Who lives in Bethlehem?
Bethlehem has been continually inhabited as far back as the Paleolithic era and since the advent of Christianity there have been Christians in Bethlehem. Today Bethlehem’s population is over 27,000; the residents are predominantly Muslim Arabs with approximately 40% Christian Arabs. Residents of Bethlehem hold Palestinian citizenship.
Where did the name Bethlehem come from?
In the 14th century BC Bethlehem was a city-state named after the goddess Beit Lahmu. Later it was called Ephrata (Genesis 35:16) and was also referred to in the Hebrew Bible as Beit Lehem. In Hebrew “Beit” means house/home/household and “Lechem” means bread/Manna/nourishment or even battle. Commonly the name is understood to mean House of Bread. In Arabic the name means House of Meat/Flesh.
Historically Bethlehem has been conquered and ruled by Romans (132-135), Muslims (c.637); Crusaders (1096-1099); the Sultan of Egypt (1187) and again from 1813-1841 then the Ottomans (1500′s) who ruled for 400 years. In more modern history the British captured the city in the First World War and controlled the city from 1920 to 1948. In the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 Jordan annexed Bethlehem and remained in power there until the Six Day War in 1967. It was during the Six Day War that Israel pushed back the Jordanian border and took control of Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank.
So who controls Bethlehem today?
Israel remained in control of the city until 1995 when in compliance with the Oslo Peace Accord control of the city and surrounding West Bank was handed over to the Palestinian National Authority. The Palestinian Authority now has administrative and military control of the city.
Is Bethlehem in or near Gaza?
Not at all the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are two completely separate areas when you visit Bethlehem you will not need to enter or go anywhere near Gaza. The Gaza Strip and the West bank are both administered by the Palestinian Authority.
So where is Bethlehem, is it in Israel or not?
Bethlehem is in the West Bank, which means it is under the Palestinian National Authority. The West Bank is bordered on the west, north and south by Israel and on the east with Jordan, it is called the West Bank as it is on the West Bank of the Jordan River. It is necessary to understand that Israel is a small country and so the driving time from an Israeli town to a West Bank city like Bethlehem can be very short.
So what country do I fly to if I want to visit Bethlehem?
Most tourists fly to Israel and visit Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem (8km away) or Tel-Aviv.
Do you need to cross a border if visiting Bethlehem from Israel?
Yes, there is a well run border crossing which sees hundreds of tourists going back and forth every day from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The process is straight forward but you do need to bring your passport.
Is it dangerous to visit Bethlehem?
If there is a specific danger then tours will be canceled but there is a protective military presence and generally there is no problem to visit Bethlehem.
In the Old Testament, the “Jewish” Bible, Bethlehem is named as the city King David came from and the place where he was crowned King of Israel. Bethlehem is where the Book of Ruth is set. The city of Bethlehem is also where Rachel gave birth to Benjamin and died (Genesis 48:7). Today her tomb stands near the entrance of the city. In the New Testament Bethlehem is named as the place of Jesus’ birth.
If Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was Bethlehem his home town?
No, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem from their home town of Nazareth in Northern Israel. They were coming to Bethlehem to be register in a national tax census (Luke 2:1-7), all citizens had to be registered in their city of origin and Joseph was from the house of David, Bethlehem was the city of David. So Nazareth was Jesus’ home town and where he later grew up.