Bethlehem: The Entire History!


BETHLEHEM. Simply saying the word evokes a thousand images. Sadly though, most of them are false. This essay is the real story of what happened that fateful night in Bethlehem, and just as importantly, during the thousands of years leading up to the miracle that made Bethlehem the most important little town on earth.

This is the entire story of Bethlehem: From its highly unusual geology, geography, and climate that are the reasons why it exists in the first place, to its birth in the mists of time and its unfolding during ancient history, to its multiple sufferings under the many cruel empires that trampled over it, to its unique cultural blend of herders and farmers, to its physical layout 2,000 years ago, and finally we’ll run a movie camera over what Mary and Joseph actually experienced upon their arrival at Joseph’s cousin’s compound that fateful day (Spoiler alert: It’s in section 9 if you want to skip straight to it). All these coalescing elements created a village that became the dividing line of human history.

Chronologically, Bethlehem divided global time from BC to AD, or BCE and CE as it’s called today. History swung from before to after, via Bethlehem. Religiously, Bethlehem divided Judaism from Christianity. Theologically, Bethlehem divided the Old Testament from the New Testament. Physically, Bethlehem divided the Roman Empire from the Persian Empire. Climatically, Bethlehem divided the dry desert of the Dead Sea from the cooler damp uplands of the Judean hill country. Culturally, Bethlehem divided the Jewish civilisation of the plateau from the Arab Bedouin nomadic culture beyond. Most importantly though Bethlehem divided the era of a distant creator from one where he was Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). It is that last point that has had the biggest impact on world history.

Just for the record, the word Bethlehem is derived from the Jewish words Bayit Lehem, meaning house of bread or house of food. Today Bethlehem is an Arab town, an in modern Arabic Bayt Lahm means house of meat. The original Biblical name for Bethlehem was Ephrath, which means fruitful. Any way you look at it the message is the same: This place was a food bowl worth settling.

So come with me on a journey of discovery as we dive into this most fascinating and significant of all the world’s small towns. Before reading on however, please click on this 1931 aerial photo of Bethlehem looking southeast over the bulk of the Judean Plateau, and in the far distance down to the coastal plain (top right). As you can see, even less than a century ago it was still a small town and quite isolated, at least in the southeast direction of the photo. As you can see, Bethlehem is perched on undulating and rocky ground. The original village is on the ridge to the far left of centre beginning where the Church of the Nativity is now located supposedly over the spot Christ was born (small tower, centre left). Bethlehem was originally located for defensive reasons at the end of that ridge on the left. Most of what you see from the centre of the photo and toward the right is newer construction. Just to the right of the Church of the Nativity there was originally a dip in the ridge that has been filled in to form Manger Square, visible in the photo. Now compare that photo with this modern satellite image of modern Bethlehem that shows the extensive recent Jewish settlements around the town which now has over 25,000 inhabitants. How times have changed.


Geology creates geography. Geography creates climate. Climate creates civilisation. Civilisations create cities and villages, which create history. So geology is where I will start. Bethlehem lies 5 kilometres form the eastern rim of the Judean hills, and almost 800 metres above sea level. These hills are 10-20 kilometres east-west at their widest but run north-south for around 150 kilometres, and they divide Israel in two. Twenty kilometres to the south of Bethlehem near Hebron the Judean hills top out at just over 1,000 metres, and it snows there every year. Heading north from Bethlehem the plateau drops about 80 metres in the 10 kilometres to Jerusalem. Later in the essay we will find out why this slope is important. In the north of Israel the Judean plateau drops into the fertile Jezreel valley at Megiddo, and then rises again into the Galilean Hills. Though 120 kilometers apart, both Nazareth and Bethlehem are built on the same limestone geology. Now let me explain how the deeply gullied rolling chalky limestone plateau around Bethlehem came about.

The Judean Hills were formed during the great flood (Genesis 6, 7, 8, 9). The water for this event came mainly from thousands of volcanic ruptures (Genesis 7:11). This is because the magma below us is approximately 25% super-pressurised water. The flood initially wiped the earth’s basement Precambrian rocks clean during the early stages of the inundation in a massive global-scale unconformity, a geological interruption where the earths basement rocks suddenly and cleanly give way to sedimentary rocks. Then as the waters rose and slowed, between two and five kilometres of sedimentary rock was deposited in most places over the globe. Our entire planet now sits on these immense layers of water-borne geological strata, that could only have one cause.

Limestone deposition then took place on a regional scale. A thousand metres of marine fossilised strata, coral, and shellfish, along with sandstone, built up in the area we now call Israel and Jordan. Finally, uplift occurred, and waters began to slide off the raised continents and fill the depressions we now call the oceans. This sheet erosion sheared off the top of the Judean plateau to an extent we will never quite know, but there are clues. Given the size of the 10 kilometre wide continental shelf off the coast of Israel, the sheet erosion must have been substantial. The last remnants of the receding waters deeply scarred and gouged the soft rock on each side of the plateau.

The geological uplift that created the Judean hills during the great flood included the continental rift that tore at North Africa, created the Red Sea, and eventually resulted in the deepest depression on earth around the shores of the Dead Sea, which splits the Judean plateau from its geological twin, the Trans-Jordan plateau.

This geology gave the Judean hills some unique properties that have shaped the local climate and human history in the region. Their height brings plentiful rain from the Mediterranean, giving Bethlehem some 700mm of rain a year. However, most of it falls in winter, while the summers are hot and dry. Therefore typical dry photos of the area are misleading, it’s a better climate than it looks. It even snows sometimes in Bethlehem.

The limestone of the Judean hills is also porous, so it traps rainwater. Water percolates through the rock until it hits an impervious layer and then gravitates to the closest exit. This allows springs to flow from just a few metres below hilltops in many places. Permanent water supply led to permanent settlements, even on the very top of the Judean hills! Jerusalem itself grew up around the Gihon spring in the Kidron valley just below the original village. As the settlement grew into a town, a defensive wall was built around the spring for security reasons, so you cannot see it today. Most Galilean and Judean villages either grew up around springs or reliable underground well-water reaching down to the local water table. Nazareth grew around the spring now called Mary’s Well. Bethlehem also had a well (2 Samuel 23:15). Plentiful rain and reliable water supply led to permanent agriculture.

