Was Jesus born in a stable? Or could it have been a cave? Or a house? The easy answer to this is, we do not know. We can’t be certain because the Bible does not specifically answer this question. However, we can reason through this, using the Bible, and we can consider where Jesus might have been born.
Tradition tells us that Jesus was born in a stable. That claim is based on the fact that, at His birth, Jesus was laid in a manger.
Luke 2:7, 12 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger… And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
The Greek word for manger is phatne and The Strong’s Dictionary defines it as:
phatne, fat’-nay; from pateomai (to eat); a crib (for fodder):–manger, stall.
A Stable or a Cave?
A manger (phatne) was a type of feed trough for animals. Therefore, nativity scenes that depict a baby in a straw-laden feeding trough are mostly biblically accurate (during that time feed troughs were made of stone, not wood). Since Jesus was “laid in a manger” (Luke 2:7) it is likely that there were animals nearby, as nativity scenes always depict. However, the Bible does not tell us that there were animals or that His birth took place in a stable.
While traditionally Jesus’ birthplace is said to be a stable, many think that Jesus might have been born in a cave. There are historical records to suggest that during the first-century animals were also kept in caves. Again, the Bible does not tell what type of building sheltered Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. It only tells that Jesus was laid in a manger, a phatne, a crib for fodder or a stall.
Another very credible and insightful theory, but one that is not as widely circulated, is that Jesus was born in the lower level of a house. The Bible tells that Joseph took his betrothed wife Mary and traveled to Bethlehem, the city of their father David, to comply with the census that was required by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). This would have been quite a hardship for Mary and Joseph — physically for Mary because of her pregnancy and financially for Joseph because they had little money.
The Bible does not give any indication where they might have lodged, only that they were turned away from an inn because there was no room.
Reasoning would suggest that Joseph and Mary might have sought lodging with a relative in Bethlehem. Remember they had little money. We should also consider that their travel to Bethlehem was likely to have very been slow because of Mary’s condition — almost full term pregnant. Therefore, if they went to the home of a relative, it could have already been filled with other relatives who were also there to comply with the census.
But what about Luke 2:7? That verse says they went to an inn not the home of a relative.
Luke 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
We assume that the English word “inn” used in Luke 2:7 refers to paid lodging, but could it refer to something else? Could it be the home of a relative? The English word “inn” is a translation from the Greek word kataluma. Kataluma is defined by Strong’s Dictionary as:
from G2647; prop. a dissolution (breaking up of a journey, i.e. (by impl.) a lodging-place:–guestchamber, inn. From 2647. Kataluo: to loosen down (disintegrate), i.e. (by impl.) to demolish (lit. or fig.); spec. [comp. G2646] to halt for the night:–destroy, dissolve, be guest, lodge, come to nought, overthrow, throw down.
This clearly tells us that the meaning of the word kataluma, used in Luke 2. It is a place of rest, lodging, or guest quarters. It does not speak of lodging in a public place or of paid accommodations. We should also note that there is no mention of Mary and Joseph being turned-away by an innkeeper in the biblical narrative. The innkeeper is an addition, often portrayed in nativity plays. We can agree that the innkeeper is theatrical license. Suggesting an innkeeper is actually adding to what the biblical text says.
The Guest Chamber?
The word kataluma is also used in Luke 22. In this verse we find it translated using a different word:
Luke 22:11 And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
Here “kataluma” is translated as “guest chamber.” This guest chamber is further described in the next verse as a “large upper room furnished.” This is a reference to an upper room in a house.
Luke 22:12 And he shall show you a large upper room furnished: there make ready
The Gospel of Mark also makes reference to a guest chamber:
Mark 14:14 And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber [kataluma], where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
These passages in Luke 22 and Mark 14 both speak of the upper room in which Jesus ate His last supper with His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed. This room was not rented, it was an upper room, a guest chamber, a kataluma, in the house of a friend. It was not an “inn” as we would think of paid lodging or accommodations.
When an Inn is Really an Inn
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we also find the English word “inn” used. In the context of the passage, it clearly indicates paid lodging. However, it is a translation from a completely different Greek word.
Luke 10:34 And [the Samaritan] went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
Luke 10:35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host [innkeeper], and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
The Greek word for “inn” used in Luke 10:34 is pandocheion, defined by Strong’s dictionary as, “a public lodging-place–inn.” And in verse 35, the Greek word for “host” is defined by Strong’s as “an innkeeper (warden of a caravanserai)–host.”
