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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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BETHLEHEM.—Two towns of this name are mentioned in the Old Testament. 1. Bethlehem (בֵּית לֶחָם ‘house of bread’) of Zebulun, Joshua 19:15. The site is now occupied by a miserable village, 6 miles south-west of Sepphoris and about the same distance north-west of Nazareth, in a well-wooded district of country, planted with oaks (Robinson, Researches, iii. 113). That this Bethlehem cannot have been the scene of the Nativity, near as it is to Nazareth, is clear from the fact that both St. Matthew and St. Luke expressly place the birth of Christ at Bethlehem of Judaea. These narratives being independent of each other and derived from different sources, we have for the southern Bethlehem the convergence of two distinct traditions. These two Evangelists are joined in their testimony by the author of the Fourth Gospel, who assumes acquaintance on the part of his readers with the story of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, the Bethlehem associated with David and his royal line. ‘Some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the Scripture said that Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem where David was?’ (John 7:41-42). It is noteworthy that Bethlehem is never mentioned as having been visited by our Lord or in any way associated with His ministry. But all Christian history and tradition maintain that the southern Bethlehem was the scene of the Nativity.

2. Bethlehem of Judah (בּ״ יְהוּדָה Judges 17:7; Judges 17:9, Ruth 1:1-2 etc.) or Judaea (Matthew 2:1, Luke 2:4). This town (the modern Lahm) is situated about 6 miles S.S.W. of Jerusalem, lying high up on a grey limestone ridge running from east to west, and occupying the projecting summits at each end, with a sort of saddle between. The ridge rises to a height of 2550 ft. above sea-level, and falls away in terraced slopes on all sides, the descent to the north and east being specially steep. The terraces, as they sweep in graceful curves round the ridge from top to bottom, give to the little town the appearance of an amphitheatre, and serve to make to the approaching traveller a picture which closer acquaintance does not wholly disappoint. The names by which it has been known for millenniums, and is still known, are expressive of the fertility of the place—-lehcm, ‘house of bread,’ and -Lahm, ‘house of flesh.’ The hillsides around, merging into the hill country of Judaea, though they look bare to the eye at a distance, afford pastures for flocks of sheep and goats. The valleys below and the fields lying to the east produce crops of wheat and barley, as in the days when Ruth gleaned in the fields of Boaz; and the terraced slopes, under diligent cultivation, bear olives, almonds, pomegranates, figs, and vines. Wine and honey are named among the most notable of its natural products, and the wine of Bethlehem is said to be preferable to that of Jerusalem.

The modern town is highly picturesque. There is just one main street or thoroughfare, extending about half a mile, and largely occupied by workshops, which are little better than arches open to the street. The population is differently given as from 4000 to 8000 souls. Palmer (‘Das jetzige Bethlehem’ in ZDPV [Note: DPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins.] xvii. 90), writing in 1893, and founding upon personally ascertained figures, gives 8035 as the population, which he classifies in respect of religion as follows: Latins, 3827; Greeks, 3662; Moslems, 260; Armenians, 185; Protestants, 54; Copts and Syrians, 47. The small number of Moslems is said to be due to the severity of Ibrahim Pasha, who drove out the Moslem inhabitants and demolished their houses in the insurrection of 1834. It will be observed from the above enumeration that Bethlehem does not contain a single Jew. As in Nazareth so in Bethlehem, the associations with Jesus make residence repugnant to the Jews, and they have accordingly no desire to settle in the Christian Holy Places. They are, in fact, tolerated only as temporary visitors, but not as residents. ‘In the cradle of his royal race,’ says Canon Tristram (Bible Places, p. 72), ‘the Jew is even more a stranger than in any other spot of his own land; and during the Middle Ages neither Crusader nor Saracen suffered him to settle there.’ The inhabitants of Bethlehem are of superior physique and comeliness. The men have a character for energy and even turbulence; the women are noticeable for their graceful carriage and becoming attire. In the crowds which throng the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the Easter services, the women of Bethlehem, wearing a light veil descending on each side of the face, and closed across the bosom, with a low but handsome headdress composed of strings of silver coins plaited in among the hair and hanging down below the chin as a sort of necklace,—are easily recognizable, and make a favourable impression. The industries of Bethlehem, apart from the cultivation of the soil, are intimately associated with the Nativity, consisting of memorial relics and souvenirs manufactured for sale to the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem every year. Models of the cave of the Nativity, figures of Christ and the Virgin, apostles and saints, are in great demand. Olive wood, and mother-of-pearl obtained from the Red Sea, with basaltic stone from the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea, are carved and wrought into useful and ornamental articles with no small degree of skill and taste. Palmer mentions (l.c. p. 91) that an increasing number of the inhabitants go abroad with their products,—their mother-of-pearl carvings and other wares,—and, especially in America, find a good return for their enterprise.

