the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Heb. Beyth-Le'chem, בֵּיתאּלֶחֶם house of bread, perh. from the fertility of the region; Sept. and N.T. Βηθλεέμ [but v. r. Βαιθμάν in Joshua 19:15; Βεθλεέμ in Ezra 2:21; Βαιθαλέμ in Nehemiah 7:26]; Josephus, Βήθλεμα; Steph. Byz. Βήτλεμα ), the name of two places.
1. One of the towns in Palestine, already in existence at the time of Jacob's return to the country, when its name was EPHRATH or EPHRATAH (see Genesis 35:16; Genesis 48:7; Sept. at Joshua 15:59), which seems not only to have been the ancient name of the city itself, but also of the surrounding region; its inhabitants being likewise termed EPHRATHITES (Ruth 1:2). It is also called "BETH-LEHEM-EPHRATAH" (Micah 5:2), and "BETH- LEHEM-JUDAH" (1 Samuel 17:12), and "BETH-LEHEM OF JUDAEA" (Matthew 2:1), to distinguish it from another town of the same name in the tribe of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15), and also "the city of David" (Luke 2:4; John 7:42). The inhabitants are called BETH-LEHEMITES (1 Samuel 16:1; 1 Samuel 16:18; 1 Samuel 17:58). It is not, however, till long after the occupation of the country by the Israelites that we meet with it under its new name of Bethlehem. Here, as in other cases (comp. Bethmeon, Bethdiblathaim, Bethpeor), the "Beth" appears to mark the bestowal of a Hebrew appellation; and, if the derivations of the lexicons are to be trusted, the name in its present shape appears to have been an attempt to translate the earlier Ephrata into Hebrew language and idiom, just as the Arabs have, in their turn, with a further slight change of meaning, converted it into Beit-lahm (house of flesh). However this may be, the ancient name lingered as a familiar word in the mouths of the inhabitants of the place (Ruth 1:2; Ruth 4:11; 1 Samuel 17:12), and in the poetry of the psalmists and prophets (Psalms 132:6; Micah 5:2) to a late period. In the genealogical lists of 1 Chronicles it recurs, and Ephrath appears as a person-the wife of Caleb and mother of Hur (חוּר ) (1 Chronicles 2:19; 1 Chronicles 2:51; 1 Chronicles 4:4); the title of "father of Bethlehem" being bestowed both on Hur (1 Chronicles 4:4) and on Salma, the son of Hur (1 Chronicles 2:51; 1 Chronicles 2:54). The name of Salma recalls a very similar name intimately connected with Bethlehem, namely, the father of Boaz, Salmah (שִׁלְמָה, Ruth 4:20; Auth. Vers. "Salmon") or Salmon (שִׁלְמוֹן, Ruth 4:21). Hur is also named in Exodus 31:2, and 1 Chronicles 2:20, as the father of Uri, the father of Bezaleel. In the East a trade or calling remains fixed in one family for generations, and if there is any foundation for the tradition of the Targum that Jesse, the father of David, was "a weaver of the veils of the sanctuary" (Targ. Jonathan on 2 Samuel 21:19), he may have inherited the accomplishments and the profession of his art from his forefather, who was "filled with the Spirit of God," "to work all manner of works," and among them that of the embroiderer and the weaver (Exodus 25:35). At the date of the visit of Benjamin of Tudela there were still "twelve Jews, dyers by profession, living at Beth- lehem" (Benj. of Tudela, ed. Asher, 1:75). The above tradition may possibly elucidate the allusions to the "weaver's beam" (whatever the "beam" may be) which occur in the accounts of giants or mighty men slain by David or his heroes, but not in any unconnected with him.
