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Where was Jesus born?

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There are numerous traditions associated with Christmas that on closer examination are shown to lack any basis in biblical fact. One of them concerns the place of our Lord’s birth.

We read in Luke 2:6-7 that while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, “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.” The traditional portrayal is that Joseph and Mary were turned away by a cruel inn-keeper who was devoid of compassion for a woman who was about to give birth. They subsequently were forced to take up residence in a barn or stable or cave.

But nothing in the text of Luke’s gospel even mentions an inn-keeper. Recent studies indicate that the word translated “inn” in Luke 2:7 is better rendered a “place to stay” and most likely refers to a guest room that was adjacent to the central living area in a typical home. The same Greek word is found in Luke 22:11 with reference to the “upper room” where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the last Passover and first Lord’s Supper (see John 13-17). And in the parable of the Good Samaritan, you may recall that the man who had been severely beaten was indeed taken to an “inn,” but the word used in that verse is different from the one here in Luke 2:7.

Thus, most scholars now believe that they stayed in the home of Joseph’s family in Bethlehem, most likely in this adjacent guest room which, evidently, proved to be too small for a child to be born.

It is, therefore, quite unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable or in a barn or in a cave. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nativity scene that didn’t have Jesus being born in a barn and the shepherds visiting him there, surrounded by sheep and goats and cows and the like. But there is no reference in Luke’s narrative to a stable or barn. The typical home in those days was rectangular in shape with a large central room. On one side of the central room was a guest room, significantly smaller. At the other end of the central room was an attached area for animals. Therefore, it was not at all unusual for there to be a manger or feeding trough under the same roof where the family would live.

Luke’s point is not so much any lack of hospitality extended to Joseph and Mary but rather that their place to stay was too small to accommodate a newborn and all those present to assist in the birth. The problem wasn’t that they were turned away into the night and had to find shelter in a barn or stable. Rather, the place where they were staying in Bethlehem was probably the guest room or marital chamber attached to the house of one of his relatives, perhaps his father, and was too cramped to make room for everything associated with giving birth. So they placed the newborn Jesus in a feeding trough, a manger, that was close at hand.

There is one more indication in Luke’s narrative that Joseph and Mary had not been turned away by a heartless inn-keeper and were forced to take up shelter in a stable or barn or cave. As noted earlier, we read in Luke 2:6 that “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” Most believe this indicates that they arrived in Bethlehem some time before the birth of Jesus. Even if they had initially taken up residence in a barn or cave, they would eventually have moved to more hospitable surroundings.

Nothing of importance regarding the birth of our Lord is affected by this. The true significance is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Where he was born actually matters very little. Let us instead rejoice and give thanks that he was born, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, and rose from the dead and is now enthroned on high.

Merry Christmas!

1 Comment

Thanks for shedding some light on this topic, and explaining the nuances of the translations for "inn"! I had learned that Jewish culture in that time period was very big on generous hospitality. In hindsight the "no room at the inn story" is at odds with that. This really helped me connect the dots there, thanks!

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