BETHLEHEM (Heb. “House of Bread,” or, according to a more questionable etymology, “of [the god] Lakhmu”), a small town in Palestine, situated on a limestone ridge (2550 ft. above sea-level), 5 m. S. of Jerusalem. The neighbourhood produces wheat, barley, olives and vines in abundance. It was occupied in very early times, though the references in Judges xvii., xix., and Ruth are of doubtful date. It was the early home of David and of Joab (2 Sam. ii. 32). It was fortified by Rehoboam, and in the neighbouring inn of Chimham the murderers of Gedaliah took refuge (Jer. xli. 17). Micah (v. 2) and other writers speak of it as Bethlehem-Ephrathah; perhaps Ephrathah was the name of the district. Almost complete obscurity, however, was gathering round it when it became (according to Matt. ii. and Luke ii.) the birthplace of Jesus. The traditional scene of the Nativity, a grotto on the eastern part of the ridge, is alleged to have been desecrated during the reign of Hadrian by a temple of Adonis. In 330 it was enclosed by a basilica built by the orders of the emperor Constantine. This basilica (S. Maria a Praesepio), which is still standing, was restored and added to by Justinian, and was later surrounded by the three convents successively erected by the Greek, Latin and Armenian Churches (see de Vogüé, Les Églises de la Terre Sainte). Captured by the Crusaders in the 11th century, Bethlehem was made an episcopal see; but the bishopric soon sank to a titular dignity. Beside the grotto of the Nativity other traditional sites are shown within the church, such as the Altar of the Magi, the Tomb of Eusebius, the cave wherein Jerome made his translation of the Bible, &c.
There are several monasteries and convents, and British, French and German schools. The village is well built and comparatively clean. The population (8000) has contained few Moslems since the Moslem quarter was destroyed by Ibrahim Pasha, in revenge for the murder of one of his favourites, after the insurrection of 1834. The carving of crucifixes and other sacred mementoes gives employment to a large proportion of the population. In 1850 a dispute arose between France and Russia, in the name of the Latin and Greek Churches respectively, concerning the possession of the key of the chief door of the basilica, and concerning the right to place a silver star, with the arms of France, in the grotto of the Nativity. The Porte, after much futile temporizing, yielded to France. The disappointment thus inflicted on Russia was a determining cause of the outbreak of the Crimean War (see Kinglake, Invasion of the Crimea, chap. iii.). [There is a tiny village of the same name in Zebulun, 7 m. N.W. of Nazareth (Josh. xv. 19).]
- The country of Moab is clearly visible from around Bethlehem.