Born in a Stable?

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Bible tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It also tells us that he was born in a manger—a food trough for animals—because there was no room in the inn. But it may not have taken place in a barn-like structure with wooden walls as many paintings and manger scenes portray.

The hills of Judea were covered with caves, and it was common to use those caves to stable animals. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth is a cave below what is now the Church of the Nativity, shown in the first picture. The cave is still there (now called the Grotto of the Nativity), and a star marks the spot where the manger supposedly stood. That’s the second picture, with the multi-rayed star in the center of the fire-place-like opening.

Roland took both pictures during our family trip to the Middle East in 1998.

So is this location just another tradition? Technically, yes. And I’m not betting on the star marking the actual spot where the manger stood. But surprisingly enough, historians think it may really have been the stable in which Jesus was born. That’s because evidence of this traditional site goes all the way back to the second century.

Think about the stories passed down by your parents and grandparents. They may even have pointed out the house where a grandparent or great-grandparent was born. When this happens, three or four generations may pass before the information gets lost. And sometimes it lasts far beyond that.

If Mary pointed the stable out to some of the first Christians and they passed their knowledge down to their children and grandchildren, the information may still have been alive and correct in the second century. After that, the site was preserved by various other means, making it a serious contender.  

Have I stood in the stable where Jesus was born? Maybe. But no matter where the exact location is, I’m thankful for His birth.

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For more information on the historical circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, see In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, by Paul L. Maier.

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