Bethlehem Past

December 14, 2001

Bethlehem Past

I had a special privilege this afternoon. I was treated to a study on Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth, given by noted author, pastor, and good man, Mitri Raheb. Mitri is the author of "I am a Palestinian Christian", required reading for people interested in Palestinian history.

Mitri asked us to mentally paint a picture of Bethlehem as we thought it was like during the day Christ was born. My mental picture was a bit faulty. I imagined a booming village in the desert. Small homes built around caves.

Mitri said that the landscape around Bethlehem was largely the same, except that it used to be forested. Finding a tree in Bethlehem now is pretty rare, but in 4 BC, pines were plentiful. They were all cut by the Romans and Turks sometime after Christ's birth.

Bethlehem was actually on the edge between the desert and the farmland. And there was tension between the shepherds of the desert to the East and the farmers to the West. In fact, that the shepherds came to Bethlehem to see Jesus was a very big deal. The tension between the groups was overcome by the necessity to see the baby.

The population was only 300 - 1,000 people, so Bethlehem truly was a "little town". The population of the Bethlehem area increased to 50,000 after 1948, when refugees flocked to the area.

The people in Bethlehem were mostly Jewish and spoke Hebrew, however there were also other religions in the area. Most notably religions honoring "fertility". In Aramaic, "Bethlehem" means "House of the Fertility God". Wow. That was a new one for me. By the year 142 AD, not a single Jew lived in the area.

Most of the residents of Bethlehem were stone masons, others were wheat farmers, livestock farmers (sheep and goats, not cows), and weavers. And today stone masonry is still the largest industry (outside of tourism, I suppose).

Jesus was probably not born in the winter, because "shepherds were watching their flocks by night". Shepherds only watch their flocks by night when it is comfortable outside. And I can verify that it is cold in Bethlehem in December.

Like today, Bethlehem was a land under occupation when Christ was born. The Romans were around then. And Christ was a refugee, because the family had to flee to save his life.

Mitri told us that this is one of the toughest Christmases he has ever experienced here in Bethlehem.

After the study on Bethlehem Past, we all shared a special joint Arabic-English Christmas service with candles, food and drink.

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