Before humans took compete control of the area after the great flood, much of the Judean hills was heavily forested with fir, oak, and terebinth trees. Many of Africa’s great animals also roamed these parts including lions (Judges 14:6) giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos, hyenas and the like. Some of Europe’s animals, such as the bear (1 Samuel 17:34), also wandered down this far. The Asian water buffalo roamed these regions too. In fact, this was the only place in the world where African, European, and Asian animals mingled at the edge of their respective rangelands.

But then came humans to the hills when they were finally dispersed from the Great Tower (Genesis 11:1-9). The 20 or so primal language families spread east, north, south and west from the tower to the four corners of the globe. Even today hundreds of ethnic groups around the world still have their own unique history of the great flood and dispersal embedded in their culture. The most powerful evidence for this global dispersal actually comes from the accumulation of mutations in the male Y chromosome. Most people from the Semitic language family settled in the Middle East along the Fertile Crescent and down into the Arabian Peninsula. Some of these people, the Canaanites, settled in the Judean Hills. Canaan was a grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:6), and his presence in what would later be called Israel was a direct result of the great dispersion that took place at the stepped ziggurat at a site that would later become Babylon.

These Canaanites, sometimes also called the Amorites in scripture, occupied modern day central and coastal Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Jordan. The earliest archaeological reference to the Canaanites is a Sumerian text from Syria dated from around 1,800 BC, and the Canaanites feature heavily in Egypt’s Amarna Letters written around 1,400 BC. The Phoenician’s were one branch of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were the people Abraham was dealing with on his travels from Haran to Egypt and back into the Judean hill country, and their behaviour even then was deplorable (Genesis 19:1-16). In fact Abraham probably walked right past the location of the future Bethlehem unless it was there already.

Canaan had 11 sons (Genesis 10:15-20). Some of the more notable were Zidon, who settled the coastal regions of the Mediterranean and whose name lives on in the name of the modern Lebanese city of Sidon. Another son, Heth, was the progenitor of the Hittite people (not to be confused with the Hattites of ancient Turkey, whom convention now also calls the Hittites). The city of Jerusalem is named after another of Canaan’s sons, Jebus. The Judean hills were the Jebusites local area, so the first inhabitants of Bethlehem were most likely Jebusites families. Another son, Amorite, gave us the Amorite people, and the modern Jordanian capital’s name of Amman. Girgashite settled the area southeast of Lake Galilee, and the Gadarenes that Jesus ministered to are named after him (Matthew 8:28-34). Significantly, the Philistines were not descended from a son of Canaan. They were descended from Philistim, who was Canaan’s brother Mizraim’s grandson, and it is they who give us the modern term Palestine.

So somewhere in the mists of ancient history a small group of hunters from the Jebusite tribe were passing through a forest at the top of the Judean plateau when they noticed a very unusual ridge to their east with a dip and then high ground at its extreme. It fell away steeply to the north, east and south, was perfect for defence, so they camped there. The land around it looked fertile, and there were springs about one kilometre to the south. It looked like a perfect place to settle. This is most likely how Bethlehem was born deep in the mists of ancient time probably between 2,000 and 1,500 BC.

The climate of the plateau and its rich alkaline limestone soils allowed these Jebusites to engage in large scale forest clearing and the early cultivation of almonds, stone fruit, olive oil, and grapes. Some orchards around Bethlehem still have their own spring-fed irrigation to this day. The rich red soil in the creeks and gullies that surrounded the ridges allowed for the cultivation of vegetables for humans and fodder for animals. It was a perfect combination. This was how Bethlehem and dozens of other small villages were born in the Judean hills at the very beginning of history.

As you saw from the previously mentioned 1931 photo link, the Judean hill country also proved ideal for sheep grazing, whether on the deeply scarred plateau itself or on the steep, 20 kilometre canyoned slope from Bethlehem down to the Dead Sea to its east, an area called the Judean wilderness from Biblical times. This was the same wilderness where Jesus spent 40 days in prayer and fasting (Matthew 4:1). Sheep trading would one day become Bethlehem’s major industry, and a famous shepherd called David eventually emerged from its fields onto the historical stage.

These then were the great geological upheavals that created the geography of the Judean hills, which in turn created its cooler and milder climate, which led to its unique civilizational boundaries in terms of history, culture, agriculture, politics and identity. With this background understanding we can now concentrate on the town of Bethlehem itself.


Recent revisionist histories of Bethlehem such as Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem, Biography of a Town, seek to completely deny Bethlehem’s deep history. Blincoe claims that Bethlehem only took off after the Greeks built an aqueduct to Jerusalem via Bethlehem around 200 BC. His premise is that no aqueduct meant no town, and I quote: Religious scholars have followed William F. Albright in fixing the stories of Bethlehem’s town well to the late Bronze Age. Dating the water source more accurately to the Greek-era aqueduct not only changes assumptions about Bethlehem’s age but means the descriptions of the town in the scriptures should be read as a picture of Greek or Roman-era life…Bethlehem sprang into life about 200 years before Christ (P. 60-61). This spurious line of thinking conveniently allows modern thinkers to dismiss the deep Biblical narrative about Bethlehem as myth.

Blincoe forgets that Bethlehem and the Judean hills are remarkably close to two of the oldest cities in the world, Amman and Jericho, so the chances of such a strategic location adjacent to the second most important road in Israel remaining uninhabited until the Greek occupation was extremely low indeed. He also dismisses archaeological evidence that Bethlehem was already up and running by at least 1400 BC which comes to us via the the Amarna letters. In one of the six Amarna letters to Pharaoh, the Egyptian-appointed governor of Jerusalem, Abdi-Heba, appealed for aid in retaking Bit-Laḫmi (Bethlehem) in the wake of disturbances by mercenary raiders: Now even a town near Jerusalem, Bit-Lahmi by name, a village which once belonged to the king, has fallen to the enemy… Let the king hear the words of your servant Abdi-Heba and send archers to restore the imperial lands of the king! Archaeological evidence does not get much stronger than this.

