Was Jesus Born in a Stable? (Luke 2:7)
Christmas Questions
Was Jesus Born in a Stable?
Luke 2:7
For many people, Christians included, Hallmark and Christmas television specials have much more impact on our perception of the birth of Christ than we may think.
We tend to have this nicely-packaged series of events that took place leading up to and surrounding the nativity where Mary and Joseph made this 80 mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her riding a little donkey, and Joseph leading them along.
They arrive in town late at night, the innkeeper, who is generally grumpy and stern, tells them there is no room in the inn. They manage to find a place in a little stable somewhere, maybe out behind the inn, and later that evening, Mary gives birth.
The angels make their announcement to the shepherds, who quickly come to the stable to worship Jesus, and before the night is over, wise men arrive from the east as a star brightly shines directly over the stable.
The problem is many, if not most of those details are not recorded in the Biblical record. For instance, we don't know how Mary and Joseph made the journey because the Bible doesn't tell us.
There is no innkeeper mentioned, either. We are simply told, "There was no room for them in the inn."
We aren't given details about the arrival time of the wise men, so we can't know for certain if they were there at the same time as the shepherds or not, but there is reason to believe their arrival came much later.
So to impose church history and tradition on the simple facts of the story is very dangerous and misleading. Think with me again about what we read in the first few verses of Luke 2 and how we tend to picture that experience. First, I'll read the verses.
Luke 2:1-7
As I said, the way the story is typically told, Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem late at night. The local inn has its “no vacancy” sign clearly displayed.
The tired couple seeks alternatives and finds none. With no other option, wearied from their journey and desperate for any shelter because of the imminent delivery, they spend the night in a stable where the child is born.
But read the text again and you'll see that even the timing we assume doesn't really fit the text. For instance, the assumption is Jesus was born the night the family arrived. But read verse 4 and it tells us that Mary and Joseph “went up” to Bethlehem. The verse assumes their arrival.
Then notice,
verse 6
Obviously, there is some period of time between their arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.
The "days were completed for her to be delivered" while she was in Bethlehem. In fact, they may have been in Bethlehem, days, weeks, or even a month of more before the birth. So, were they living in a stable all that time?
Or was Joseph so totally incompetent that he could provide nothing by way of adequate housing other than a stable after a significant number of days of searching?
Or, was Bethlehem so hardhearted that, after days and days of intense negotiation, a man with a pregnant wife was turned out by everyone?
So, "Where was Jesus Born?" Was He really born in
1. A Stable?
Most of us assume that Jesus was born in a stable because he was laid in a mange. But is that really true? Maybe, and we've all heard the sermons about the despised and lonely Jesus, unwanted and turned away because there was no room for Him in the inn, born all alone in a dirty cattle stall.
And there's nothing wrong with that sermon. Jesus, indeed, was despised and rejected of men. He came unto His own later in life, and they would not received Him. Never has a fellow-countryman been hated by His people more than Jesus was hated by the Jews.
And if you will be saved, you must make room in your heart for Jesus! Receive Him with joy and gladness that He has come to live and dwell in you!
But maybe Jesus wasn't born in a stable. And to be honest with you, I had never really given much thought to that question. I know the Bible says Mary laid him in a manger, therefore, it makes perfect sense to assume the birthplace was a stable. But we must be careful not to impose our understanding of mangers and stables on a culture and time that is far removed from modern America.
So as I pondered the question of where Jesus was born, I had a novel thought: What do Middle Eastern historians and people familiar with the customs of the area and age have to say about it?
Those questions led me to the work of German theologian, Gustaf Dalman. Dalman lived from 1855 to 1941, and was the first director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem. Dalman believed the only way to fully understand the Bible was to learn the way of life at the time the Bible was written.
So instead of conducting archaeological excavations.
he travelled across Palestine, visiting villages, learning ancient life ways, measuring the equipment, recording ancient sayings.
He learned Arabic, travelled on horseback in heat and rain, walked along narrow donkey paths, and sat around smoky fires in crumbling houses. He was a meticulous observer, noting anything that was done differently in the last village he visited. He not only noted the customs of the people, he also studied the land. The geography, the plants, the seasons, the animals, they were all part of the environment in which the people lived and in which he could understand more about the Bible.
And his goal was to relate his findings back to ancient times, taking into account archaeological discoveries. He wanted to illuminate the Bible and compared the ancient texts with the customs he observed and what people told him about their own history and ancestory.
