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The Real Bethlehem

The ‘little town’ celebrated by western Christians as the location of the Nativity is much more than a stylised depiction evoked in Christmas cards each December, says Jacob Norris. 

A postcard showing the Christmas Day procession to the Church of the Nativity, c. 1900. Getty Images/Culture ClubEvery Christmas Christians the world over come together to celebrate Jesus’ birth in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’. In western countries Bethlehem is particularly prominent at this time of year, reproduced in countless nativity scenes and sung about in traditional carols. But during these celebrations how much do people think of it as a living, breathing town with a history beyond the birth of Jesus? Singing lines, such as ‘how still we see thee lie’ and ‘once in royal David’s city’, do we ever pause to contemplate the lives of Bethlehem’s other inhabitants over the last two millennia? The reality is that, for most Christians, Bethlehem is a timeless hilltop village, an imaginary, abstract place upon which we project our own versions of the nativity. With a religion as old and as globalised as Christianity, it is inevitable that foundational stories are reworked into localised contexts. But what do we find if we look at Bethlehem as historians, rather than through the distorting lens of western Christian culture?

This is not just a fascinating local history. A more detailed study reveals a remarkably vibrant and diverse town that has been in a constant state of flux and interaction with the outside world for millennia. Three interrelated aspects of Bethlehem’s character help illuminate its history: Bethlehem the Arab-Palestinian town; Bethlehem the Roman Catholic town; and Bethlehem the global town. Exploring it from a three-dimensional perspective throws up many surprises and raises fresh questions about the way we think about Middle Eastern history more broadly.

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