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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a city in the tribe of Judah, Judges 17:7; and likewise called Ephrath, Genesis 48:7; or Ephratah, Micah 5:2; and the inhabitants of it, Ephrathites, Ruth 1:2; 1 Samuel 17:12 . Here David was born, and spent his early years as a shepherd. And here also the scene of the beautiful narrative of Ruth is supposed to be laid. But its highest honour is, that here our divine Lord condescended to be born of woman:—"And 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 of old, from everlasting." Travellers describe the first view of Bethlehem as imposing. The town appears covering the ridge of a hill on the southern side of a deep and extensive valley, and reaching from east to west. The most conspicuous object is the monastery erected over the supposed "Cave of the Nativity;" its walls and battlements have the air of a large fortress. From this same point, the Dead Sea is seen below on the left, seemingly very near, "but," says Sandys, "not so found by the traveller; for these high, declining mountains are not to be directly descended." The road winds round the top of a valley which tradition has fixed on as the scene of the angelic vision which announced the birth of our Lord to the shepherds; but different spots have been selected, the Romish authorities not being agreed on this head. Bethlehem (called in the New Testament Bethlehem Ephrata and Bethlehem of Judea, to distinguish it from Bethlehem of Zabulon) is situated on a rising ground, about two hours' distance, or not quite six miles from Jerusalem. Here the traveller meets with a repetition of the same puerilities and disgusting mummery which he has witnessed at the church of the sepulchre. "The stable," to use the words of Pococke, "in which our Lord was born, is a grotto cut out of the rock, according to the eastern custom." It is astonishing to find so intelligent a writer as Dr. E. D. Clarke gravely citing St. Jerom, who wrote in the fifth century, as an authority for the truth of the absurd legend by which the cave of the nativity is supposed to be identified. The ancient tombs and excavations are occasionally used by the Arabs as places of shelter; but the Gospel narrative affords no countenance to the notion that the Virgin took refuge in any cave of this description. On the contrary, it was evidently a manger belonging to the inn or khan: in other words, the upper rooms being wholly occupied, the holy family were compelled to take up their abode in the court allotted to the mules and horses, or other animals. But the New Testament was not the guide which was followed by the mother of Constantine, to whom the original church owed its foundation. The present edifice is represented by Chateaubriand as of undoubtedly high antiquity; yet Doubdan, an old traveller, says that the monastery was destroyed in the year 1263 by the Moslems; and in its present state, at all events, it cannot lay claim to a higher date. The convent is divided among the Greek, Roman, and Armenian Christians, to each of whom separate parts are assigned as places of worship and habitations for the monks, but, on certain days, all may perform their devotions at the altars erected over the consecrated spots. The church is built in the form of a cross; the nave being adorned with forty-eight Corinthian columns in four rows, each column being two feet six inches in diameter, and eighteen feet high, including the base and the capital. The nave, which is in possession of the Armenians, is separated from the three other branches of the cross by a wall, so that the unity of the edifice is destroyed. The top of the cross is occupied by the choir, which belongs to the Greeks. Here is an altar dedicated to the wise men of the east, at the foot of which is a marble star, corresponding, as the monks say, to the point of the heavens where the miraculous meteor became stationary, and directly over the spot where the Saviour was born in the subterranean church below! A flight of fifteen steps, and a long narrow passage, conduct to the sacred crypt or grotto of the nativity, which is thirty-seven feet six inches long, by eleven feet three inches in breadth, and nine feet high. It is lined and floored with marble, and provided on each side with five oratories, "answering precisely to the ten cribs or stalls for horses that the stable in which our Saviour was born contained!" The precise spot of the birth is marked by a glory in the floor, composed of marble and jasper encircled with silver, around which are inscribed the words, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est [Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.] Over it is a marble table or altar, which rests against the side of the rock, here cut into an arcade. The manager is at the distance of seven paces from the altar; it is in a low recess hewn out of the rock, to which you descend by two steps, and consists of a block of marble, raised about a foot and a half above the floor, and hollowed out in the form of a manger. Before it is the altar of the Magi. The chapel is illuminated by thirty-two lamps, presented by different princes of Christendom. Chateaubriand has described the scene in his usual florid and imaginative style: "Nothing can be more pleasing, or better calculated to excite devotional sentiments, than this subterraneous church. It is adorned with pictures of the Italian and Spanish schools, which represent the mysteries of the place. The usual ornaments of the manger are of blue satin, embroidered with silver. Incense is continually burning before the cradle of our Saviour. I have heard an organ, touched by no ordinary hand, play, during mass, the sweetest and most tender tunes of the best Italian composers. These concerts charm the Christian Arab, who, leaving his camels to feed, repairs, like the shepherds of old, to Bethlehem, to adore the King of kings in the manger. I have seen this inhabitant of the desert communicate at the altar of the Magi, with a fervour, a piety, a devotion, unknown among the Christians of the west. The continual arrival of caravans from all the nations of Christendom; the public prayers; the prostrations; nay, even the richness of the presents sent here by the Christian princes, altogether produce feelings in the soul, which it is much easier to conceive than to describe."

