The Mountain of Judah
and the Shephelah
72. Bethlehem - (Bayt Laham)
Fighting against the Philistines and the Amalekites, Saul found in Bethlehem-Ephrathah support for his campaigns. He enrolled the sons of Jesse (1 Sam 17:13), along with Elhanan, the son of Dodo (2 Sam 23:24; son of Jaareoregim in 2 Sam 21:19). Afterwards Bethlehem was taken by the Philistines (2 Sam 23:14), remaining in their hands until the victories of David, when it became a dependency of Jerusalem, the new capital city. According to 2 Chr 11:6 Bethlehem was fortified by Rehoboam, but no city walls have been discovered in the excavations of the site. Nevertheless, walls that belong to the same period (Iron I-II) were unearthed in Beit-Jalah (Giloh; Mazar 1981). As Giloh is not mentioned as a fortified city in Chronicles, it may be that the two sites were identified. In the list of Judean towns found in Joshua 15 (established probably under the reign of Josiah), mention is made of Bethlehem only in the LXX and not in the MT. It seems that Bethlehem was very small at the time (Mic 5:1-English 5:2, "you . . . who are little to be among the clans of Judah" ), and noted only as the origin of the dynasty.
In the 5th century B.C.E. Bethlehem was reoccupied by the returning exiles. The exact figure of returnees varies:188 men of Bethlehem and Netophah according to Neh 7:26, and 123 "sons of Bethlehem" (and 56 "men of Netophah" ) according to Ezra 2:21. Bethlehem of Judah was never a priestly town as was Bethlehem of Zebulun (on which see below). It is never mentioned in the Qumran literature, even among the places of the treasures listed in the Copper Scrolls. In the Martyrdom of Isaiah (2:7, 8, 12) Bethlehem functions as a stage for the prophet in his flight from Jerusalem to the wilderness, a story line that is possibly built on the pattern of the narrative of Jeremiah and his companions who stopped in Kimham "near Bethlehem" (Jer 41:16-17) during their flight to Egypt. In the martyrdom of Isaiah it is a false prophet who lives in Bethlehem. Elsewhere in the pseudepigraphical literature, Bethlehem was connected with the burial of Rachel (Jubilees 32:34), and Ephrathah is located in Bethlehem (T. Reu. 3:13).
In the Fourth gospel (John 7:42) Bethlehem was considered by some of those listening to Jesus to be the birthplace of the son of David, but these same people display no knowledge of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. Elsewhere in the NT Bethlehem is mentioned only in the two Infancy Narratives. Although they are quite different in their traditions and structures, both Matthew and Luke converge on this point. In Luke, Bethlehem is the place where Joseph goes for the census and where the shepherds go "to see the thing that happened" (Luke 2:4, 15). In Matthew 2, Bethlehem is mentioned five times. There Jesus is born (2:1), the Magi are sent there (2:5-7) in accordance with the oracle of Mic 5:1, and it is there that Herod has all the male children who are two years in age or less killed ("in Bethlehem and its boundaries" [horiois]) (2:15). Then Bethlehem disappears from the NT (Brown 1985:177-85, 412-23; Perrot 1983).
After 135 C.E. Bethlehem was occupied by a Roman garrison which exterminated the remnant of the Bar Kokhba army as indicated by Roman inscriptions near Rachel's tomb (Revue biblique, Paris 1901:107; 1962:82-83; Vetrali 1967), and perhaps in Lam. Rab. 1:15 if we read Bethlehem (instead of Bethel) of Judah (cf. 1:16). It is possible that such a military presence would have led to the establishment of an Adonis cult in the same way as the Roman military presence in Aelia led to an Asclepius/Serapis cult in the caves adjacent to the pool of Bethesda (Duprez 1970:64-85). The Asclepius cult is attested by Jerome (Ep. 56.3; cf. Paulinus of Nole to Sulpicius Severus 3, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 29). Nevertheless, we must be cautious because such a notice is unique in the works of Jerome and the identification of Adonis with Asclepius is not frequent (mediante Eshmun). A more direct attestation of a military cult to the Syrian Goddess is known (Birley 1978:1516). Since Jerome's notice is more concerned with the lamentations over Adonis than with Adonis himself, Welten (1983) thinks there could have been a popular confusion between the tears of the Syrian Goddess (Lucian Syr.D., 6), the Venus lugens, and Rachel's mourning for her sons. In the postexilic period Rachel's tomb was venerated in Bethlehem-Ephrathah. If the god Lahmu was really a vegetation deity like Adonis, it is possible that worship of this kind was practiced in a Bethlehem cave; a revival which neither Jews nor Christians wished to remember may have occurred during the Roman occupation.
