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.

16 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.

  7. My maiden name is BOAZ. My dad was
    James David, his dad was James David and so was my dads grandfather.
    Research showed we come from the line of King David of Scotland , Boaz.
    I love the story of Ruth and Boaz and would love a deeper story.

  8. I came across your work while doing some personal research about the birth of Jesus. I am intrigued with the idea that God thru David and Chimham prepared a place for our Lord’s birth so many years before. A simple thing for Him I know but, intriguing
    nonetheless. I do have a question. David lived around a thousand years before Christ birth. Would the inn (lodging place) have remained an inn all that time? Also with the captivity would it have remained apart of David (Chimham’s inheritance)? Thank you for your work and your time.
    Kelli Copeland

  9. Kelli,
    If Chimham’s inn survived about 500 years since the time of David, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that it continued to exist after the Exile. Ezra 2:21 shows that 123 people returned to Bethlehem and they would presumably have restored the inn.
    Ancient cities typically had one inn as in the case of Rahab. The two spies went to her house as she was an inn keeper. The word for harlot (zonah) is closely related to mazon which means food. According to Canaanite custom, she also provided “additional services”. But the fact that the spies went to her showed that there was only one inn in Jericho.

  10. I’ve long been a fan of your work Mr. Ritmeyer.
    The Gospel states there was no room at the inn, so it doesn’t seem Jesus could have been born there (if it was in fact an inn and not a “guest room” such as that where Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover the night before his crucifixion-Luke uses the same word and not the word he uses for “inn” elsewhere). According to my studies, every synagogue throughout Judaea and Galilee had a “guest room” to provide accommodations for travelers and guests (only the private homes in Jerusalem were required to provide “guest rooms” or spaces for visitors because of the influx of pilgrims to the city for the festivals). The guest room at the synagogue might have been the “inn/guest room” which was crowded and where there was no room so Joseph sought shelter in a cave as the village would have been very crowded with those present for the census.
    On another point, the regular populace were not as rigid as the Pharisees and were not as scrupulous about not traveling through Samaria (it wasn’t an issue for Jesus and his disciples). One would think Joseph would take the shortest, easiest route for his pregnant wife and that would be straight through Samaria?
    Thanks for your responses.

  11. Only a handfull of synagogues are known to have existed at the time of Jesus’ birth. In the later synagogues there was an additional room that was used primarily for studies. Most inns had a stable block and that is where Jesus was born.

  12. When Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she will be the mother of the Son of God, she is also told about Elizabeth’s pregnancy and quickly makes a bee-line to stay with Elizabeth for three months. I’ve often wondered if Mary and Joseph returned to Zacharias’ house as the day for Jesus’ birth drew near since the last thing Joseph would want to do is put his young virgin wife on a donkey when she’s nine months pregnant. The verse, “…and so it was that WHILE THEY WERE THERE (they had already arrived) THE DAYS WERE ACCOMPLISHED (past tense and plural) THAT SHE SHOULD BE DELIVERED.” Sounds to me like they were already down in the neighborhood and simply needed to get to Bethlehem to fulfill the prophesies of the location of His birth. Mary and Elizabeth were related, but were not “cousins”. Their age difference would have prevented that. If you were Joseph, when would you take the trip–when she’s about to give birth or a few weeks (or even months) before? She obviously had a place to stay as she had done for three months with Elizabeth, and the two of them are obviously interested and vested in the safe delivery of both of their children. Given that Zacharias worked in the temple, his home would not have been too far away, correct? Your thoughts? Thanks!

  13. Alan,
    Zachariah was of the course of Abia and would have served for two weeks in the temple every other year. Her was a descendant of Aaron, as was Elisabeth. They lived in a city in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39. There is only one city mentioned by the description and that is Hebron, see Joshua 21:11. After staying with Elisabeth for three months, Mary went home to Nazareth (1:56). It would be another 2.5 months or so before she and Joseph went with Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4,5). While they were there (in Bethlehem) …

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