If you drive around during this time of year, you will likely see nativity scenes set up on almost every church lawn. Most of these nativities show Jesus being born in some type of barn or stable structure, which is the traditional understanding for most Americans. I find this myth interesting because there are so many reliable sources that contradict one another. After traveling to Israel this year, I tend to lean towards the idea that Jesus was born in a cave, but still find the other theories plausible. So let me tell you the main arguments and then tease them out: Jesus was born in a barn/stable, or a cave, or the lower level of a house, or maybe even in the open air.
If you grew up in the United States, you probably believe that Jesus was born in some kind of wooden barn. I have a strong inclination that this came from an anachronistic reading. When we hear of shepherds and a feeding trough, our typical response is to think of a farm. When we think of farms, we typically picture a barn structure made from wood and filled with hay. Therefore, when we read that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn and that Jesus would be lying in a manger, we immediately believe that Mary and Joseph went to stay in the barn. Furthermore, this is what has been portrayed for centuries. Realistically, it most likely wasn’t a stable or a barn, at least not one made of wood. If you go to Israel, there are not a lot of buildings made out of wood. Wood isn’t a great resource in this region; however, rock it. If it would’ve been a “barn” structure, then it most likely would’ve been made with stone and not a wooden barn like we think of.
While we typically think of a barn as where animals are fed, there is a strong possibility that Mary and Joseph stayed in a house. Animals were often kept indoors at night in the lower level of a house. First century houses in Israel were smaller than modern double-wide trailers and accommodated an entire family. The homes of poor families were small and plain. Living spaces were used for household work, and at night the families domestic animals were housed in the lower level. So while there was no room for them to stay at the inn, it was possible they found a family to stay with. This family would have had them stay on the lower level with the animals.
It was also common in that time period for mangers to be kept outdoors. It is possible that because there was no room for Joseph and Mary to stay at the inn that they stayed outdoors. Therefore, Jesus was born in the open air, which could explain why he was wrapped in swaddling cloths to keep him warm.
However, I lean towards the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. The picture above is one that I took while in Israel. It is a cave that is near the Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem. The stone in the middle of a picture is what a manger would have looked like; however, this one is broken in half. It seems plausible that families who couldn’t find shelter in the inn or with local families would have found shelter in these local caves. For millennia caves have been used as a source of shelter, especially in Israel. Caves were a staple for David and his men when they were at war and hiding from Saul. It only seems logical to me that people would have sought shelter in these caves if they had nowhere else to turn. Therefore, it’s just my belief that Jesus was probably born in one of these caves near Bethlehem.
In conclusion, there’s no definite answer on whether Jesus was born in a stable, or a house, or a cave, or even in the open air under the stars. However, these are the main theories suggested. I hope that as you drive around this week and see nativity scenes that maybe you will contemplate further the conditions in which Jesus was born into. Even though he was the king of heaven, he was born in lowly conditions. He was born in a cave and placed into a stone feeding trough. Jesus humbled himself, took on human flesh, and dwelt among us. That is what we celebrate this Christmas Season.
Merry Christmas, and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!