The little town of Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means "house of bread", has many biblical associations reflecting a tranquil, pastoral existence. As its name signifies, in antiquity the district was known for its fertility and for the cultivation of its fields and terraces. In the Old Testament, Bethlehem is often referred to as Ephrat, which means fruitfulness. Here, nearly four thousand years ago, Jacob buried his young wife Rachel; here was the home of Naomi and her family; here Ruth gleaned in the fields and fell in love with her kinsman Boaz; here their great-grandson David was born and here Samuel "anointed him amid his brethren' (1 Samuel 16:13). But the event that took place here and transformed the course of history was that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea" (Matthew 2:1) Today, this town, surrounded by a beautiful hilly landscape, is the home of Christian and Muslim Arabs, many of whom are skilled artisans and craftsmen.
Church of the Nativity
It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus' birthplace was commonly known and revered by his followers. In 135 A.D. Bethlehem became off limits to both Jews and Judeo-Christians. Part of its paganization consisted in the birthplace being overgrown by a grove in honor of Adonis. In 330 A.D., with the Christianization of the Byzantine Empire, a splendid basilica, the Church of the Nativity, was erected on the site of the manger. Bethlehem at this period was a center of Christian enlightenment.
Shepherds still pasture their flocks around Bethlehem, where the shepherds heard the good tidings of Jesus' birth from the angel of the Lord who told them to go to Bethlehem to adore the child (Luke 2). "Shepherds Field." sometimes called Ruth's field, is near the village of Bet Sahur. Everywhere, evidence is found of Byzantine convents, and a Greek Orthodox Church covers a cave which has a fine fourth century mosaic floor. Another church, called "Campo Dei Pastori" Ð "Shepherds Field" was rebuilt for the Franciscans by Antonio Barluzzi in 1950. The design of the Church represents a shepherd's tent and the light penetrating the church through the glass openings of the dome recall the light that shone on the shepherds when the angel appeared to give them the tidings of Jesus' birth. The walls are decorated with frescoes depicting the story of the shepherds and in the center of the Church is an altar supported by bronze statues of shepherds.