What resulted from over two years of observation was a seven volume work called "Life in Palestine" that is still considered to be the best ethnography of the traditional Palestinian farming community.
If you consider what he and others wrote, you will discover that ancient Palestinian customs and living conditions offer us a couple of very different possibilities from what we've come to believe and assume about the birthplace of Christ, both of them with convincing arguments.
And to be honest, I'm not sure where Jesus was born. He certainly may have been born in a stable in Bethlehem, just as the church has pictured for centuries. But there are a couple of other possibilities that I will share with you, and let you make up your own mind.
One of the possibilities is
- a home
A couple of things in particular lend themselves to this argument. One of those is the make-up of the typical Middle Eastern extended family. In Luke 2 we are told that Joseph was returning to the village of Bethlehem because he was of "the house and lineage of David".
That means, even though he himself may not have been born there, his home village is a part of his identity. In fact, even if he has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. The immediate reception would have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?”
Also, if Joseph did have some member of the extended family who lived there, he was honor-bound to seek them out. And if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.
Also, in Middle Eastern culture, the birth of a child was and is a special occasion. In fact, those familiar with the customs say it is almost unimaginable that a woman about to give birth would not be able to find shelter in Bethlehem, even if she is a total stranger.
So if Mary and Joseph did find lodging in a private home, what do we make of the manger and the fact that there was no room in the inn?
After all, that's what the text plainly says. “She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
To answer the question, I relied not only on the work of Dalman, but an article published by the Associates for Biblical Research who make it their mission to demonstrate the reliability of the Bible through archaeological and Biblical research.
And what I discovered through the work of Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who is a part of the staff of the Near East School of Theology, is that in the one-room peasant homes of Palestine and Lebanon, the mangers were built into the floor of the houses.
The standard one-room village home consisted of a living area for the family, mangers built into the floor for feeding the animals at night, and a small area approximately four feet lower than the living area into which the family cow or donkey was brought at night.
In fact, it is most likely this type of home that is referenced by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, when He says that a lamp is put on a lampstand so that it “gives light to all who are in the house.”
Obviously, the house must have one room if a single lamp shines on everyone in it.
Also, the one-room house with a lower end for the animals is most likely what Jesus was referencing in
Luke 13:10–17.
The family ox and/or donkey was brought into the house at night and taken out early each morning.
And what Jesus is referring to is the common practice of taking the animals outside at the beginning of the day.
By the way, Jesus knew the head of the synagogue had untied his animals that very morning and led them out of the house. Why? Because that's where animals were kept!
If they weren't, the ruler of the synagogue would have said so! “I never touch the animals on the Sabbath.” But he didn't say that. And if he tried to claim that he leaves the animals in the house all day, the people listening would have laughed him out of the synagogue.
Instead, as verse 17 says, all his adversaries were put to shame”.
Bailey goes on to say, "Any Palestinian reading the phrase, “She laid him in a manger,” would immediately assume that the birth took place in a private home, because he knows that mangers are built into the floor of the raised terrace of the peasant home."
Dalmann, in his study of the same verse, records:
"In the East today the dwelling place of man and beast is often in one and the same room. It is quite the usual thing among the peasants for the family to live, eat, and sleep on a kind of raised terrace in the one room of the house, while the cattle, particularly the donkeys and oxen, have their place below on the actual floor near the door.... On this floor the mangers are fixed either to the floor or to the wall, or at the edge of the terrace."
In his work, he included over 100 detailed drawings of typical 1st century Palestinian dwellings picturing this very design.
Another leading 20th century authority on Palestinian life and the New Testament was E.F.F. Bishop who
writes regarding Luke 2:7:
"Perhaps...recourse was had to one of the Bethlehem houses with the lower section provided for the animals, with mangers “hollowed in stone,” the dais being reserved for the family. Such a manger being immovable, filled with crushed straw, would do duty for a cradle.
An infant might even be left in safety, especially if swaddled, when the mother was absent on temporary business."
So did they really live with their animals? Historians tell us that, in fact, they did want the animals in their homes at night for at least two reasons.
First, the animals helped heat the house in winter, and second, keeping them in the same room the villager slept in assured that they would not be stolen.
So they built their homes with a raised terrace on which the family ate, slept and lived. It was unsoiled by the animals, which were taken out each day and during which time the lower level was cleaned. Their presence was in no way offensive.
So if Jesus was born in a private home, why does Luke include the detail about there being no room in the inn?
