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Bethlehem Rooftops

In the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and Jerusalem, the Jewish community was left without a king—a situation that would gradually give rise to messianic expectations about the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Bethlehem is familiar to readers of the Bible principally because that city was prophesied to be the location where a new Davidic king would be born and, according to the story of the nativity, it is the place of Jesus’s birth (see Mic 5:2; Matt 2:1-18; Luke 2:1-20; John 7:42).

What was the significance of Bethlehem in ancient Israel?

Bethlehem of Judah is located 8 kilometers (5 miles) south-southwest of Jerusalem with an elevation of 762 meters (2500 feet). The city is situated within the hill country of Judah, part of a central mountain range that runs north-south through much of Palestine (the ancient Roman name for the region). But note that there is another Bethlehem located in Galilee, a village in the tribal territory of Zebulun (Josh 19:15).

The origins of Judean Bethlehem are uncertain, but archaeological records indicate that it existed as far back as the fourteenth century B.C.E. Excavations of the city have shown evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements. The city is first mentioned in the Bible in connection with the nearby Ephrath as the burial place for Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob (Gen 35:19, Gen 48:7). Salma, a grandson of Caleb, is called the “father of Bethlehem” (1Chr 2:51) and is associated with its founding. The city was probably established as an Israelite settlement during the time of Judges (ca. 12th-11th centuries B.C.E.).

Bethlehem is most well known for its association with epic violence and Davidic kingship. Bethlehem was the home of an Ephraimite Levite and his concubine, and her murder sparked an intertribal war that resulted in the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin (Judg 19-20). But it was not all blood and gore! Bethlehem had a close association with the Davidic monarchy and the hope for a new David in the postexilic era. In the book of Ruth, Elimelek and Naomi were from Bethlehem, and Naomi returned to Bethlehem from Moab with her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth, who soon married her kinsman-redeemer Boaz. In that story, Boaz and Ruth were the ancestors of King David (Ruth 4:17-22). The prophet Samuel anointed David as King of Israel in Bethlehem (1Sam 16:1-13). In the postexilic period, the prophet Micah prophesied that God was going to raise up a new Davidic king from the city of Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). Thus, Bethlehem was the place where David’s reign began and from which a new Davidic king would again come.

Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem?

The evangelists Matthew and Luke both narrate that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. However, many scholars conclude that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth rather than in Bethlehem, arguing that New Testament authors often tended to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures; therefore, they may have made up the story of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem as a way of interpreting Mic 5:2 in hindsight. In addition, an empire-wide census that required everyone to return to their hometowns strikes many scholars as implausible (Luke 2:1-4).

Then again, Bethlehem did not figure widely in Jewish messianic hopes, and there was no absolute necessity to spin a story about Jesus born in Bethlehem in order to legitimize him as Messiah (Mark and Paul do not seem to know of any tradition about Jesus born in Bethlehem and yet still think of Jesus as the Messiah). And while an empire-wide census is certainly unlikely, the need to return to ancestral lands to claim property or to register for taxation was not unprecedented. In any event, according to some New Testament writers, Jesus was born in Bethlehem as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. This claim also related Jesus implicitly to the tradition of Davidic kingship, which had messianic overtones.

  • Michael F. Bird

    Michael Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Saving Righteousness of God (Wipf & Stock, 2007), Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2013), and A Bird’s-Eye View of Paul (Intervarsity Press, 2008).