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BETHLEHEM, BETHLEEM (Βαιθλεέμ, Βηθλεέμ, Βηθλεεμίτης), a town of the tribe of Judah, six miles south of Jerusalem. on the left of the road to Hebron, called also “Ephrathah” and “Ephrath” (Gen. 48.7; Mica. 5.1), and its inhabitants Ephrathites (Ruth, 1.2; 1 Sam. 17.12). It probably owed both its names, Bethlehem--i. e. the house of bread, and Ephrathah--i. e. fruitful, to the fecundity of its soil, and it is still one of the best cultivated and most fertile parts of Palestine. It is situated on a lofty ridge, long and narrow, which projects into a plain formed by the junction of several valleys, affording excellent pasture and corn lands; while the hill side, terraced to its summit, is laid out in oliveyards and vineyards. It is first mentioned in the history of the Patriarch Jacob (Gen. 48.7); but does not occur in the list of the cities of Judah in the Hebrew text of the Book of Joshua. The version of the LXX., however, gives it under both its names (Ἐφραθὰ, αὕτη ἐστὶ Βαιθλεέμ), with ten other neighbouring cities (in Joshua, xv., after verse 59 of the Hebrew). It occurs also in the history of the Book of Judges (19.1, 2), soon after the settlement of the Israelites, for Phinehas was then high priest (20.28). It is the scene of the principal part of the Book of Ruth--Boaz, the progenitor of David, being the principal proprietor at that period (2.1), as his grandson Jesse was afterwards. From the time of David it became celebrated as his birthplace, and is called “the city of David” (St. Luke, 2.4, 11; St. John, 7.42), and was subsequently yet more noted as the destined birthplace of the Messiah, the circumstances of whose nativity at that place are fully recorded by St. Matthew (ii.), and St. Luke (ii.). The place of the nativity is described by Justin Martyr (Dial. § 78) in language which implies that it was identified in his days (cir. A.D. 150). Origen (A.D. 252) says that the cave by “was venerated even by those who were aliens from the Faith” (c. Cels. lib. i. p. 39), agreeably with which St. Jerome says that the place was over-shadowed by a grove of Thammuz (Adonis) from the time of Hadrian for the space of 180 years (A.D. 135--315). (Epitaph. Paul. vol. iv. p. 564.) In A.D. 325, Helena, the mother of Constantine, erected a magnificent basilica over the Place of the Nativity (Eusebius, Vit. Const. 3.41, 43), which still remains. In the following century, it became the chosen resort of the most learned of the Latin fathers, and the scene of his important labours in behalf of sacred literature, chief among which must be reckoned the Vulgate translation of the Bible. Its modern name is Beitlahem, a considerable village, inhabited exclusively by Christians.


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