Obviously, the key word in understanding the verse is the word "inn". Actually, the Greek word that is translated "inn" has at least five meanings. Three of those meanings have to do with living quarters. In general, the word is translated as "inn", "house" and "guest room".
In Scripture, the word is translated only as "inn" and "guest room", and this is the only place the word is rendered as "inn".
In fact, Luke also wrote about an "inn" in Luke 10:36 when he recorded the story of the Good Samaritan and used a completely different word to speak of the place where the man who had been injured by robbers was taken. Why didn't he use that word here?
In fact, the word used here is used by Luke in another place and that is Luke 22:11 where it is translated "guest room".
The Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint and it is a good tool for seeing how Greek words were used about 200 years before Jesus was born.
In fact, a lot of words that are scarce in the New Testament can be found in the Septuagint multiple times, and that helps us understand the language much better. Since the original language of the Old Testament was mostly Hebrew, the translation into Greek is even more helpful to because the translators would have had Jewish cultural knowledge.
The Septuagint uses the word translated here in Luke 13 times, and not once was it used to indicate a hotel type of structure like an inn. So the idea of a traditional, commercial inn or hotel, can pretty well be discarded and that leaves us with a "guest room".
And once again, it helps to picture the layout of those early Palestinian homes with a large family room, a step-down area for the animals and an attached guest room. most probably on the second floor.
Then, a possible translation of Luke 2:7 becomes,
"And she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the guest room."
In fact, that is the translation you find in the 2011 version of the NIV:
"there was no guest room available for them."
Now, that translation gives new understanding to the story of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full, and are accommodated as one would expect a family member to be treated. Perhaps other guests are there already residing in the guest room, leaving no room for them. So the birth takes place on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger which is close by.
And as Dr. Bailey suggests, that makes good sense to a Palestinian reader who reads, “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger.”
The Palestinian reader instinctively thinks, “Manger—oh—they are in the main family room. Why not the guest room?”
The author instinctively replies, “Because there was no place for them in the guest room.”
The reader concludes, “Ah, yes—well, the family room is more appropriate anyway.” Thus, with the translation “guest room,” all of the cultural, historical and linguistic pieces fall into place.
So maybe Jesus was born in a private home. And by the way, if He was actually born in a peasant home, then that would mean that is how God Himself planned it.
And doesn't that say a lot about God? First, it shows just how much He loved Joseph and Mary, and provided adequate shelter and support from caring individuals during their time of need.
It demonstrates the importance of family and the environment of love they provide by God's design.
And it shows the humility that Christ willingly took upon Himself, making it so that no one should feel beneath Him because of economic class or social status.
His Story is always a beautiful story of God's love and grace and provision for His children!
The birthplace could have been a stable, it could have been a home, but there is another possibility and that is
- A Cave
In fact, in the second century, historian Justin tells us exactly that: that Jesus was born in a cave outside the city of Bethlehem.
He said, "But when the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi came from Arabia and found Him. I have repeated to you...what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the Cave.
The prophecy of Isaiah to which he refers is Isaiah 33:16, which in its original version reads, “He shall dwell in a high cave of a strong rock.” By the way, Justin later denied the connection to this prophecy and claimed it was a lie stirred up by the devil.
Other early historians such as Origen agree with this cave being the birthplace. In fact, the mother of Constantine, Helena, traveled to Bethlehem in the 4th century to determine the location, and settled on the cave over which the Church of the Nativity was built in 339 AD.
But there are some problems with accepting that cave as the birthplace of Jesus, and most historians and scholars, outside of Catholicism reject it as the place of Christ's birth for a number of reasons, the chief being that a manger location 20 feet below the ground down a steep passage was obviously not a place that animals were brought in and out of.
Plus, the "traditions" that claim Jesus was born in a cave contradict the biblical account and, in fact, find their roots in paganism.
Remember, the Christmas date of December 25 was chosen by the bishop of Rome as a part of the Catholic church's plan to Christianize pagan festivals. Pagans of the day worshipped a god named Mithra who they said was born in a cave, was crucified and resurrected.
Many believe Helena and her team chose the cave where the Church of the Nativity was built, once again, as a part of the plan to Christianize the pagan festivals.
  1. defense of a cave as the birthplace, it does bear mentioning that many peasant homes in Palestine in the past were, or began as, caves. And most mangers were fashioned out of stone, so there is the possibility of a stable or home made from rock that could have been described as a cave serving as the birthplace of Jesus.
