In the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and Jerusalem, the Jewish community was left without a king—a situation that would gradually give rise to messianic expectations about the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Bethlehem is familiar to readers of the Bible principally because that city was prophesied to be the location where a new Davidic king would be born and, according to the story of the nativity, it is the place of Jesus’s birth (see
Did you know…?
- In Hebrew, beth-lehem means literally “house of bread.”
- The birth of Jesus probably took place around 6 B.C.E. rather than 1 C.E.
- The Greek word kataluma more properly means “guest room” rather than “inn.”
- Jesus was born in a stable, not because all the hotels were full but because the guest room of the relatives with whom Joseph and Mary were staying was already overcrowded with guests.
- Today Bethlehem (Bet Lahm in Arabic) is located in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and has a population of 25,000.
What was the significance of Bethlehem in ancient Israel?
Bethlehem of Judah is located 8 kilometers (5 miles) south-southwest of Jerusalem with an elevation of 762 meters (2500 feet). The city is situated within the hill country of Judah, part of a central mountain range that runs north-south through much of Palestine (the ancient Roman name for the region). But note that there is another Bethlehem located in Galilee, a village in the tribal territory of Zebulun (
The origins of Judean Bethlehem are uncertain, but archaeological records indicate that it existed as far back as the fourteenth century B.C.E. Excavations of the city have shown evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements. The city is first mentioned in the Bible in connection with the nearby Ephrath as the burial place for Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob (
Bethlehem is most well known for its association with epic violence and Davidic kingship. Bethlehem was the home of an Ephraimite Levite and his concubine, and her murder sparked an intertribal war that resulted in the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin (
Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem?
The evangelists Matthew and Luke both narrate that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. However, many scholars conclude that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth rather than in Bethlehem, arguing that New Testament authors often tended to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures; therefore, they may have made up the story of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem as a way of interpreting
Then again, Bethlehem did not figure widely in Jewish messianic hopes, and there was no absolute necessity to spin a story about Jesus born in Bethlehem in order to legitimize him as Messiah (Mark and Paul do not seem to know of any tradition about Jesus born in Bethlehem and yet still think of Jesus as the Messiah). And while an empire-wide census is certainly unlikely, the need to return to ancestral lands to claim property or to register for taxation was not unprecedented. In any event, according to some New Testament writers, Jesus was born in Bethlehem as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. This claim also related Jesus implicitly to the tradition of Davidic kingship, which had messianic overtones.