The Brief History of Bethlehem

The original settlement in Bethleham was possible only after humans learned to dig well because there is no water source in the nearby mountains. Likely the first community was established during the Bronze Age when when the Canaanite people dwelled in the Land.


In the Amarna letters from the 14th century BC, Bethlehem is called Bit Ilu Lakhme, which possibly refers to a Canaanite goddess. When translated directly from Hebrew, the name Beit Lekhem means the house of bread (Beit - house, lekhem - bread).


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

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


The first Biblical reference to Bethlehem is found in Genesis. 

"So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrathah (that is Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb"  (Genesis 35:19-20).


To this day, both Arabs and Jews venerate the tomb of their Matriarch, Rachel, in Bethlehem.  


According to the Hebrew Holy Scripture, the famous and iconic king and the prototype of the later expected Messiah was born in Bethlehem. His name was David which means God's beloved. The prophets expected the Messiah to come from the same city, 

"But you, Bethlehem,  Ephrathah, 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 of Judea were destroyed during the Babylonian conquest of the 6th century BC then restored over 70 years only to be conquered again and reclaimed by the famous Maccabee rebels in the 2nd century BC. David's descendant was expected to come and rule over them in the perfect Messianic  kingdom, where everyone would  be free and happy. And they did not wait in vain, as 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).


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


The Gospel writers give us two accounts of the birth of Jesus, penned by Matthew and Luke:

 "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 2:1-12).


“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 2:1-21).


After these events, Bethlehem remained a small and insignificant town although during Pontius Pilate’s reign over Judea, an aqueduct was built. 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 expelled the Jews from their land after suppressing the Bar Cokhba revolt in 135 AD. A pagan shrine was built and dedicated to Adonis at the cave of the Nativity (Canaanite Tammuz).   Constantine the Great built one of the first churches in Christian history, the Basilica of Nativity (326 AD) but was destroyed, likely during the Samaritan revolt of the 6th century. The present church was rebuilt by the mighty Emperor Justinian (527-565 AD).

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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