from the 2nd century AD, that does mention Mary riding a donkey. This document is alleged to have been written by ‘James the Just’, the brother of Jesus. Though widely read, it was never accepted into the New Testament Canon.13 (For a full copy of this document online, see References & Notes at the end of the article.)14

And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judæa should be enrolled. And Joseph said: “I shall enroll my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enroll her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter.” “The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will.” And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed, (Protoevangelium of James, chapter 17).

Now the second Bethlehem, Bethlehem of Galilee, about 6.5 miles (10.5 km) northwest of Nazareth, was always a small community known for farming. This town was also known as Bethlehem of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15) and was the burial site of Ibzan15 (Judges 12:10), the tenth judge of ancient Israel.16 Today, the village is populated with less than one thousand people and is basically a moshav, which is a cooperative agriculture social group.17

There are a few other articles about Mary, the mother of Jesus, that you may be interested in reading: (1) “Puzzle Solved: Here is Jesus’ Birth Date, and the Day of Mary’s Conception, too”, (2) “Mary & Joseph — Mother & Foster-Father of Jesus”, and (3) “Jesus’ Mother was a Virgin — What? Is That Even Possible?” These articles are listed in References & Notes.18

There is something going on down in Bethlehem.

We know what happened in Bethlehem of Judea because of written knowledge after the fact, but to the people of the time, it was all a surprise. They didn’t know what to make of it and the truth of the event was slow to spread. This thought is reflected in the song selected to accompany this article.

The song is ‘Down in Bethlehem’, also known as ‘Something is Going on Down in Bethlehem’. This version is presented by Purdue University’s vocal music department,19 which was recorded at the 78th Annual Christmas Show in 2011. Selected lyrics are below and the music video is listed in References & Notes.20

There’s a rumor going around
With some shepherds
But the wise men say that it’s true
About a virgin conceiving
A plan God was weaving
To bring salvation to me and you

If all that what they’re saying is fact
That his mother had stopped to deliver
On the journey to be taxed
And they’re calling him the promised Messiah
They tell me that an angel foretold it
Something is going on down in Bethlehem

Copyright © 2021, Dr. Ray Hermann

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References & Notes

  1. apse: a large semicircular or polygonal recess with a domed roof, typically at a church’s eastern end; arch, vault.
    Oxford Concise Dictionary,12th edition, (UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. Steinberg, Jessica, “Was Jesus born in a different Bethlehem?” (The Times of Israel, 24 December 2014),
  3. Ibid.
  4. The straight distance is about 70 miles (112.6 km), but roads generally aren’t straight, so figuring an extra 10 miles (16.1 km), the trip would take almost 4 days. Because of pregnancy, maybe a day or two more.
  5. Steinberg, Jessica, “Was Jesus born in a different Bethlehem?” (see above).
  6. All scripture is taken from New Revised Standard Version Bible, Division of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1989. Used with permission.
  7. Fairchild, Mary, “Explore Biblical Bethlehem: The City of David and Birthplace of Jesus”, (Learn Religions, 14 September 2020),
  8. Ibid.
  9. Golding, Nechama, “Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel)”, (Chabad-Lubavitch Media, retrieved 30 May 2021),
  10. Fairchild, Mary, “Explore Biblical Bethlehem: The City of David and Birthplace of Jesus”, (see above).
  11. Koslaski, Philip, “Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem?” (Aleteia, 17 December 2020),
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Protoevangelion of James”, (Orthodox Wiki, 11 May 2016),
  14. “The Protoevangelium of James”, (New Advent, retrieved 27 May 2021),
  15. Knight, George, W., in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Chad Brand, et al., (Eds.), (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), p. 195.
  16. “Ancient Jewish History: Judges of Ancient Israel”, (Jewish Virtual Library, retrieved 2 June 2021),
  17. “Bethlehem”, (Christian Answers Bible Encyclopedia, retrieved 28 May 2021),
  18. (1) Hermann, Ray, “Puzzle Solved: Here is Jesus’ Birth Date, and the Date of Mary’s Conception, too.”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 17 December 2020),
    (2) Hermann, Ray, “Mary & Joseph — Mother & Foster-Father of Jesus”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 9 October 2020),
    (3) Hermann, Ray, “Jesus’ Mother was a Virgin — What? Is That Even Possible?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 1 October 2020),
  19. Purdue Musical Organizations: Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana USA has no school of music, but a vocal music department (begun in 1893) with six choral ensembles and one handbell choir. They perform over 100 shows each year, including the Purdue Christmas Show, where this event was recorded in 2011.
  20. “Down in Bethlehem”, Artist: Purdue Musical Organizations, recorded at the 78th Annual Christmas Show in 2011, (no album, author, licensing, or copyright listed; used under ‘fair use’ copyright for teaching under Section 107 of Copyright Act of 1976) – MUSIC VIDEO:
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25 thoughts on “There are Two Bethlehems — In Which One was Jesus Born?”