This quote reveals many things. One, that writing in Israel was already well developed by this time, a fact disputed by some revisionist historians. Two, that at the time the land of the Canaanites was under the control of the Egyptians. Three, that Jerusalem was already a significant administrative centre (and this quote by the way, is also our first extra-biblical reference to the existence of Jerusalem). Four, that nearby Bethlehem had strategic value to a foreign power. And five, that the lands beyond Bethlehem were difficult to control.

In 2012 a further discovery was made in Bethlehem itself in the form of a seal impression on dried clay called a bulla, dated to around the 7th century BC. It simply says: From the town of Bethlehem to the king. It was used to seal the rope or string on a consignment of grain sent as tax to the local ruler.

And there’s more. According to Joshua 1:1-5 and 11:1-23. the Hebrew invasion of Judea after their Exodus from Egypt all but destroyed the Canaanite civilisation. Evidence for this Judean invasion has come from an unlikely source, the complete disappearance of pig bones from the archaeological record at about the right time in history. Canaanite and Philistine villages in Judea such as Bethlehem once had an abundance of pig bones buried around places of residence in lower strata then suddenly these sites had none for hundreds of years after this invasion. In three Philistine sites, Ashkelon, Ekron and Timma, between 8 and 18% of all excavated bones belonged to pigs. At three later Hebrew sites, Shiloh, Ebal and Raddana, there are no pig bones. This is strong evidence of the arrival of a new civilisation in the Judean Hill country, the Hebrews. From 1,100 BC onwards neither are there are also no idols or temples in the archaeological strata.

The Hebrew conquest of the Canaanite lands under Joshua specifically mentions Hazor, the chief Canaanite city just north of Lake Galilee (Joshua 11). Hazor is also mentioned 19 other times in scripture, so it was a very significant power in that part of the world. Archaeology has found ample evidence of its utter destruction, as well as the destruction of its sizable temple at about the time of the invasion. All the idols dug up from this site have been smashed. Pig bones from the site then disappeared for some 300 years.

The Bible puts the Hebrew invasion event at around 1,450 BC. Revisionists dispute the narrative of the invasion vigorously, claiming a date of 1,250 BC, if indeed at all. The debate rages on and has huge implications for scriptural authority. I will not enter that debate here because the evidence strongly suggests an actual invasion did indeed take place, and the date will eventually be sorted out. The fact the invasion took place tells us that at one time Bethlehem was also pig country until its existing Jebusite inhabitants put to flight or the sword.

Moving on a few hundred years, we come to two major discoveries that give us evidence for the life of David, a Bethlehem local. At Tel Dan, at the foot of Mount Hermon, an inscription written by King Hazael of Aram, and dated to around 850 BC, was found in which the house of David is actually mentioned by name. The inscription celebrates the Aramean’s revenge over Israel many decades after they were humiliated by David in battle (2 Samuel 8:5-6). The inscription would suggest David was much more than a small village chief living around Bethlehem. The fact that the inscription uses the exact wording used in 1 Kings 12:16 is also significant.

The famous Moabite stone also talks about David. It is a very detailed stele describing in juicy detail how Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:4-6), also led his people to victory over Omri, king of Israel, around 140 years after David had defeated his people (2 Samuel 8:2). On line 31 of the stele, the kingdom of Judah is once again described as the house of David. Omri, mentioned in 1 Kings 16:21-28, is named on the stone as Israel’s king at the time. From the Moabite stone we can safely conclude that Israel previously conquered territory that was once occupied by this Canaanite tribe and they wanted it back. In addition we can also conclude that the worship of Yahweh was dominant in Israel, that the above references to 1 Kings, 2 Kings, and Samuel are historically accurate, and that the linage of King David as described therein is indeed also accurate.

The harmony between these archaeological findings and scripture gives us confidence to now dig deep into the Old Testament for historical references to Bethlehem, knowing that we can have confidence in their reliability.


When we first look at the Biblical record, we find that Genesis actually gives a different name for Bethlehem. It calls it Ephrath while busy telling the story of how Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin just outside our famous town (Genesis 35: 16-20). This first mention of the word Bethlehem so far back in scripture looks suspiciously like an editor’s note to help readers understand that Bethlehem had undergone a name change between when the original records were made and when these editors were compiling the various older records into one document that we now call Genesis. If so then Bethlehem is indeed a very, very old town. Throughout much of the Bible, this ancient term Ephrath is also used as a description for members of the tribe of Judah, and the term Ephrathite is used to describe a Bethlehem local (Ruth 1:2). And the term Ephratah is also given as the original human founder of Bethlehem (1 Chronicles 4:4), who was one of the descendants of Judah, grandson of Isaac. There is deep history here about which we are only given the smallest glimpse.

The first mention in scripture of the arrival of Abraham, at the time still called Abram, in the Judean hills comes in Genesis 12:8-9, where we read a short note about his passage from Bethel to the Negev accompanied by Lot, their families, animals, and all their possessions. This route, more like a track at the time, passed right by Bethlehem. This extensive caravan then came back from Egypt past Bethlehem a second time (Genesis 13:3-4) before heading south once again and settling some 20 kilometres south of Bethlehem at Hebron (Genesis 13:18). It was here that Abraham received a divine promise that the land he lived in would one day belong to his descendants (Genesis 15:17-21). Did Abraham camp near Bethlehem? We will never know but it is likely given the Artas springs were close by.

Four hundred years later the Hebrews under Joshua’s leadership conquered all the lands of Judea and Galilee sometime in the second half of the second millennium BC in fulfillment of that promise God made to Abraham. Battles occurred for several decades and we can only assume that the entire Jebusite populations of Jerusalem and Bethlehem were executed, as per Yahweh’s explicit instructions (Deuteronomy 20:16-18, Joshua 11:21). Bethlehem was then handed to the Hebrew tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:1-12).

Modern historians take great offence at this violent program of ethnic cleansing and use it to shoot moralistic arrows at both Jews and Christians. What they fail to mention however, is that these “innocent” Canaanite tribes were heavily involved in deeply disgusting sexual depravity, as explained in uncomfortable detail in Deuteronomy 18. The Canaanites also practiced ritual child sacrifice of every first born infant to their god Molek, then of another when building a home, and then another when going into battle (Deuteronomy 12:29-31, Deuteronomy 20:2-5). Bestiality was accepted and encouraged, as was homosexuality and rape. Male and female temple prostitution was normal and practiced on a large scale via temple slaves. All these activities reflected the personalities and activities of their gods. Women and children often participated in these activities as well as being ritually abused by them. Imagine these practices all happening today at your local town hall! Yahweh repeatedly explained that this was the reason for the ethnic cleansing.

