The brief history of Bethlehem.

St Catherine's Monastery in Bethlehem
St Catherine's Monastery in Bethlehem

The first settlement in the area of Bethlehem was made posiible only when humans learnt to dig wells. There is no source of water in the nearby mountains. This happened probably in the Bronze Age, the period when the Canaanite people dwelt in the Land.

In the Amarna letters Bethlehem is called Bit Iloo Lakhma which perhaps refers to some Canaanite goddess. Though when translated directly from Hebrew, the name Beit Lekhem would mean the house of bread. ( Beit - house, lekhem - bread).

Significantly, Jesus Christ called Himself living bread in one of his sermons.

"I am the bread of life. Whosovere comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)

The first Biblical reference is in the book of Genesis (35:19,20):

"So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrat ( that is Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb." Amazingly, both Arabs and Jews venerate the tomb of Matriarch Rachel, situated at the vicinity of Bethlehem, literally "to this day". 

According to the Hebrew Holy Scripture, the most famous and iconic king, the prototype of the expected later Messiah, was born in Bethlehem. His name was David (God's beloved).

That is why the prophets were expecting the Messiah's coming from the same city.

"But you, Bethlehem, Ephratah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2)

Jerusalem and all Judea were destroyed during the Babilonian conquest of the sixth century BCE, restored  in 70 years, conquered again and reclaimed by the famous Maccabean rebels in he second century BCE.

But people still had been expecting David's descendant to come and rule over them in the Messianic perfect kingdom, where everybody could be free and content.

And it is not in vain the Gospel writer tells us:

"The angel told them: today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, He is the Messiah, the Lord." ( Luke 2:11)

And significantly the New Testament begins with the Gospel og Matthew, giving us "the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah (Christ),  the son of David, the son of Abraham." (1:1)

The Gospel writers give us two stories of Jesus birth, one by Like and another by Matthew.


"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.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”


 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." (Matthew 2)

 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  (This was the first census that took place while. Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. (Luke 2)

In the history of common era Bethlehem remained a small and insignificant town. In the period of Pontius Pilate reign over Judea, in Bethlehem was built the aqueduct. Christian tradition holds that a cave at the place of Jesus birth was venerated since the dawn of Christian era, the first century AD.

Emperor Hadrian had expeled the Jews from their land after supressing the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD. He had built at the Nativity cave the pagan worship shrine dedicated to Adonise  (Canaanite Tammuz).

The emperor Constantine built one of the first in the Christian history churches - the Basilica of Nativity in 326 AD. The Constantine's Basilica did not survive till now, it was destroyed, perhaps, during the Samaritan revolt of the sixth century.

The mighty emperor Justinian rebuilt the Church in 527-565 AD.

It has survived till present time.

the nativity basilica.

The nativity Star in the Basilica
The nativity Star in the Basilica

The church is built in a transept form which is a cross-shaped building.  


to be continued...

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