This aerial photograph shows the main road to Bethlehem from the north (Jerusalem). The modern city stretches out from the historic center in all directions. Today, Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and has a population of about 22,000 not including the suburbs of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
From the North
Shepherd with Flock
The area to the east of the city is traditionally believed to be the area of the fields of the shepherds “keeping watch o’er their flocks by night.” Several churches have been built to commemorate this event. Even today local shepherds can be seen tending their flocks in this same area (even on Christmas Eve!).
The entrance to the famous church in Bethlehem is remarkably unimpressive. The large courtyard is perfect for priests, pilgrims or tourists, but most noticeable are the vendors. Palestinian police now patrol the area. Buses no longer are allowed to enter the square, but instead are directed to a large parking structure.
This building is the oldest standing church in the Holy Land. Originally built by Constantine’s mother in the 4th century, Emperor Justinian rebuilt the current structure in the 530s. It was apparently spared destruction from the Persians in 614 because the invaders saw the depictions of the Magi on the walls. Local Muslim-Christian friendship is believed to be why the church was not destroyed during al-Hakim’s rule in 1009.
Underneath the present floor are beautiful mosaics of the earlier church. The church built at the direction of Constantine’s mother was octagonal in shape, typical of Byzantine memorial churches. Before the Roman empire converted to Christianity, the area was a sacred grove of Thammuz.
The Birth Cave
Early tradition places the birth of Jesus in a cave. Scripture doesn’t mention the existence of a cave, and skeptics note that many biblical events were commemorated in caves (more convenient for pilgrims to be sheltered from sun and rain?). But it is also true that many houses in the area are built in front of caves. A cave could serve a household well by providing shelter for the animals or a place of storage.
Place of Birth
According to tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus at the place where the star is located on the floor. The tradition that the birth was in a cave is one of the oldest Christian traditions. Justin Martyr mentions it in the mid-2nd century, as does the Protoevangelium of James (also 2nd century). Origen notes that the cave of Jesus’s birth was pointed out in his day and no doubt this was the same place where the Byzantine church was erected.
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History of Bethlehem (Bethlehem Municipality) A comprehensive history, from ancient to modern times, including a map.
Bethlehem (Virtual Israel Experience, Jewish Virtual Library) An informative article about the Church of the Nativity, Rachel’s Tomb and a couple of neighboring sites.
Bethlehem (Catholic Encyclopedia) An encyclopedia article on the city and its history. Includes a history of the early tradition that Jesus was born in a cave.
Bethlehem (Bible Odyssey) A brief history of why Bethlehem is significant. The author seems to have a low view of the inerrancy of Scripture, as he appears to doubt the legitimacy of Jesus’s birth actually occurring in Bethlehem; otherwise, not a bad history.
History of Bethlehem (Holy Land Network) A succinct article on the history of Bethlehem. Also includes a photo gallery with briefly annotated pictures.
The City of Bethlehem (Bethlehem Municipality) A number of good pictures and articles on the city, its history, and the sites located in and around it.
History of Bethlehem Documented by First Temple Period Bulla from the City of David (Bible History Daily) A brief article about the discovery of a bulla, and its significance for the long history of Bethlehem.
Church of the Nativity (See the Holy Land) Highly readable history, illustrated with a few photos, for the church.
Endangered Site: Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Smithsonian) A 2009 article discussing the need for renovations at the church.
Birthplace of Jesus (UNESCO World Heritage) The official explanation regarding why the church is regarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit Bethlehem (Crowded Planet) A nice how-to for planning your visit to Bethlehem, including a FAQ section and plenty of helpful info.