Bethlehem, notwithstanding its royal associations and its renown as the birthplace of the world’s Redeemer, has never been, and is never likely to be, more in the eye of the world than ‘little among the thousands of Judah’ (Micah 5:2). ‘In spite,’ says Palmer, ‘of the numerous visits of strangers and pilgrims, which are year by year on the increase, and in spite of the market-place which Bethlehem affords for the whole neighbourhood, and especially for the Bedawîn, who come from long distances from the southern end of the Dead Sea to make their purchases of clothing, tools, and weapons, and to leave the produce of their harvest and their pastures, Bethlehem appears likely to remain, unencumbered by trade and progress, what it has been for many years bygone—a shrunken, untidy village.’ Even so, it can never be deprived of its associations with the Messianic King of Israel, ‘whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’ (Micah 5:2), associations which exalt it to the loftiest eminence, and surround it with a glory that cannot fade. These associations in their salient features are now to be set forth.

It is in the early patriarchal history that we meet first with Bethlehem, under its ancient name of Ephrath.* [Note: But see Driver, Genesis (in ‘Westminster Commentaries’), p. 311, and in Hastings’ DB iv. 193a.] ‘When I came from Padan,’ said Jacob on his deathbed, recounting to Joseph in Egypt his chequered history, ‘Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way, when yet there was but a little way to come unto Ephrath: and I buried her there in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem’ (Genesis 48:7; cf. Genesis 35:9 ff.). The sacred historian records that Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: ‘that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day’ (Genesis 35:20). Rachel’s grave is marked now by a Mohammedan wely, or monumental mosque, at the point where the Bethlehem road breaks off the road leading from Jerusalem to Hebron; and though the monument has been repaired and renewed from generation to generation, it serves still to recall a real event, and to distinguish the spot where Rachel’s ‘strength failed her, and she sank, as did all the ancient saints, on the way to the birthplace of hope’ (Dr. John Ker, Sermons, 8th ed. p. 153). Bethlehem becomes more definitely associated with the Messianic hope when it becomes the home of Ruth the Moabitess, the ancestress of David and of David’s greater Son. From the heights near Bethlehem a glimpse is obtained of the Dead Sea—the sea of Lot—shimmering at the foot of the long blue wall of the mountains of Moab; and the land of Moab seems to have had close relations with Bethlehem and its people in patriarchal as well as later times. With Ruth the Moabitess, through her marriage with Boaz, the ‘mighty man of wealth’ of Bethlehem-judah (Ruth 2:1), there entered a strain of Gentile blood,—although we remember that Lot, the ancestor of Moab, was the nephew of the great ancestor of Israel—into the pedigree of Christ according to the flesh (Matthew 1:5), as if in token that, in a day still far off, Jew and Gentile should be one in Him. With David, the great-grandson of Ruth, there entered the royal element into the genealogy of Jesus; and Bethlehem has no associations more sacred and tender than its associations with the shepherd king of Israel, unless it be those that link it for ever with God manifest in the flesh. The stream of Messianic hope, as it flows onwards and broadens from age to age, is not unlike that river of Spain which for a considerable part of its course flows underground, and only at intervals miles apart throws up pools to the surface, which the inhabitants call ‘the eyes’ of the Guadiana. The pools trace the onward progress of the river, till at length it bursts forth in a broad stream seeking the distant sea. So the hope of a great Deliverer from spiritual misery and death flows onward in the story of God’s ancient people, throwing up its pools in the days of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah and the prophets; and Micah indicates the direction of its flow with more explicitness than any who went before when he says: ‘But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’ (Micah 5:2). When the fulness of the time had come, the Messianic hope became the place of broad rivers and streams which we so happily know and enjoy, and the glad tidings was heard on the plains of Bethlehem, addressed to the watchful shepherds: ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11).

