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Bethlehem: Profile of the City of Bethlehem in Palestine


What is Bethlehem?:

The earliest human habitation in Bethlehem (today: Bayt Lahm, Arabic for “house of meat”) dates back to the Paleolithic era, but the earliest reference to Bethlehem appears in Egyptian diplomatic correspondence from the 14th century BCE. Abdi Heba, ruler of Jerusalem, complains that Bit-Lahmi had defected to the Apiru (possibly an early word for Hebrews). Tradition has it that the name comes from “house of bread” (Hebrew: beth lehem), but it’s more likely from “house of the god Lahmu.”

Where is Bethlehem?:

Bethlehem is a village in Judah located about 10 km south of Jerusalem. It is around 750m above sea level on a ridge in the central Judean highlands on the edge of the Judean desert. West of Bethlehem are fertile farmlands while east is desert. Bethlehem is situated close to a major north-south route linking Beersheba, Jerusalem, and Bethel, known as the Way of the Patriarchs.

Why is Bethlehem important?:

Jewish tradition has it that Ruth, great-grandmother of David, moved to Bethlehem. The village became his family home and this may be part of the reason why the prophet Micah says that a new king would one day come from Bethlehem to lead the Jewish people. Jews believe that just north of Bethlehem is located the tomb of Rachel, a very sacred site.

The village plays a larger role in Christian tradition, however, because the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John record Jesus has having been born in Bethlehem, and thus used this to claim that he fulfilled Micah’s prophecy. In 325, pagan emperor Hadrian had the village destroyed, but after the Roman empire officially endorsed Christianity, people began to return.

Around 338 Constantine had a church built over a grotto which Christians believed was the birth place of Jesus, and in 386, Jerome wrote the Latin Vulgate Bible in Bethlehem. Today Bethlehem is a thriving city of many faiths and around 15,000 residents — more during Christian holy seasons, of course, especially Christmas. Not a great deal of archaeological excavations have been done in Bethlehem, so most of what is known comes from the Bible and local traditions.

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