Bethlehem – the Manger and the Inn

People have asked me where I think Jesus was born. I reply that Scripture and archaeology show that the place was not a randomly chosen cave in Bethlehem, but a location that was prepared centuries earlier for this purpose.

The Cave in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with the silver star indicating the place where, according to Byzantine tradition, Jesus was born.

According to Luke 2.1-5, Mary and Joseph had to travel to their own city. It must have been an uncomfortable journey when Mary was almost 9 months pregnant and had to travel, probably on the back of a donkey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem – a 100 mile long journey through the Jordan Valley! On arriving in Bethlehem, they couldn’t find a place to stay. The only available place for the Son of God to be born was a dirty stable, which had to be shared with animals. It wasn’t a romantic Christmas postcard stable with smiling camels and donkeys, probably drawn by artists who don’t know how bad camels can smell and how loud the braying of donkeys can be!

What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. an interior or exterior wall with several low windows. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets and placed in the windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the other half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born. Fenestrated walls that were part of stables have been found in many places, such as Capernaum and Chorazin that are illustrated here.

A reconstruction drawing of a typical house in Capernaum from the time of Christ. The rooms of the house were located round a central courtyard, which had a water cistern. The main living quarters were upstairs, while other rooms were used for storage and work. Animals were kept overnight behind a fenestrated wall (portrayed on the left).


The remains of a stable in Chorazin. The animals were kept behind the fenestrated wall. Animal fodder and other provender was kept on this side of the wall. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

But, what is the importance of Bethlehem and which inn was chosen by God as the place for His son to be born in?

When Joshua conquered Jericho, he cursed the city, so that it became a city of death. Rahab was the only person, with her family, that was saved. She married Salmon and their son was called Boaz, who must have settled in Bethlehem when Judah captured its inheritance. Boaz married Ruth in Bethlehem and she became the great-grandmother of David (Ruth 4.10). Gentile Ruth was, of course, one of these amazing few women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew Ch. 1. King David was born in Bethlehem and anointed king there by Samuel the Prophet.

Near the end of his life, David had to flee from his son Absalom, when he rebelled against him. He stayed with the aged Barzilai the Gileadite, whose son Chimham returned with David to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 19.37-40). To provide him with a source of income, it appears that David may have given him part of his own inheritance in Bethlehem to build an inn (mentioned in the early Jewish source, Targum Yerushalmi, Jer. 41.17a), and called  “Geruth Chimham” “Habitation of Chimham” (Jer. 41.17). As small towns like Bethlehem usually had only one inn, it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus may have been born in this inn. Through the generosity of David to Barzilai and his son Chimham, a birthplace for Jesus was prepared.

A typical inn with buildings arranged round a courtyard. © Leen Ritmeyer

The fact that Jesus could be born in his own inheritance as the true Son of David is another one of the wonderful topographic coincidences that run through the whole plan of the Bible.

9 thoughts on “Bethlehem – the Manger and the Inn”

  1. this is wonderful to peruse upon. missed you on the trip this year. no we have not met. but our love and prayers are with you and your sis wife. :}x

  2. Why is it that you think they travelled to Bethlehem by Jerusalem, 100 miles each way and not to Bethlehem by Nazareth, 3 miles away? The bible says he went to his parent’s house (although it is interpreted to be his ancestors). There is no record of people being forced to return to ancestral homes in any census. There is however, many records of people being forced to be counted in their parent’s home if they are not the head of their own house. Clearly, Joseph lived somewhere close to Nazareth as if he did not, he never would have met Mary. A family origin for him in the village of Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judaea only makes sense. Jesus would have been born in this small village in 11 bce, during the census of Augustus undertaken while Quirinus was procurator, just as the bible says. It would have been in the late fall, sometime after sukkot, when the sheep would have been grazing on the stubble in the fields, rather than the grass in the pasture…

  3. David, I believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, because Joseph and Mary were both descendants of David. Micah Ch. 2.2 also prophecies that the “ruler of Israel” would come from Bethlehem-Ephratah which was in the Biblical tribe of Judah.

  4. Writing a book on David. Came across Chimham. Read a good many “takes” on the inn at or near Bethlehem. Yours is one of the best. I will be referencing your article in a footnote. Be blessed. Pam

  5. Would like any information on what Bethlehem looked like at his birth please. I speak on this . this coming sunday

  6. Michael, we don’t know enough about Bethlehem as the ancient city is mostly built over. If you look in our Image Library at places like Ephraim, Capernaum or Chorazin, you will get some idea.

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