After the conquest Bethlehem fell within the territory of Judah (Judges 17:7; 1 Samuel 17:12; Ruth 1:1-2). As the Hebrew text now stands, however, it omitted altogether from the list of the towns of Judah in Joshua 15, though retained by the Sept. in the eleven names which that version inserts between Joshua 15:59-60. Among these it occurs between Theko (Tekoa), Θεκώ (comp. 1 Chronicles 4:4-5), and Phagor (? Peor, Φαγώρ ). This omission from the Hebrew text is certainly remarkable, but it is quite in keeping with the obscurity in which Bethlehem remains throughout the whole of the sacred history. Not to speak of the nativity, which has made the name of Bethlehem so familiar to the whole Christian and Mussulman world, it was, as the birthplace of David, a place of the most important consequence to ancient Israel. And yet, from some cause or other, it never rose to any eminence, nor ever became the theater of any action or business. It is difficult to say why Hebron and Jerusalem, with no special associations in their favor, were fixed on as capitals, while the place in which the great ideal king, the hero and poet of the nation, drew his first breath and spent his youth remained an "ordinary Judaean village." No doubt this is in part owing to what will be noticed presently-the isolated nature of its position; but that circumstance did not prevent Gibeon, Ramah, and many other places situated on eminences from becoming famous, and is not sufficient to account entirely for such silence respecting a place so strong by nature, commanding one of the main roads, and the excellence of which as a military position may be safely inferred from the fact that at one time it was occupied by the Philistines as a garrison (2 Samuel 23:14; 1 Chronicles 11:16). Though not named as a Levitical city, it was apparently a residence of Levites, for from it came the young man Jonathan, the son of Gershom, who became the first priest of the Danites at their new northern settlement (Judges 17:7; Judges 18:30), and from it also came the concubine of the other Levite, whose death at Gibeah caused the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19:1-9).
The Book of Ruth is a page from the domestic history of Bethlehem; the names, almost the very persons of the Bethlehemites are there brought before us; we are allowed to assist at their most peculiar customs, and to witness the very springs of those events which have conferred immortality on the name of the place. Many of these customs were doubtless common to Israel in general, but one thing must have been peculiar to Bethlehem. What most strikes the view, after the charm of the general picture has lost its first hold on us, is the intimate connection of the place with Moab. Of the origin of this connection no record exists, no hint of it has yet been discovered; but it continued in force for at least a century after the arrival of Ruth. till the time when her great-grandson could find no more secure retreat for his parents from the fury of Saul than the house of the King of Moab at Mizpeh (1 Samuel 22:3-4). But, whatever its origin, here we find the connection in full vigor. When the famine occurs, the natural resource is to go to the country of Moab and "continue there;" the surprise of the city is occasioned, not at Naomi's going, but at her return. Ruth was "not like" the handmaidens of Boaz: some difference of feature or complexion there was, doubtless, which distinguished the "children of Lot" from the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but yet she gleans after the reapers in the field without molestation or remark; and when Boaz, in the most public manner possible, proclaims his intention of taking the stranger to be his wife, no voice of remonstrance is raised, but loud congratulations are expressed; the parallel in the life of Jacob occurs at once to all, and a blessing is invoked on the head of Ruth the Moabitess, that she may be like the two daughters of the Mesopotamian Nahor, "like Rachel and like Leah, who did build the house of Israel." This, in the face of the strong denunciations of Moab contained in the law, is, to say the least, very remarkable (see Thomson, Land and Book, 2, 500 sq.). Moab appears elsewhere in connection with a place in Judah, Jashubi-lehem (1 Chronicles 4:22). We are tempted to believe the name merely another form of Beth-lehem, nor does the context-the mention of Mareshah and Chozeba, places on the extreme west of the tribe-forbid it. (See LAHMI).
The elevation of David to the kingdom does not appear to have affected the fortunes of his native place. The residence of Saul acquired a new title specially from him, by which it was called even down to the latest time of Jewish history (2 Samuel 21:6; Josephus, War, 5:2, 1, Γαβαθσαουλή ), but David did nothing to dignify Bethlehem, or connect it with himself. The only touch of recollection which he manifests for it is that recorded in the statement of his sudden longing for the water of the well by the gate of his childhood (2 Samuel 23:15). Bethlehem was fortified by Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 11:6), but it does not appear to have been a place of much importance; for Micah, extolling the moral pre-eminence of Bethlehem, says, ‘ Thou, Bethlehem-Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah," etc. (Micah 5:2). Matthew quotes this as, "And thou, Bethlehem of Judah, art not the least of the cities of Judah," etc. (Matthew 2:6), which has the appearance of a discrepancy. But it is answered that a city may be little without being the least, or that the evangelist may have quoted from memory, and hence the slight difference in expression, while the sense remains the same. By the time of the captivity, the inn of Chimham by ( אֵצֶל = "close to") Bethlehem appears to have become the recognised point of departure for travelers to Egypt (Jeremiah 41:17) — a caravanserai or khan (גְּרוּת; see Stanley, App. § 90), perhaps the identical one which existed there at the time of our Lord (κατάλυμα ), like those which still exist all over the East at the stations of travelers. Lastly, "children of Bethlehem" to the number of 123 returned from Babylon (Ezra 2:21), which, with the 56 from the neighboring Netophah, slightly differs from the sum 188 of the parallel passage (Nehemiah 7:26). In the New Testament Bethlehem retains its distinctive title of Bethlehem-judah (Matthew 2:1; Matthew 2:5), and once, in the announcement of the angels, the "city of David" (Luke 2:4; and comp. John 7:42; κώμη; castellum). Bethlehem (" Ephratah") is named (Psalms 132:6) as the place once occupied by the Ark, evidently before its (second) location at Kirjath-jearim ("fields of the wood," Hebrews Jaarim). This confirms the conjecture that Samuel's city was Bethlehem. (See RAMAH). In the earlier O.T. history less is recorded of the place after the youth of David than before, and it does not occur again in the O.T. In the N.T. it is simply mentioned as the birthplace of Christ (Matthew 2:6; Matthew 2:8; Matthew 2:16; Luke 2:15).