The story of the Nativity is told by St. Matthew and St. Luke with a simplicity and delicacy and beauty which are of themselves an evidence of its historical truth. Both narratives, as has been indicated, assign to Bethlehem the high honour of being the place of the Nativity and the scene of the stupendous fact of the Incarnation. The details are too familiar to require rehearsal here.

There is one particular handed down by early Christian tradition which may be regarded not as a variation from, but an addition to, the Evangelic narrative,—the statement made by Justin Martyr (a.d. 140–150), and repeated in the Apocryphal Gospels, that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave. Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 78) relates that, since Joseph had in that village no place where to lodge, he lodged in a cave near by. Justin relates other particulars which may have come to him—he was a native of Nablûs, not 40 miles from Bethlehem—by oral tradition or from apocryphal narratives: such as that the Magi came from Arabia, and that Herod slew all the children of Bethlehem. That the stable where the Infant Saviour was born may have been a cava is quite in keeping with the practice of utilizing the limestone caves of the hill country of Judaea as places of shelter for cattle and other beasts. Those Apocryphal Gospels which deal with the infancy, notably the Protevangelium Jacobi and the pseudo-Matthaeus, make mention of the cave. Pseudo-Matthaeus (ch. 13) says, ‘The angel commanded the beast to stop, for her time to bear had come; and he directed the Blessed Mary to come down from the animal and to enter a cave below a cavern in which there was never any light, but always darkness, because it could not receive the light of day. And when the Blessed Mary had entered it, it began to become light with all lightness, as if it had been the sixth hour of the day.… And then she brought forth a male child, whom angels instantly surrounded at His birth, and whom, when born and standing at once upon His feet, they adored, saying, Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of good will.’ The Protevangelium relates the story with curious imagery (ch. 18). ‘And he [Joseph] found a cave there and took her in, and set his sons by her, and he went out and sought a midwife in the country of Bethlehem. And I Joseph walked and I walked not; and I looked up into the sky and saw the sky violently agitated; and I looked up at the pole of heaven, and I saw it standing still and the birds of the air still; and I directed my gaze on the earth, and I saw a vessel lying and workmen reclining by it and their hands in the vessel, and those who handled did not handle it, and those who presented it to the mouth did not present it, but the faces of all were looking up; and I saw the sheep scattered and the sheep stood, and the shepherd lifted up his hand to strike them and his hand remained up; and I looked at the stream of the river, and I saw that the mouths of the kids were down and not drinking; and everything which was being impelled forward was intercepted in its course.’

The Protevangelium Jacobi is generally recognized as belonging to the 2nd cent., and its testimony is a valuable confirmation of the early Christian tradition. Few scholars, if any, will agree in assigning it the place of importance attributed to it recently by the fantastic theory of Conrady (Die Quelle der kanonischen Kindheitsgeschichten Jesu, Göttingen, 1900), who regarda the Protevangelium as the source of the Gospel narrative a of the Infancy. The author of it, according to him, in an Egyptian, most likely of Alexandria, who introduces Bethlehem into the narrative not because of its place in Hebrew prophecy, but because it was formerly a seat of the worship of Isis, and he wishes to incorporate this worship with Christianity. In concert with the priests of Isis and Serapis, he aided with his inventive pen the appropriation of this sacred site by the Church, and it was from the Protevangelium that the writers of the First and Third Gospels drew their separate narratives of the Infancy. Conrady returns to the subject with an article full of equally curious and perverted learning in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1904, Heft 2, ‘Die Flucht nach aegypten.’

