IN 1868 REV PHILIPS BROOKS, rector of an Episcopal church in Philadelphia, wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for his Sunday School. He had visited the Holy Land a few years earlier and he wanted to share something of that trip with his young parishioners. Could he have imagined that people would still be singing that simple tune today?
Rev Brooks was far from the first person to be intrigued by Bethlehem, an insignificant place by worldly standards but one of lasting religious importance to both Jews and Christians. First settled by the Canaanites over 1400 years before Christ, the town was called the “house of Lahama,” a local fertility god. When the Israelites conquered the town during the first millennium bc they reinterpreted the name to mean “house of bread” (beyt lehem). Arab Palestinians, the local population today, call it the “house of meat” (beyt laham).
Bethlehem in the Old Testament
The first mention of Bethlehem in the Bible is in the Book of Genesis: “So Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath that is, Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day” (Genesis 35:19-20). Ephrath is a Hebrew word for “fertility,” recalling the old Canaanite meaning of the name. The two names are often placed side by side in the Old Testament.
Jews consider Rachel’s grave as one of their holiest sites. It is also revered by Christians and Muslims. The pillar marking the burial place of Rachel was replaced during the Ottoman era by a tomb-like shrine which remains as a place of pilgrimage today.
Rachel’s connection with Bethlehem is noted in St Matthew’s Gospel. Quoting Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew describes the mourning for the Holy Innocents as “Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:18).
Home of Jesse, Father of David
The town is next described as the home of Jesse, the father of David, Israel’s future king. The Prophet Samuel is sent there by God to identify the next king of Israel: “Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons” (1 Samuel 16:1). Jesse parades his sons before Samuel but the prophet does not choose any of them. Finally, “Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your young men here?’ Then he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him. For we will not sit down till he comes here.’ So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with bright eyes, and good-looking. And the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:11-13).
David becomes an attendant to the current king, Saul. He is present when the Philistine warrior, Goliath, challenges the Israelites to send out a champion to face him. David volunteers and slays him with his slingshot.
Saul names David commander of his troops but David’s growing popularity eventually turns Saul against him. It is only after Saul is killed by the Philistines that the leading men chose David as their king.
The highpoint of David’s victorious reign is the capture of what would be his capital, Jerusalem, which would be then known as the city of David. The actual site of David’s city, to the southeast of the present Old City of Jerusalem, has been excavated since the nineteenth century.
Bethlehem, City of David?
While Jerusalem is repeatedly called the City of David in the Old Testament, St Luke’s Gospel is the only place in the Scriptures where Bethlehem is given that distinction. We are told that “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David…” (Luke 2:4). Why does Luke identify Bethlehem in this way?
Luke gives Bethlehem, the city of David’s birth, the royal title proper to Jerusalem to accentuate the paradox that, despite Jesus’ humble origins, His is a royal birth. St Matthew does the same thing when he quotes the following prophecy of Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
When St Luke uses the title “City of David” for Bethlehem he makes an unspoken comparison between Christ and His ancestor in the flesh. David was born a man of the soil who was later chosen to be king. Jesus was an eternal King who took upon Himself the humble circumstances of being born in a cave and laid in a manger. David is a shepherd who became a king. Jesus is a King, worshipped by the shepherds, David’s successors. While David transcended his lowly birth, Jesus transformed His, making it the object of our songs.
The Basilica of the Nativity
One of the most important churches which the empress St Helena commissioned during her trip to the Holy Land in the early fourth century is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The site on which it was built had been revered for years by people in the area, as Origen attests: “If anyone wants further proof to convince him that Jesus was born in Bethlehem besides the prophecy of Micah and the story recorded in the Gospels by Jesus’ disciples, he may observe that, in agreement with the story in the Gospel about His birth, the cave in Bethlehem where He was born is pointed out, with the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. What is shown there is famous in these parts, even among people alien to the faith, that indeed Jesus, who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians, was born in this cave” (Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI).
The church soon became one of the chief shrines in the Holy Land and a favorite destination of pilgrims. Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Life of Constantine written in 335, notes that “the most pious Empress honored the Theotokos’ pregnancy with wonderful monuments, embellishing the sacred cave with all possible splendor. And soon thereafter the emperor himself honored it with imperial offerings, adding to his mother’s works of art with costly presents of silver and gold and embroidered curtains” (Life, 3.43).
The church built by St Helena – a rotunda overlooking the cave with an attached nave and atrium – was destroyed in the sixth century during a Samaritan rebellion against Roman rule. It was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 565 in the form which remains to this day: a Greek basilica-style church built over the underground Grotto of the Nativity, the shrine marking the traditional place of Christ’s birth. A silver star under the altar, supposedly marking the “exact spot” where Christ was born, was added by the French in the eighteenth century.
The basilica itself is administered by the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, which shares control of the grotto with the Armenian and Roman Catholics Churches. There are several chapels on Manger Square, surrounding the basilica, the largest being the Latin Church of St Catherine of Alexandria. There are also Armenian, Greek, and Latin monasteries attached to the basilica.