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Bethlehem on Christmas Day, 1898. The photograph presents a scene reminiscent of Mary and Joseph, as they approached Bethlehem some 1900 years earlier.

Bethlehem (Hebrew: בית לחם, Bēth-Lẹkhem, "Name means::house of bread"; Greek: Βηθλέεμ, Bēthleem; Arabic: بيت لحم, Bayt-Laḥm; "Name means::house of meat") is a town in the former United Kingdom of Israel and Southern Kingdom of Judah that figures prominently in several Biblical accounts. Today it lies in the disputed territory called the "West Bank" and is under the nominal jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. The Birth of Jesus Christ secured forever its place in world history. Today, however, its long-standing Christian community is steadily vacating it, and its role in future events is uncertain.


  • Location: 10 kilometers (6 statute miles) south of Jerusalem; latitude 32 degrees north.
  • Land Area: 6.0 km2 (2.3 mi2
  • Population: 22,000 (at last report as of January 12, 2007)
  • Elevation: 777 meters (2600 US customary feet) above sea level


Old Testament

The original settlement on the site was a Canaanite town called Beit Lahama (literally, "House of Lahama") after Lahmo the Chaldean god of fertility, which was adopted by the Canaanites as Lahama. The great extended family of Jacob called the place Ephrath (Genesis 35:16-19 ). One mile north of the town, Jacob buried his second and favorite wife Rachel.

Allegedly, the town bears mention in the El-Amarna Tablets, specifically Tablet No. 290. This supposedly is a complaint from the then-ruler of "Jerusalem" (presumably Jebus) to Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The gist of this tablet is that the people of "Bit-Lahmi" have gone over to the side of the "Apiru." Conventional dating places this letter at 1300 BC. This would be during the period of the Judges. Furthermore, "Bit-Lahmi" is very close to Beit Lahama and "Apiru" could be a mispronunciation of "Hebrew." But whether the dating is accurate, or even whether the letter is authentic, remains an open question.

The Philistines, during the decades when they held sway over the region, built a garrison in the town. But the most famous story set in Bethlehem during the time of the Judges is surely the courtship of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4 ). Three generations later, the future King David was born in Bethlehem, which is often called the City of David because of this.

New Testament

The Star of Bethlehem led oriental scientists from distant countries to the exact place where Jesus lived in Bethlehem.

The prophet Micah most famously predicted that out of Bethlehem, considered then an undistinguished town, would come the Greatest Leader the Jews (or the rest of humanity) will ever have (Micah 5:2 ). More than seven hundred years later, that prophecy came to pass, when Joseph of Nazareth traveled to Bethlehem with his wife Mary, to register for a Roman census, and then and there Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ.

The Church Age

Bethlehem's history since that Day has often been violent. It suffered severe damage during the revolt of Simon Bar Kokhba in 132-135 AD. Emperor Hadrian built a shrine to the classical god Adonis on the supposed site of the Nativity, and also renamed the entire territory "Palestine," a Latin play on "Philistia." About 190 years later, Constantine ruled in Rome, and at his orders the Adonis shrine was thrown down, and the Church of the Nativity built in its place. The church was destroyed in 529 during the revolt of the Samaritans against the Byzantine Empire, but was rebuilt on the orders of Emperor Justinian.

In 384 AD, the Roman chronicler Saint Jerome visited Bethlehem. There he began work on what was to become a new translation of the Bible: the Vulgate, a word-for-word translation into Latin. Two years later came other pilgrims, who founded a monastery and a convent that are still, at last report (January 13, 2007), in operation.

In 614, Persian invaders captured Bethlehem. Legend says that they did not destroy the Church of the Nativity because they saw, depicted in mosaic form on its walls, the original Wise Men who had brought the famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. (These magi probably did come from Persia originally, and might have been serious researchers of the Books of the Prophets left over from the time of the Restoration of Israel during the reigns of Cyrus, Darius I, Artaxerxes I, and other Achaemenid monarchs).

Muslim and Crusader Rule

In 637, Bethlehem came under Muslim rule. Centuries of caliphs at first practiced tolerance in the region. This ended in 996 with the accession of the notorious Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah to the Fatimid Caliphate. Al-Hakim, on whose orders the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was destroyed in 1009, began a campaign of persecution against Christians. Most accounts, however, hold that Bethlehem escaped most of the baleful effects of this policy.

Crusaders captured Bethlehem in 1099, fortified it, and built their own cloister near the Church of the Nativity. They occupied Bethlehem until 1187, when Saladin chased the Crusaders out. The economy of Bethlehem suffered from Saladin's fanatical measures, and so in 1229, Bethlehem was ceded to the Crusaders by treaty. This control ended in 1244, and in 1250, with the coming-to-power of the Circassian Mamluks, tolerance of Christians was at an end. The walls of Bethlehem were dismantled in 1263—but strangely, the Church of the Nativity was untouched.

In later years, Christian clerics returned, and in 1347 the Franciscan order took custody of the Church and grotto of the Nativity. The official Bethlehem government site says, however, that the clergy were expelled again within a few years.

The Ottoman Empire

In 1517, Bethlehem fell under Turkish occupation. For centuries, Franciscan and Greek Orthodox clerics strove bitterly for custody of the Church and other Christian institutions. In 1831 the town came under the jurisdiction of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, and by some accounts the town suffered greatly both from rampant crime and at least one earthquake. The Turks came back in 1841, and continued to hold the town until the First World War.

The First World War and its aftermath

The Ottoman Empire was a Central Power in the First World War. As a consequence, officers of the British Army determined to undermine Turkish rule in Arab and Palestinian lands. Major T. E. Lawrence befriended key Arab tribal chieftains and organized them into an army of resistance that effectively ended Turkish rule in the region forever.

The result was the establishment, in 1917, of the British Mandate of Palestine, which included Bethlehem, along with several "kingdoms" having arbitrary boundaries. The initial British plan had been to re-establish the Jewish homeland of Israel, in gratitude for Jewish assistance to the British munitions industry. However, political changes in Britain caused an abandonment of this policy, and in the years leading up to the Second World War, the long-term status of the region was uncertain.

The Second World War changed the attitudes of the British (and, perhaps more importantly, the Americans) for a few critical years. This led to the eventual partition of the British Mandate into two areas, one of which was to be known as the Land of Israel. Bethlehem was initially part of the international Jerusalem enclave that was to become a direct United Nations protectorate.

Directly the British withdrew their forces, Arab and Jewish forces went to war. Bethlehem was practically evacuated until the end of 1948, when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan annexed Bethlehem and the other lands known today as "the West Bank." In 1967, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces captured Bethlehem along with the eastern half of Jerusalem. Israel held the city until 1995, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak turned the city over to the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the Oslo Accords.

The Twenty-First Century

In 2000 the Intifada, a rebellion of West Bank and Gaza Arabs, broke out. In May of 2002, Israeli forces raided Bethlehem, seeking the capture of several Palestinian irregulars. These irregulars barricaded themselves inside the Church of the Nativity and withstood a siege for five weeks. After a negotiated surrender, the IDF found and defused some forty explosive devices in various parts of the Church. The priest-in-charge later protested that the irregulars had, during their occupation, desecrated the altar and left the Church in a filthy state requiring great effort to clean up.

Today the greatest controversy comes from the construction of the West Bank Barrier, a concrete wall separating Jewish from Arab lands. Rachel's tomb will be on the Israeli side of the barrier, and the rest of Bethlehem on the other.

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