The Gospels do not speak of a Nativity in a cave; the oldest references are to be found in Justin (dial., 78) and in the Protoevangelium of James (18), texts which speak of a Nativity "quite near to Bethlehem, " "midway, " but not in Bethlehem itself.
Above a cave in Bethlehem, Constantine built an octogon with a basilica and a court enclosed by four porticoes in the front. During the Samaritan revolt of 529 C.E. the building was destroyed. Justinian rebuilt it in its actual shape, which was preserved by the Persian invaders (612). In the crypts the traditional Nativity cave is connected with other caves where the monastic sojourn of Jerome and his community is commemorated (Vincent and Abel 1914; M. Avi-Yonah, The Madaba Mosaic Map with Introduction and Commentary, Jerusalem 1954, Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 4 vols., ed. M. Avi-Yonah, 1975 1:202-6; Heitz 1983:6-18; Murphy-O'Connor 1983:12-13).
Bibliography: Heitz, C. 1983. L'Eglise de la Nativite'. Le Monde de la Bible 30:6-21. Mazar, A. 1981. Giloh: An Early Israelite Settlement Site near Jerusalem. Israel Exploration Journal, Jerusalem 31:12-17. Murphy-O'Connor, J. 1983. Le Monde de la Bible 30:12. Vetrali, L. 1967. Le iscrizioni dell' acquedo to romano presso Betlemme. Lexikon der Aegyptologie, eds. W. Helck and E. Otto, Wiesbaden, 1972 17:149-61. Vincent, H., and Abel, F. M. 1914. Bethleem. Le Sanctuaire de la Nativite'. Paris.
Henri Cazelles, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ad v. "Bethlehem" (extract)
Herbert Donner (The Mosaic Map of Madaba, Kampen 1992, 59)
The famous Biblical city, the birthplace of David and of Jesus Christ, is situated in a plain which is called by Eusebius 'hippodrome'. The mosaicist represented this plain with white cubes round the city and the red inscription. Strangely enough, the representation of the city itself is much smaller than that of other less important cities, e.g. Nikopolis, Lydda etc. Only the basilica of the Nativity is shown, built by the emperor Constantine and rebuilt after the earthquake of 510 by Justinian, with a red-roofed annex in the north, possibly the monastery of St. Paula. The wall, also restored under Justinian, is seen with one gate and one tower. Bethlehem was often visited and described, mainly by Christian pilgrims and by the Early Fathers. We know that there were many churches and memorial places, all ignored by the mosaicist. The reason why he did so is unknown.
Bellarmino Bagatti (Ancient Christian Villages of Judaea and Negev, Jerusalem - in the press)
The village became famous through the birth of our Lord; however, it has always remained small right up to our own day.
First to Fourth Centuries. The discovery of a kokhim tomb and some ossuaries with chiseled rosettes and crossed lines made with a brush shows us the Jewish character of the place; besides, this is well attested to by the sources. Bethlehem is, after all, the hometown of David.
The Liber Pontificalis records that one Judah, a native of Bethlehem, was father of Evaristus who became pope in Rome between 90 and 107 (for details I refer the reader to my Gli antichi edifici di Betlemme, Jerusalem 1952).
Christ's birth was soon localized in a grotto east of the village on the slope of the mountain on which it is built. Naturally the grotto became in short order a place Christians sought to visit. It was "very near the village," as St. Justin, born in Neapolis (now Nablus) in Samaria and martyred in Rome, wrote in about 160.
After the second Jewish war of 135, the emperor Hadrian, wishing to destroy the hotbeds of insurrection, decided to confiscate places of worship like Golgotha in Jerusalem. So he took over the grotto of Jesus' birth in order to convert it to the cult of Adonis. This did not prevent the Christians from continuing to venerate Christ at the grotto even if the pagans practiced the rites of their cult there.
In about 248, Origen, in arguing against Celsus, tells us that Christians living in the town "point out" the grotto of the birth of Jesus so that it was known also by non-Christians. Nevertheless, the fact that pagan worship was started in the place brought about settlement of pagans in the town. Since the profanation continued until the time of Constantine, it is quite likely that the pagans remained in Bethlehem up to the fourth century. Hence, St. Cyril, preaching the "Catecheses" toward the middle of the century, could say that "right up to a few years ago, the place was wooded;" that is, it had a little sacred forest where the pagan cult was celebrated.