Such are the illusions which the Roman superstition casts over this extraordinary scene! In another subterraneous chapel, tradition places the sepulchre of the Innocents. From this, the pilgrim is conducted to the grotto of St. Jerom, where they show the tomb of that father, who passed great part of his life in this place; and who, in the grotto shown as his oratory, is said to have translated that version of the Bible which has been adopted by the church of Rome, and is called the Vulgate. He died at the advanced age of ninety-one, A.D. 422. The village of Bethlehem contains about three hundred inhabitants, the greater part of whom gain their livelihood by making beads, carving mother-of-pearl shells with sacred subjects, and manufacturing small tables and crucifixes, all which are eagerly purchased by the pilgrims.

Bethlehem has been visited by many modern travellers. The following notice of it by Dr. E. D. Clarke will be read with interest: "After travelling for about an hour from the time of our leaving Jerusalem, we came in view of Bethlehem, and halted to enjoy the interesting sight. The town appeared covering the ridge of a hill on the southern side of a deep and extensive valley, and reaching from east to west; the most conspicuous object being the monastery, erected over the cave of the nativity, in the suburbs, and upon the eastern side. The battlements and walls of this building seemed like those of a vast fortress. The Dead Sea below, upon our left, appeared so near to us that we thought we could have rode thither in a very short space of time. Still nearer stood a mountain upon its western shore, resembling in its form the cone of Vesuvius near Naples, and having also a crater upon its top which was plainly discernible. The distance, however, is much greater than it appears to be; the magnitude of the objects beheld in this fine prospect causing them to appear less remote than they really are. The atmosphere was remarkably clear and serene; but we saw none of those clouds of smoke, which, by some writers, are said to exhale from the surface of the lake, nor from any neighbouring mountain. Every thing about it was in the highest degree grand and awful. Bethlehem is six miles from Jerusalem. Josephus describes the interval between the two cities as equal only to twenty stadia; and in the passage referred to, he makes an allusion to a celebrated well, which, both from the account given by him of its situation, and more especially from the text of the sacred Scriptures, 2 Samuel 23:15 , seems to have contained the identical fountain, of whose pure and delicious water we were now drinking. Considered merely in point of interest, the narrative is not likely to be surpassed by any circumstance of Pagan history. David, being a native of Bethlehem, calls to mind, during the sultry days of harvest, 2 Samuel 23:13 , a well near the gate of the town, the delicious waters of which he had often tasted; and expresses an earnest desire to assuage his thirst by drinking of that limpid spring. ‘And David longed, and said, O that one would give me to drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate!' The exclamation is overheard by ‘three of the mighty men whom David had,' namely, Adino, Eleazar, and Shamnah, 2 Samuel 23:8-9; 2 Samuel 23:11 . These men sallied forth, and having fought their way through the garrison of the Philistines at Bethlehem, 2 Samuel 23:14 , ‘drew water from the well that was by the gate,' on the other side of the town, and brought it to David. Coming into his presence, they present to him the surprising testimony of their valour and affection. The aged monarch receives from their hands a pledge they had so dearly earned, but refuses to drink of water every drop of which had been purchased with blood, 2 Samuel 23:17 . He returns thanks to the Almighty, who had vouchsafed the deliverance of his warriors from the jeopardy they had encountered; and pouring out the water as a libation on the ground, makes an offering of it to the Lord. The well still retains its pristine renown; and many an expatriated Bethlehemite has made it the theme of his longing and regret."

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Bethlehem'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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