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Bethlehem

Bethlehem (bĕthˈlĭhĕm,–lēəm) [key] [Heb., = house of bread or house of Lahm, a goddess], Arab. Bayt Lahm, town (2003 est. pop. 28,000), in the West Bank. It is traditionally considered the birthplace of Jesus and is one of the world's great shrines. Situated on a hill in green, fertile country, Bethlehem looks across to the Dead Sea and beyond. Its inhabitants, who are Muslim and Christian Arabs, depend largely on pilgrims and tourists for their livelihood. Handicrafts, fashioned from olive wood and mother-of-pearl, embroidered goods, and religious articles are made in the town. Bethlehem is also the trade center for surrounding farming villages and for the pastoral nomads who inhabit the area.

In the Old Testament Bethlehem was the scene of the book of Ruth and the home of David. The tomb of Rachel is nearby. Benjamin was born near Ephratah (or Ephrath), which was either an earlier name for Bethlehem or a nearby town. David and his family neglected their city, which became obscure, forgotten by all except those who looked to Bethlehem for the Messiah.

The city later became important as the birthplace of Jesus. Hadrian desecrated (A.D. 135) the traditional place of the nativity with a grove sacred to Adonis. In 315, Constantine destroyed the heathen grove and constructed instead the Church of the Nativity (completed 333). The church, rebuilt and enlarged by Justinian I in the 6th cent., is now shared by monks of Greek, Latin, and Armenian orders. The place where Jesus was born is said to have been in the grotto under the church. Saint Jerome lived (386–420?) in the court of the church and produced there the Vulgate text of the Bible.

From 1099 to 1187, Crusaders controlled Bethlehem, and in 1571 the city was annexed by the Ottoman Empire. It was part of the British-administered Palestine mandate from 1922 until 1948, when it joined Jordan. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Bethlehem became part of the Israeli-occupied territories, administered militarily by Israeli troops. Palestinian refugee camps were located nearby. In Dec., 1995, Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem as part of the process of establishing Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, but the city was the scene of Palestinian-Israeli fighting in the renewed conflict that began in 2000.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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