History of Bethlehem

  The Name Bethlehem:

The name of this place may originally have derived from Lachma, the Mesopotamian god of vegetation and fertility known from the creation story Enuma Elish. Bethlehem was known to all cultures as a place of fertility and growth. Even the Romans established a cult of Adonis in a grove near the Grotto of the Nativity. In the Old Testament, this was reflected in the name of the region Ephrata, which also means fertile.

Bethlehem is a Hebrew word and is the name used in the Bible. Today's residents use the Arabic name Beit Lachem. Beth and Beit mean house. Lachem refers to meat. Lehem refers to bread. Hence the meaning House of Bread or House of Meat.


Historical survey:

Bethlehem's story begins some 50,000 years ago when this area served as a land bridge between Africa, Asia, and Europe. At that time various species of animals wandered back and forth between the continents.

Bethlehem itself is located at one of the highest points of the area, some 750 meters above sea level on the edge of the watershed. Its early settlement seems to have resulted from its position bordering the fertile areas of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, and the Judean desert to the south and east.

Bethlehem is mentioned in the Tell-El-Amarna letters, dating from the 14th century B.C., in which the Egyptian governor of Palestine informed the King of Egypt that a town south of Jerusalem called Bit Ilu Lahama (house of the godders Lahama), Bethlehem, had fallen in the hands of the "Kharibus" (Hebrews) and it must be retaken.

According to the Old Testament Book of Ruth, the first known residents were a couple named Elimelech and Naomi. About 3,200 years ago, they lived in a simple farming village struggling to survive in the midst of famine. This house of nourishment had become barren, and so they sojourned for a time in Moab, east of the Dead Sea. Their story is short, but their memory lives on and so does the family name in the story of their Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth and her quest to establish roots by gathering sheaves of barley in the fields of Boaz near Beit Sahour.

This hillside village was also home to shepherds, including Ruth's grandson Jesse and his eight sons from the tribe of Judah. The prophet Samuel graced the town of Bethlehem with his presence in his search for a new king of Israel. The lot fell to the youngest of those sons, David, who chose Jerusalem - only nine kilometers away - as his capital to avoid the impression of favoritism, and there he established a dynasty.

During this early period of history, one of the central characteristics of Bethlehem was its mixed population and mutual tolerance among people of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

At the end of the tenth century B.C., King Rehoboam fortified Bethlehem and made it a store city for food, oil, and wine. Yet for 1,000 years Bethlehem remained a quiet little town in the shadow of Jerusalem.


The Birth of Christ:

Herod the Great who ruled Palestine (37 - 14B.C.) was a vassal of Roma Emperor Augustus. A decree was issued ordering a census of the population. Everyone was ordered to return to his or her place of origin for the census (Luke 2: 3-5). Joseph and Mary, because of their lineage or place of origin had to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem.

Here the birth of Jesus took place and the shepherds and wise men paid their visits.

Upon hearing the news of the birth of the King of Judah and having been deceived by the Wise Men who failed to inform him of the whereabout of the newly born Herod ordered the killing of all boys of the Bethlehem area under the age of two (Matthew 2: 1-18). But Joseph took the Child Christ and his mother by night and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2: 1-18). Upon their return from Egypt, Joseph, afraid to return to Bethlehem, withdrew to Galilee and Nazareth. Jesus did not return to his birthplace Bethlehem in his lifetime.

Physically, the town remained small and insignificant. During the Bar-Cochba revolt Of 132-135 it was devastated by the Roman army under Hadrian, and its Jewish residents were expelled from the area

In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity. His mother Helen visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem in 325 A.D. Constantine ordered the construction of a church on the site of the Grotto that began in 326 A.D., beside becoming a milestone in Christian life attracting many pilgrims, Bethlehem became a center of monastic life as well.

In 386 A.D. St. Jerome, one of the four doctors of western church and the most learned of the Latin Fathers, settled in Bethlehem with his companion Paula and her daughter Eustochium. Paula was instrumental in building a monastery for men under Jerome's direction, three cloisters for women under her own supervision and a hostel for pilgrims. All of them spent the rest of their lives in Bethlehem. And in Bethlehem St. Jerome revised the existing translation of the Bible and produced the Vulgate, the official Latin version used by the Latin Roman Catholic Church.

529 A.D. Samaritans from Nablus revolted against the Byzantines, invaded Bethlehem and damaged the Church of the Nativity.

614 A.D. Persians invaded Palestine and burned the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher but spared the Church of the Nativity. It was reported that when the Persians saw the images of the Persian wise men on the exterior of the Basilica they spared it.

637 A.D. Arab Muslim armies under the leadership of Rightly-guided Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab entered Jerusalem ushering in Arabization and Islamization processes which had left a permanent cultural Logacy on the present Arabic speaking people of Palestine including the Christian and Muslim natives of Bethlehem.

On Christmas Day in 1100, Baldwin I was crowned in Bethlehem as the first king of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Within several years Bethlehem was raised in status to a bishopric.

The Crusaders dominated a significant stage of the building activities. By the end of the fifteenth century, it was a strong fortified city with walls and moats punctuated by two massive towers - one on the western hill and the other near the basilica.

The fortifications were razed by the Ottoman conquerors, so that Bethlehem was once again a tiny, insignificant village for nearly 400 years. Twentieth century world politics continued to play havoc with the residents of Bethlehem as occupation passed from the hands of the Ottomans to the British Mandate to the West Bank of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to Israeli military administration.

On December 21,1995, when the green, red, black, and white Palestinian flag was officially raised in Manger Square, Bethlehem began a new era marked by the sincere longing for a long-lasting and comprehensive peace and for extensive regional coexistence and development.

An Old Paint of the City of Bethlehem


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