Bethlehem (Hebrew for – “House of Bread”), is a historical site in the Judean mountains, famed for being the hometown of King David, as well as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
Bethlehem in the Old Testament
The Biblical city of Beth Lechem (Bethlehem) is located about 5 km south of Jerusalem, along the Judean mountain highway to Hebron and the Be’er Sheva valley. Before the time of David (ca 1000 BCE) the Bible gives only a little information on Bethlehem. Rachel, Jacob’s wife, died and was buried near Bethlehem (Gen 35:19); A prophet called Ibzan lived in Bethlehem (Judges 12:8); and a “young man” from Bethlehem became a priest for a man called Micah (Judges 17:7). He was no relation to the 8th century BCE prophet Micah who predicted that although Bethlehem was insignificant, it would be the birthplace of an important figure: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you will go forth for me the one to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2).
Birthplace of King David
Ruth the Moabitess began a chain of events that ended with the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy. Ruth joined Naomi, her mother in law, when she decided to return to her hometown, Bethlehem. Here she met and married Boaz. Their son, Obed, was the father of Jesse (Ruth 4:17) who in turn was the father of King David. When Samuel was the chief prophet ofIsrael, the Lord ordered him: “Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have selected a king for myself among his sons” (1 Sam 16:1). Unexpectedly, the chosen son was David, the youngest son of Jesse, who was at that time “tending the sheep” (1 Sam 16:11). Once Samuel anointed him “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward”. David indeed proved to be most successful and important king in the Bible. He united all the Israelite tribes and founded a new capital in Jerusalem. His kingdom extended from El-Arish in the south to the Euphrates in the north, and his dynasty ruled Judah for nearly 400 years. After David’s time, the city of Bethlehem lost its importance and is barely mentioned any more in the Old Testament.
Bethlehem in Christianity
But the town plays a major role again, at the beginning of the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph originally came from Bethlehem, and at the time of a census he had to return to his hometown, for registration (Luke 2:1-3). Although his wife Mary was in her ninth month of pregnancy, she joined him, and when they reached Bethlehem, there was no place in the local inns. For some unknown reason Joseph could not stay among family members either, and so he and Mary found shelter in a cave usually used as a den. Here Mary bore her son, Jesus, “And [Mary] wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). After a time in Egypt, the family returned to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus grew up. As an adult, Jesus fulfilled the cry of John the Baptist that the end of days was near, and people should repent of their sins as a Messiah was soon to come. Accused by the Romans for political subversion, he was put to death by crucifixion. No doubt this was a traumatic event for his believers, yet it was observed as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, required for the redemption of mankind.
Belief in Jesus as the Messiah gradually spread in the Roman Empire and in the 4th century CE the emperor Constantine “the Great” declared Christianity a legal, and later, preferred religion of the Roman Empire. Helena, Constantine’s mother, was a strong Christian believer, and during her son’s rule she toured the Holy Land to locate the main sites related to Jesus. In Bethlehem she identified the cave where she thought Jesus was born, and a massive basilica was built over it by order of Constantine “the great”. Known as the Church of the Nativity, it was enlarged and beautified by Justinian I in the 6th century, and was spared by the Parthians and the Muslims during their invasions in the 7th century CE. The Crusaders renovated the church of Nativity and added wall mosaics and paintings, some of which can be seen to this day.
Under Muslim and Turkish rule the church continued as a place for Christian pilgrimage, but the Turks desecrated it by entering the building on horseback. As a result the Greek Orthodox monks who maintained the place narrowed the entrance, and to this day only one person at a time can enter the magnificent basilica, bending down under the low doorway to do so.
Today both the church and city are the control of the Palestinian Authority. Tourists coming from Israel have to pass security checkpoints to visit the city and its church. Nevertheless, the Church of the Nativity continues to be a popular pilgrimage site for Christians from all over the world. Under the apse of the church of Nativity the birth spot of Jesus is presented to the pilgrims, as well as the manger next to it.
Near it is a cave named after Saint Jerome. It is believed that here he wrote an important translation of the Bible to Latin (the Vulgote). In an alley behind the church is another point of interest – The Milk Grotto. It is believed that here Mary breastfed baby Jesus. A milk drop that dropped caused the cave to turn all white. Another popular pilgrimage site is the shepherd’s field some 2 km east of the city.
Further to the east, and facing the Judean Desert is another point of interest – Herodium. Built by King Herod about 2,000 years ago, this fortified desert palace complext is one of the best examples of Herodian Architecture.
Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the site known as Rachel’s tomb. According to the Bible, Rachel died during labour on the way to Bethlehem, and Jacob buried her where she died. “Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb” (Genesis 35:19). The tradition of the burial site seems to be as old, and the site was mentioned already by Josephus in the 1stcentury CE. The site became a popular destination for Jews, especially women. A red ribbon put on the visitors’ hands was considered an especially effective blessing for infertility. In recent years access to the tomb became dangerous. Local Palestinians used to stone the Jewish pilgrims, and occasionally even gunshots took place. The tradition of the red ribbons “relocated” to the western wall in Jerusalem, but despite the risk, many Jews continue to visit Rachel’s tomb. To secure the site a massive wall was created around the tomb, concealing the small yet elegant entrance the site used to have.
The Katisma Church
Another pilgrimage site on the way to Bethlehem was recently rediscovered during an archaeological survey. According to an apocryphal Christian tradition, when Joseph and Mary were on their way to Bethlehem, Mary stopped to rest on a rock. Around the rock on which she settled (Greek “KATISMH”) a church complex was built in the Byzantine Period (4th-7th cents), but after the Muslim conquest, it fell into ruins. A few pilgrims from the Crusader period mention the ruined site, but eventually even its location was forgotten.
During a recent survey of the area the site was identified and while repairs were being made to the highway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the site. The church had an octagonal shape, designed around a rock scarp.
Mosaics decorated the floors, one depicting a palm tree. Rina Avner, who excavated the place, believes the Katisma church was the main architectural inspiration for the octagonal structure the Muslims built around the “rock of foundation” on the Temple Mount—the “Dome of the Rock”. In fact a similar palm tree decorates the inner wall of the Dome of the Rock.