After this nothing is heard of it till near the middle of the 2d century, when Justin Martyr speaks of our Lord's birth as having taken place "in a certain cave very close to the village," which cave he goes on to say had been specially pointed out by Isaiah as "a sign." The passage from Isaiah to which he refers is Isaiah 33:13-19, in the Sept. version of which occurs the following: "He shall dwell on high; His place of defense shall be in a lofty cave of the strong rock" (Justin. Dial. c. Tryph. § 78, 70). Such is the earliest supplement we possess to the meagre indications of the narrative of the Gospel; and while it is not possible to say with certainty that the tradition is true, there is no certainty in discrediting it. There is nothing in itself very probable-nor certainly is there in most cases where the traditional scenes of events are laid in caverns — in the supposition that the place in which Joseph and Mary took shelter, and where was the "manger" or "stall" (whatever the φάτνη may have been), was a cave in the limestone rock of which the eminence of Bethlehem is composed. Yet it is not necessary to assume that Justin's quotation from Isaiah is the ground of an inference of his own; it may equally be an authority happily adduced by him in support of the existing tradition. Still the step from the belief that the nativity may have taken place in a cavern, to the belief that the present subterraneous vault or crypt is that cavern, is an equally doubtful one. (See below.) Even in the 150 years that had passed when Justin wrote, so much had happened at Bethlehem that it is difficult to believe that the true spot could have been accurately preserved. In that interval not only had the neighborhood of Jerusalem been overrun and devastated by the Romans at the destruction of the city, but the Emperor Hadrian, among other desecrations, is said to have planted a grove of Adonis at the spot (lucus inumbrabat Adonidis, Jerome, Ep. Paul.). This grove remained at Bethlehem for no less than 180 years, viz. from A.D. 135 till 315. After this the place was purged of its abominations by Constantine, who, about A.D. 330, erected the present church (Euseb. Vit. Cons'. 3, 40. See Tobler, p. 102, note). The brief notice of Eusebius in the Onomasticon (s.v. Βηθλεέμ ) locates it 6 miles S. of Jerusalem, to which Jerome (ib. s.v. Bethlehem) adds a reference to the "tower of Edar" and his own cell in the locality. The Crusaders, on their approach to Jerusalem, first took possession of Bethlehem, at the entreaty of its Christian inhabitants.
In A.D. 1110, King Baldwin I erected it into an episcopal see, a dignity it had never before enjoyed; but, although his was confirmed by Pope Pascal II, and the title long retained in the Romish Church, yet the actual possession of the see appears not to have been of long continuance. In A.D. 1244, Bethlehem, like Jerusalem, was desolated by the wild hordes of the Kharismians. There was formerly a Mohammedan quarter, but, after the rebellion in 1834, this was destroyed by order of Ibrahim Pasha (Tobler, Bethlehem, Bern, 1849). There never has been any dispute or doubt about the site of Bethlehem, which has always been an inhabited place, and, from its sacred associations, has been visited by an unbroken series of pilgrims and travelers. The modern town of Beit-lahm lies to the E. of the main road from Jerusalem to Hebron, 42 miles from the former. It covers the E. and N.E. parts of the ridge of a "long gray hill" of Jura limestone, which stands nearly due E. and W., and is about a mile in length. The hill has a deep valley on the N. and another on the S. The west end shelves down gradually to the valley; but the east end is bolder, and overlooks a plain of some extent. The slopes of the ridge are in many parts covered by terraced gardens, shaded by rows of olives with figs and vines, the terraces sweeping round the contour of the hill with great regularity. The many olive and fig orchards, and vineyards round about, are marks of industry and thrift; and the adjacent fields, though stony and rough, produce, nevertheless, good crops of grain. On the top of the hill lies the village in a kind of irregular triangle, at about 150 yards from the apex of which, and separated from it by a vacant space on the extreme eastern part of the ridge, spreads the noble basilica of St. Helena, "half church, half fort," now embraced by its three convents, Greek, Latin, and Armenian. It is now a large and straggling village, with one broad and principal street. The houses have not domed roofs like those of Jerusalem and Ramleh; they are built for the most part of clay and bricks; and every house is provided with an apiary, the beehives of which are constructed of a series of earthen pots ranged on the house-tops. The inhabitants are said to be 3000, and were all native Christians at the time of the most recent visits; for Ibrahim Pasha, finding that the Moslem and Christian inhabitants were always at strife, caused the former to withdraw, and left the village in quiet possession of the latter, whose numbers had always greatly predominated (Wilde's Narrative, 2, 411).
