A Thought For Your Christian Journey:

A Cave or A House

Luke 2.7

 A few days ago there was some discussion about the actual birth place of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Was our Lord born in a stable or was he born in a house?  Clearly when the wise men arrived to worship the child king (Matt 2.1-12) the Christ child resided with his family in a house.  The text is clear and the Greek language is undeniable.  However, we must remember that the indications are that our Lord was between 1.5 and 2 years old by the time these Magi arrived in Jerusalem and then in Bethlehem.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that Joseph would not have establish a dwelling place for his family in that period of time. 

Some suggest that a knowledge of the culture and family relations in the times of our Lord dictate that more than a stable account is necessary.  However, Luke is very clear that the Inn, or the common place for guests, was full and there was no room.  The word used by Luke for Inn suggests something other that an Inn in the contemporary sense, this would not indicate a Motel or Hotel, but instead suggest a guest room or guest house.  Hence, the census had brought so many family back to the historical city of origin that, as Luke writes (Luke 2.7), there was not room for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus even among family.  The guest chambers were full.  The traditional story, which dates to about 300 AD is that Jesus was born in a less than expected place, He was born in a cave which was usually used to house animals. 

The following are two of the many resources I referenced in this brief study.  These two seem to give better explanations than the others and for the sake of time only these two are attached. 

The complete word study dictionary 

Inn - κατάλυμα katáluma; gen. katalúmatos, neut. noun from katalúō (2647), to unloose. A lodging place or inn. It was so–called because of the ancient travelers who on arrival loosened their own belts or girdles, sandals, and the saddles or harnesses of their animals. In the ancient Greek writings, the place of entertainment is called katáluma, where animals and burdens are loosened. See Sept.: Ex. 4:24. Guests were highly regarded in biblical times (Judg. 19:9, 15). Katáluma was also a guest chamber (Mark 14:14; Luke 2:7; 22:11), a dining room where the guests loosened their sandals before they sat down to eat. In the East it is called khan or caravanserai.

Syn.: pandocheíon (3829), a place where all are received, comparable to an inn; in Luke 10:34, a place where beasts and cattle could also be sheltered as travelers usually used such places for that purpose.[1]  

Manger - φάτνη phátnē; gen. phátnēs, fem. noun. A manger or crib at which cattle are fed (Luke 2:7, 12, 16; 13:15; Sept.: Job 39:9; Is. 1:3). In Luke 13:15 it is rendered “stall,” as the word is also sometimes used in the Gr. writers. Some ancient writers believe that Jesus was born in a stable formed by nature and not constructed by man. When Joseph found no room to lodge in Bethlehem, he lodged in a certain cave near the village. While they were there, Mary brought forth Christ, and laid Him in a manger.[2]


The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 

Manger – φάτνη . . . .T. Kelim BM, 8, 6 (587, 24) and 5, 9 (584, 13) show that in a Palestinian farmhouse (→ 52, 15 ff.) men and animals lived in the one dwelling with beds and manger close by each other. Thus the more gen. sense of “stall” is less common, as in the case of φάτνη.26[3]  

. . . 2. The other three instances of φάτνη are in the nativity story (Lk. 2:1–20) in the depiction of the birth (v. 7), the promise of the angel (v. 12 → VII, 231, 10 ff.) and the adoration of the shepherds (v. 16). This surprising emphasis shows that, possibly already in the pre-Lucan source, great importance was attached to the concept. But exposition is difficult, since the text of Lk. 2:7 is not wholly clear43 and there are no real parallels in religious history.44 It must be stated firmly that the meaning of φάτνη here is “feeding-trough”; it cannot be translated “stall.”45 The contrast between the διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι46 and the ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ47 should not be ignored. According to Lk. the child lies outside the human dwelling in an unusual place where there are only animals.48 From the text itself one cannot say in detail whether the manger was in a separate stall, an enclosure in the open.49 or the traditional cave → 55, 4 ff.; → VI, 491, 12 ff.50 The one clear point is that the location was Bethlehem, 2:11, 15. All attempts to reconstruct a pre-Lucan original, perhaps in Hebrew, are hypothetical.51 The crib is undoubtedly closely bound up with the shepherd setting and with Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Davidic Messiah, and it is to be understood accordingly. The child in a manger wrapped in swaddling bands52 is for the shepherds a sign (→ VII, 231, 10 ff.) that the Messiah is born.53 One can rule out any connection with the rural life of Hellenism → VI, 490, 42 ff.).54 A Jewish Christian midrash has been suggested55 comparable to stories of the hidden birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem or the secret birth of Abraham in a cave.56 For Luke the manger expresses the contrast between the world-ruler Augustus and the hidden and lowly birth of the world-redeemer (Lk. 2:1, 11, 14). Finally it points forward to the way of humility and suffering which is taken by the Son of God who “hath not where to lay his head,” Lk. 9:58.57[4]

Early Church History. 

The manger tradition and the cave tradition are already combined for the Palestinian Justin of Neapolis, Dial., 78, 5. But Prot. Ev. Jm. 17–20 shows that they were originally separate, for here the birth at Bethlehem is in a cave and the φάτνη βοῶν occurs only in 22:2 as a hiding-place for the child Jesus from the plots of Herod.58 Crib and cave are closely related in Orig. Cels., I, 51, where a definite location is presupposed δείκνυται ἡ ἐν σπηλαίῳ φάτνη that was already known to Just.59 Sib., 8, 497 (3rd cent. a.d.?) also mentions the manger. About 330 a.d., following the first pilgrimage of Helena, the Church of the Nativity was built at what is now the traditional site of the crib and the cave.60 It was only marginally that the par. cave story came into the text of the Gospel tradition.61 The late Ev. Ps.-Mt.62 solves the problem of three rival sites by telling of the birth in a cave in 13:2, putting Mary in a stall, where she lays the child in a crib, three days later, and then telling of the entry into Bethlehem six days later, 15:1. The ox and ass came into the stall on the basis of Is. 1:3 and Hab. 3:2 LXX and patristic exegesis: et bos et asinus adoraverunt eum.63 They occur even earlier in the first depictions of the birth from the middle of the 4th cent.64[5]

[1]Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary : New Testament (electronic ed.) (G2646). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[2]Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary : New Testament (electronic ed.) (G5336). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

T. Tosefta (Strack, Einl., 74 ff.), ed. G. Kittel-H. Rengstorf, 1933 ff.

Kelim Kelim, Mishnah-, Tosefta, Talmud tractate Vessels.

BM Baba Mezia, Mishnah-, Tosefta-, Talmud tractate Middle Gate (Legal Questions concerning Movables) (Strack, Einl., 50).

26 “Stall” is probable at Neg., 12, 4; T. Neg., 6, 5 (Zuckermandel, 625, 25) and S. Lv. מצורע 6, 11 on 14:39, which speaks of the defiling of the wall by “leprosy.” Dalman Arbeit, VI, 287 ref. to “manger-walls” here. Cf. also M. Ex., 1, 14 on 12:40 (ed. J. Lauterbach, I [1949], 112). היתה עומדה באבוס in j Shebu., 7, 1 (37d, 9) is transl. “when the animal stood in the feeding-stall” in Levy Wört., s.v. אֵבוּס, but “at the manger” is just as good, cf., 8, 1.

[3]Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (9:51-52). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

43 Cadbury Interest, 317: “the uncertainty in this passage”; cf. Dibelius, 57: “the one obscure element in the story,” cf. Dalman Orte, 44 f.; Sahlin, 207.

44 Cf. the negative findings of Clemen, 203–9 in debate with Gressmann, 37. The Egypt. adoration of a virgin in childbed and an infant in a crib τιμῶσι παρθένον λοχοῦν καὶ βρέφος ἐν φάτνῃ τιθέντες προσκυνήσουσι, Vita Jeremiae, 83, 3 (ed. T. Schermann, TU, 31, 2 [1907]) is undoubtedly under Chr. influence.

45 As against Pr.-Bauer, s.v. and also Cadbury Interest, 319, who thinks φάτνη is “a place in the open”; for a correct view cf. Veldhuizen, 175–8.

46 Whether κατάλυμα here is a khan πανδοχεῖον (Lk. 10:34) or, as often assumed, a simple quest-room cf. Lk. 22:11 par. Mk. 14:14, makes little difference. On inns in ancient Palestine v. E. Pax, “ ‘Denn sie fanden keinen Raum in d. Herberge,’ ” Bibel u. Leben, 6 (1965), 285–298. Farmhouses with separate guest-rooms are described in Dalman Arbeit, VII, 127 f., 129, 142, 148, 162 f., Ill., 31, 60, 71. The loft could often be used for this, VII, 57, 85, cf. 1 K. 17:19, 23; 2 K. 4:10 f. Sys solves the problem by leaving out ἐν τῷ καταλύματι.

47 Cf. b. Shab., 20:3: ונתן בתוך האבוס.

48 As against Dibelius, 59, who has in view the large living-room of the Palestinian farmhouse; Bornhäuser, 101–104 thinks a large basin might have been used as a cradle, cf. Yubero, 3–6; Miguens, 195 f. Dalman Orte, 46 rightly observes that the real difficulty was not finding a place to lay the child but an undisturbed place for the birth. Cf. Rengstorf, 20 f., who correctly notes the contrast with Lk. 1:24. Just. Dial., 78, 5 pertinently interprets Lk. 2:7: οὐκ εἶχεν ἐν τῇ κώμῃ ἐκείνῃ που καταλῦσαι.

49 Völter, 49; cf. Winter, 240: “φάτνη described here a trough in the open field, probably a hollow stone used by shepherds for watering their flock”: he quotes Mi. 4:10: “Thou shalt go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field.”

50 So most Roman Catholic exegetes, e.g., M. J. Lagrange, “Év. selon S. Luc,” Études Bibl.8 (1948), 72; cf. also Dalman Orte, 35–48.

51 As against Sahlin, 222. Cf. earlier A. Resch, “Das Kindheitsevangelium nach Lk. u. Mt.,” TU, 10, 5 (1897), 46, 124 f., 203–226.

52 Cf. Dalman Orte, 45. Cf. the motifs in Jewish legends about the hidden birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem and the birth of Abraham in a cave, j Ber., 2, 4 (5a, 18 ff.) par. Midr. Lam., 1, 51 on 1:16 (cf. Wünsche, 88): The mother of Messiah receives a linen cloth for her son; A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, I (1853), 26: The mother of Abraham after the birth clothes her child with a piece from her own garment, cf. also Ez. 16:4.

53 Bultmann Trad., 324 as against Gressmann, 17–37.

54 As against Bultmann Trad., 325; Dibelius, 73 f.; Erdmann, 43 f.; correctly W. Schmid, Art. “Bukolik,” RAC, II (1954), 788.

55 There may be a connection with the tradition of the “Shepherd tower” at Bethlehem from which the Messiah will be manifested acc. to Tg. J. I on Gn. 35:21 and Tg. Pro. on Mi. 4:8, cf. Dalman Orte, 53–5 and Winter, 238 f. Cf. also 1 S. 16 (Baily, passim); ψ 77:70—72; Mi. 4:7–10 and 5:1–5; R. Laurentin, Structure et Théol. de Luc I–II (1957), 86–88 (Bibl.). On the Davidic-Messianic character of the shepherd setting 11 QPsa 151 (DJD, IV, 54–64).

56 → n. 52. For the par. cf. H. Gressmann, “Der Messias.” FRL, 43 (1929) 449–452 and A. Wünsche, Aus Israels Lehrhallen, I (1907), 16 f., 36. Cf. also the nativity stories PREI, 48 and Tg. J. I on Ex. 24:10 in L. Ginzberg, “The Legends of the Jews, II, (1910), 372.

57 Schl. Lk., 186; cf. Rengstorf, 20 f. Tert. De carne Christi, 2 (CSEL, 69 [1939], 191) notes this: Aufer hinc … molestos semper Caesaris census et diuersoria angusta et sordidos pannos et dura praesepia. Materially → 51, 16 ff.; 52, 1 ff. and Eur. Ba., 510. Later apocr. tradition corrects the “lowliness” of the birth of Jesus, W. Foerster, “Bemerkungen u. Fragen z. Stätte d. Geburt Jesu,” ZDPV, 57 (1934), 3 f.

[4]Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (9:53-55). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Dial. Dialogus cum Tryphone Judaeo.

58 Ed. E. de Strycker, “La forme la plus ancienne du Protév. de Jacques,” Subsidia hagiographica, 33 (1961), 174, cf. 417 f.

Orig. Origen, of Alexandria (185–254 a.d.), pupil of Clement of Alexandria, and most learned and fruitful representative of ancient Christian scholarship and culture, ed. by different scholars in Die griech, christl. Schriftsteller der ersten 3 Jahrhunderte, 1899 ff.

Cels. Contra Celsum.

59 As against A. M. Schneider. Art. “Bethlehem,” RAC, II (1954), 226. Justin’s account is certainly not derived from Is. 33:16, cf. Dalman Orte, 47 f. and J. Jeremias → VI, 491, n. 59. The quoting of this v. in Barn., 11, 5 is also an allusion to the cave tradition.

Sib. Sibyllines, the Sibylline Oracles in 14 books, collected in the 5th or 6th century a.d. for the propagation of Judaism or Christianity, composed at various periods, and predominantly Jewish but partly Christian in derivation.

60 Schneider, op. cit., 226.

par. parallel.

61 Min. 544 reads at Mt. 2:9: ἐπάνω τοῦ σπηλαίου, cf. the oldest Arm. Gospel MS acc. to E. Preuschen, “Jesu Geburt in einer Höhle,” ZNW, 3 (1902), 359 f. On the variant of Cod D in Lk. 2:6 v. Foerster, op. cit., 4 f.

62 Ed. C. v. Tischendorf, Evang. Apocr.2 (1876).

63 On Ev. Ps.-Mt. cf. Hennecke3, I, 303 f.: 8/9th cent. On apocr. tradition in gen. outside the Gospels v. W. Bauer, Das Leben Jesu im Zeitalter d. nt.lichen Apokr. (1909), 61–8. On the animals J. Ziegler, “Ochs u. Esel an d. Krippe,” Münchener Theol. Zschr., 3 (1952), 385–402. Orig. Hom. in Lk., 13 (GCS, 49 [1959], 82) already related Is. 1:3 to the crib, cf. Ziegler, 391. On Jewish exegesis → n. 28.

64 G. Wilpert, I Sarcofagi Christiani Anticht, I (1929), Plate, 92, 2; 127, 2; II (1932), Plate, 221, 6: W. F. Volbach, Elfenbeinarbeiten d. Spätantike u. d. frühen MA2 (1952), No. 114, 118 f., 127, 131, 173 f., 199 etc. For a Syr. depiction with inscr. Is. 1:3 (6th cent.) cf. J. Nasrallah, “Bas-reliefs chr. inconnus de Syrie,” Syria, 38 (1961), 36–44 (Bibl.). Cf. → n. 38.

[5]Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (9:55). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.