Western academics hostile to Christianity routinely promote the protection of women and girls from systemic sexual abuse and trafficking and the protection of infants from domestic violence while championing child sacrifice via abortion! They cannot have it both ways. Extreme disregard for human rights was one of the justifications for the brutal campaign to wipe ISIS from the face of the earth and to kill as many ISIS combatants in battle as possible, a process we have all celebrated. The Israelites were just delivering a similar level of justice against a degrading criminal and religious cartel.

The Hebrews were also warned that if they sank to the same practices they would suffer the same fate, and they did later in history when they were deported to Babylon for 70 years. The campaign to eradicate the Canaanites was mostly about evil, not land.

Now, to circle back to our topic. It was very likely that Bethlehem, or the larger centres close by such as Hebron or Jerusalem, were centres of all the disgusting abuse mentioned above, and that sexual depravity was rife in our little village for centuries before the coming of the Israelites. The massacre of the innocents by King Herod was therefore not the first time children had been sacrificed at scale in Bethlehem. For 400 years (Genesis 15:13-14) until the arrival of the Joshua’s army, every time a house was built in Bethlehem a child was slaughtered and its body dumped into the foundations. With Bethlehem’s liberation by the Israelites, these detestable practices stopped, pig raising was banned and some of King David’s ancestors took up land around Bethlehem.

However, as Joshua’s conquest wore on over decades, some of the cities of the Anakites on the coast at Gaza remained undefeated (Joshua 11:22), they eventually regained some of their lost lands, and this included Bethlehem.

The next chronological insight into the little town of Bethlehem comes from the Book of Ruth, where we get the delightful story of Naomi and Ruth returning to Bethlehem after living on the other side of the Dead Sea after her husband and two sons died (Ruth 1:1-6). Ruth eventually married Boaz the redeemer, and gave birth to Obed, the grandfather of David. What is significant about this piece of history is that the detailed social customs highlighted in the book match what we know from history were common at that time. It also matches the ethnic groups to their known geographies.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 also tells us that the Bethlehem area was indeed David’s hometown, a point reiterated in Luke 2:4. It was to Bethlehem and the house of a peasant called Jesse that the prophet Samuel was directed to go to find a new king after Saul’s fall from grace. David’s slaying of the bear and lion also took place in the hills around Bethlehem (1 Samuel 17:34-35). This last point suggests the hills beyond Bethlehem’s immediate agricultural zone were still heavily forested and not safe to travel through alone during this era.

We also know from scripture that for a short time from around 1200 BC, during the reign of king Saul, the Philistines had a garrison stationed in Bethlehem, probably because its location allowed it to control the busy Hebron Road. 2 Samuel 23:13-16 tells us that David was near to this new Philistine stronghold of Bethlehem but without water, so three of his men broke into the town and took water for David from its town well which was close to the town gate. This passage tells us that in David’s time Bethlehem was a contested zone.

The town was eventually freed, and the Philistines put back in their coastal box. David’s kingdom then ushered in an era of peace and national significance for Bethlehem that lasted several hundred years. Well, not quite. It was only two generations later that the ten northern tribes under Jeroboam broke away from Solomon’s designated heir, Rehoboam. Only the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). The modern term Jew is simply a shorthand term for this remnant House of Judah. Under Jeroboam the ten northern tribes immediately began to leave the worship of Yahweh for other local gods (1 Kings 12:26-30, Hosea 1).

Then, in 701 BC the Assyrian Empire expanded into the Fertile Crescent and to the Judean hills on its way to conquering Egypt. This invasion is the subject matter for most of the warnings in the book of Isaiah. King Hezekiah of Jerusalem initially quivered before the Assyrian King Sennacherib, but then resisted (2 Kings 18-19). Refugees must have flooded up from the lowlands, taking refuge in Jerusalem and other well defended and walled settlements like Bethlehem. Assyrian and Biblical accounts of what happened next differ completely, but we can be assured these were terrible times for Bethlehem. The prophet Isaiah strongly implies that Bethlehem and many other fortified Judean hill towns were captured by Sennacherib (Isaiah 36:1), but also says that the siege of Jerusalem failed. The Assyrians deported most of the people of the northern kingdoms of Israel and they are then lost to history (2 Kings 17:5-6).

Then in 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army marched from Babylon and captured Jerusalem. They destroyed the temple and exiled the Jews back to Babylon. It goes without saying that the fate that befell Jerusalem also befell Bethlehem. Israel was conquered, stripped of its people, and left to fall into ruin for seventy years. This historic rupture, the 70 years of exile, and the eventual return to Israel occupies more of the Old Testament than any other single event, being the main topic of the books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah. We can safely also assume that when Jerusalem was eventually rebuilt that Bethlehem also enjoyed a building boom.

That fateful Babylonian invasion of 587 BC marked a major turning point in the history of the region. From then onwards, Bethlehem was controlled by a succession of powers, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Their rise and fall was supernaturally foretold by the prophet Daniel while in exile in Babylon hundreds of years earlier (Daniel 2:1-49, 7:1-28, 8:1-27, 9:20-27). The ruler of the Persians, Cyrus II, eventually allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after 70 years in exile (Ezra 1).

Two hundred and five years later the region was conquered by the army of Alexander the Great in 333 BC, an event specifically foretold by Daniel (Daniel 8:5-8, 8:19-22). The Greeks generally allowed the Jews to run their internal affairs. However, during the rule of the king Antiochus IV, the Greeks desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. This brought about the revolt of the Maccabees, who quickly established an independent Jewish state. The cherished period of independence that followed was short lived. By 63 BC the Roman Empire had completed its creeping annexation of Israel, another event foretold by Daniel (Daniel 7). Being so close to Jerusalem, these events must have had a profound and violent effect on the locals living in Bethlehem.

