By Mike Willis
Bethlehem is first mentioned outside the Scriptures in a 14th century B.C. letter from the king of Jerusalem who wrote to his Egyptian overlord asking for archers to help him recover Bit Lahmi which had seceded from his dynasty (Amarna Letters, quoted in Oxford Archaeological Guides 199).
Bethlehem is best remembered by Christians as the place where Jesus was born and where Herod the Great slaughtered the innocent babies under two years old in his attempt to kill the Messiah. Bethlehem is located six miles south of Jerusalem. Since the second century, men have been identifying a cave at Bethlehem as the site of the birth of Jesus (Justin, Protoevangelium of James). From Hadrian’s time (A.D. 135) to the reign of Constantine (about 180 years), the site was over- shadowed by paganism. On May 31, 339, the first church building was dedicated on the site of Jesus’ birth. In 384 Jerome took up residence in Bethlehem, which led to its become a monastic center. Jerome worked from this church building to translate the Bible from Hebrew into Latin (Vulgate). This translation became the official Bible of the Catholic church for the next 1500 years.
In A.D. 529, Emperor Justianian ordered the destruction of the older building and the construction of a new building to mark the birth of Jesus (the Grotto [cave] of the Nativity). That 6th century church building built by the Emperor Justinian remains essentially as it was built, although the roof and floor have been replaced several times. Known as the Church of the Nativity (one of the oldest churches in the world and the oldest in Israel), this church has a silver star to mark the place where Jesus came out of the womb of Mary which has become somewhat of a modern idol for many “Christians.” This church is divided among the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations and conflicts occur among them over control of the building at various times.
Also located here are the Field of Boaz and Shepherds’ Field, Rachel’s Tomb (built in 1860 by Moses Montefiore, a Jewish philanthropist), and King David’s wells. These sites are not authenticated but one can get a sense of the terrain where these important Bible events occurred by being in the area.
Here are some important events that happened at Bethlehem:
- Bethlehem first appears in the Scriptures, nearly 2000 years before Jesus, as the burial place of Rachel (Gen. 35:19, 48).
- It is mentioned as one of the towns captured by Joshua (Josh. 19:15).
- The judge Ibzan was from here and was buried here (Judg. 12:8, 10).
- The story of Ruth occurs in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1).
- David was from Bethlehem and there was anointed king (1 Sam. 16:4; 2 Sam. 23:15). It was from the well of Bethlehem that David longed for water when his mighty men broke through the lines of the Philistines to get it for him.
- Asahel was buried here (2 Sam. 2:32).
- Rehoboam strengthened Bethlehem (2 Chron. 11:6).
- Micah foretold that the Christ would be born there and he was (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:1, 5). There the shepherds came to worship him (Luke 2:4).
- Herod the Great slew the male babies under two years