The Location of Jesus’ Birth

What do you know about the location of Jesus' birth? Our modern nativity scenes are often unbiblical. Below there is an excerpt from the scholarly Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, explaining the biblical data about the location and details of Jesus' birth.  Enjoy! 


The Location of Jesus’ Birth

Both the First and Third Gospels, probably based on independent sources, inform us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David. ... 


The question of the specific location of Jesus’ birth is an intriguing one. Matthew 2:11 mentions that the Magi found Jesus in a house (oikos), but this may have transpired some time after the birth itself and in a different location. Later Christian tradition unfortunately has tended to amalgamate the visit of the Shepherds and the Magi, locating both at the site of Jesus’ birth. In reality, Matthew says nothing about shepherds and Luke nothing about Magi, and only the former are connected with a scene involving a manger.

Luke 2:7 should be seen in light of the larger context of Luke 2:4–7, which does not suggest that Mary went into labor immediately or even shortly after she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. To the contrary, we are told that “while they were there” (not upon arrival) the days were fulfilled and Mary went into labor. This implies that they had been in Bethlehem for some unspecified amount of time prior to Mary going into labor. Thus the familiar image of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and being unable to find a place to stay on the night of arrival probably has no basis in the text itself (Bailey).

A second crucial point is how one translates kataluma in Luke 2:7. The word can mean guest room, house or inn. It can be doubted whether there would have been an inn in Bethlehem in Jesus’ day since it was not on any major road, and inns normally were to be found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones (but cf. Jer 41:17, which does not refer to a place in Bethlehem). Furthermore, when Luke wants to speak of a commercial inn he uses pandocheion; 10:34 refers to an establishment found on the major road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Also, when Luke uses the word kataluma in his Gospel (22:11 and par.; cf. 1 Kings 1:18), it clearly does not mean an inn but a guest room. It is also worth pointing out that the Arabic and Syriac versions of the NT have never translated kataluma as inn.

It becomes more likely that by kataluma Luke means either house or guest room, and the latter translation must have the edge precisely because in the vast majority of ancient Near-Eastern peasant homes for which we have archaeological and literary evidence, the manger was within the home, not in some separate barn. The animals as well as the family slept within one large enclosed space that was divided so that usually the animals would be on a lower level, and the family would sleep on a raised dais (Bailey). In this particular case, we should probably envision Mary and Joseph staying in the home of relatives or friends, a home which was crowded due to the census being taken, a home where Luke tells us there was no longer any room in “the guest room” (noting the definite article before the noun). Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child perhaps in the family room and placed the baby in the stone manger. This means that a good deal of the popular conception of this scene has no basis in the text. In particular, the idea of Mary and Joseph being cast out from civilized accommodations and taking up temporary residence in a barn is probably based on a misunderstanding of the text.

There is also a tradition cited in the second century A.D. by Justin Martyr that Joseph and Mary, being unable to find accommodations in Bethlehem, took up quarters in a cave near the village (Dial. Tryph. 79). This is a plausible conjecture, and in fact various peasants did make their homes in caves during the time of Jesus. But Luke suggests neither that the Holy Family took up residence outside the city, nor that they were in a cave (and Luke would hardly have spoken of a cave with a guest room).


B. III Witherington, “Birth of Jesus,” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 69–70.