There is no doubt that the place of lodging in Luke 10 was a place of paid accommodations and the host was an innkeeper whom the Good Samaritan paid for his services. This should cause us to wonder why the word inn, pandocheion, was not used in Luke 2 about the place where Joseph and Mary sought lodging. Why wouldn’t Luke have used the proper word to convey paid accommodations if it had been such a place? Luke was a physician and he was very well educated. His writings are detailed and precise in thought and word. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Luke would not have used the most accurate Greek word to describe where Mary and Joseph sought lodging. It’s much more likely that the Greek word “kataluma” in Luke 2:7 was intended to mean a “guest chamber” of a house.
Considering now that Mary and Joseph were likely turned away from the home of a relative, the question still remains, where did they find shelter?
Upper Room vs Lower Level
During biblical times the eating and sleeping quarters of a two story home would have been on the upper floor. The lower level was often used as a shelter for livestock during inclement weather. We know that Mary and Joseph were turned away because there was no room in the guest chamber (the upper room, the kataluma), but they may have been offered shelter in the lower level among the animals. This would explain their access to a manger in which Jesus was laid.
This does raise a question of why a relative would have turned away a pregnant woman. A possible explanation is that Mary’s pregnancy would have been considered shameful. Mary had become pregnant before she married Joseph. This was a sin of great disgrace. And, since betrothal was legally binding like marriage, Joseph even had the right to put Mary to death (Matthew 1:18-19) for having committed adultery. Of course, he did not because he loved her. It was only after his decision to “put her away privately” (Mat 1:19) that an angel appeared to him and told him about the conception of Jesus.
Her pregnancy would have brought great shame upon the family. The family, not knowing what was revealed to Mary and Joseph, would likely have thought Mary to be pregnant with the illegitimate child of Joseph (or another). They had no way of knowing she was pregnant with the legitimate Son of God.
Rejected by His Own
Perhaps we should consider this the first instance of rejection of Jesus. When Mary and Jesus were turned away, so also was Jesus turned away. Even before His birth, He was rejected by His own:
John 1:11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
Still Only A Theory
This theory about Jesus being born in the lower level of a house is quite possible and it’s very probable. But remember, it is still only a theory. The Bible only tells that they were turned away from lodging in a guest chamber and that Jesus was laid in a manger.
40+ Days Later
We know that “when the days of [Mary’s] purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought [Jesus] to Jerusalem [about 10 miles from Bethlehem], to present him to the Lord [at the Temple]. (Luke 2:22) This was more than 40 days after the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ circumcision would have been eight days after birth (Luke 2:21) and 33 days were required for Mary’s purification (Leviticus 12). It was only after these 40+ days that they went to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Bible does not tell us where they stayed during those 40+ days. Perhaps, with the departure of the upper room guests, the homeowner (a relative?) may have had compassion and invited Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to move from the lower level to the upper room.
I cannot stress enough, this theory is only reasoning from God’s Word. The Bible does not tell us in what kind of shelter Jesus was born. However it’s interesting to think that at the beginning of Jesus’ life, He was turned away from an upper room because the people did not know that Mary would give birth to the Messiah. They did not know who her child was and they would not make room for Him. Even while still in the womb, Jesus was rejected by His own and only a faithful few came to see the newborn Christ Child.
Similarly, at the end of Jesus’ life, He gathered in an upper room with one who would reject him (Judas) and leave Him, and a faithful few (11) who knew Him and remained. In that upper room, they shared intimate fellowship, and, after Judas’ departure, Jesus gave to the faithful 11 great revelations and bountiful blessings. Just as Judas rejected Jesus and lost all the blessings, so also those who turned away Mary and Joseph lost the blessing of being present at the Lord’s birth.
This theory of Jesus’ birth in the lower level of a house answers many questions and raises some new ones. But remember, if a definitive answer to where Jesus was born is of great importance for us to know, God would have told us in more explicit detail.
What is important is that God sent His son to earth, to be conceived in the womb of a young woman, to take on human form, to be born in humble surroundings, to live a sinless human life and then to present Himself the perfect Lamb of God and to finish the work His Father had sent Him to do—to take away the sins of the world. Jesus was born to die.
Remember the sacrifice of the cross began in the cradle and without the Christmas Cradle we would not have the Calvary Cross.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. (Isaiah 9:6)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
Jesus IS the reason for the season!
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- I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, performed by Casting Crowns
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- Songs of Christmas Series: Away in a Manger; Mary, Did You Know? Rose of Bethlehem; Good Christian Men Rejoice; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; I Wonder As I Wander; What Child Is This? The First Noel In the Bleak Midwinter (a golden oldie)
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