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Bethlehem (scriptural)

The city of Christ's birth in scripture

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Bethlehem.—The old Hebrew name bethlehem, meaning “house of bread”, has survived till the present day. In its Arabic form, however, bet lahm, it means “house of meat”. Several scholars (Smith, Hist. Geog. of the Holy Land, 1906, 318. n. 2) hold that the name is connected with Lakhmu, one of the divinities in the Babylonian Creation myth and that Bethlehem was a sacred shrine of that god in ancient times. This is possible, but there is no actual evidence in favor of the conjecture. Two cities of the name are known from Sacred Scripture: I. BETHLEHEM is mentioned in Jos., xix, 15, as one of the twelve cities belonging to the tribe of Zabulon. It is but a small town, poorly built, and of no great importance (Buhl, Geog. des alten Palastina, 1896, 215), a little less than seven miles southwest of Sapphoris (Saffurieh) and seven miles northwest of Nazareth, the home of Our Lord. Critics do not agree among themselves whether the Bethlehem described in Judges, xii, 8, 10, as the home of Abesan (Ibzan), one of the minor judges, is the same as that of Jos., xix, 15, or Bethlehem of Juda. A large number if not the majority of modern commentators, are in favor of Bethlehem of Zabulon. But ancient tradition (Josephus, Antiq., V, vii, 13; cf. also Moore, Judges, Int. Crit. Corn.) made Abesan spring from Bethlehem of Juda and the view is ably defended by Father Lagrange in his commentary (Smith, op. cit.; Hogg, Encyc. Bib., IV, 5389). In any case Galilee), a certainly remarkable combination of two names so well known from the Gospels (Reville, Jesus de Nazareth, 2nd ed., Paris, 1906, I, 360).

II. BETHLEHEM OF JUDEA [so the Greek text of Matt., ii, 1, erroneously corrected by St. Jerome to Bethlehem of Juda, thinking that the Evangelist had in his original text conformed to the Old Testament usage (Judges, xvii, 7, xix, 1; I Kings (Sam.), xvii, 12)], is much more celebrated than its northern namesake as the birthplace of David, and above all, of Our Lord. The city, which numbers now about 10,000 inhabitants, almost exclusively Christians, is situated five miles south of Jerusalem at a very short distance from the highroad from Jerusalem to Hebron, in the midst of a most beautiful country (Buhl, op. cit., 19), which contrasts favorably with the neighborhood of Jerusalem. At an altitude of 2,350 feet it spreads out between the Wadi el Hrobbe in the North and the Wadi er-Rahib in the south; the land of Moab is visible in the southeast, a detail to be remembered in reading the beautiful story of Ruth the Moabitess, the scene of which is Bethlehem (Smith, op. cit.). The main resources of Bethlehem are agriculture and the sale of religious articles; the city is also the marketplace of the peasants and bedouins of the neighborhood.

According to Gen., xxxv, 16, 19; xlviii, 7, Bethlehem was associated with the patriarchal history. The sepulchre of Rachel, or Qubbet Rahil (Rachel‘s dome) as it is called now, about one mile north of Bethlehem, still shown to the pilgrim and venerated by Christians, Mohammedans, and Jews, is referred to again in I Kings (Sam.), x, 2, and Matt., ii, 16-18; cf. Jer., xxxi, 15. As an examination of these passages shows, the tradition presents some obscurities, and critics question the correctness of the gloss (Gen., xxxv, 19) which identifies Ephrata with Bethlehem, supposing it the result of a confusion between Bethlehem-Ephrata [Ruth, iv, 11; Mich., v, 2 (I)], i.e. our Bethlehem, and another Ephrata in the north, otherwise unknown, or assume two different traditions regarding Rachel‘s sepulchre. (Cf. commentaries: Driver in Hast., “Dict. of the Bible“, IV, 193, a; Buhl, op. cit., 156, 159; Badeker-Benzinger, “Palastina and Syrien”, 1904, 91.) Bethlehem is mentioned also in Judges as the home of the young Levite who went to Michas (xvii, 7 sqq.) and of the young woman (xix, 1 sqq.) whose death caused the expedition against the tribe of Benjamin. In the Old Testament, however. it is connected especially with the great King David (I Kings, xvi, 1 and passim), whose name is given to the three cisterns (Bi ‘ar Da ‘ud), found northwest of the town, not far from the tomb of Rachel. A tradition not older than the end of the fifteenth century, according to Badeker-Benzinger (p. 91), sees therein the cistern referred to in II Kings, xxiii, 14 sqq. and I Par. (Chron.), xi, 16 sqq. Later the city was fortified by Roboam (II Par., xi, 6), and I Esd. (Ezrah), ii, 21 sqq. [cf. II Esd. (Nehem.), vii, 26] informs us of the return of 123 Bethlehemites from the Captivity.