Fourth to Twelfth Centuries. In the fourth century St. Jerome, who had settled in Bethlehem after leaving Italy, calls the place a villula , a "small village", whose inhabitants devoted themselves to farming. He describes the ploughman singing the alleluja, plough in hand, and the vintner pruning the vines as he intones Davidic songs.
We learn from later pilgrims that the village was enclosed within walls but without defense towers; that it was set on the hillock west of the Grotto of the Nativity; that on this grotto Constantine builta five-nave basilica, and that Justinian renovated it in the sixth century using a new, larger plan with a new baptistry.
Much of the life of the town developed near the basilica. The rings fixed in the north wall surrounding the large square in front of the church served for tying up the donkeys of those who came to market from the vicinity. Bethlehem is almost at the edge of the desert and shepherds and farmers come even today to barter their wares in exchange for the necessities of life.
In the Byzantine period Bethlehem was ringed by monasteries of various rites which brought a new life to the village both from a cultural and a religious point of view. Thus, for example, we hear of a sterile woman that became fertile through the intercession of St. Theodosius who lived in the monastery nearby on a hill which even today goes by the saint's name (Festugière, III, 3, p. 146). St. Jerome narrates how he taught some boys in a Latin school and that, together with his monks, he prepared neophytes for baptism. Naturally various individuals of the village took part in the building program of the time. In his Life of St. Sabas (ch.82: Festugière, III, 2, p. 117), Cyril recounts how once a Bethlehemite called Mamas was plastering a cistern of the laura with his disciple Auxentius, when a sudden storm suddenly flooded the cistern with rainwater. Mamas got away, the disciple was trapped in the water, but by a miracle escaped unharmed. The cistern was near the holy man's tomb.
A few tombstone inscriptions give us the names of the faithful who lived at that time. We note one Booz who made a tombstone for Ruth, perhaps his wife.
A fragment of a Byzantine funerary inscription
from Bethlehem, with the Biblical names
Booz and Ruth
Twelfth Century to Today. With the coming of the Crusaders, the Moslems destroyed the village. They would have ruined the basilica too if the Christians, through a stratagem, had not succeeded in having the Crusaders reach Bethlehem fast. The pilgrims who visited Bethlehem in the following centuries could not but notice its miserable condition. In 1102-03 Seowulf observed: "Nothing inhabitable is left there but everything is devastated as in other places outside Jerusalem, except the monastery of the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of the Lord, which is large and beautiful."
During the Crusader period Bethlehem was an episcopal see joined to that at Ascalon as early as 1110. A list of bishops resident partly in the place and partly in Acre is exant: four lived before the fall of Jerusalem in 1187; eight after this event and up to the fall of Acre (initial Fedalto, La Chiesa latina in Oriente II, Verona 1976, pp. 57-58).
Many embellishments were done to the church in this period. It was mosaiced and the columns were painted in a popular style. Many liturgical objects of great artistic value, such as some basins historiated with the legend of St. Thomas the Apostle, were sent from Europe. The most important buildings of the period are the Augustinian convent, with halls, a cloister with sculptured capitals and the great enclosure wall which protected the monks from Moslem attacks. Also the large defense tower in which the soldiers lived was found within this rampart. The Latins were very limited in number in comparison to the native Christians. The latter remained alone after the departure of the Crusaders.
In 1347 Fr. Nicholas of Poggibonsi describes the town as follows (p. 59): "In the town of Bethlehem there are many Christians 'of the belt' and few Saracens live there. There are many vineyardss and wine can be made [for which] they have the Sultan's permission. Said town is almost all wrecked; the houses where the Christians live have been rebuilt by themselves. The inhabited part is about a cross-bow shot long and a stone-throw wide. The town is located atop a mountain of rough stone, and at the foot of the town, toward the east, there is the church where Christ was born." In 1394-95 the lawyer Martoni says that Bethlehem "was destroyed since the Christians lost it. At present there are perhaps thirty poor houses in which the Saracens and the Christians 'of the belt' live." In the sixteenth century the Franciscans opened a boys' school to make them available for religious services as much as to help them earn a living more easily. John van Kootwyck, who came to Palestine in 1598, writes: "The Christians observe the Greek rite; few the Latin; all, however, learn the Italian language, which they call Frankish, from boyhood. Thus as adults they act as interpreters for the friars and western pilgrims and see to it that their sons learn Italian from the friars so that the monasteries do not lack those who provide service, and these, as the monks have told me, attend both to work and study, diligently and faithfully" (Itinerarium , p. 239).
For more sources and bibliography see:
Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea - Palaestina (Jerusalem 1994) s.v. "Bethlehem", 83.
Map Section 6 Place Sources