The Gospel of Luke gives us a play-by-play of the moments leading up to our Savior’s birth. Although that divine narrative explains Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the circumstances surrounding the blessed event, Scripture gives us only one detail about where our Savior spent His first moments on earth. He was laid in a manger.
What Is a Manger?
If Luke had been a typical author, he might have added nuance to Jesus’s birth story to make the setting come alive for the reader. Or he may have embellished the plot to increase tension so that the reader would want to turn the page. But because we know God inspires all Scripture, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit had a purpose for every detail conveyed.
When Jesus was born, Luke tells us thatMary laid him in something called a manger (Luke 2:7). The word used for manger is the Latin word munducare, which means “to eat.” When our Savior left the comfort of Heaven and his earthly mother’s womb, his first resting place on earth doubled as a feeding trough for livestock. Back then, farmers kept their mangers overflowing with fodder so their beasts of burden would never go hungry.
After Mary tucked our swaddled Savior securely in his trough,an angel of the Lord appeared to a herd of nearbyshepherds. The angel issued Jesus’s glorious birth announcement to them along with an invitation to a birthday feast.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12).
The shepherds, overjoyed by the news and overwhelmed with the glory of God, didn’t waste any time accepting the invitation. They stampeded to the trough, eager to satisfy the hunger stirred within them. These shepherds were the first of many who would feast on the presence of the long-awaited Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord—who would soon declare, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Why Did Joseph and Mary Travel to Bethlehem?
The Gospel of Luke tells us that just before our Savior’s birth, Emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree to every land controlled by the Roman Empire. This decree mandated that all citizens return to their hometowns to register for a census.
This meant that Mary and Joseph were required to leave Galilee and travel about 75 miles through Judea to the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Joseph’s descendants.On foot,their journey would have taken four to six days across the rough terrain.
Various political reasons motivated Augustus to mandate the census (the first of its kind). But Scripture reveals God’s sovereign hand at work behind the scenes, orchestrating human circumstances and events to fulfill Messianic prophecy. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).
Was Jesus Born in a Stable?
The Biblical symbols we use in our Christmas celebrations are centuries old. The beloved nativity scene, a tradition first initiated by Francis of Assisi in 1223, is still revered by Christians as one of the most important symbols of the season. In our attempt to commemorate Jesus’s birth, we typically use every means possible to recreate the scenes of that Holy night in our hearts, churches, and homes—so that we can feel closer to Christ as we rejoice.
The problem is some Christians rely on modern Nativity scenes, Christmas plays, classic hymns, and feature films to fill in the gaps where Scripture is silent, then adopt those renditions as truth.
It might surprise some Believers to realize that the entire account of Christ’s birth event—that exact moment and place He was born—can only be found in one short verse of Luke’s Gospel:
“And she [Mary] 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” (Luke 2:7, KJV).
The reason this is an important factor when considering the question of whether Jesus was born in a stable or not is the same reason I quoted the Scripture from the KJV version of the Bible. It all boils down to the three-letter word at the end of the passage—the word “inn.”
Christian tradition has historically referred to the “inn” in this verse as a commercial boarding house for travelers. Assuming that interpretation is accurate, if there were “no room for them in the inn,” Mary and Joseph would have retreated to the first private place they could find to deliver their baby. A stable seems the most likely locale for that purpose since Scripture reveals that Mary laid Jesus in a feeding trough after He was born.
The original language of the verse uses the Greek word katalumafor the word “inn.” This word can be translated to mean a type of boarding house, but more often, the word was used to describe a “guest chamber.” Although many scholars believe boarding houses existed in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth, the Greek word used for a commercial boarding establishment was pandocheion.
If Mary and Joseph were turned away from a guest chamber instead of a boarding house, that would suggest that they had tried to find lodging at a relative’s home, which seems plausible based on the day’s customs. In that case, the most likely scenario would have been that their relatives, already overcrowded with guests arriving for the census, were forced to make room for the young couple in an area usually reserved for family livestock—an indoor shelter adjoined to the home.
Another theory about Jesus’s birthplace suggests that He was born in a part of Bethlehem called Migdol Eder. Beneath the watchtower located at Migdol Eder, there was an area where shepherds could house and protect their newborn lambs. That spot would later become the burial place of Rachel and the designated spot for temple sacrifices.
Some scholars believe Jesus came into the world at Migdol Eder because the prophet Micah mentions the place when prophesying about the coming Messiah. “As for you, watchtower of the flock [Migdol Eder,original Hebrew], stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem” (Micah 4:8).
The truth is Scripture never reveals the exact location where Mary gave birth. Any answer we come up with is based solely on conjecture. The Biblical Nativity story only provides one detail about Jesus’s first earthly abode: He was laid in a manger.
What Can We Learn from Jesus’ Manger?
Maybe there’s a reason God chose to omit the details of His birth and the specific location of His birthplace from Scripture. Perhaps knowing our human tendency to sensationalize the sacred and memorialize the mundane, He wanted humanity to focus on the bigger picture. Here are a few things Jesus’s manger reveals about that bigger picture:
The manger was a sign—When the angel appeared to the shepherds in the field to invite them to visit the newborn King, he told them to look for a baby in a manger. The manger wasn’t just a sign for the shepherds; it’s a sign to all of us that Jesus is accessible to everyone who seeks Him. The shepherds would not have had access to a baby born in a royal palace, and as strangers, they probably wouldn’t even have had access to a baby born in the confines of a family home. But a manger was accessible to all—and still is.
The manger was a symbol—Only a roughhewn, splintery, smelly feeding trough could have adequately illustrated the shocking condescension that the God of the universe displayed through Christ’s birth.
“God became man and took on flesh. The Creator became a creature; the One who hung the stars lay helpless in a manger. The One who we teach our children is so big, so strong, and so mighty became so tiny, so weak, and so powerless. The King of the angels was made a little lower than the angels. The Creator of time entered time. The One whose everlasting arms are underneath His people lay vulnerable in his mother’s arms.” – “The Condescending God,” by Paul Levy
The manger facilitated a metaphor—Newborn Jesus, the Bread of Life, lay in a feeding trough in the little town of Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread” in Hebrew. No other food has the power to give us everlasting life (John 6:51). No other nourishment can yield lasting joy (Jeremiah 15:16). Those who feast on this bread will never be hungry again (John 6:35).
Today, Jesus still beckons us to come to the trough, into His presence, and feed on Him. Rebecca Barlow Jordan beautifully describes this continuous invitation like this:
“My child, I sense your hunger to grow. No one who seeks My presence leaves empty. I will feed you, body, soul, and spirit. Come, sit at My feet daily, and we will share together. I’ve baked an abundance of delicious bread you’ve never even tasted. My manna is not of this world, but once you eat it, you will never be hungry again. I will fill you up with Myself.” – Bread of Life - Daily in Your Presence
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/jchizhe
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
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