As a child I often remember running outside to play, leaving the door wide open behind me, only to have my mother call after me, “Come back and shut the door! You weren’t born in a barn!”
I have often wondered if Mary ever called after Jesus in such a way. If so, maybe Jesus could have answered, “Yes, I was!”
But was He really? Was Jesus born in a barn? Or a stable? Or a cave?
No, probably not. We get this idea from Christmas carols, artwork, and other stories, but the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus do not indicate that He was born in a stable, a barn, or a cave. Instead, Jesus was most likely born in a house.
Jesus was Born in a House
In my book, Christmas Redemption, I briefly look at the wording in Luke 2:7 which says that when Jesus was born, Mary laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. I suggest in that the word “inn” is most likely a mistranslation, and the word really should be “tent” or “tabernacle.” The word refers to a “temporary shelter” which can be erected and taken down quickly, not to “temporary lodging” at a place like an inn.
Most likely, Bethlehem did not even have an “inn.” The town had less than 1000 people at the time, and it was culturally unacceptable to stay at inns. When most people traveled they depended upon the Middle-Eastern value of hospitality for their food and lodging needs.
But it doesn’t make any sense for Mary to lay Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the tent, does it? What could that possibly refer to?
Here is another place where knowing the historical-cultural Jewish background of the Scriptures really helps understand what is going on. I suggest in Christmas Redemption that the “tent” refers to the temporary structures erected by Jewish people during the Feast of Tabernacles. Jewish men were supposed to travel to Jerusalem for this feast, and since Bethlehem was only a few miles away from Jerusalem, many people stayed in Bethlehem during this festival. But the little make-shift structure in which they were to sleep and eat their meals was so cramped, Mary could not gift birth inside. So instead, she had to find somewhere else.
Well, she probably went into the house, right next door to the makeshift tabernacle, and gave birth there. After all, it was now empty since everyone was outside in the sukkoth, the booth or tabernacle.
But what is a manger (an animal feeding trough) doing inside a house? Well, archaeologists say that many homes at this time had two levels. The upper level was for the family, and the lower level was for the animals. This helped keep the animals safe at night from wandering off, getting eaten by predators, or from getting stolen, and also helped keep the family in the upper room above (If memory serves me right, Kenneth Bailey writes about this in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels).
Whether Mary gave birth in the upper part of the house or the lower, we don’t know, but apparently she used the manger from the lower part of the house as a place to lay Jesus after He was born. (My wife, Wendy, likes to emphasize that Mary probably held Jesus in her arms most of the time. What mother wouldn’t?)
So if Mary gave birth in the lower part of the house, which effectively was a barn, then I guess we could say that Jesus was born in a barn after all.
But What about the Census?
One objection to this whole idea is that Luke 2:1-7 says that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the census. Except for the possible reference in Luke 2:7, nothing is mentioned about the Feast of Tabernacles. The solution seems to lie in Luke 2:6. It says that “while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.”
Again, while many Christmas carols and stories seem to indicate that Joseph and Mary entered Bethlehem late at night while she is in the middle of birth pains, and he frantically knocks on doors seeking a place to stay, the text says nothing like this. It makes for a great story, but is not exactly drawn from the text.
Instead, it seems likely that the census of Caesar Augustus caused Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem to be registered. Once there, and with the Feast of Tabernacles approaching quickly, they probably decided to remain in Bethlehem for a few more days (or maybe weeks) until the days were completed for her to give birth.
With her pregnant, it made no sense to travel to Bethlehem for the census, then travel back to Nazareth, only to turn around and travel to Jerusalem for the Feast. So they stayed! It is not as if Joseph had a job to get back to. Following Jewish law, it is certain that he was taking a year off from work so he could take care of his new wife (cf. Deut 24:5).
So the picture that emerges from Luke 2:7 is a bit different than tradition tells. Jesus was born in humble conditions, but it was probably inside a house, and if it was in the lower part of the house, then there may have been a few goats around and maybe a donkey or a cow. The reason they were there was because there was no room for them outside in the tent.
One other objection to this idea is that the Feast of Tabernacles is typically in late September. Wasn’t Jesus born on December 25th? Ah, well, maybe we have given Jesus the wrong birthday! But for more on that, you will have to read Christmas Redemption. Among other things, It shows when Jesus was likely born and also why the Feast of Tabernacles is significant for our celebration of Christmas today.