The biblical city of Bethlehem (Heb, בֵּית לֶחֶם, Beit Lehem, House of Bread; Arab. Bait Lahm) is located some five kilometers south of Jerusalem (east of the Jerusalem-Hebron Road). The city is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19, which records that Rachel died in childbirth near Bethlehem on the way to Efrata, and that Jacob set a pillar over her grave. (The site of Rachel’s Tomb, just outside Bethlehem, is a Jewish holy place, and to this day a place of pilgrimage and prayer.) However, Bethlehem is best known in Jewish tradition for its associations with King David, and in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Jesus.
Together with its neighboring cities (I Chron. 2:51, 54), Bethlehem became the center of the tribe of Judah and was settled by an important clan claiming descent from Perez, son of Tamar and Judah, among whose descendants were Boaz and Jesse the father of David.
In the period of the Judges, the fields of Bethlehem were the scene of the idyll of Ruth and Boaz as related in the Book of Ruth. The levite youth in the story of Micah and the graven image (Judg. 17:7), as well as the levite's concubine mentioned in Judges 19, came from this city. David and some of his warrior-kinsmen, sons of Zeruiah, were also born at Bethlehem, and it was there that Samuel anointed David king (I Sam. 16:1–13). The sacrificial act performed by Samuel on that occasion suggests that Bethlehem may have been a center for the worship of the Lord. At the end of Saul's reign, Bethlehem was occupied for a time by a Philistine garrison. The story of David's men bringing him water from the
well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate (II Sam. 23:15) implies that it was even then a fortified city.
Archeological surveys indicate that during the First Temple Period the walled town was located in the area of the Basilica of the Nativity, and that the caves beneath the Basilica could have been used as extensions of private dwellings (as storerooms, stables, etc.). This use of caves and rock-cut chambers was common throughout the region until recent times. One of these caves was enshrined in the 4th century as the traditional site of the Nativity.
Some of the assassins of Gedaliah son of Ahikam, Nebuchadnezzar's governor in Judea after the destruction of the Temple, came from the neighborhood of Bethlehem (Jer. 40:8); the remnants of his followers withdrew to the same region before their flight to Egypt (Jer. 41:16–17). With the return from Babylonia, the exiles from Bethlehem went back to their city (Ezra 2:21; Neh. 7:26), and Jews inhabited the city until the time of Bar Kokhba. In 135 C.E. a Roman garrison was stationed there to root out the remnants of Bar Kokhba's army (Lam. R. 1:15). Later, a gentile population resided in Bethlehem and erected a temple to Adonis (Tammuz) in a grove at the edge of the city (Jerome, Epistle 58 to Paulinus).
On the basis of Micah 5:1, the early Christians identified Jesus' birthplace with Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1, 5; Luke 2:4, 15; John 7:42). The location of this event in a cave east of the city is first mentioned by Justin Martyr (155–160) and by the time of Origen (third century) the site of the cave already corresponded to its present position. In 325, at the beginning of the reign of Constantine, his mother Helena erected a Christian church over the cave. The church was destroyed during the Samaritan uprising against Byzantine rule (529): it was rebuilt by emperor Justinian (527-565) in the form that it has kept to the present time, making it the oldest surviving consecrated church in the world.
On the facade of the building, over the entrance, were depicted the birth of Jesus and his adoration by the kings of the East. The Persians are said to have spared the building when they captured Bethlehem in 614 because they interpreted mosaic images of the Three Wise Men on the facade of the church as representations of Zoroastrian priests (magi).
In the fifth century, Jerome settled in Bethlehem and built a monastery there. In preparing his Latin translation of the Bible, the basis of the Vulgate, he was assisted by Jewish scholars who apparently lived in villages in the neighborhood of the city. The grotto in which he is reputed to have lived is still to be seen under the Church of the Nativity. Further evidence of the resumption of Jewish settlement in the hills of Jerusalem is also found in an extant account of the Persian campaign, according to which the invaders were aided by Jewish inhabitants of the hill country.
In 1009, the Basilica was again saved when local Muslims prevented the destruction ordered by the Fatamid caliph Hakim; however, the Anglo-Saxon pilgrim Saewulf, visiting in 1109, reported that everything had been destroyed
except the monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Two hundred years later, the English traveler Sir John Maundeville found
a little city, long and narrow and well walled.
In the early Arab period Bethlehem suffered no damage. The city fell to Tancred's forces during the First Crusade without fighting. Baldwin I and II, the crusader kings of Jerusalem, were crowned in the church of Bethlehem. The crusaders built a fort in the city that was demolished in 1489 during clashes between the Christians of Bethlehem and the Muslims of Hebron. Benjamin of Tudela visited the city (c. 1160) and found 12 Jewish dyers there. The church of Bethlehem remained in Christian hands during the rule of the Mamluks and the Turks, even though the Muslim rulers oppressed the Christian minority.
