BETHLEHEM (Beth-Lehem) (Heb. בֵּית לֶחֶם; Arab. Bait Lahm), city in Judah located five mi. (eight km.) S. of Jerusalem. Bethlehem may be mentioned in the *el-Amarna letters (14th century B.C.E.) as a city in the territory of Jerusalem (Bit ilu Nin. Ib = the house of the god Ninib = Lahamu?; EA, 290; however, the meaning of the ideogram Nin. Ib is not certain). Tradition placed the tomb of *Rachel in the vicinity of Ephrath/Beth-Lehem
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. 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 Justinian in the form that it has kept to the present time. On the facade of the building, over the entrance, were depicted the birth of Jesus and his adoration by the kings of the East. Because this picture portrays people in Oriental costume, the Persians are said to have spared the building when they captured Bethlehem in 614. 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 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). 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.
In 1997 the populations of Bethlehem numbered 21,673, among them 6,568 refugees, while the population of Beit Jala was 11,957, including 5,329 refugees, and the population of Beit Saḥur 11,285 with 1,913 refugees. The city was transferred to the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo agreements. 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.
[Efraim Orni /
Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]
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.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.