Bethlehem is located about 10 Kilometres south west of Jerusalem. It is in the hill country of Judea, and is mentioned in the Bible as being the birthplace of Jesus Christ, according to Matthew 2 and Luke 2. It is an important pilgrim and tourist centre, and is sacred to the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
During the second century CE, Christian tradition had identified a cave as the site of the manger where Jesus was born. St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the First, had a church built over the cave in approximately 326/327CE. This was destroyed but was subsequently rebuilt by Emperor Justinian (527-565). The Church of the Nativity is considered one of the oldest Christian Churches.
Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 35.19 where it states that Rachel, wife of Abraham, died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem.)
It was a setting for the Book of Ruth, and in 1 Samuel 17.12 we find that Ruth's descendant, King David, came from Bethlehem. "Now David was a son of that Ephratite of Bethlehem Judah, whose name was Jesse, and who had eight sons."
During the years of the Crusades, Bethlehem was destroyed and rebuilt and was later destroyed by the Turks and subsequently rebuilt again. After the Crusaders were driven from Palestine the Moslem rulers used the holy places for their own ends.
The Israelis ruled Bethlehem after the six-day war in 1967, and they still have access to Rachel's tomb. Today the population is made up of various religions but Christians are not as large a population as they have been.
For some time Christians couldn't visit Bethlehem. Today, although it's under the Palestinian authority, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is now open to tourists. Jewish guides are not welcome and if you have one they will be replaced by a Palestinian guide for this part of the journey around the Holy places.
When Jesus was born, Herod was king of the area. He had a cruel streak and was subject to fits of depression and distrust. He murdered most of his family and it is a sign of his mental deterioration that he ordered the death of all the male children under two years of age, reported in the Bible in the Book of Matthew. He would have been deeply distrustful of rumours that a "king of the Jews" had been born.
The wise men, who visited Herod to tell him of the birth of the "King of the Jews" in Matthew 2, are also termed Magi. This term is not specific as to whether they were "magicians", astrologers, or fortune tellers. However the term covers a wide range of occupations and most people seem to believe they were very learned men who came to pay their respects to the new king. The precise number of these wise men is not known! Various traditions have from 3 to 12.
The name "Bethlehem" is remembered in story and song but this town will be part of the Kingdom of God when Jesus returns to rule from Jerusalem.