Dec 25, 2017
Bethlehem may be the most famous small town on Earth. The town is of course known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, but beyond its most famous citizen, what do people really know about the city? For me, the answer as “not much.” I had the chance to travel to Bethlehem in March, and I learned so much about the city’s history beyond its Biblical history. My guest today is the man who literally wrote the book on Bethlehem, Nicholas Blincoe. Nicholas wrote the critically hailed Bethlehem: Biography of a Town, and on this episode, we discuss what life was like there in the first century A.D., how that history relates to what’s told in the Bible, and how the legacy of its most famous son affected the town centuries after his birth.
Bethlehem is a very old town in a very old region, at the crossroads of two ancient trails: What today is called Hevron Road that runs up to Jerusalem, and then an east-west trail that came from the Dead Sea. And as the aquifer in the area began to be used as a water source for Jerusalem, Bethlehem town grew up to protect the water source, and eventually became a market town for the people who lived there. But as Nicholas says, his “big argument” in the book is that Bethlehem is not as old as the Bible says it is. I won’t spoil the argument here, but you’ll want to hear what he has to say about it.
I asked Nicholas about the historical evidence of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, and he said that while much of the evidence, including the Gospels, is 200 or so years after he would have been born, there are other ways of thinking about it. For instance, while much of it may be a few hundred years after the fact, much of it is built on 200 years of pilgrimage, which is strong evidence for the town as Jesus’s birthplace. And there was an inn on the edge of town where travelers visiting the site of Jesus’ birth would stay. And so Nicholas notes that even though there is no hard evidence, the fact is that people who lived in the time of Christ certainly believed it, making it interesting evidence for a historian.
Nicholas tells a great story in this episode about St. Helena, who met her husband as a barmaid and would eventually become the mother of the great emperor Constantine. She then ruled over the empire as matriarch, and went on to build what Nicholas calls one of the most unusual churches in the world, the Church of the Nativity. She actually opened up the top of a cave thought to be where Christ was born, and built a rotunda, so you could look down into the place where Jesus was born. As Nicholas says, it makes the church very influential and, perhaps, interesting from a Freudian perspective.
I asked Nicholas for advice for visiting Bethlehem, and straight away he noted that the typical tour bus is operated by Israelis, and the Palestinian gift shop owners pay those companies to take tourists by their shops. So, as he said, you could feel a little “icky” arranging a trip in that manner. (Though we both make a few recommendations for tours that are on the up-and-up.) He also recommends the Church of the Nativity, of course, and walking Start Street, which was the old pilgrimage route. He also has some really cool suggestions for Roman ruins, holy sites and good places to stop and eat. If you’re thinking of visiting the most famous small town in the world, first listen to this episode, then pick up Nicholas’s book, and then make your plans.
Featuring the song “Places Unseen” by Lee Rosevere
More info and photographs for this episode at: https://historyfangirl.com/o-little-town-of-bethlehem/