views updated May 08 2018


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 where Jacob is said to have buried her (Gen. 35:19). Together with its neighboring cities (i Chron. 2:51, 54), Beth-Lehem 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 Beth-Lehem 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 Beth-Lehem, 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 Beth-Lehem may have been a center for the worship of the Lord. At the end of Saul's reign, Beth-Lehem was occupied for a time by a Philistine garrison. The story of David's men bringing him water from the "well of Beth-Lehem, that was by the gate" (ii Sam. 23:15) implies that it was even then a fortified city. 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 Beth-Lehem (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 Beth-Lehem 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. 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.

[Michael Avi-Yonah]

Modern Bethlehem

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:


views updated May 29 2018


Modern Bethlehem is located six miles south of Jerusalem. It is situated on a limestone ridge of the Judean highland, running east-northeast, overlooking to the west the main highway from Jerusalem to Hebron. The ridge is about 2,500 feet in elevation and forms a sort of semi-circle with two little elevations at the ends. The Basilica of the Nativity is located on the southern end (see palestine). Originally the spot was more isolated from the village proper. Many of the streets are narrow and lined with substantially built, cubical, flat-roofed stone houses revealing how the city may have looked at the time of Our Lord.

Several Canaanite cities bore the name Bethlehem, which is thought by some scholars to have meant "Sanctuary

of Lahm (god of grain)," although it has almost certainly no connection with the god Lamu or the goddess Laamu of the Sumerians. Others prefer not to go further than the obvious meaning of the Hebrew form of the name bêt-lehem, "house of bread." The modern Arab name for the town is Beit Lam, "house of meat." Ephrata, another name of the place, means "fruitful." All these names seem to be a reflection on the natural fertility of the environs.

Bethlehem is already mentioned before the Israelite conquest in the Amarna Letters (14th century b.c.) as belonging to the district of Urusalim (Jerusalem). After the conquest, the Calebite (1 Chr 2.19, 24, 50) clan of Ephrata settled in the vicinity of Bethlehem (1 Sm 17.12; Ru 1.2). Later the name Ephratah was applied to Bethlehem itself (Jos 15.59; Ru 4.11; Mi 5.1). Bethlehem was the native town of the Levite who became Micah's officiating priest (Jgs 17.713) and of the unfortunate wife of the Levite from Ephraim (Jgs 19). It was also the setting for the love idyll of Ruth, the Moabite, and Boaz, David's ancestor, as told in the book of ruth. Other famous Bethlehemites were Jesse, David's father, and the sons of Zeruiah, David's sister (2 Sm 17.25). These nephews of David were Joab, Abishai, and Asahel (2 Sm 2.18; one Chr 2.16). Loyal but ruthlessly cruel, they became at once a protection and a menace to their royal relative. Young David roamed the hills and fields around Bethlehem as a shepherd boy (1 Sm 17.15) and later was anointed king of a new dynasty there by Samuel (1 Sm 16.113). In the early years of David's reign Bethlehem fell for some time to the Philistines. This was the occasion for the courageous errand to a Bethlehem well, narrated in 2 Sm 23.1317; 1 Chr 11.1619. Rehoboam, son and successor of King Solomon, fortified Bethlehem to guard the approach to Jerusalem (2 Chr 11.6). After the fall of Samaria (721 b.c.) and the consequent end of the kingdom of Israel, the prophet Micah (5.13) announced the future birth of the Messiah, the new David, at Bethlehem. The village was repeopled after the Exile (Ezr 2.21; Neh 7.26), but it remained in obscurity until the birth of Our Lord (Mt 2.1, 58, 16; Lk 2.4, 15; Jn 7.42).

Bibliography: f. m. abel, Géographie de la Palestine, 2 v. (Paris 1933-38) 2:276. r. leconte, "Bethlehem aux jours du roi Herode," Bible et Terre Sainte 15 (1958) 49; ibid. 42 (1961) a whole number on Bethlehem with excellent photos. c. kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels, tr. r. walls (New York 1963) 148.

[e. lussier]


views updated May 21 2018


city in the west bank.

This small city is a center of Christian pilgrimage to the birthplace of Jesus and to the site of the Church of the Nativity, built in the fourth century. Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and some Latin-rite churches also exist. In Judaism, it is the setting for most of the biblical Book of Ruth; King David lived there when it was called Judaea and was anointed king of Israel there by the prophet Samuel.

Bethlehem is 5 miles (8 km) southwest of Jerusalem. In addition to being a center of tourism and pilgrimage, Bethlehem is now an agricultural market and trade center, with a population of 21,673 Palestinian Arabs as of 1997. The town has long had a disproportionately high percentage of Christian residents, and it traditionally has a Christian mayor.

The city was part of the territory that brought the Crusaders to fight the Muslims; became part of the Ottoman Empire; then, with the dismemberment of the empire after World War I, became part of the British mandate territory of Palestine. During the ArabIsrael War of 1948, Jordan annexed the city, which became part of the West Bank. Israel controlled Bethlehem from 1967 to 1994, after which it passed into the control of the Palestinian Authority. Pope John Paul II visited the town in March 2000. In April and May of 2002, after the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada that saw Israel reoccupy the city for some time, the Church of the Nativity was the scene of a five-week standoff between Israeli forces and armed Palestinians.

see also aqsa intifada, al-; arabisrael war (1948); palestinian authority; west bank.

Benjamin Joseph

Updated by Michael R. Fischbach


views updated May 18 2018

Bethlehem (Bayt Lahm) Town on the w bank of the River Jordan, 8km (5mi) ssw of Jerusalem, administered by the Palestinian National Authority since 1994. The traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, it was the home of King David and the site of the biblical Massacre of the Innocents. The Church of the Nativity, built by Constantine in ad 330, is the oldest Christian church still in use. Part of the Ottoman Empire from 1571 to 1916, then in British-administered Palestine, Jordan gained the town in 1948. Israel occupied Bethlehem in the Six-Day War (1967). Industries: tourism. Pop. (1997) 21,947.


views updated May 21 2018

Bethlehem a small town to the south of Jerusalem, first mentioned in Egyptian records of the 14th century bc. It was the native city of King David and is the reputed birthplace of Jesus. (See also bedlam.)


views updated May 21 2018

Bethlehem. Town located 5 miles south of Jerusalem. On the basis of Micah 5. 2, Jesus' birth in the city is understood by Christians as the fulfilment of prophecy (Matthew 2. 1–12; Luke 2. 1–20).


views updated May 11 2018

Bethlehem. Choral-drama by Boughton. Lib. based on medieval Coventry Play. (Prod. Street, Somerset, 1915).

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