The chief trade and manufacture of the inhabitants consist of beads, crosses, and other relics, which are sold at a great profit. Some of the articles, wrought in mother-of-pearl, are carved with more skill than one would expect to find in that remote quarter. The people are said to be remarkable for their ferocity and rudeness, which is indeed the common character of the inhabitants of most of the places accounted holy in the East. Travellers remark the good looks of the women, the substantial, clean appearance of the houses, and the general air of comfort (for an Eastern town) which prevails. At the farthest extremity of the town is the Latin convent, connected with which is the Church of the Nativity, said to have been built by the Empress Helena. It has suffered much from time, but still bears manifest traces of its Grecian origin, and is alleged to be the most chaste architectural building now remaining in Palestine. It is a spacious and handsome hall, consisting of a central nave amid aisles separated from each other by rows of tall Corinthian pillars of gray marble. As there is no ceiling, the lofty roof is exposed to view, composed (according to some) of the cedars of Lebanon, still in good preservation, and affords a fine specimen of the architecture of that age. Two spiral staircases lead to the cave called the "Grotto of the Nativity," which is about 20 feet below the level of the church. This cave is lined with Italian marbles, and lighted by numerous lamps. Here the pilgrim is conducted with due solemnity to a star inlaid in the marble, marking the exact spot where the Savior was born, and corresponding to that in the firmament occupied by the meteor which intimated that great event; he is then led to one of the sides, where, in a kind of recess, a little below the level of the rest of the floor, is a block of white marble, hollowed out in the form of a manger, and said to mark the place of the one in which the infant Jesus was laid. His attention is afterward directed to the "Sepulchre of the Innocents;" to the grotto in which St. Jerome passed the greater portion of his life; and to the chapels dedicated to Joseph and other saints. There has been much controversy respecting the claims of this cave to be regarded as the place in which our Lord was born.
Tradition is in its favor, but facts and probabilities are against it. It is useless to deny that there is much force in a tradition regarding a locality (more than it would have in the case of a historical fact), which can be traced up to a period not remote from that of the event commemorated; and this event was so important as to make the scene of it a point of such unremitting attention, that the knowledge of that spot was not likely to be lost. This view would be greatly strengthened if it could be satisfactorily proved that Adrian, to cast odium upon the mysteries of the Christian religion, not only erected statues of Jupiter and Venus over the holy sepulcher and on Calvary, but placed one of Adonis over the spot of the Nativity at Bethlehem. But against tradition, whatever may be its value, we have in the present case to place the utter improbability that a subterranean cavern like this, with a steep descent, should ever have been used as a stable for cattle, and, what is more, for the stable of a khan or caravanserai, which doubtless the "inn" of Luke 2:7 was. Although, therefore, it is true that cattle are, and always have been, stabled in caverns in the East, yet certainly not in such caverns as this, which appears to have been originally a tomb. Old empty tombs often, it is argued, afford shelter to man and cattle; but such was not the case among the Jews, who held themselves ceremonially defiled by contact with sepulchres. Besides, the circumstance of Christ's having been born in a cave would not have been less a-remarkable than his being laid in a manger, and was more likely to have been noticed by the evangelist, if it had occurred; and it is also to be observed that the present grotto is at some distance from the town, whereas Christ appears to have been born in the town; and, whatever may Le the case in the open country, it has never been usual in towns to employ caverns as stables for cattle. To this we may add the suspicion which arises from the fact that the local traditions seem to connect with caverns almost every interesting event recorded in Scripture, as if the ancient Jews had been a nation of troglodytes. (See CAVE). All that can be said about-the "holy places" of Bethlehem has been well said l)y Lord Nugent (i. 13-21), and Mr. Stanley (p. 438-442). (See also, though interspersed with much irrelevant matter, Stewart, p. 246, 334 sq.) Of the architecture of the church very little is known; for a resume of that little, see Fergusson's Handbook of Architecture, p. 524; also Salzmann's Photographs and the Etude accompanying them (p. 72). Mr. Stanley states that the present roof is constructed from English oak given to the church by Edward IV (Sin. and Pal. p. 141, 49). Tobler, p. 104 note, adduces the authority of Eutychius that the present church is the work of Justinian, who destroyed that of Constantine as not sufficiently magnificent. One fact is associated with a portion of the crypt of this church, namely, that here. "beside what he believed to be the cradle of the Christian faith," St. Jerome lived for more than 30 years, leaving a lasting monument of his sojourn (as is commonly believed) in the Vulgate translation of the Bible (Werner, De Bethl. op. Hieron, Stade, 1769).
