There is much debate on the origins and etymology of the name Bethlehem. Known as Bayt Lahm in Arabic literally meaning ‘House of Meat’,  and Bet Lehem in Hebrew where it means ‘House of Bread’; Bethlehem is the capital of Palestine. The Hebrew Bible identifies Bethlehem as the city of David. The New Testament identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. 

However, ‘House of Bead’ or ‘House of Meat’ does not do the name of the town  Bethlehem any justice. A historical reference to the town appears in the Amarna Letters (c. 1400 BC) where Bethlehem is known as Bit-Lahmi. It is thought that the similarity of this name to its modern forms indicates that this was a settlement of the Canaanites, a pre-Jewish people who lived in Israel. 

Edward Pococke, in his book ‘India in Greece’ states that the Cannanites were the people of Kanha, or Krishna, the Vedic God,who after the devastation of the Mahabharata war moved westwards from India. There is much authenticity in this argument and the Jewish Encyopeadia attests to this fact.

In his book ‘The uttermost part of the Earth: a Guide to places in the Bible’, Richard R Losch traces the name Bit Lahmi  of the Amarna Letters to Lachmo, the Akkadian god of fertility. The Akkadian civilization flourished around 3000 BC. Lachomo, the Akkadian God was worshiped by the Canaanites as Lachma. They also worshipped Goddess Lachama as his wife. 

About 1000 years before the Hebrews arrived in Israel, the Cannanites erected a temple to worship the god on the hill now known as the Hill of the Nativity in the town of Beit Lachama. Beit Lachama was fertile and had a good water supply. When the Jews came in they would naturally not worship the Canan god Lachma and the distortion of interpretations began.  

William F. Albright, an American archaeologist  and Biblical Scholar states in his research that, to the Cannaites Beit Lachama meant ‘Temple of the God Lakhmu’, which later distorted to ‘House of Bread’ in Hebrew & Aramaic and to ‘House of Meat’ in Arabic. The etymology of Lakhmu and why the God had that name is unknown.

But leads can be taken from the Indian pantheon of Vedic Gods. The Cannanite Gods seemed to have origins common with India as is evident from the following Cannanite image. 

The posture of a Cannnite (pre Jewish Israel) God seated on the left
shows a close link to Indian sculpture.

There are two Vedic Gods or figures that have names close to Cannanite God Lachmu and Goddess Lachamu. In the Indian scriptures two well known names are – 1. the Goddess Laksmi (लक्ष्मी) – the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and 2. the brother of Sri Rama whose name was Lakshmana (लक्ष्मण). ‘Lakshmi’ (
लक्ष्मी) in Sanskrit means ‘wealth’, ‘fortune’ or a ‘mark’. ‘Lakshman’ (लक्ष्मण) means ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate’.

Cannanite Goddess of Fertility –
There is much confusion about
the names (God) Lachma and its female
form (Goddess)  Lachama.

The Cannanite Goddess Astrate
depicted here with snakes and skulls
much like the Vedic Goddess Kali.
Here is a Canaanite Goddess
wearing a ‘tilak
on her forehead.

That the pre-Jewish names of places in the state of Canaan (now Israel) are definitely of Indian origin cannot be disputed. Canaan is referred to in the Amarna Letters as ‘Kinahhu’, while other sources of the Egyptian New Kingdom mention numerous military campaigns conducted in a place called ‘Ka-na-na’ – all these ancient names are cognates to the name ‘Kanha’ (कान्हा) – the name of Sri Krishna who was also known as ‘Kanan’ (कानन) and ‘Kishen’ (किशन).

To the East of Phoenicia lies the province of Gallile which gets its name from the ‘Sea of Galilee’, which is also known as Kinneret or Lake Gennesaret. In Sanskrit, ‘sara’ (सर) means ‘lake’, ‘sarat’ (सरत्) means ‘flowing’, and ‘sarita’ (सरित्) means ‘river’. The word ‘ghanasara’ (घनसार) means ‘water’ – the ‘ghana’ here indicating ‘deep’ or ‘immense’ amount of water.

One of the largest rivers in Israel, is known as the Kishon (also called Kishen).The Kishon flows in the region known as Phoenicia. In the same province are located the towns of ‘Ramah‘ and ‘Kanah‘. Then there is the town of ‘Ramathiam‘ in the province of Judea – and yet another town by the name of ‘Ramah‘ in Judea which is different from the one located in Phoenicia. 

And it is therefore likely that Beit Lachamo gets its name from Lakshmana, the brother of Sri Rama. But since Beit Lachamo was a land of plenty and prosperity, its name could have been derived from Lakshmi, the name of the Vedic Goddess of wealth. But how did the Vedic names reach Canaan?

The Jewish Encyclopedia, referring to the writing of Clearchus of Soli, who was the disciple of Aristotle and wrote extensively around 320 BCE on eastern cultures, states that Aristotle was of the view that the Hebrews were descendants of the Indian philosophers.

Titus Flavius Josephus was a first-century Romano-Jewish scholar, historian and hagiographer, who was born in Jerusalem. In his works, Josephus quotes the writings of Clearchus of Soli. He relates the story of a dialogue between Aristole and a Jewish scholar. He quotes Clearchus thus, “In his first book on Sleep he relates of Aristotle, his master, that he had a discourse with a Jew; and his own account was that what this Jew said merited admiration…… To speak of the race first, the man was a Jew by birth and came from Cœlesyria [Palestine]. These Jews are derived from the philosophers of India. In India the philosophers call themselves Kalani, and in Syria Jews, taking their name from the country they inhabit … the name of their capital is rather difficult to pronounce: they call it Jerusalem”. For more on this click here.

Godfrey Higgins states in his book ‘Anacalpysis’, “Megasthenes, who was sent to India by Seleucus Nicator, about 300 years before Christ, and whose accounts are every day acquiring additional credit, says that the Jews ‘were an Indian tribe called Kalani…”.

One of the best known Indian philosophers in recent times (roughly 1100 AD) who is known by a similar title is Kalhana, who wrote the Rajatarangini – a chronicle of the ancient kings of India.

The word ‘Beth’ appears in many names of Biblical sites such as Bethsaida, Betahbara, Bethany, Bethal and so on. Bethsaida was the site of many miracles, Bethabara was a site to where Jesus often retreated to, Bethal was the site where Jacob was favoured with a heavenly vision. It may well be that the Cannanite Beit is a distortion of the Sanskrit ‘math’ (मठ्) meaning ‘dwelling’. India itself has many ‘math’ which are the ancient seats of learning and tapasya.

Suggested Readings:
1. Who was Abraham?
2. The Phoenicians – Global Navigators
3. Encyclopedia of Ancient Dieties
4. Jewish Encyclopedia
5. The Cottage Bible – Volume 2 edited by Thomas Williams
6. A Study in Oriental History by Fredrick Carl Eiselen


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