In the New Testament, we have, with the exception of John, vii, 42, references to Bethlehem only in Matt., ii, and Luke, ii, whose narratives of the birth of the Savior in the city of David have rendered it most dear to Christians. Many modern critics, however, are making Bethlehem again “little among the thousands of Judah” (Schmidt, The Prophet of Nazareth, 1905, 246) by attacking the historical value of the Gospel narratives. Some place Our Lord’s birth at Nazareth, called His patris in the Gospels (Mark, vi, 1, and parall.; cf. i, 9; i, 24, etc.); this is done by almost all those who deny the historicity of the Infancy, endeavoring to explain our narratives as a legend arisen from the Jewish tradition that the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem, occasioned by Micheas, v, 2 (I). (Cf. Targum; also John, vii, 42; Strauss, Life of Christ, tr. Eliot, from the 4th Germ. edit., 1840, § 32, end, § 39; Usener in “Encyc. Bib.”, III, 3346-47; Schmidt, op. cit., 243, 246; Weiss in “Die Schriften des N. T.”, Gottingen, 1906, I, 1, pp. 46, 221-223, 393-395.) Others more seldom give the explanation already mentioned.

This question, which is part of the larger problems connected with cc. i-ii of Matt. and Luke, cannot be discussed here. [See besides the lives of Jesus and commentaries; Ramsay, “Was Christ born at Bethlehem?”, 1898, and Census of Quirinus.] Suffice it to remark here that if the second explanation removes some difficulties, it requires us to go entirely behind the narratives of both Matt. and Luke, who most clearly mean only Bethlehem of Juda (see Knowling, “Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels”, New York, 1906, I, 204). Against the first explanation it may be noted with many critics that Matt. and Luke agree independently in placing the birth at Bethlehem without, in St. Luke’s case, any sign of influence of Micheas’ prophecy (Knowling, op. cit.; Nichol, “Dictionary of Christ”, I, 195, a; Jacquier, “Hist. des livres du N. T.”, Paris, 1905, II, 209). We must not, however, exaggerate the value of that argument. (Cf. Revue d’histoire et de litterature religieuses, January—February, 1906, 62 sqq.) These difficulties were unknown to the ancient writers, who reproduce simply the Gospel narratives with additions, in some cases possibly historical. About 150 we find St. Justin Martyr referring (I:ial., lxxviii) to the Savior’s birth as having taken place in a cave near the village of Bethlehem; such cave stables are not rare in Palestine. (Cf. Massie in Hast., Dict. of the Bible, III, 234; Expository Times, May, 1903, 384; Bonaccorsi, “Il Natale”, Rome, 1903, 16-20.) The tradition of the birth in a cave was widely accepted, as we see from Origen’s words about a century later: “In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the rumor is in those places and among foreigners of the Faith that indeed Jesus was born in this cave”. (Contra Celsum, I, li.) It is reproduced also in the apocryphal gospels (Pseudo-Matt., xiii, ap. Bonaccorsi, op. cit., 159-163; Protevang. of James, xvii sqq., Bonaccorsi, 155-159; Gospel of the Infancy, II-IV, Bonaccorsi, 163-164). Over the traditional spot of the Nativity stands a church (St. Mary of the Nativity), surrounded on the northwest and southwest by the convents of the Latins (Franciscans), Greeks, and Armenians, respectively. The building is, apart from additions and modifications made by Justinian (527-565), substantially the work of Constantine (about 330). Underneath that most ancient and venerable monument of Christianity, a favorite resort of pilgrims throughout the centuries, is the grotto of the Nativity. The Nativity chapel, running in the same general direction as the church (east to west), is situated under the choir; at the eastern end is a silver star with the inscription: Hic de Virgin Maria Jesus Christus natus est, and near the chapel of the Crib (see Bonaccorsi, op. cit., 77-113). Other grottoes to the north and northwest connected with that of the Nativity are associated, mostly by recent traditions (c. fifteenth century), with the narratives of Matt., ii, mainly, and with the memory of the great scholar St. Jerome and his company of pious and learned friends (Sanders, Etudes sur S. Jerome, Paris, 1903, 29 sqq.).


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