O Jewish Town of Bethlehem
What has happened to Christian theology—and the little town of Bethlehem?
This Christmas season, as we gather in our churches to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and sing the carols of Christmas, we no doubt will sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” one of the most beloved hymns of all time.
Its author, Phillips Brooks, visited Bethlehem in the winter of 1865, just after the American Civil War, while he was rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He made the long trip to assist at the Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity.
Today, Bethlehem lies within the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as it has since 1995. That year at Christmastime, then PA President Yasser Arafat (a man who never let the truth get in his way) stood on the roof of the Church of the Nativity and proudly proclaimed, “Welcome to Bethlehem, birthplace of the first Palestinian Christian, Jesus Christ.”
In December 2013, PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared Jesus was “a Palestinian messenger who would become a guiding light for millions around the world.”
This year, again in Bethlehem, PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called Jesus “a Palestinian, and Palestine was his birthplace.”
These unbiblical declarations aren’t surprising, given the history of the Palestinian Authority. In addition, Arafat and Abbas were addressing Palestinian audiences during the Christmas season.
However, Maliki’s speech was different. He spoke in Bethlehem by invitation of an international “Christian” audience at a Bible college conference sponsored by a “Christian” organization called Christ at the Checkpoint, whose theme was “Christ at the Center”; and unbelievably, the audience applauded.
The PA is certainly no beacon of scriptural truth. The fact the conference even invited Maliki is troubling. But the fact that a so-called evangelical Christian audience chose political expedience over clear biblical reality is even worse.
The conference’s website, christatthecheckpoint.bethbc.edu, identifies its participants as “evangelical Christians” who desire “truth” to “reign”: “We also call upon evangelical Christians everywhere to join us in the hope that we can build a better world where goodness and truth reign free and where the love and fairness of God are common.”1
Based on Maliki’s warm reception, biblical truth has little chance of surviving there.
PA officials are known for blatantly mischaracterizing clear Bible teaching for political purposes. But believers have no excuse for applauding blatant lies about their Savior—in Bethlehem of Judea, no less.
The Real Story
Bethlehem has a long attachment to biblical truth and to the Jewish people. It is referred to 30 times in the Old Testament and eight times in the New. Scripture sometimes calls the town Bethlehem Ephrathah or Bethlehem of Judea to distinguish it from another Bethlehem located in the north, within the tribe of Zebulun (Josh. 19:15–16).
Bethlehem is first referenced at the death of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who died giving birth to Benjamin: “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Gen. 35:19). As a result, Jewish people regard Bethlehem as a holy place—especially for barren women who go to Rachel’s Tomb to pray for children.
The book of Ruth opens with a famine in Bethlehem, a town within the tribe of Judah (Mic. 5:2). In the New Testament, Bethlehem was sometimes called the “city of David” (Lk. 2:4, 11). King David was Ruth’s great-grandson. He was born in Bethlehem; and, according to 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel anointed him king of Israel there.
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem fulfilled Micah’s prophecy: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting (Mic. 5:2).
In addition, Matthew 2:3–5 records King Herod asking Jewish chief priests and scribes where the Christ (Messiah) was to be born. They answered, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet” (v. 5).
Thus, at the time of Christ, the little town of Bethlehem was far from Palestinian. The prophet Micah was Jewish; and Jesus, who fulfilled Micah’s prophecy 500 years after it was given, was also Jewish.
The first Palestinian Christian? No. Jesus the Son of God was born of a Jewish maiden in a manger in Bethlehem of Judea. His birth was prophesied by a Jewish prophet and recorded by a Jewish disciple.
It’s a shame that “Christians” who traveled from far and wide to attend a Christ at the Center conference this year scorned biblical truth but willingly embraced a lie. Christ was not born in the little town of Bethlehem of Palestine. He was born a Jew in fulfillment of prophecies Almighty God gave to the Jewish people, including this one:
And now the LORD says, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel is gathered to Him, . . . “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:5–6).
Phillips Brooks traveled to Bethlehem because the Bible says Jesus, who came to provide salvation “to the ends of the earth,” was born as a Jewish baby in the Jewish town of Bethlehem. What a pity the Christ at the Checkpoint participants could not embrace the biblical truth Pastor Brooks embraced.
As we celebrate Christmas this year, my prayer is that we always stay true to God’s Word—particularly when it’s unpopular. Merry Christmas!
- “Christ at the Checkpoint 5, Jesus Christ at the Center: About Christ at the Checkpoint”<christatthecheckpoint.bethbc.edu/about-christ-at-the-checkpoint>.