Update 12/5/21: This post has been slightly edited and republished on my new website… you can read it here on Youth Pastor Theologian
The question “Where was Jesus born?” is surprisingly tricky. The easy answer is, “In Bethlehem.” Yes, but where? The typical nativity scene features the holy family in a stable that looks like a barn, separate from the Inn, where there was no room. But is this accurate? Most historians and scholars say, “Not so much.”
This is a question that I’ve seen pop up more frequently on social media this year than in previous years, so I figured I’d take some time to lay out the facts and present some of the more popular theories.
What We Know
We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was no room “in the inn,” and that he was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Luke 2:4-7 (ESV)
Aside from these basics, there’s a lot of detail left open: Why were they turned away from “the inn?” Why was there a manger, does that mean they were in the barn with the animals? Where did people in ancient Bethlehem keep the animals? These types of questions have led to a few different theories about where Jesus was actually born, which are briefly summarized below.
The Popular Assumption: In a Barn
If you look at any manger scene or contemporary nativity sets, this is the popular image presented. Understandably, the reasoning goes like this: Jesus was placed in a manger, which was a feeding trough for livestock, so he must’ve been born in the barn with the animals. This is where farmers today keep their animals, but people in the Ancient Near East (including Israel) simply didn’t do this. This theory is a product of contemporary Western life and is fairly easy to dismiss.
The Traditional View: A Cave
The Early Church Fathers wrote about Jesus being born in a cave. Justin Martyr (150 A.D.), Origen (250 A.D.), Jerome (325 A.D.) each believed this was the case. In 335 A.D, Emperor Constantine approved the cave that was the traditional site of Jesus’ birth to be turned into a holy site, and is known as the “Church of the Nativity.” The people of Bethlehem were known to keep their flocks in an adjoining cave and there is some archaeological evidence for animals being housed in caves. And yet, it is important to remember that despite the Church of the Nativity being commissioned as a holy site as early as 325 A.D., the Bible does not make definitive reference to a cave, only to a manger. It is entirely possible that Origen and Jerome simply followed Justin Martyr’s theory, and thus, they are all wrong – but has become the popular view.
The Most Likely View: A House
The image below is a reconstruction of what homes in Bethlehem looked like. Typically, the bottom floor was a place for the most valuable animals to be housed, especially during inclement weather. The top floor was the primary residence for the family and always included an “upper room” that would serve as a guest room for visitors. This is the type of room that Jesus and his disciples used to celebrate the Passover because it was completely expected for faithful Jewish families to show hospitality to travelers, especially to family. When Luke 2:7 says “there was no room for them in the inn,” the Greek word is the word for this guest room, not for a hotel (there was a word for that, which is used in the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Because of the census, the upper room was already too full for them to give birth, so they stayed in the lower level where there was enough room for all that goes into birthing a child. This view also reflects the cultural priority of hospitality and the high unlikelihood that family would turn Mary and Joseph away while she is in her final day(s) of pregnancy, even despite the scandal of her being pregnant before their official marriage. This article explains this view and the historical background in greater detail. This view is also well-attested by reputable Bible Dictionaries (see their entries for “manger” and “inn”).
An Unlikely but Interesting Theory: Migdal Eder
This final view is a new one I’ve only recently learned. I love the theological themes and foreshadowing involved, but this is exactly what makes me fairly skeptical. This view highlights that the shepherds of Bethlehem were specially tasked with birthing and caring for the lambs who would be provided for temple sacrifice. The Tower of Migdal (in Hebrew, Migdal Eder) was the watchtower for the special flock of appointed sheep who would be sacrificed for the atonement of Israel. Lambs were wrapped in swaddling cloths to keep them from injury and laid in mangers, just as Christ was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. Proponents of this view are quick to point out that when John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” this is what he had in mind. This may be a possibility, but it seems like enough of a stretch, and while it offers beautiful imagery, I remain convinced the simplest explanation is probably the most reliable. You can read more about it here or watch a video about it here.
Why Does it Matter?
This is the thousand dollar question. It must be affirmed that the Bible is sufficient. We know what we need to know. The Gospel account is enough. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a humble and lowly state. The God of creation was born in a back-woods town and in the overflow section. The details above help fill in the context in some ways that can be helpful to consider the trials that Mary and Joseph faced and to rejoice in God’s providence. It is even possible to combine elements of the above theories without disregarding what Scripture makes clear – but this should avoided (if we will rearrange possibilities to suit our desires on this, what else will we rearrange to fit our desired conclusions?).
In the midst of the uncertain details and whichever theory you believe is most likely, don’t lose sight of the wonder: that a simple manger became God’s throne. This is the point of the story, let’s not overlook it because we’re stuck in the details God didn’t believe were important enough to preserve.