An additional wrinkle in the possibility of a cave birth is a secluded prophecy from Micah. Most of us know that Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but many do not realize that Micah further prophesied of that kingship coming by way of a place called the "tower of the flock".
The prophecy is found in Micah 4:8, The tower that was referenced there was a watchtower located in the northern part of Bethlehem built to protect the Temple flocks. Bethlehem was special because the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem raised lambs for the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
During lambing season the sheep were brought there from the fields, as the lower level functioned, get this, as the birthing room for sacrificial lambs.”
According to Jewish scholars, shepherds “would wrap the newborn lambs in swaddling cloths” and place them in a manger “until they calmed down” to keep them “without defect” and suitable to be sacrificial lambs for the sin of the Israelites.
The shepherds who heard the angelic choir and came to see the baby Jesus were, no doubt, familiar with the technique to birth a sacrificial lamb, and were likely puzzled by why a baby was birthed in the manner and location of a sacrificial lamb.
If that was the birthplace, then the angels didn't have to tell the shepherds where to go in Bethlehem to find Jesus, because there was only one manger where sacrificial lambs were birthed and that was the cave under the watch tower of Migdal-Edar.
Now think about what that means, if in fact, this was the place where Jesus was born. What a foreshadowing of the very reason Jesus came into the world in the first place!
Thirty years later, John the Baptist would see Jesus and say, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Peter would later write,
1 Peter 1:18-20
Listen: Before Jesus had taken his first breath, God had decided that His life was to be given as a
sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sins.
And from a preacher's point of view, I certainly like the idea that the Lamb of God began His earthly life in a cave, and then at the end of His life, His body resurrected from a cave, victorious over death!
And perhaps even the birthplace of the Son of God testifies to His Heavenly Father's intent by having Jesus be born in the manner and location of the sacrificial lambs of the temple just as the prophet Micah proclaimed.
Where was Jesus born? Maybe in a stable, maybe in a house, maybe in a cave. We don't know. But we do know that Mary took the baby Jesus, wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger.
So let me conclude today with a thought or two about
- The Manger
Have you ever taken the time to consider how much that manger is like your heart? The choice of the human heart is just as baffling as the manger! Just as God sent Jesus to be laid in a manger, He sent Him to be born in human hearts. That seems like odd terminology, but it is the language of Jesus.
Listen to the conversation Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus. It's found in
John 3:3-7
Having Jesus Christ in your heart is what makes you a Christian. Jesus has to be born in you, and that's what makes your heart and the manger so similar.
For instance, both the manger and your heart were
- chosen by God for His Son to enter
As we've already seen in our series, the details of the birth of Jesus were all put in place before the beginning of time. God divinely chose the very place of the birth of His Son!
And God has chosen you. Today, if you sense His calling, that means God is speaking and drawing. He wants you to let His Son come in.
Here's something else the manger and your heart have in common:
- Neither are worthy places for a King
It doesn't matter if the birthplace of Jesus was a stable, a cave or the cleanest home in Bethlehem, it was far below what the Son of God deserved.
Listen: stables and Hearts are both dirty. Caves and hearts are both dark! And neither temporary homes nor sinful human hearts are deserving of Jesus.
But Jesus came anyway! They didn't have to clean up and make ready and get everything in place for Jesus to be born, and you don't either!
Jesus meets us where and how we are!
And then think about this:
Mangers and Human hearts are both used by God
- To Share Jesus with Others
I wonder how many people know or have known about the manger that held the baby Jesus? It is hard to fathom how many people have been exposed to the Good News through a simple detail in the Christmas story!
That is great evidence that God wants us to know about His Son and know His Son and use us to tell others about His Son!
And I just think if God can use a manger, surely He can use you and me! After all, the manger had no voice to talk and tell its neighbors; it had no hands to write its story; it had no feet to travel around the world to publish the story of Jesus’ birth.
But we do! We have hands, feet, and a voice that can be used to tell the story and we can do it much better than the manger! Christmas is a perfect opportunity to start conversations about our faith in Christ.
Who do you know who needs Jesus? Bring up Christmas. Ask them what traditions they have at Christmas. Then ask them what Jesus means to them. Then tell them what Jesus means to you.
Invite them to church or pray with them to accept Jesus.
Where was Jesus born? Maybe in a stable, or a cave or a house. It really doesn't matter until He is born in your heart, and today we would love to make the birth announcement: Good News of Great Joy! For into you is born this day, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord!
Let's pray.
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  June 2020  
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