It is in the 4th century that Bethlehem begins to receive that veneration as a Christian Holy Place in which it is now equalled only by Jerusalem and Nazareth. As early as Justin Martyr attention is specially directed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the world’s Redeemer. In addition to the reference, already mentioned, to the cave, we find Justin quoting the well-known prophecy of Isaiah (33:16ff.), ‘He shall dwell in a lofty cave of a strong rock,’ in the same connexion (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 70). Even earlier than Justin’s day it would appear that this particular cave was venerated by the followers of Christ; for, as Jerome tells in one of his letters to Paulinus, the emperor Hadrian (a.d. 117–138), in his zeal to extirpate the very remembrance of Christ, caused a grove sacred to Adonis to be planted over the grotto of the Nativity, as he caused a temple to Venus to be erected over the site of the sepulchre of our Lord. Origen (circa (about) Celsum, i. 51) says: ‘If any one desires certainty as to the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem apart from the Gospels and Micah’s prophecy, let him know that in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And this sign is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.’ The site is now marked by the oldest church in Christendom, the Church of St. Mary of the Nativity, built by order of the Emperor Constantine. It is a massive pile of buildings extending along the ridge from west to east, and comprising the church proper with the three convents, Latin, Greek, and Armenian, abutting respectively upon its north-eastern, south-eastern, and south-western extremities. The proportions of the church and its related structures are more commanding from its elevation and from the shabbiness of the town in comparison. The nave of the church is common to all the sects, and is shared by them together—Latins, Greeks, Armenians. From the double line of Corinthian pillars sustaining the basilica sixteen centuries look down upon the visitor, and the footsteps of nearly fifty generations of Christians have trodden the ground upon which he treads. Says Dean Stanley: ‘The long double lines of Corinthian pillars, the faded mosaics, the rough ceiling of beams of cedar from Lebanon still preserve the outlines of the church, once blazing with gold and marble, in which Baldwin was crowned, and which received its latest repairs from our own English Edward iv.’ (Sinai and Palestine, p. 433). It is the subterranean vault that continues to be of perennial interest. Descending the steps from the raised floor of the eastern end of the nave, and turning sharply to the left, the visitor finds a half-sunk arched doorway which leads down by thirteen steps to the Chapel of the Nativity—the rude cave now paved: and walled with marble and lighted up by numerous lamps. This chamber is about 40 feet from east to west, 16 feet wide, and 10 feet high. The roof is covered with what had once been striped cloth of gold. At the east end there is a shrine where fifteen silver lamps burn night and day, and in the floor, let into the pavement, a silver star of Greek pattern marks the very spot of the Nativity with the inscription: ‘Hic de Virgine Mariâ Jesus Christus natus est.’ To the Christian the associations of the place make it full of impressiveness, and the visitor has no more sacred or tender recollections of holy ground than those which cluster round the Church and the Grotto of the Nativity. Not far off is a cave, cut out of the same limestone ridge, which was the abode of St. Jerome for over thirty years. Here, with the noble ladies whom he had won to the religious life, Paula and her daughter Eustochium, he laboured totus in lectione, totus in libris, preparing the Vulgate translation of the Holy Scriptures, which for more than a thousand years was the Bible of Western Christendom, and is a powerful tribute to his piety and learning. ‘It is the touch of Christ that has made Bethlehem’ (Kelman and Fnlleylove, The Holy Land, p. 234). And the touch of Christ is making itself felt still in the works of Christian philanthropy and missionary zeal that are being performed there. There are schools and other missionary agencies maintained by Protestants and Roman Catholics to instruct in His truth and to enrich with His grace the community who occupy the place of His birth. Bethlehem appears among the stations of the Church Missionary Society, and the work done there among women and girls has borne good fruit. The Germans have built an Evangelical Church, which was dedicated in 1893. There is much superstition and error among the nominally Christian inhabitants of the place, but the efforts of the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries have stirred up the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians to activity for the moral and spiritual welfare of their people.

Literature.—Andrews, Life of our Lord2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 82; Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine; Kelman, The Holy Land; Sanday, Sacred Sites of the Gospels; G. A. Smith, Histor. Geog. of Holy Land; The Survey of Western Palestine, vol. iii.; Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem?; Palmer, ‘Das jetzige Bethlehem’ in ZDPV [Note: DPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins.] xvii.; articles in Kitto’s Cyclop., PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , Vigonroux’s) Dictionnaire de la Bible, Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, and Encyclopaedia Biblica.

T. Nicol.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Bethlehem'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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