  1. It is possible that Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem in Galilee. If Herod had sent them to Bethlehem in Judah, they would have passed by Herod’s palace the Herodium. It is unlikely that Herod would have done this as it might have risked the wise men being too curious or even plundered the belongings.

    It is often assumed that their were three wise men riding on camels. This is a problem, because why would “he and all Jerusalem” be troubled about 3 old (?) men on camels. It is more likely that there may have been a dozen or more wise men riding on horses. That would have been very troubling and even terrifying! Three gifts of gold, etc. does not necessarily mean that there were only three donors.

    When they found the baby Jesus, they went into the “house” not the inn or the manger. So it is possible that the holy family had returned to Nazareth. Occasionally strong tradition is inaccurate.

  2. There is absolutely NO DOUBT that Yeshua was born in Bethlehem, the “city of David.” David was of the tribe of Judah; Bethlehem near Nazareth in Galilee was of the tribe of Zebulon. The shepherds whom the angels notified were tending the flocks that were raise and used for the sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. Any scholar, be they Jewish, Christian or secular who could say with a straight face that He was born near Nazareth is a bold-faced liar.

    There was a more important reason for going to Bethlehem for the tax; Jesus being born on the Feast of Trumpets, TGishri 1, Joseph was required to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. People who assert that Mary wouldn’t have been able to ride a donkey are inserting elements into the account that are never recorded. As Luke shows in his gospel, Joseph and Mary were poor people. Nowhere is it written they owned a donkey. They would have either have had to walk or hitch a ride with friends, if they had any. People likely would have been unkind to them since they would have looked upon Mary as an adulteress or fornicator. The idea that it wasn’t Bethlehem of Judah is spawned from the same location as replacement theology, calvinism and the serpent seed doctrine, the abyss.

  3. It would be easy to think all this was correct, but when you think of WHEN Roman Censuses were done- they were not done in the Winters, nor did and still today for shepherds, farmers etc keep their livestock out grazing in the Winters. Also, A Female if had to would ride a donkey, a cart etc to travel when pregnant in a “migration” but why would she do so in the Winter, when the POWER of ROME would not hold serious census AND 70+ miles in the Winter? And then to arrive as a family member of the house of David, in the city of DAVID and have nowhere to stay but in a barn/manger?

    All these REAL POINTS would not be an issue at all if Jesus was born in the Galilean Bethlehem. He was never termed Jesus of Judea, but was The Nazarene, Jesus of Galilee. Years and years I read how Luke “probably meant this and that” about a “census”- well all this conjecture lost me and the need to have such blind faith to a 2000-year-old “narrative” that 4 Canonized books cannot even agree with in their own Tellings completely lost me. There is plenty to believe in without trying to,… or needing to bridge all the mysteries created over time from lost/destroyed truth so as to believe in good.

    Perhaps if the early Christian churches were not so busy destroying documentations about Jesus and his followers, we’d all have the real picture of this very special man.

  4. I enjoyed reading this and I’m still trying to figure out what the true real Bible is that God wants Americans to follow. There are so many man-made bibles out here, that is scares me to think I won’t make it to heaven due to reading the wrong one, I was raised on the KJV all my life,

    Recently I been told we need to follow the New King James Version, where the word’s thou, Art, and many more have been removed from it. Scares me to think even the KJV to is not of God’s true words written into English for Americans to read.

    Please can someone help me with this issue, please, so I can feel relaxed to study the right one God commands us to read to be able to go to Heaven with Jesus. Please help me.

    Thank you much and God Bless. Also need to know about the Seventh Day Adventist Church, The Sabbath Church and if they are true followers of Jesus Christ. We are told they follow a lady named Ellen White and not Jesus. Please help us decide all this so we are not lost to Jesus and going to Heaven. Please help. Thank you from Robert and Irene Reese God Bless.

    • Irene & Robert, thank you for reading this article and for also taking the time to leave a public comment. Your questions are similar to many that I receive through private email. You are correct in stating that there are a lot of different Bible translations published and I will be happy to give you my personal opinion.

      First, I don’t think our Lord would hold it against someone using any of the English versions available, but I understand you would like to use one that is as accurate as possible, to the original languages used during biblical times. God is more interested in how we live our life, than which version of scripture we use.

      Although my library includes more than two dozen versions, I have a few favorites (which I change every now and then). Out of those, there are three I currently like and they are as follows. (1) The New King James Version (NKJV), which is very true to the older KJV, but is much easier to read. (2) The English Standard Version (ESV), which I feel is the most accurate to the original languages. (3) The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which I like the most, because it is very accurate and the translation is more friendly in speaking to women. I should mention a Bible favored by many Baptists; it is the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). I use their study versions for some research.

