It is Christmas time. Time for holiday events, Christmas trees, gifts, etc. It is also the season to get asked the question, "What is the archaeological evidence for the birth of Jesus?"
This question has been especially prevalent this year because of all the publicity and hype surrounding the "lost gospels" of Jesus and the "lost tombs" of Jesus. Herod the Great's tomb recently was found at the Herodium just outside of Bethlehem. Jesus is a major figure in history and it is natural to want to do an article on the historical background, and specifically the archaeological evidence for the birth of Jesus.
Truth be told — while there are plenty of archeological proofs about the life and ministry of Christ — there are no artifacts evidencing His birth.
There are many archaeological finds that affirm the historicity of the biblical texts, so surely there must be something archaeological connected with the Christmas event, some people believe. Many have gone on Holy Land tours and have been taken to the Church of the Nativity and out to the shepherd's fields, and while there is occupational history that dates to the time of Jesus, there is no house, field or stone that can be archaeologically associated with Jesus. My audience assures me that we just have not found it yet. A little more activity with the spade of the archaeologist and we should find something that can be tied to the Christmas event. Archaeologists have found many things to verify the events of the story: a first-century A.D. house and villages, geo-political situation of the census, taxes, Roman rule, relationships between the city and countryside, regional variations between Galilee and the Judean region, etc.
It is difficult to find archaeological evidence for any particular individual in history. Americans are spoiled because they go to museums and see the false teeth of George Washington, personal letters from great men and women of history, and even visit the childhood homes of Hollywood stars. Naturally we expect to have the same evidence for persons in ancient History. Archaeologists look at the material culture of society — basically the garbage, what is left over and is of no value. These material correlates of society further disappear with erosion and decay throughout the centuries. Those historical events that we do find are usually the activities of kings and conquests. Kings send their military to conquer the land and the evidence of this destruction of battles is found by the archaeologists. Kings build temples and palaces. They change the landscape and construct roads. Archaeologists tend to find the evidence of kings.
When it comes to the archaeology of Christmas there is an abundance of archaeological evidence for Herod the Great. We have Caesarea maritime where he built a man-made harbor. We have Samaria-Sebaste where even today visitors can walk the colonnaded street. We have more than 20 major cities and fortresses built by Herod; the most famous is Masada. Just southeast of Bethlehem is the mountain fortress of Herodium where archaeologists recently found what they think is Herod's tomb. This is to be expected, since kings of ancient history leave their mark in the archaeological record. Peasants tend to be mute in the record; we know they are there — we excavate their homes and villages — but we cannot identify them individually. That is why we locate numerous finds from King Herod's kingdom but not a single artifact from the King's manger.
Archaeologists find the material remains of human activity. It is usually only the elite of society who leave their individual mark in the archaeological record. The lack of archaeological evidence for the birth of Jesus makes a statement about the incarnation. Jesus did not come as any other ruler of this world would come. His kingdom was not one constructed of palaces and temples. Ironically, He was born to an earthly father who was a construction worker, and there probably are many buildings in the Nazareth region that He helped build, but none built to honor Himself.
As an archaeologist I am fairly confident that we will not find archaeological evidence for the birth of Jesus. Those who are looking for it either do not understand the nature of the archaeological record or the nature of God's Kingdom. The lack of archaeological evidence illustrates this description offered by the apostle Paul. He "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil 2:7-8). God sent His son as a baby in a manger, born to an earthly peasant family in Bethlehem, in a humble manger — not a palace. Jesus did not come to establish a kingdom of wood and stone. His kingdom was established with flesh and blood.
Steve Ortiz is associate professor of archaeology and biblical studies and director of the Charles C. Tandy Archaeology Museum at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.