In one of the last of the Old Testament books the topic once again circles around to Bethlehem. Micah the prophet, once again using the term Ephrathah while describing Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), gives us the following prophecy: 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. Thus, hundreds of years ahead of time, it was forecast that someone very special in the eyes of our creator would come from the humble town of Bethlehem in fulfilment of the covenant Yahweh made with David that his kingdom would last forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16). This covenant was the ultimate reason why Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem for the Roman census, as Joseph was from the linage of David (Matthew 1). The connection of this Davidic covenant with the arrival of Jesus is the real reason why revisionists desperately try to erase Bethlehem’s deep history.

We will now look in greater detail at the outsized influence of both the Greeks and the Romans on the unfolding story of Bethlehem in the lead up to the coming of the Messiah.


The Greek conquest and Hellenization of Israel between the 330 BC and the time of Christ had a profound influence on the local Jewish culture. Greek civilisation was seen as further advanced, more rational, naturally superior, and so cool that it slowly infiltrated and transformed every ethnic group the Greeks conquered, from Turkey to Afghanistan. Greek occupiers also took much of the prized farmland in Judea and Galilee, which eventually led to the successful Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC. While the Greeks were in control of Israel there was extensive growth and infrastructure development that included urban planning and the establishment of well-built, fortified grid-planned cities. Greek pottery, architecture, trade, and commerce flourished, particularly for the most Hellenized citizens on the coast and in Jerusalem.

One of the urban developments undertaken by the Greeks involved the building of an aqueduct from the springs of Artas, just south of Bethlehem, that snaked north and downhill to Jerusalem. These springs were tapped into two reservoirs, called Solomon’s Pools, which fed the Jerusalem aqueduct. They are still there today. The aqueduct ended in a vast reservoir under the brand new Temple Mount. This shiny new aqueduct finally gave Jerusalem a reliable water supply to supplement the Gihon Spring which would run low during the hot dry summers. Needless to say, this amazing feat of hydraulic engineering transformed Jerusalem into a well-watered, thriving religious pilgrimage centre for Jews all over Israel and beyond (Acts 2:5-12), including Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:41-42). The city and surrounding villages such as Bethlehem boomed. It was a case of build it and they will come. The aqueduct functioned right up until the 1930’s when British engineers finally began to pump directly from Jerusalem’s local aquifers, which in time significantly lowered the flow from local springs.

The Greek engineers found that the Bethlehem limestone was incredibly soft when first quarried but hardened over time in contact with the air. In fact, the rock can be carved with a knife when first cut, so it is called royal stone or Meleke. When it hardens it is as strong as concrete and fades in colour from a yellow cream to pearl white. This unique feature allowed for the construction of the Greek aqueduct to take place much faster and more cheaply than otherwise.

During the aqueduct’s construction the engineers had to bend it around Bethlehem’s ridge. On that stretch they built a fountain to supply the town, which is now called Al Ain, or Water Spring. At that point in history there was originally quite a deep saddle in front of today’s Manger Square and the original town gate, so the engineers dug a short tunnel straight across the dip to the north side where the aqueduct then continued on its way to Jerusalem.

Sheep trading needs lots of water to feed the animals and the extra water supply cemented Bethlehem’s reputation as the best supplier of wool and lambs in the Judean hill country. It was perfectly located on the interface between grazing and cropping country, and close to a large urban centre whose temple demanded sacrificial lambs, especially during Passover. The sheep yards were located in the dip on the ridge just outside the town gate, and they were smelly in summer. Where there are sheep there are flies, so flies must have been a big problem in Bethlehem, as they are in most third world villages to this day. The symbolism of Jesus, the lamb of God being born in Bethlehem, and then becoming the eternal Passover sacrifice in Jerusalem was profound for the early Jewish believers.


After the final Roman conquest of Israel in 63 BC (it had been building up in stages) and the installment of the Idumean Herodian dynasty as their loyal local deputies, Israel’s trajectory changed dramatically once again. Tens of thousands of Roman soldiers, mainly from the 10th Fretensis Legion, were stationed across Judea and Galilee to maintain control of this feisty new imperial asset (Matthew 8:5-13). The Romans guarded ports, palaces, treasuries, and of course their precious diplomats such as Pontus Pilate. They maintained strict order and made sure the locals, whatever their religion and ethnic background, were in full compliance with Rome’s decrees.

Herod the Great greatly expanded his authority in Judea under the watchful eye of Mark Antony. The four generations of the Herodian Dynasty then ruthlessly enforced Rome’s wishes and implacably opposed the plans of God from the beginning of the New Testament (Matthew 2:16) through 70 years to the end of the Book of Acts (Acts 26). Ironically Herod’s son, Herod Agrippa, lived just five kilometres north of Nazareth in his Galilean capital of Sepphoris (Luke 9:1-9). He could possibly have employed the building skills of Joseph and Jesus on Sepphoris’ many building projects. Oddly, the two were only formally introduced to each other at Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:7-11).

The presence of thousands of foreign soldiers in Judea also meant the presence of testosterone-fueled young men who were banned by Roman law from raping local women or from marrying them. This created a huge new demand for paid prostitutes, and this was the reason why the Gospels mention the presence of prostitutes and sinners so often, and why Jesus had compassion on their sad lot in life (Luke 7:36-50). The moral core of Jewish society was being corrupted on a scale never seen before, and this must have affected the women in Bethlehem’s poorest families.

The Romans also instinctively recognized the importance of securing Jerusalem’s water supply and guarding the Hebron Road, and this meant stationing some of their soldiers at or near Bethlehem. Not just Bethlehem around Solomon’s Pools, but also at the other nearby springs of Arrub, Ain Faghour, and Battir. This was even more so after Pontius Pilate built a 39 kilometre feeder aqueduct from the Arrub spring into Solomons Pools. The Romans then had to expand Solomons Pools with a third reservoir and then build a second aqueduct from this upper reservoir into Jerusalem. Not to be outdone, Herod the Great built the Wadi el-Byiar Aqueduct to feed even more water into Solomons Pools. Water supply was obviously a key Roman military and civil priority for a growing city perched on top of a mountain range, and tiny Bethlehem was smack bang in the middle of the construction boom.