      I previously published an article that may help, as it sheds some light on various versions of the Bible. It is titled “Bible Versions – Why So Many?” and the link is:
      Also see The Outlaw Bible Student’s Bible Version Chart at:

      Now, about your last question, concerning Ellen Gould White. She was a very educated woman, a prolific writer, and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although a colorful and controversial person, I have read much of her work and she had a marvelous insight. I even republished some of her articles in the religious journal I edited back in the 1990s.

      I never thought that White was a replacement for Jesus or a substitute for scripture, but that the Adventist church thought she had spiritual messages which impacted many people for a better understanding of scripture. Although I don’t agree with everything the Seventh-day Adventist Church preaches, they do teach much truth.

      One way to find out if a particular church organization preaches the truth, is to listen to their sermons — then go home and check the Bible for the accuracy of what they taught. Do as the Bereans did, “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11, NRSV).

      I pray that this information will help in easing your mind. God Bless your continued faith in the Holy Bible and in our Savior, Jesus Christ.

    • I read your request tonight and it touched me. My faith, church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was restored to earth in 1830 because the Lord told our prophet Joseph Smith, that “none of the earths church’s were correct…they draw near to me with their mouth but their hearts are far from me’. Joseph was told to believe the Bible only as far as it was translated correctly because it had been changed so many times over time.

      He was also told to find golden plates that had been buried anciently with a true history of people who came here from Jerusalem in 600 bc. He translated those plates and they are called ‘the book of Mormon’ after the man who compiled them and buried them before he died. As a result, our church has been called Mormon since then, even tho that is incorrect. Even if you don’t believe the story, the book is absolutely fascinating. Archaeology is already proving that these words are true on three continents. The Book of Mormon clarifies many wrongly translated portions of the Bible but in our church we use them both as scripture. Joseph was trying to translate the Bible correctly when he was murdered with his brother by a mob.

      If any of this is interesting to you, even if no more than curiosity, you can write to me and I will help you get missionaries to you to answer any questions you may have. Or you could reach out to your local lds church and they will help you too. The missionaries are young people with good hearts and pleasant who would not make you feel pressured about this at all. They would visit you as you wish. You can text me at 702.845.1706. I hope I have not offended you with this answer to your call out for information. I too am interested in history and archaeology. I watched a program tonight that brought all this information about a second Bethlehem and found it amazing! I hope they can excavate and find proof. We went to Israel but were unable to go into Bethlehem because of trouble brewing. Such a troubled region. Take care. I hope to hear from you.

      • You are promoting Mormonism? A cult! The Bible is NOT incorrectly translated and the book of mormon, Pearl of Great price and doctrine and covenants are frauds.

    • There are no true scriptures. Moses and Eliyah will show up in Zion to teach the whole truth and salvation being available once again. This happens when the Papacy will make a 7 year Peace plan to end WW3 which is about to start at any time. Yahweh is the Messiah’s name, not Jesus Christ, a pagan lie.

  5. Very well done Ray! I had recently seen the TV show, “Expedition Unknown,” where Oshri was interviewed and the “Bethlehem of Galilee” was explored. Thanks for making plain the issues, and showing some common sense regarding how Mary got to Bethlehem.

    Another factor to take into account is that Mary & Joseph made this same journey 12 years later, with Jesus. No problema. Caravans, certainly, and perhaps carts pulled by donkeys?

    Oh, and thanks for the “new” song about Bethlehem. I’ve never heard of it. I’ll end with this: your writing is irenic and careful, yet also, inspiring; of good cheer. I’m sure I will revisit your “Outlaw-Christian-Fringe” in the future.

  6. it’s interesting but per the apocryphal, Joseph had a son already? i’m not sure if this is credible as the bible is silent on this and we know that Joseph and Mary did not consummate their marriage til after the LORD was born.
    i suppose it’s not impossible but again since the scriptures are silent on this one can only speculate.
    As i looked into this it appears that the apocryphal writing (130AD) may have been in some way to trying to keep the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

        • The Almighty set the standard for marriage as one man and one woman back in the book of Genesis, however humankind thought they knew better than God. He didn’t change his viewpoint, he never encouraged polygamy, but if a man did take more than one wife, God did set rules to help protect the women. And while polygamy was still practiced in early New Testament times, it was not supported by the new Christian church.

          Most likely, Joseph’s previous wife died or they were divorced, before he married Jesus’ mother, Mary.

          Jesus said, “a man shall . . . be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5, NRSV). Notice it does not say ‘three’ or ‘four’ or more shall become one flesh. And the apostle Paul said that deacons must be husbands with only one wife (1 Timothy 3:12). And Paul also said that apostles had the right to bring along a believing wife as they traveled, not bring along several wives (see 1 Corinthians 9:5).

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