Bethlehem--The Recognized Birthplace of Jesus
A depiction of Jesus’ Birth in a Cave in Bethlehem, West Bank (now, under Israeli occupation)
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
What are the chances that it’s an Arab Palestinian town, Bethlehem, is the birthplace of the centerpiece of the Christian faith?
Biblical and Historical Bethlehem
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not well represented in historical documents. However, the Christian Bible clearly points to it as his birthplace. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in particular, sanctify this belief. According to Christian belief, the birth of Jesus is a fulfillment of the Jewish Bible prophecy that Bethlehem will produce the future leader of the Jewish peoples. The town itself is located in the West Bank (under the Palestinian Authority), just a few miles south of Jerusalem.
Church of the Nativity, built above the Cave of Jesus’ Birth
Bethlehem’s history dates to a period before the Christian era by more than a millennia. Letters from the governor of Jerusalem in 1,400 BC to Pharaoh, referred to Bethlehem as once belonged to a king. Recent archeological evidence points to the town as the “City of David,” a town in the Kingdom of Judah, which dates to the 7th or 8th century BCE (before the Christian era). In 326 CE (Christian era), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine, sent his consort Helena to the region known as ‘Syra-Palaestina.’ There, Helena made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where she was shown the cave in which Jesus was supposedly born. Above the cave, she instructed that a church be built, and it was named the Church of the Nativity. This act gave further credence to the belief in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
This city of Bethlehem went through many gyrations, having been sacked and rebuilt over several centuries. It was rebuilt by the sixth century Eastern Roman and Christian emperor, Justinian I. The town shortly thereafter became part of the Muslim empire following their conquest in 637. It returned to Christian hands when the Crusaders invaded in the 11th century. The Greek Orthodox clergy was then replaced by a Latin clergy. By the 13th century, a Muslim regime had recaptured the area inclusive of Bethlehem. Following several centuries of Ottoman rule, the British briefly came into the picture. Jordanian rule succeeded the British, but by the 1967 6-Day war, the town became part of the occupied West Bank. It is presently administered by the Palestinian Authority, though under the occupation of Israel.
Street scene in an older part of Bethlehem
Today, Bethlehem is mostly a tourist attraction. Christmastime is the big draw, especially to Christian pilgrims making the journey to the Church of the Nativity. Such a pilgrimage represents an almost 2,000 year-long ritual. Having a population of about 25,000, there are more Muslims there than Christians. Nevertheless, the Palestinian Christian community represents a significant presence.
Walls and highways cut off Bethlehem from Israeli West Bank settlements
The presumed birthplace of Jesus is sandwiched between numerous, large Jewish settlements. Bethlehem is segmented off from these settlements by two bypass highways and high dividing walls. This allows the Jewish settlers to reach their communities without having to rub up against their Arab neighbors. The roads and walls also have the effect of shutting off the Arab population of Bethlehem from their fellow religious city of Jerusalem.
One reason the Christian population of Bethlehem is smaller than that of Muslims is economic. More Christians have been emigrating because of a bad economy and a psychologically-stressed life situation. These are attributable to the physical barriers to free movement and commerce as well as the suffering they have to endure for living under conditions of the Israeli occupation.
One research study reports that Bethlehem’s Arab Christians emigrate in greater numbers than Muslims because they integrate more easily into western environments. Because Christians tend to study in church schools, they learn European languages and attitudes that seem to give them an edge in integrating into their adoptive societies.
Christmas in Bethlehem
Besides pilgrimages to the Church of the Nativity, many other attractions draw Christians to the town. Manger Square is an important site for visitors, its claim to fame being that it hovers over a cave or grotto where Jesus’ birth is believed to have happened. A silver star marks that place.
A celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem
Also, Bethlehem has all of the elements of an Arab bazaar or marketplace. Handicrafts, spices, jewelry, religious ornaments, even furniture, are available. A special treat for the pilgrims is a local wine produced by monks belonging to the Cremisan Monastery. Many hotels dot the town’s landscape, catering to foreign visitors.
While Intifada uprisings have interrupted Bethlehem’s commercial success during several years, the town has recently recovered and continues to draw Christmastime pilgrims. There, Christmas is celebrated on several different dates in December and January. Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, while Greek and other Orthodox Christians do the same on January 6. Christian processions pay homage to the birth at Manger Square and then move on to the nearby Church of the Nativity.
While visiting Bethlehem, there are other religions as well as secular activities to engage in. The Crib of the Nativity Theater and Museum presents an animated show representing the important stages of Jesus’ life. The Palestinian Heritage Center displays a fine collection of local embroidery.
Whether one accepts the story of the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem as literal or as a ‘symbolic narrative,’ the town itself represents a vibrant sacred space which many Christians dream of visiting. It also represents an image to the world of a place where Arab Christians and Muslims live, as if in captivity, engulfed by a much larger Jewish settler population, and penned in by highways and walls that impede its full involvement in the larger society.
Bethlehem’s future depends on much more than the fervent religious significance it embodies for myriad Christian believers. In the end, forces greater than religion alone must prevail if this sacred town is to develop its full potential as a vibrant community.
(References: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018; “Bethlehem, Arabic Bayt Laḥm (“House of Meat”), Hebrew Bet Leḥem (“House of Bread”),” Jewish Virtual Library, 2018; Catholic Encyclopedia, 2018; Amon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.