See also Bethlehem
BETHLEHEM, BETHLEHEMITE bĕth’ lĭ hĕm (בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם, LXX Βαιθλεέμ or Βηθλεέμ, Βαιθλεεμίτης or Βηθλεεμίτης; house (place) of bread or food; Bethlehem; patronymic of an inhabitant of Bethlehem). It has been suggested that leḥem refers to the Assyrian deity Lakhmu thereby making the name mean “house of Lakhmu.” There is little evidence, however, that this god was ever worshiped in Pal. The modern name is Bayt Lahm, the Arab. equivalent of the Heb. Two towns of this name have existed from early times.
1. A town in Judah famous as the “city of David” and as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It lies about six m. SW of Jerusalem near the main N-S road connecting Hebron and the S. It is over 2300 ft. above sea level. This gives it a position of strength and, indeed, it was occupied by a garrison of Philistines in David’s time (
Little is known of the origin of the town, though in
Rachel’s tomb was remembered (and still is) as being near Bethlehem (
After David’s time, the town seems to have declined in importance as far as the historical events of the OT are concerned. Bethlehemites are mentioned, however, as participating in the Exile and there were many who returned to take up residence in their home town (
By NT times there was the expectation that the Messiah should arise in Bethlehem (
In a.d. 325 Helena built a church over a series of caves in Bethlehem prob. on the tradition, recorded as early as Justin Martyr (Dialogue, 78), that the scene of the nativity was a cave (see Jerome, Letter to Paulinus, 58.3). Justinian I (a.d. 527-565) built a new and larger church on the same site upon the destruction of Helena’s chapel. This so-called “Church of the Nativity” still stands, though with some medieval modifications. Whether the church actually marks the exact spot of the nativity is uncertain, however. By a.d. 132 Hadrian had devastated Bethlehem and no remains of the first three centuries a.d. have been found there.
2. A town in Zebulun (
Bibliography R. W. Hamilton, “Excavations in the Atrium of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem,” QDAP, III (1933), 1-8; E. T. Richmond, “Basilica of the Nativity: Discovery of the Remains of an Earlier Church,” QDAP, V (1936), 75-81; H. Vincent, “Le Sanctuaire de la Nativité d’après les fouilles récentes,” RB (1936), 545-574; F. M. Abel, Géographie de la Palestine, II (1938), 276, 277; J. W. Crowfoot, Early Churches in Palestine (1941), 22-30, 77-85; Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1962, 1967), passim; C. Kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels (1963), 1-47.