Photograph by Christopher Anderson, National Geographic December 2007

The West Bank town of Bethlehem is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

The importance of Bethlehem to Christianity came to the forefront in the fourth century. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to declare Christianity as the official religion of the empire, sent his mother, Helena, to the Holy Land to find and document sites important to Christianity. Helena believed she had found the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and asked her son to build the Church of the Nativity. With Helena’s encouragement and Constantine’s money supporting them, pilgrims began making the trek to the Holy Lands. Since then, Bethlehem continues to attract pilgrims to Jesus’ birthplace.

Recent History

Until 1917 the area that is now Israel and the Palestinian territories was part of the Ottoman Empire. The British took control of the region in 1917, during World War I, and were subsequently given governing control by the League of Nations in 1922, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The mandate included establishing a Jewish national home in the region, which created conflict between the Arabs and Jews. Following World War II, Britain no longer wanted control of Palestine and asked the United Nations to take over. In November 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into two states—one Jewish, one Arab. Jews accepted the proposal; Arabs did not.

In May 1948 Israel declared its independence, and the battles that were already brewing grew into an official war, involving several countries in the region. About 750,000 Palestinians fled their native villages, many of them forced to do so by the Israeli army. Many relocated to the West Bank of the Jordan River, administered by Jordan, or the Gaza Strip, governed by Egypt. These were the first Palestinian refugees.

Then, during the 1967 Six Day War, Israel defeated the forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon and occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Soon after, Jews began establishing homesites in the newly won territory. The building of settlements was immediately and repeatedly condemned by the U.N. as a violation of international law, laid out in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

All of these changes affected Bethlehem. In 1900, 90 percent of the town’s population was Christian. Today, Christians are just one-third of the population.


Finkel, Michael. “Bethlehem 2007 A.D.National Geographic (December 2007), 58-85.
Cockburn, Andrew. “Lines in the Sand: Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” National Geographic (October 2002).
Benvenisti, Meron. Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land. University of California Press, 1995.

Bethlehem of Judaea—or of Galilee?

The “little town of Bethlehem” may not actually be where Jesus was born. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death, and some religious scholars believe the writers set their stories in Bethlehem of Judaea to associate Jesus with the House of David. This was to reinforce Jesus’ status as the Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures in order to attract early Jewish converts to Christianity.

Many archaeologists and theological scholars believe Jesus was actually born in either Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee, a town just outside Nazareth, citing biblical references and archaeological evidence to support their conclusion. Throughout the Bible, Jesus is referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth,” not “Jesus of Bethlehem.” In fact, in John (7:41- 43) there is a passage questioning Jesus’ legitimacy because he’s from Galilee and not Judaea, as the Hebrew Scriptures say the Messiah must be. Archaeological excavations have shown that Bethlehem in Judaea likely did not exist as a functioning town between 7 and 4 B.C., when Jesus is believed to have been born. Studies of the town have turned up a great deal of Iron Age material from 1200 to 550 B.C. as well as material from the sixth century A.D., but nothing from the first century B.C. or the first century A.D. Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, says, “There is surprisingly no archaeological evidence that ties Bethlehem in Judaea to the period in which Jesus would have been born.

“If the historical Jesus were truly born in Bethlehem,” Oshri adds, “it was most likely the Bethlehem of Galilee, not that in Judaea. The archaeological evidence certainly seems to favor the former, a busy center [of Jewish life] a few miles from the home of Joseph and Mary, as opposed to an unpopulated spot almost a hundred miles from home.” In this Bethlehem, Oshri and his team have uncovered the remains of a later monastery and the largest Byzantine church in Israel, which raises the question of why such a huge house of Christian worship was built in the heart of a Jewish area. The Israeli archaeologist believes that it’s because early Christians revered Bethlehem of Galilee as the birthplace of Jesus. “There is no doubt in my mind that these are impressive and important evidence of a strong Christian community established in Bethlehem [of Galilee] a short time after Jesus’ death,” he says. Oshri, however, doubts that Bethlehem of Galilee will be recognized as the birthplace of Jesus any time soon. “Business interests are too important,” he says. “After all this time, the churches do not have a strong interest in changing the Nativity story.”


“Where Was Jesus Born?”

Broadway, Bill. “The Story of Jesus’s Birth, Revised.” Washington Post, December 22, 2001.

How do Americans see Bethlehem? To see what Americans know of Bethlehem and how Bethlehem’s Christians and Muslims get along, check out these Zogby polls:

Map: “Bethlehem 2007 A.D.National Geographic (December 2007), 70-71.

Benvenisti, Meron. Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land. University of California Press, 1995.

Benvenisti, Meron. Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948. University of California Press, 2002.

Cockburn, Andrew. “Lines in the Sand: Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” National Geographic (October 2002).

Greenberg, Joel. “Bethlehem Sees a Christian Exodus.” Bethlehem Media Net, December 24, 2006..

Khalidi, Rashid. Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon Press, 2007.

Raheb, Mitri. Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2004.

Reinhart, Tanya. The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine Since 2003. Verso, 2006.

Sennott, Charles. The Body and the Blood: The Middle East’s Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace. Public Affairs, 2001.

Other Resources

The Applied Research Institute—Jerusalem
The Applied Research Institute—Jerusalem (ARIJ) promotes sustainable development in the occupied Palestinian territory and the self-reliance of the Palestinian people through greater control over their natural resources.

The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories was established in 1989 by a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members to document human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to educate the Israeli public and policymakers.

Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics
The PCBS keeps statistics on demographic, social, economic, and environmental trends.

United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs–Occupied Palestinian Territory
OCHA in the occupied Palestinian territory was established in late 2000 in response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza.

United Nations: Question of Palestine
This site gives a history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an overview of the issues, including a chronological list of events and maps and a list of relevant UN resolutions.

Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, marks one of Christianity’s most sacred sites: the birthplace of Jesus. Built over the grotto where Mary is said to have given birth to her son, the church has been the subject of religious wrangling for centuries.
The first evidence that the cave was considered to be Christ’s birthplace can be found in the writings of St. Justin Martyr around A.D. 160, and in 326, Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, commissioned a church to be erected on the site. Destroyed in the Samaritan revolt of 529, Constantine’s church was replaced by a larger basilica during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565). Over the following centuries, as the site changed hands among various religious factions, including Muslims and Crusaders, the face of the basilica was altered and the compound expanded to take on a fortress-like appearance. Today, the church is jointly controlled by three Christian denominations, including the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church.
In the spring of 2002, the Church of the Nativity was once again the site of conflict. On April 1, Israel mounted a campaign to hunt down Palestinian militants, surrounding the city of Bethlehem with tanks. Approximately 200 Palestinians, civilians, and gunmen seeking refuge from the Israeli troops broke into the compound with the idea that Israeli forces would regard the site as sacrosanct. Instead, the Israelis surrounded the compound, trapping several dozen monks, priests, and nuns alongside the Palestinians, and a 39-day standoff ensued.


“Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.” Sacred Destinations.

“Church wWith a Turbulent History.” BBC News, April 4, 2002.

Shomali, Qustandi. “Church of the Nativity: History & Structure.”

“The Siege of Bethlehem: Chronology of the Siege.” Frontline

“Timeline: Bethlehem Siege.” BBC News, May 10, 2002.