“O, little town of Bethlehem…” We are all familiar with the name of the little town where Jesus was born. Today, Bethlehem is a city in Palestine, approximately 6.2 miles south of Jerusalem with a population of around 25,000 people. Its economy is primarily tourist-driven, welcoming thousands of Christian pilgrims at Christmas time. It is also an important city for Jews and the location of Rachel’s Tomb, the wife of Jacob.
The earliest mention of Bethlehem can be found in the Amarna correspondence of 1350-1330 BC. Written on clay tablets, the letters contain diplomatic communication between Egypt and its representatives in Canaan. At this time, the Egyptians referred to the village, as it was then, as Bit-Lahmi. Incidentally, Bethlehem had a different name at the beginning of the Bible:
Bethlehem continues to be mentioned throughout the Old Testament, however, not necessarily for anything connected to the prophecy of Jesus’ birth. In the book of Judges, we are told, “Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel” for seven years. (Judges 12:8) In the same book, “A young Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, who had been living within the clan of Judah, left that town in search of some other place to stay.” He found work as a priest at Micah’s house in the hill country of Ephraim.
In the Book of Ruth, we learn Naomi came from Bethlehem with her husband Elimelek and sons, Mahlon and Kilion. “They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah.” (Ruth 1:2) They moved to the country of Moab where Elimelek died. Following his death, the two sons married Moabite women, however, the sons died too, leaving Naomi alone with her daughter-in-laws Orpah and Ruth. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem and told the young women to return to their families, however, Ruth insisted she stay with her mother-in-law, “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.” (Ruth 1:22)
In the First Book of Samuel, God tells the prophet, “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” (1 Samuel 16:1) Jesse was the father of the future King David, which is why Bethlehem is occasionally referred to as the City of David in the New Testament. “Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed …” During David’s lifetime, a Philistine garrison was established in Bethlehem, for which there is archaeological evidence. “At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem.” (2 Samuel 23:14)
Despite being the birthplace of Jesus, there is relatively little mention of Bethlehem in the New Testaments. Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ birth, however, Mark only mentions Jesus came from Nazareth.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2) As a result of the Magi asking King Herod where they could find the king of the Jews, the disturbed king “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” Some scholars argue Bethlehem may not have been the birthplace of Jesus, however, the Massacre of the Innocents in the town and its vicinity is evidence that Jesus was born in the area.
To those disputing the whereabouts of Jesus’ birth were invited by Justin Martyr in around 155 to visit the cave in which Jesus was born. The Gospel of Luke documents the birth of Jesus, however, does not mention the precise location in Bethlehem. Modern nativity plays present the scene as a stable or cattle shed rather than a cave on account that Mary wrapped Jesus “in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:7)
The supposed cave was converted into a shrine dedicated to the Greek god Adonis by Emperor Hadrian. Others associate the cave with the Mesopotamian god Tammuz, claiming the Massacre of the Innocents was misinterpreted and the locals were partaking in a pagan mourning ritual over the god’s death.
Sometime between 326 and 328 AD, Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, visited Bethlehem during a pilgrimage to Syra-Palaestina. Not long after her visit, Constantine built a basilica over the cave where Jesus was purportedly born. This is now known as the Church of the Nativity. The building was destroyed during the Samaritan Revolt of 529, however, the emperor at the time, Justinian I, ordered it to be rebuilt. In 614, the Persian Sassanid Empire captured Bethlehem, however, the Church of the Nativity survived the assault. Legend says they refrained from destroying the church when the saw a mosaic showing the magi dressed in Persian clothing.
Although Muslims captured Bethlehem in 637, Christians were promised they could continue to use the Church of the Nativity, however, they did build a mosque next door. This agreement continued until 1009 when those in charge ordered the church to be demolished. Local Muslims, however, persuaded the authorities to spare it. In 1099, the Crusaders fortified the Church of the Nativity, however, the Greek Orthodox clergy were forced to leave and were replaced by Latin priests. When Saladin captured Bethlehem in 1187, the Greek Orthodox clergy was allowed to return.
During the Ottoman era, the Greek Orthodox clergy was often in dispute with the Catholic Church about the custody of the Church of the Nativity. Nonetheless, the Christian population began to rapidly grow and by the end of the 16th century, Bethlehem was split into separate communities: the Muslims and the Christians. During this time, the Christian community was more prosperous, which was partly because the Muslim quarters were attacked by Egyptian troops in 1834. Bethlehem was under Egyptian rule for a brief period before returning to the Ottoman Empire where it remained until the end of World War One.
From 1920 to 1948, the British Mandate administered Bethlehem. Following this, Bethlehem returned to Palestine; however, the city was captured by Jordan during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel took control of Bethlehem until they withdrew in 1995. Since then, the Palestinian National Authority has ruled the city.
Despite being a popular place for Christian pilgrims, the Christian population in Bethlehem has been declining since the mid-twentieth century. In 1948, Christians made up 85% of Bethlehem’s population but by 2016 it had declined to 16%. This is partially because Christians have been forced to leave the city so that land can be used to construct thousands of Israeli homes. A study also points out there has been a lower birth rate amongst Christians in the area, plus Christians are more likely to emigrate to the western world than any other religious group.
Tourism is Bethlehem’s main industry and provides more than 20% of the population’s employment. The Church of the Nativity is a major attraction, particularly around Christmas-time. Festivities begin long before the traditional date (25th December) and continue through the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox church celebrations (6th January) until 19th January when Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas.
Due to the mix of religions in Bethlehem, other festivals continue to attract tourists throughout the year. This includes the annual Feast of Saint George, who is known as al-Khadr in the Quran, on the 5th and 6th May and the Feast of Saint Elijah on 20th July.
Just for fun, here is a list of the current cities throughout the world twinned with Bethlehem:
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon