Jesus Was Born in Humble Circumstances
Zoroastrian Temple, Ateshgah of Baku (the “Fire Temple of Baku”), near Baku, Azerbaijan; photo by Trent Stephens, 2009
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson January 9-15: Matthew 2 and Luke 2
We read in Luke 2:7, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” So what were mangers and inns like at the time of Jesus’ birth?
Although the King James authors used the poetic term “inn” in this verse, the Greek term, καταλύματι (katalymati) can mean either an inn or a lodging-place. The text also includes the Greek word τῷ (tō), meaning “the,” suggesting that perhaps there was only one inn in Bethlehem at the time.1 With Bethlehem having less than one thousand inhabitants at the time of Jesus’ birth, it is quite likely that there was only one inn in the town.2 At least in my mind, the term “inn” conjures an image of a multi-story Tutor building characteristic of the early seventeenth century. But first century Middle Eastern lodging-places were certainly quite different.
Thanks to the great generosity of one of my former graduate students and her family, Kathleen and I had the wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience of visiting Azerbaijan a few years ago. Just outside Baku, we visited the Zoroastrian/Hindu Temple, Ateshgah of Baku (the “Fire Temple of Baku”). Although not built until the 17th and 18th centuries, it caused us to ponder if this might be a better model of a first-century Middle Eastern inn or lodging-place than the Tudor building I had previously imagined; or even the doorway of an inn in a crowded Bethlehem street, as depicted in movies. The Ateshgah of Baku is an enclosed space with lodgings all along the interior of the walls. What really struck me was the tie-up rings cut from the stone walls. Also, on the inside of each chamber was a place for the humans to sleep and another part for the animals – again, with stone-cut rings along the walls for tying up animals. A Baku tourist pamphlet for the Ateshgyakh Temple states, “The Ateshgyakh Temple looks not unlike a regular town caravansary - a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stopped for the night. As distinct from caravansaries, however, the temple has the altar in its center with tiny cells for the temple's attendants - Indian ascetics who devoted themselves to the cult of fire - and for pilgrims lining the walls.”3
Tie-up loops at the Zoroastrian Temple, Ateshgah of Baku (the “Fire Temple of Baku”), near Baku, Azerbaijan; photo by Trent Stephens, 2009
But, whatever the structure of the inn, Mary and Joseph did not stay in one of those rooms, because there was no room for them, so Jesus was laid in a manger. Where was it? The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem in the West Bank, Palestine, stands over a grotto, which for centuries has been considered by most Christians as the birthplace of Christ. The building was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great shortly after his mother Helena visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326, and was dedicated 31 May 339. It probably was destroyed during the Samaritan revolts of the sixth century, and a new basilica was built over the site a few years later by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who reigned 527–565).4
Around seventy five years before Helena visited the grotto in Bethlehem, around 248, the Greek philosopher and Christian apologist, Origen of Alexandria wrote concerning the grotto: “In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshiped and reverenced by the Christians.”5 Over one hundred years before Origen, and much closer to time of people who actually knew Jesus, in 135, the Emperor Hadrian planted a sacred grove above the grotto, dedicated to the worship of Adonis, in an attempt to completely wipe out the memory of Jesus. Instead, he apparently, inadvertently, preserved the knowledge of the site of the Nativity.6 If there was only one inn in Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth and for perhaps another couple of hundred years after, and if that inn had an overflow stable in a nearby cave, it is not at all unreasonable for the people of the time and area to be well aware of the locations of both the inn and cave.
There are over a thousand known, identified limestone caves in Israel, doth natural and man-made, and probably thousands more yet to be discovered.7 It is not at all unreasonable to assume that one or more of those caves could have been used as a stable where animals were kept and that they were also used as overflow accommodations associated with the inn. Because Hadrian planted a grove over one specific cave in an attempt to obliterate all memory of Christ – it appears quite reasonable that that specific cave was identified in the minds of the Christians living in the area, only one hundred years after the Savior’s death and resurrection, that cave appears to be the one identified by Origen one hundred years later and by Helena, seventy years after Origen, and where the Church of the Nativity now stands. Therefore, with such temporal continuity, starting so soon after the actual events, there is no reason to doubt that the identified grotto is not the correct location of Christ’s birth.
1. biblehub.com/luke/2-7.htm; retrieved 19 December 2022
3. Ateshgyakh Temple, Baku: Sputnik Tourism; archive.org/web/20060507210523/http://www.sputnik.in-baku.com/inbound/atesh.html; retrieved 18 December 2022
4. Madden, Andrew, A Revised Date for the Mosaic Pavements of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Ancient West & East, 11: 147–190, 2012
5. Origen of Alexandria, Κατὰ Κέλσου, Against Celsus, in Greek, c. 248 AD
6. Craveri, Marcello, The Life of Jesus, Grove Press, pp. 35-37, 1967
7. Kadesh, Avigayil, Dig the caves of Israel: Spring and summer trips to Israel are a perfect time to explore its many cool (literally) caves, 1/11/2012; https://embassies.gov.il/dublin/AboutIsrael/AboutIsraelInfo/Pages/Dig-the-caves-of-Israel.aspx; retrieved 18 December 2022