On the north-east side of the town is a deep valley, alleged to be that in which the angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the birth of the Savior (Luke 2:8). It is situated in the plain below and cast of the convent, about a mile from the walls; and adjacent is a very small, poor village, called Beit-Sahur, to the east of which are the unimportant remains of a Greek church. These buildings and ruins are surrounded by olive trees (Seetzen, 2:41, 42). Here, in Arculf's time, "by the tower of Ader," was a church dedicated to the three shepherds, and containing their monuments (Arculf, p. 6). But this plain is too rich ever to have been allowed to lie in pasturage, and it is more likely to have been then occupied, as it is now, and as it doubtless was in the days of Ruth, by corn-fields, and the sheep to have been kept on the hills.
In the same valley is a fountain, said to be that for the water of which David longed, and which three of his mighty men procured for him at the hazard of their lives (2 Samuel 23:15-18). Dr. Clarke stopped and drank of the delicious water of this fountain, and from its correspondence with the intimations of the sacred historian and of Josephus (Ant. 7:12, 4), as well as from the permanency of natural fountains, he concludes that there can be no doubt of its identity. (See Hackett's Illustra. of Script. p. 294-300.) Others find the traditional well of David in a group of three cistarns, more than half a mile away from the present town, on the other side of the wady on the north. A few yards from the western end of the village are two apertures, which have the appearance of wells; but they are merely openings to a cistern connected with:the aqueduct below, and, according to Dr. Robinson: (Researches, 2, 158), "there is now no well of living water in or near the town." (See WELL).
Bethlehem has been more or less fully described by most travelers in Palestine (comp. also Reland, Palaest. p. 643 sq.; Rosenmuller, Alterth. II, 2:276 sq.; Verpoortenn, Fascic. Dissert. Coburg, 1739; Spanheim, De praesepi Dom. nostri, Berl. 1695; Wernsdorf, De Bethlehemo ap. Hieron. Viteb. 1769). Treatises on various points connected with the place, especially as the scene of the Nativity, have been written by Ammon (Gott. 1779), Buddeus (Jen. 1727), Ernesti (Lips. 1776), Feuerlein (Gott. 1744), Frischmuth (Jen. 1662), Konigsmann (Schlesw. 1807), Krause (Lips. 1699), Miller (Rost. 1652), Oetter (Nurnb. 1774), Osiander (Tub. 1722), Rehkopf (Helmst. 1772), Scalden (Otium theol. p. 795 sq.), Scherf (Lips. 1704), Schwarz (Cob. 1728), same (ib. 1732), same (ib. eod.), Strauch (Viteb. 1661), same (ib. 1683), Vogel (Regiom. 1706), Wegner (Brandeb. 1690), Ziebich (Viteb. 1751); Cundis (Jen. 1730).
2. A town in the portion of Zebulun, named only in connection with Idalah in Joshua 19:15. It has been discovered by Dr. Robinson (Bibliotheca Sacra, 1853, p. 121) at Beit-Lahm, about six miles west of Nazareth, and lying between that town and the main road from Akka to Gaza (comp. Schwarz, Palest. p. 172). Robinson characterizes it as "a very miserable village, none more so in all the country, and without a trace of antiquity except the name" (Bib. Res. new ed. 3, 113).
These files are public domain.
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Beth-Lehem'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​b/beth-lehem.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.