The Christians continually reduced the size of the entrance to the church for security reasons, so that by now it is just a low and narrow opening. From time to time, the Christian rulers in Europe concerned themselves with the maintenance and repair of the church. The conflicts between the various Christian communities in Bethlehem caused damage to the church and served to motivate international friction; the theft of the Silver Star from the church in 1847 was one of the factors behind the outbreak of the Crimean War. In the middle of the 19th century, the Turkish authorities determined the division of the church among the various Christian communities and the order of their ceremonies, according to previous tradition; this decision has been observed, almost without amendment, to the present.
Until 1948, Bethlehem was a city with a Christian majority. Of its 8,000 inhabitants in 1947, 75% were Christians and the rest Muslims; this ratio, however, subsequently changed as a result of the influx of Arab refugees from Israel who settled there. During the Six-Day War (1967), Bethlehem surrendered to the Israel army without a fight. In the 1967 census taken by Israel authorities, the town of Bethlehem proper numbered 14,439 inhabitants, its 7,790 Muslim inhabitants represented 53.9% of the population, while the Christians of various denominations numbered 6,231 or 46.1%. The 1,874 inhabitants of the refugee camp, lying within the municipal confines, raised the percentage of Muslim citizens to 58.2%. However, the three townships of Bethlehem, Beit (Bayt) Saḥur (the traditional Field of Ruth), and Beit (Bayt) Jala can be considered as a unit, as in 1967 they formed a continuous built-up area and a social and economic entity. Their total population amounted to 27,000, of whom 14,400 were Christians, constituting a 55% majority. The main Christian denominations are the Latins (Roman Catholics) and the Greek Orthodox. Other communities with over 100 adherents include the Syrian-Orthodox, the Syrian-Catholics, and the Melkites. There are also Protestants of various denominations, Maronites, and Armenians. Throughout most of its history, Bet (Bayt) Jālā was an exclusively Christian town. It has numerous churches and Christian institutions, including the Greek Orthodox St. Nicholas Church, the Catholic Patriarchate's Seminary, and a Lutheran secondary school. Nearby is the Cremisan Monastery of the Salesian fathers.
The Bethlehem town group has close economic and social ties with Jerusalem. In 1968, farming, trade, and tourism continued to constitute the mainstay of Bethlehem's economy. Inhabitants of the town own olive groves, vineyards, and deciduous fruit orchards. Bethlehem is a market town where Bedouin from the nearby Judean Desert trade their produce for local and imported goods. The town has a number of small hotels and restaurants catering to tourists and, more important, many workshops producing Christian souvenirs. Christian institutions contributed to raising the educational level and provided employment to a large number of inhabitants.
The main building in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity (sections of which are maintained by the Greek Orthodox and the Catholics, the latter holding St. Catherine's Church adjacent to the main basilica). It is a major attraction for Christian pilgrims, especially at the Christmas celebrations of the Latins (Dec. 24 and 25), Orthodox (Jan. 6 and 7), and Armenians (Jan. 19 and 20). In 2012, the church was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, but was also placed on a list of those sites at risk. The hundreds of winters that the building has withstood had caused moisture to penetrate the beams supporting the roof. Stone walls were in need of support. Mosaics and paintings on the walls were covered with layers of soot from burning candles and dirt. In 2017, the first major renovation of the church in more than five centuries was undertaken.
Bethlehem has numerous other Christian buildings, including convents of the Franciscans and the Rosary Sisters, edifices above the Milk Grotto, the Syrian-Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, parish schools, orphanages, and a French hospital. Near Bethlehem is the traditional
Shepherds’ Field. Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias, the traditional resting place of Elijah the prophet when he fled from Jezebel.
Since December 1995, following the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, the Palestinian Authority has been responsible for civil affairs, internal security and public order in Bethlehem. The current population of the town is about 50,000, of whom an estimated 40 percent are Christians.
In 2002, a group of Palestinian terrorists took over the Church of the Nativity and held hostages there for more than a month under siege by the Israeli army. During the second (
al-Aqsa) Intifada Beit Jala sheltered snipers firing at the nearby Jerusalem residential neighborhood of Gilo, consequently taking return fire from the Israel Defense Forces and in effect turning the once tranquil area into a frontline battleground.
Today, various Christian denominations, including some Protestant groups, maintain social and educational institutions in the town. The most notable of these is the Roman-Catholic-affiliated Bethlehem University.
As in centuries past, tourism and the manufacture and sale of religious souvenirs major sources of income.
Lewy, in: JBL, 59 (1940), 519–22; EM, 2 (1965), 86–88; Press, Ereẓ, 1 (1951), 88–89; R.W. Hamilton, Guide to Bethlehem (1939); L.H. Vincent and F.M. Abel, Bethléem (Fr., 1914). WEBSITE: www.bethlehem.org.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry;
Michael Avi-Yonah, Efraim Orni and Shaked Gilboa, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Church of Nativity Shines Again in First Big Renovation in 500 Years, Haaretz, (June 29, 2017).