The Roman infrastructure upgrades also included the many superb roads the Romans built all through the Judean Hills. The natural advantage of Bethlehem’s defendable hilltop position on a busy inland north-south trade route from Petra to Damascus, and its position on the very edge of the empire staring straight at Persia across the Dead Sea, meant that there were always soldiers from the Legions in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Romans were often paid in farmland too which did wonders for disrupting the local economic fabric.

On top of the not-so-small building frenzy around Bethlehem, between 23 and 15 BC Herod the Great also built himself a grand hilltop palace just five kilometres southeast of Bethlehem that had panoramic views of the Dead Sea below. Its odd conical shape can still be seen from most viewpoints within Bethlehem today. Next to it he also built a small city to service his fortress palace which he naturally called Herodian. He also built a spur line off the Jerusalem aqueduct to supply his new project with life-giving water. Herod’s monumental building project meant even more employment for many of Bethlehem’s men for around a decade in the lead up to the birth of Christ. While Herod and his entourage were in residence at his pleasure palace there was a spike in demand for food and workers, which further boosted Bethlehem’s economy. The topic of nearby Herodian most probably came up in discussions between Joseph, a stone mason and builder by trade, and his relatives when he came to stay in Bethlehem with his new bride. Perhaps the cousins even did an inspection of the new city? We will never know.


Before moving on to the arrival of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem there is one more group of people who lived in the area that need to be mentioned. It is the Arab Bedouin population, that still survives today in Israel. These locals were Hamitic, but were a Semitic speaking people and were originally nomads from southern Jordan and northern Arabia. The most significant group arising from the Bedouin were the highly successful Nabataeans, who became so fabulously wealthy as spice traders that the Romans eventually invaded and conquered their kingdom in 106 AD to take over the trade. It was the cultured Nabataeans who gave the Arabic alphabet most of its letters and words. It was they who gave us the mysterious city of Petra. It was they who were the proto-Arabs of the modern world who trace their roots right back to Ishmael. The Bedouins living around Bethlehem were of the same stock as the Nabataeans but had kept their original nomadic ways. King Herod the Great, an Idumean by descent, was also of this people group.

Hebron, just 20 kilometres south of Bethlehem and the traditional burial site of Abraham, has been an Arab/Bedouin stronghold for most of recorded history and is still over 90% Arab to this day. Bedouins and Jews alike had long worshipped and feasted in the name of their shared God and their common ancestor Abraham at a grove of trees near Hebron called Mamre, the spot where Abraham was supposed to have received his three angelic visitors (Genesis 18:1-8). It was the Arab/Bedouins who worshipped at many cube shaped temples called Ka’ba’s. It was they whose culture and beliefs eventually morphed into early Islam. The sons of Ishmael via Islam still contest the birthright of the sons of Isaac via Judaism.

Just as an observant Jew looked down on a Samaritan, so a pious Bethlehem Jew also looked down on the itinerant, tattooed, foreign-accented and often smelly Bedouins scattered among the grazing lands to the east and south of Bethlehem. They did not like living in the villages but preferred following their flocks as they moved from one grazing patch to another. They were gypsies, living outside mainstream society. Even today they are still beyond mainstream Israeli society and looked down on, living mostly in the south around the city of Beersheba in unrecognised shanty towns which I drove past in 2018.

It was therefore highly likely that the shepherds who attended the birth of Jesus were not fellow Jews at all but came from this lowly nomadic ethnic group. It was the Bedouin who controlled the sheep trade in Bethlehem, so there were many Bedouin shepherds in the vicinity on that historic night. If true, then they also contributed their distinct cultural mix to that monumental day when world history turned forever. Our image of the shepherds camped outside in tents on that night might also not be quite accurate because the region around Bethlehem is riddled with man-made caves that served this same purpose. The soft meleke limestone meant that hundreds of small grottos had been carved into the local hillsides for temporary shelter for both the local Bedouin shepherds, and their sheep. These grottos are still there today and have been used very effectively for millennia by every rebel group in Judea, right up to the Palestinian resistance in 2002.


Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not directly south as commonly assumed. Between Nazareth and Jerusalem lay the hostile area of Samaria (John 4). So the safe and usual route was east to the Jordan River, south down to Jericho, recently rebuilt by Herod in a Greco-Roman style, and then endure a grueling 1,000 meter climb up to Jerusalem. This route was called the Pilgrims Way. The transport vehicle of choice in that era was a donkey so this is most probably how Mary travelled. Since it was late summer, a point I will get to shortly, most of their travelling was in the early morning and late afternoon. The entire trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem would most definitely have been with a larger group of people for safety reasons (Luke 2:44-45) and taken up to a week.

By the time they arrived in Jerusalem, another city partly rebuilt in Herod’s image, they witnessed many pilgrims and great crowds gathering, or passing through, for the census. They must have marvelled Herod’s massive shiny new temple that had been built in a cubist style not unlike the Ka’ba at Mecca, and itself a city within a city. The massive platform of this temple is still with us today. Our young couple also witnessed the squalor outside the temple’s opulence and the aqueducts snaking their way into the city from the south. Travellers were everywhere and most of them camped out on hillsides around Gethsemane, so that was where our young couple probably spent a night or two before splitting from their travel group and moving on to Joseph’s cousins’ home up the road in Bethlehem.

The 10 kilometre day trip from Jerusalem up to Bethlehem on the Hebron Road took half a day. As they walked, Mary and Joseph were never far from the new upper aqueduct built to supplement the older and lower Greek one. This recent engineering project was supervised by the 10th Legion using local labour and slaves. Unlike the Greek aqueduct, the new aqueduct was completely encased inside square blocks hollowed out in the centre for security purposes. These blocks can still be seen today in the Bethlehem Museum. The land to the south of Bethlehem was the site of the quarries for this and many other construction projects because of its unique meleke stone.

On the very busy Hebron Road, the young couple probably passed families heading the other way for the census, one or two traders with trains of pack animals moving goods from Petra north to Jerusalem or Damascus, Roman soldiers suspiciously eyeing all the travellers, a greedy tax collector milking tolls from everyone for both Herod and the Romans, herds of sheep bleating their way to Jerusalem to end their lives as sacrificial lambs at the great temple, and many local farmers walking to and from their fields.

