The question of where Jesus was born is often answered with a city – Bethlehem. We know this from Biblical prophesies and narrative accounts like in Luke 2:4 and Matthew 2:1. But Bible scholars are less sure about more specific details involving the setting. Again, we know from Luke’s gospel where Jesus was not born – an inn, because there wasn’t room for his parents (Luke 2:7). Was Jesus born in a cave? While this question is not much discussed in modern times, the tradition that connects a cave with Christ's birth is very ancient.
What Early Christian Leaders Thought
- Justin Martyr (150 A. D.) mentions it, as does Origen about a hundred years later.
- Queen Helena erected a church over it (325 A. D.).
- Here came Jerome (368 A. D.) and dwelt for many years.
- Alfred Edersheim, 19th century Biblical scholar, says it is "the best authenticated of all local traditions."
So far then as early tradition can authenticate a place, this seems well authenticated. Yet there are objections that have led many to deny the truth of the tradition. The point then demands some further examination.
Objections to the Cave Theory
1. Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ birth doesn’t mention it.
The objection that Luke says nothing of a cave is not important. His purpose is simply to show the humble and friendless state of the infant child, and this is done by the mention of the circumstances that there was no room for His parents, and that when He was born He was laid in a manger. Any other particulars were, for his purpose, are unnecessary. (Read the full account of Jesus’ birth at Luke 2:1-21.)
2. Tradition makes caves the setting of so many other remarkable events.
A more important objection is that drawn from the fact that tradition makes caves or grottoes to be the sites of so many remarkable events. That naturally awakens our incredulity. Yet, on the other hand, they could not have been selected for such sites unless there were some grounds of fitness in the selection.
Common Uses of Caves in Jesus’ Time
The Scriptures, Josephus, and all travelers speak of the numerous caves that are found throughout Palestine. They were used for dwellings, for fortresses and places of refuge, for cisterns, for prisons, and for sepulchers, which Easton’s Bible Dictionary says is a kind of burial place. Travelers used them as inns, robbers as dens, herdsmen as stalls, husbandmen as granaries. Many of these caves were very large. One is mentioned (Judges 20:47) being large enough for six hundred men.
Was Jesus Born in a Cave? It’s Possible.
Thus, looking upon this tradition, we find no sufficient reason why it should be wholly rejected. Probably there is some measure of truth in it. It is indeed hard to believe that the present artificial cave, so deep down and inaccessible, could ever have been used as a stall for cattle. Perhaps the fact may be that the cave, in its original shape, was connected with a house, forming its rear apartment, and used as a stable.
Adapted from The Life of Our Lord upon the Earth by Samuel James Andrews.
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