Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Scriptures in connection with the
death of Rachel. It is also the backdrop for the idyll of Ruth, the Moabite..
It was also the birthplace of King David. When King Saul was rejected by God Samuel went to Bethlehem where he anointed David as king of Israel.
In Bethlehem also were born Joab, Abisai and Asael, the three sons of Sarvia, David's sister. Joab was the first to scale the walls of Jebus, for which he was made captain-in-chief of the king's army. Abisai, the inseparable companion of David, once saved the king's life by slaying the Philistine giant Jesbibenot, "the iron of whose spear weighed 300 ounces". Asael, the swiftest runner among David's "valiant men", lost his life in one of the exploits near Gabaon. His companions in arms bore his corpse to Bethlehem to give it honourable sepulchre in the tomb of his ancestors.
But the "new David" was to come from Bethlehem. Michah the Prohet points to the city in his "awaiting for the Messiah": "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. " (Mic 5,2-5)
* From Jesus to Justinian
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Lk 2,1-6)
The decree of Caesar Augustus ordering a census of all the provinces subject to the Roman Empire brought Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to their native city.
We have witness that Emperor Hadrian profaned the town, after the second Jewish revolt, with a precise political stratagem to eradicate all places of worship of the Jewish nation. In Bethlehem he planted a sacred garden dedicated to Adonis on the holy grotto. St. Jerome, in 396 A.D informs us about this. But the site of the birth of Jesus remained visible as witnesses Origen.
Since the Jews were at this time excluded from Bethlehem, it seems that a considerable pagan population still remained in the district to carry on a cult popular among agricultural communities in the east.
In the year 325 the Bishop of Jerusalem, St. Macarius, took the opportunity, offered by the general council of the church at Nicaea, of acquainting Emperor Constantine of the neglected condition of the Holy Places in his diocese. The Emperor ordered the construction, at the public charge, of monumental churches to commemorate the three principal events of Jesus' life. One of these was to be a church enshrining the scene of the Nativity.
Here Jerome produced his great literary works, among them his Latin translation from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, now known as the Vulgate (Biblia Vulgata), which was to help so much in the diffusion of the Bible.
* From Justinian to the Crusaders
In 527 Justinian became Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. In 529 the Samaritans revolted. Spreading from Nablus, they plundered the countryside. The rising was soon quelled and the Samaritans in great part exterminated. According to Eutichius of Alexandria the rebuilding of the Church in Bethlehem is attributed to this emperor.
It was a mosaic scene where the Magoi were vested as Persians that spared the Church from destruction during the Persian invasion (614 AD).
With the occupation of Palestine by the Islamic army we assist to a gradual decline of the Christian presence. The Caliph Omar visited Bethlehem and promised that the Moslems would pray in the church as individuals only, without assembly or muezzin. This probably saved the church from the orders of the Caliph Hakim in 1009.
The arrival of the Crusaders in 1099 changed things for the better. The Crusader army under Godfrey de Bouillon was resting at Emmaus, when messengers arrived from Bethlehem requesting aid against the Saracens of the villages who were about to attack Bethlehem. Tancred with one hundred knights was dispatched and in the morning the flag of Tancred was raised over the Basilica. From that day the Normans regarded the church of the Nativity as something peculiarly their own. On Christmas Day, 1100, Baldwin the first king of the Latin Kingdom was crowned in Bethlehem. His successor Baldwin II followed his example in 1122.
The Crusaders did not have to do restoration of the Church as it seems that it was in a good state. But to the north side of the church they built a cloister and monastery which was given to the Canons of St. Augustine.
With the fall of Jerusalem, things went bad for Bethlehem. In 1192 Hubert Walter, the Bishop of Salisbury, obtained permission from Saladin for two priests and two deacons of the Latin rite to remain in Bethlehem, but now a Moslem guard sat at the door collecting fees. The treaty of 1229 between Frederick II and Sultan Kamil Mohammed restored temporarily Bethlehem to the Franks.
When Bibars came into power, Palestine suffered. In 1263 he ordered the destruction of Bethlehem, but the church somehow escaped. When finally the Crusaders were driven from Palestine in 1291, the Moslem rulers used the holy places for political and financial ends
* Post-Crusaders' period
With the end of the crusader experience Bethlehem passed definitively under Moslem rule but notwithstanding the difficulties encountered it remained for long centuries the principle Christian enclave of the Holy Land. In 1333 the Franciscans established themselves in Bethlehem in the deserted Augustinian monaster. In 1347 the Franciscans started officiating the Basilica. Till 1637 they could freely celebrate their liturgies, welcome the pilgrims, and whenever the need arose restore the church through the help of the Christian nations with the consent of the Moslem authorities.
With the occupation by the Turks in 1617 looting was openly done. The Basilica passed alternatively from the Franciscans to the Greeks according to the favour enjoyed at the Sublime Porte by the nation which supported the communities.
In 1690 the Latins retook possession of the Grotto and in 1717 they placed there a new silver star, instead of the old one which had been worn out, with the Latin inscription: "Hic de Virgine Maria a Jesus Christus natus est, 1717". This situation lasted until 1767, when the Greeks took possession once more of the Basilica and, inside the crypt, of the Altar of the Nativity. Between 1810 and 1829 the Armenians succeeded in establishing themselves in the Church, getting the left arm of the transept.
The star which by its Latin inscription consecrates the right of the Latins to the ownership of the Altar of the Nativity, disappeared on the 12th October 1847. After five years' negotiations between the French Embassy and the Sublime Porte, the Sultan Abdul Mejid compelled the Greeks to allow a new star to be put in its place in 1868. The firman of the Sultan contained also a guarantee for the Status Quo in the Sanctuaries.
* The Christmas Experience
The celebration of the Christmas Liturgy dates back to the primitive church. And this cannot be otherwise as the devotion at this site goes back to the first Christians. The first liturgical documents (the Diary of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria and the Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem - both IV-Vth century) give us a description of the Liturgy of Epiphany.
Epiphany opened the liturgical year with a celebration on the 5th of January towards 4 pm at the site of the Shepherds, not too far from Bethlehem. In those days the feast of Epiphany used to commemorate both the birth of Jesus and his revelation as the Saviour of mankind. But during the fifth century, at the time of bishop Juvenal (421-452) the church of Jerusalem started to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December as the Church of Rome. The Georgian Lectionary of Jerusalem ( VI-VIII century) witnesses this feast of Christmas on the 25th of December. -----
Today in Bethlehem the Franciscans take care of the Catholic Community and perform all their liturgies in St. Catherine's Church but they still share the space of the Nativity grotto with the Orthodox Clergy. The Franciscans hold a daily procession, at noon, from St. Catherine's to the Grotto of the Nativity and to the subterranean chapels.
* A short description
The Population of Bethlehem today is made up of Christians and Moslems. Among the Christians we find Catholics of Latin, Syrian, Melchite, Armenian and Maronite rites and Orthodox of Greek, Syrian and Armenian denominations. Protestants too are present in the Judean town.
A multitude of religious institutes are present in Bethlehem. Amongst these, alongside the Franciscan Friars, we find the De La Salle Brothers (Freres), the Betharam fathers and the Salesians. A multitude of Sisters offer their services to the population: the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, the Carmelite, Salesian, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Franciscans o the Sacred Heart of Mary, Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles, Sisters of Charles de Foucauld, Rosary Sisters, Elizabethan Sisters and the Dorothean Sisters. All these are mainly involved in Charitable and Educational services ranging from schools to orphanages, from homes to hospitals.