The common misconception is that this journey took place in December. However, the Bible never actually says what time of the year Jesus was born, and a Roman census was never undertaken in Israel during the dead of winter for two reasons. First, it was too cold, wet, and miserable for people to travel without any form of cover for hundreds of kilometres. Second, December was sowing time for wheat and barley, and since 80% of people were peasant farmers, a census would have destroyed both their food supply and next year’s tax base in one hit. Neither could a census be conducted in the middle of summer as it was too hot, there were various orchard crops to be harvested, and the wheat and barley had to be laboriously cut, thrashed, and stored. Both these busy winter and summer agricultural seasons required a huge amount of manual labour, so it was all hands on deck.

In fact, there were very limited times in the ancient agricultural calendar when a census could be taken at all. The obvious two were in spring and autumn. Spring was also when lambing took place, so it is probable that the census took place after harvest in September/October, when everyone was in a mood for a holiday. This is most likely the time of year when the census was taken and Jesus was born. The tradition of Christmas coming at the end of December is simply a later adaptation of the European pagan winter solstice festivals to the Christian religion. Almost every modern familiar western Christmas tradition stems from these ancient German solstice festivals: Santa flying through the sky, helper elves, 12 days of Christmas, Yule tide, gifts, mistletoe etcetera. We have truly paganised the birth of the world’s Messiah.

When Joseph and Mary finally turned left off the Hebron Road and walked the half kilometre into Bethlehem, they would have stopped for refreshments at a the Al Ain fountain before entering the village. They then climbed up the saddle of the ridge to gain entry to the tightly packed village housing around 500 people that lay behind a small wall with a single but significant entry gate.

If they arrived on market day then the dip in the ridge was full of makeshift yards, smelly, scrawny brown and black speckled sheep, lots of flies, and dark-skinned, and bony-cheeked Arab Bedouin herdsmen whose tattooed wives were all gossiping in a foreign tongue. They would also have come across businessmen, sheep buyers and butchers from Jerusalem and beyond. The town’s well was just inside the wall so water carriers were also busy keeping the animals hydrated.

Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem, so he went straight to his cousin’s home. The traditional narrative says they stayed at an inn, but this is a translation error. Let me explain. The Greek word used for the place they stayed in Bethlehem is Katalyma (Luke 2:7). In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus said the injured man was taken to an inn but the Greek word used there is pandokeion (Luke 10:34-35). A katalyma on the other hand was a guest room in a walled housing compound where an extended family lived. There was usually a high wall around the family compound and lots of rooms for individual families and the elderly. The same family and housing structure can be seen in millions of villages around the world today.

Joseph’s cousin’s katalyma was already full because of the census. Josephs other relatives had to come back to town for the census too and had arrived earlier than him because they were not travelling with a pregnant wife. Now here’s where it gets interesting. There was often space for domestic animals dug out below part of these compounds. These underground stables were used mainly in winter so that the animal’s body heat would warm a ground level room for the humans to keep comfortable on frosty nights. This system of heating is also used to this day all over the world in poorer countries with cold winters.

So Mary and Joseph stayed in the empty, cleaned out, underground stable. And since those dark-skinned, Bedouin shepherds were looking after flocks in the fields at that same time (Luke 2:8) we have another clue it was not winter, otherwise the animals would have been housed in the underground stable inside the compound. The shepherds were bunked down (Luke 2:8) either around the gate of a circular stone animal corral (John 10:7), or at the mouth of a small handmade cave that protected the sheep for the night.

The idea of being born underground in Bethlehem is not as strange as it sounds. The meleke limestone rock was easily dug before hardening. Underground cisterns, storerooms and hidden hide-holes have been found under many villages where limestone dominates the geology of Israel. Joseph’s own hometown of Nazareth was riddled with underground storerooms. Underground cellars were also the only form of ancient cooling and heating available to peasants anywhere in the world up until the arrival of electricity and refrigeration.

The first external reference we have to Jesus being born in a cave was made very early, around 145 AD by Justin Martyr. The site revered today as the birthplace of Jesus is indeed a small cave under the floor of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. So, it is possible this is the actual site of his birth, but we will never know for sure.

As soon as Mary arrived in Bethlehem there were lots of Joseph’s female relatives fussing about to help with the delivery of her baby. She was not alone as modern images often suggest. For the village women it was just another birth, howbeit one shrouded in controversy as the young woman was found to be pregnant but not from her husband. Jesus was then laid in a stone manger, not a wooden one. These ancient stone feeding troughs have been found everywhere in Israel. Wood was scarce. Stone was also ritually clean and lasted centuries.

Sometime later, perhaps weeks, perhaps months, there arrived in Jerusalem a group of astrologers looking for a new baby king whose destiny had been foretold centuries before. Were there three of them? We do not know how many there were as the Bible doesn’t say (Matthew 2:1), but Middle Eastern tradition says there were 12. They did, however, bring three types of gifts, hence the confusion. They are named as Magi, from where we get the English word magic, and their origin is simply stated as from the east. Their gifts were impressive, so we know they were wealthy. They were most probably Persian Zoroastrian astrologers. Astronomy and astrology were a mixed profession in the ancient world, so these were men of learning, leisure, and nobility. Persia’s modern name is Iran, so these men were Iranians!

The Magi knew about the birth of the Jewish Messiah because hundreds of years earlier a Jewish slave by the name of Daniel was made the head governor of the Persian Empire (Daniel 2:48). As already mentioned, Daniel recorded numerous visions and prophecies about the future of global politics and Imperialism leading up to the birth of the eternal Kingdom of God that would supersede all earthly kingdoms (Daniel 2:1-49, 7:1-28, 8:1-27, 9:20-27). Some of these prophecies specifically concerned the coming of the Jewish Messiah (Daniel 2:44, 7: 13-14, 9:24-27). Suffice to say the Magi had plenty of material to work with, and plenty of Jews to confer with in Persia too, as not all Jews had returned to Israel hundreds of years earlier for the rebuilding of the temple after their exile by Nebuchadnezzar.

