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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Beth´lehem, (house or place of bread, i.q.. Bread-town)a city of Judah (Judges 17:7), six miles southward from Jerusalem, on the road to Hebron. It was generally called Bethlehem-Judah, to distinguish it from another Bethlehem in Zebulun (Joshua 19:15; Judges 12:10). It is also called Ephratah (the fruitful), and its inhabitants Ephratites (Genesis 48:7; Micah 5:2). Bethlehem is chiefly celebrated as the birth place of David and of Christ, and as the scene of the Book of Ruth. It 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). 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. It is now a large straggling village, beautifully situated on the brow of a high hill, and consisting chiefly of one broad and principal street. The houses 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 housetops. 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 Muslim 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. 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; and the workmanship in some instances would not discredit the artists of Britain. 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.

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. 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 afterwards directed to the 'Sepulcher 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 grotto 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, 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 the spot was not likely to be lost. This view would be greatly strengthened if it could be satisfactorily proved that Hadrian, 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. This part of the evidence is examined under another head [GOLGOTHA]. Against tradition, whatever may be its value in the present case, we have 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 sepulchers. Besides, the circumstance of Christ's having been born in a cave would not have been less 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 be the case in the open country, it has never been usual in towns to employ caverns as stables for cattle.

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). In the same valley is a fountain of delicious water, said with reasonable probability to be that for which David longed, and which three of his mighty men procured for him at the hazard of their lives (2 Samuel 23:15-18).





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Bethlehem'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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