BETHLEHEM: Old Testament History. A town in southern Palestine, in the territory of Judah, often called Bethlehem Judah (e.g., Judges xvii, 7, 8; cf. Matt. ii, 1, 5). Its significance for the Judah of Davidic times or earlier is as the home of Jesse (I Sam. xvi, 1), of Joab, Abishai, and Asahel (II Sam. ii, 32), of Elhanan (II Sam. xxi, 19), and as a place of sacrifice (I Sam. xvi, 3, 5). It was occupied by the Philistines in their war with David (II Sam. xxiii, 14). Rehoboam made of it a city of defense (II Chron. xi, 6), as it commanded the roads south and west. Though in early times it was a place of importance because of its situation on caravan routes, it became overshadowed by the growth of the capital. After the exile it was reckoned to the Jewish community (Ezra ii, 21), and was inhabited by Calebites who were driven north by the Edomites pressing up from the south. This possession is explained by the Chronicler on genealogical grounds, regarding the town as founded by Salma, a son of Caleb. The district of Ephratah, which extended from Kirjath-jearim to Bethlehem, became a possession of the Calebites and gave occasion for the name Bethlehem Ephratah, used Micah v, 2. The inhabitants were engaged in agriculture, viticulture, and cattle-raising.
Present Condition. For the Hebrews its fame rests upon being the home of David (Luke ii, 4, 11); to Christians everywhere its name is familiar as the birthplace of Jesus, according to the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It has retained its name unchanged to the present. Bait-laḥm lies five and a half miles south of Jerusalem, a little east of the central watershed, at a level above the sea of about 2,500 feet. The slopes above it have been terraced from early times, and their fertility rewards richly the labor of the inhabitants in producing olives, almonds, figs, and grapes. The numerous trees of the terraces give the place a refreshing appearance, especially to the traveler from the bare heights of Jerusalem. There is a spring some fifteen minutes eastward from the town, and water is taken from the aqueduct on the south leading into Jerusalem. For the rest of the water-supply, dependence is had upon cisterns. The population is about 8,000; 3,827 are Roman Catholics, 3,662 Greeks, 260 Mohammedans, 185 Armenians; the rest are Copts, Syrians, and Protestants. Two-thirds are engaged in various handicrafts, the rest in husbandry, and all are oppressed by burdensome taxes. Attempts have been made at various times to connect particular parts of the town with David, naming for him a house, a tower, and a well, but the traditions are insecurely founded. The "Well of David" is the name given since the fifteenth century to three large cisterns in the northeast.
The Church of St Mary. More secure is the tradition about the birthplace of Jesus, covered by the celebrated Church of St. Mary, a basilica mentioned as early as 334 as built by Constantine’s order. Eusebius ("Life of Constantine") confirms this report; Socrates and Sozomen ascribe its erection to the empress Helena; and Eutychius to Justinian. De Vogué supports the first hypothesis on the ground of the unity of plan, conformity of extent of choir and grotto, and absence of architectural marks of the Justinian period. In this opinion he is supported by the architect T. Sandel, who made a new examination in 1880. This may well be the oldest church in the world. It was thoroughly restored by the emperor Manuel Comnenus, who adorned it with mosaics, of which work but little remains, though a description by F. Quaresmio (1616-26) with what is left suffices to give a good idea of the whole. In 1478 (or 1482) the roof was repaired by Philip of Burgundy and Edward IV of England, and renewed in 1672 by the Greek patriarch Dositheos. In the latter year the Greeks obtained possession, which the Latins had had since the crusades. In 1852 Napoleon brought it about that the Latins were given a share in holding it. The church, now in decay, can not be restored for fear of renewing outbreaks among Latins, Greeks, and Armenians. From the southeast the church rises prominently like a fortress; the north, east, and south sides are less pleasing to one approaching from those directions because of the cells of the monks of the different communions. It has a nave and double aisles, and its floor space is about ninety-eight feet by eighty-seven between the cross aisles. The transept and apse are unfortunately concealed by a wall built by the Greeks in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The entire length of the present church, including the entrance hall, is about 230 feet. Two flights of steps to the north and south lead from the choir to the chapel of the nativity, the walls of which are marble-lined and hung with tapestries. The place of birth is marked by a silver star in the floor of a niche. Opposite is the place, a marbled hollow, of the old "genuine" manger. A passage westward leads to the tomb and chapel of Jerome.
The Traditional Place of Jesus’s Birth. This subterranean room, according to tradition continuous since Constantine, is accepted as the place of Jesus’s birth. A tradition can be traced back to Justin Martyr that Jesus was born in a cave, since Joseph could find no accommodation in the village. But it has been disproved that the present chapel is a [natural] cave, while it must be noted that as early as 728 it was reported that the form of the cave was changed and an oblong room hewn out. The use of caves as adjuncts to inns or "shelters" is in Palestine a peculiarity of the country.
Five minutes southeast from the church of St. Mary is the so-called "Milk Grotto" of the Latins, in which Joseph, Mary, and the child are said to have concealed themselves from Herod's fury before the flight into Egypt. The white of the limestone is attributed to the fall of a drop of milk from Mary's breast. Ten minutes northeast from Beth Sahur (itself fifteen minutes east from Bethlehem) is shown the "Grotto of the Shepherds," in which the angels are said to have announced to the shepherds the birth of the Holy Child. The underground chapel is reached by a passage between two ancient olive-trees.
One of the fruits of modern missions is the honoring of Jesus in his birthplace, not by sanctuaries in stone, but by provision for the education of the young. Since 1860 there have been a number of Protestant and Roman Catholic schools and establishments, the founding of which has spurred the Greeks and Armenians to accomplish something for the instruction of children belonging to their communities.
Bibliography: Robinson, Researches, vol. ii; T. Tobler, Bethleham in Palästina, Bern, 1849; V. Guérin, Description de la Palestine, Judée, i, 120 sqq., Paris, 1869; Survey of Western Palestine, Memoirs, vol. iii, sheet xvii, London, 1883; P. Palmer, Das jetzige Bethlehem, in ZDPV, xvii (1894). 89 sqq.; Baedeker, Palestine and Syria, pp 119-127, New York, 1898; DB, i, 281; EB, i, 560-562. On the church consult M. de Vogué, Les Églises de la terre sainte, Paris, 1860; Quaresmius, Elucidatio terræ sanctæ, ii, 643 sqq., Antwerp, 1639, reissued Venice, 1880-82; G. Ebers and H. Guthe, Palästina in Bild und Wort, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1883-84.