Bethlehem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Name
No spring?
Nativity Church
In 1969, archaeologists located the original Bethlehem on a roughly circular mound, 770 meters above sea level and about 400 meters in diameter (including its slopes). The present Church of the Nativity stands on the western end of this tell, which extends to the area of the Milk Grotto and the cemeteries. The mound drops steeply on all sides that are visible; on the west, however, the massive structures of the church make the slope hard to gauge. We can see the formidable height of the hill from Shepherds' Fields.

No spring has been found. Hence, Bethlehem had to be "little" (Micah 5:2). It took the birth of David to put it on the map.

The inhabitants must have relied on cisterns. Throughout the ages, as the town developed, they kept hewing them from the waterproof chalk: there are thousands of cisterns in the larger town of today, including some that are ancient. David, we recall, sent his heroes to bring him water from the well at the gate (2 Samuel 23: 15 - 17). If this was a well, not a cistern (the Hebrew can mean either), it has since disappeared without a trace. The so-called "David's well" (three cisterns, in fact) lies too far removed from his Bethlehem.

MangerThe lack of a spring precluded farming by irrigation, and the area was extremely vulnerable to drought. We find biblical evidence for this in the Book of Ruth (see Shepherds' Fields). But the question arises: Given this vulnerability, why was there a town here at all? (See a possible explanation.)

The mound is at the eastern edge of a ridge. This bends like a boomerang for one kilometer, first to the west, then northward. Along this ridge the town developed. Ideally, our bus would enter from the Hebron road (the main north-south road over the central range) and drop us on Paul VI Street. Walking SE on it, we reach the Lutheran Christmas Church. From here to the east we follow the bending ridge through the older part of the present town, passing through a neighborhood known as Harat en-Najajra. Its residents, according to local tradition, descend from the Ghassanites, the first Christian tribes of the region. They came from Najran (today in northern Yemen) joining a group of families known as Rathabreh, who had come from Greece in the Byzantine period.  If time permits, we can visit the local market and stop at the Olive Press Museum, ending our walk at the place of Jesus' birth. 

Map of Bethlehem