Herod unswervingly served Rome, but the Magi served Rome’s enemies, the Persians. Herod could have killed the Magi but diplomatically decided to kill the new baby king instead to avoid a diplomatic dispute. Given Bethlehem’s small size, perhaps around 30 boys at most were executed. Herod the Great had several of his own sons murdered so baby killing was a non-event for this tyrant.

The symbolism of the outcast gentile Bedouin shepherds and the Iranian Magi being the first to come and worship Jesus must have been shocking to Joseph, Mary, and the whole village. The symbolism was significant. This new Messiah-baby of theirs was destined to impact the whole world, not just the Jews, and it started from day one.

A few weeks after the birth, Joseph and Mary made their way back to Jerusalem for ritual purification and to dedicate their first-born son to the Yahweh (Luke 2:22-24). While at the temple the new-born came to the attention of several old prophets (Luke 2:25-38). The intricate detail in this account is such that it seems very likely that Luke actually interviewed an aging Mary herself when researching his gospel. Mary was very young when she gave birth, and she took a very keen interest in her sons ministry (Matthew 12:46-47, 13:53-54) so an interview with Luke is indeed possible.

What happens next is confusing, and I offer no clarification. Luke says Mary and Joseph proceeded from Jerusalem back to Nazareth, while Matthew says they escaped to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of the boys of Bethlehem. The escape to Egypt is plausible since Alexandria was the largest Jewish city in the world at that time, so does a direct trip home. Perhaps there is a time gap in Luke that Matthew fills in. We just don’t know.

Had Mary ever been to Bethlehem before? We know that Mary had come down to Judea in the last few months to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:29-30). Perhaps she had been as far as Jerusalem many times while coming down for the festival of Passover as a child with her family. However, she had probably never been to Bethlehem before, so it must have been all very awkward visiting her new in-laws considering how suspicious her pregnancy was. The gossip around Bethlehem must have been intense to say the least.


After the strange events surrounding the birth of Jesus and the young couple’s final departure from Bethlehem, everything around the village returned to the normal boring, monotonous, agricultural rhythms and the religious rituals that grew around them. The tempo of first century life went on as usual. Thirty years later there was much stirring and debate in the village as to the true identity of the sensational Galilean prophet and teacher who had been born in their village all those years before. The old timers and Bedouins told stories of strange things in the sky, and rich Persians coming into town to see a baby born to the Joseph clan. Perhaps some locals went to see Jesus teach and became followers of the new Messiah?

Then, another 35 years later, it all stopped with a sickening thud. In 66 AD the Jews rebelled against the harsh Roman yoke. The rebellion started as both anti-tax protests and sporadic attacks on Roman citizens. The Roman Governor responded by plundering the great temple in Jerusalem. This was the final straw and the Jews rose as one against the occupiers. The Romans suffered multiple military defeats in quick succession as the whole nation violently drove them out.

Then, in fulfillment of both Jesus’ oral prophecy (Matthew 22:1-5, 24:1-2, Luke 21-5-32), and John’s written prophecy that we now call the Book of Revelation (Revelation 1:1-3, 12:1-6, 17:1-18, 22:10), the Romans returned in 67 AD under General Vespasian, later to become Emperor Titus, and began to completely destroy the Jewish people and towns up in Galilee in a slow-moving snowball of vengeance. Nazareth was destroyed, and perhaps some of the descendants of Jesus’ four brothers and his sisters (Matthew 13:55-56) were lost. The Romans slowly worked their way south destroying all the fortified towns and cities as they went. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Jerusalem and its surrounding towns. Bethlehem was bloated with displaced family and refugees. Perhaps Joseph and Mary’s own children and their families made it out of Nazareth and to the relative safety of their relatives down in Bethlehem. Perhaps they were followers of Christ by this time and wisely fled with the rest of the emerging Christian church to Egypt in direct response to both Jesus’ and John’s great prophecies (Matthew 24:15-17). We will never know.

The first thing the Romans did when their battle-hardened legions arrived at Jerusalem was to besiege the city and go to Bethlehem and destroy the aqueducts to cut off the great city’s water supply. Soldiers swarmed over Bethlehem and the other outlying towns looking for opposition fighters. Many young men from Bethlehem had already joined the defenders in Jerusalem. The result of the siege was beyond doubt from the beginning. Jerusalem eventually descended in chaos, starvation, and cannibalism, in scenes vividly foretold by John in his Revelation. The city fell to the Romans after a brutal seven-month siege. The Romans boasted that not a single stone was left standing on another when they were finished.

Bethlehem must have suffered much the same fate while a few fortunate farmers were spared so they could provide food for the legions. By 74 AD the last remnants of Jewish resistance were snuffed out down at Masada on the Dead Sea. Josephus claimed that the Romans murdered 1,100,000 Jews. Other’s dispute his figures. We definitely know that the Romans took over 100,000 Jewish slaves to Rome, as it was they who built the Colosseum. The Arch of Titus next to the Colosseum to this day depicts the treasures carried off to Rome from the great temple in Jerusalem.

Bethlehem struggled on, now largely inhabited by Bedouins and the few Jews who survived or returned after the war. The best lands around the town were mostly handed over to the Romans or their mercenaries. The lively trade in lambs and other agricultural produce being sent from the Bethlehem hills to market in Jerusalem ceased altogether when Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple sacrificial system and indeed the nation was completely devastated, as foretold by Daniel (Daniel 8:12). Bethlehem became a shadow of its former self.

During the third and final Jewish rebellion from 132-136 AD, Bethlehem and over 900 other villages were once again destroyed by the Roman armies. The Romans then built a shrine to the Greek god Adonis over the location traditionally believed to be the site of Christs birth. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and became a centre for the worship of Jupiter. Bethlehem was a shell of its former self, with many destroyed buildings scattered among the few that were inhabited. Bedouins and other opportunistic foreigners completely took the place of the Jews for the next 1,800 years.

Times were bleak for our little town over the next few hundred years and Bethlehem only returned to some sense of dignity under the Byzantines. In the fourth Century Christians began to migrate into Bethlehem in numbers and it slowly became a pilgrim town, which it has remained to this day. What really put it on the pilgrim map was the arrival of non-other than the mother of the then Roman Emperor Constantine, who visited the site of Jesus’ birth, worshipped there, and built a church over the site. It is still there today and is now the oldest church building in the world.