Questions Surrounding Jesus’ Birth/Part 7

By: Dr. John Ankerberg with various Scholars; ©{{{copyright}}}
Room in the Inn

Ed. note: This article is based upon the transcript from programs produced by the John Ankerberg Show. Additional material has been added for this print version.

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Room in the Inn

Dr. John Ankerberg: Now, if you enter into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the guide will take you down some stairs and show you a cave. Archaeologists have discovered that at the time of Jesus, people in Bethlehem built their houses to make provision for the occasional guest. Most homes were multi-leveled. They had a lower room or cellar that was usually used as a storeroom. In areas like Bethlehem, where there were caves, a cave beneath the house or in back of the house would be used as a storeroom for food or supplies. It could also be a place where the family animals would be fed and sheltered at night, protected from the cold, thieves and predators.

When Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, made the journey to Bethlehem, they were returning to his ancestral home, the place from which his family originated and where undoubtedly some relatives still lived.

In Jewish society in Jesus’ day, the family was made up of an extended group of people with a patriarch at the head. Married children and their children usually lived with or near the father and mother. Relatives from other towns were welcomed by the patriarch and brought under his protection during their stay in his village.

Dr. Hillel Geva:[1] We are in a house from first century AD. One of the largest buildings that were uncovered in the Jewish quarter. This is a model of the house we are in. Where we are sitting now is the courtyard: all paved, square, surrounded by many, many rooms. The living rooms are here, 2 or 3 stories high, mosaic floors, wall painting, stone tables, very wealthy construction of those days. Here down below, courtyard surrounded by the service wings, where the servants used to live, washrooms, ritual baths; and all kind of storerooms also were down here in this wing.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Notice, in a wealthier home, a third room or even a fourth room would be added for guests and for entertaining. The word for “guestroom” is the Greek word kataluma. It is also sometimes translated “inn.” Luke used this word in the Christmas Story in Chapter 2 when he wrote: “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 kataluma–the guestroom, the inn.” Here, Luke is probably referring to the third room, the guestroom, in the family home in Bethlehem.

Kataluma is the same word used by Luke in chapter 22 to refer to the upper room where Jesus had the Last Supper. It, too, was a guestroom in a home. Luke uses a different word in the Parable of the Good Samaritan to describe the inn where the Good Samaritan took the man who was robbed. These facts may shed new light on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.

Dr. Stephen Pfann:[2] In ancient villages, as in villages just before the modern time, they were made up of two or three major patriarchal families. And generally, with each one of the homes associated with a patriarch, there would be a guestroom. And this guestroom would be reserved for people coming in, friends of the family, people from outside. And it would be the good pleasure of the patriarch or leader of the family, to be able to be the host to these guests. And in the case of Jesus and his birth, we find that Mary and Joseph end up coming and finding that there is no room in the inn, according to Roman standards, if you had a Roman city, but in a village what you have are guestrooms in patriarchal homes.

Dr. John Ankerberg: When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, most likely Joseph went straight to his paternal home and stayed in the guestroom. Jewish custom would have demanded that he receive protection and help for himself and especially his wife Mary who was pregnant. Some time passed while they were staying with his family, and then it came time for Mary to be delivered. But Bethlehem, like Joseph’s family guestroom, would have been filled with families and relatives returning for the Census. In Joseph’s father’s house there would have been no private place for Mary to have her baby because the guestroom was filled with relatives. There would be no private place until someone had the bright and compassionate idea to suggest that she could have the baby down below, away from the crowded kataluma, the guestroom, in the warmth of the storeroom and animal cellar. There she could have privacy but still be within the security of the family home.

So Jesus was safely born in the city of David as the angels told the shepherds in Luke 2:11 and laid in a manger or feeding trough for the animals. That a child should be found lying in a manger was unique, and yet it may have reflected, not a situation of abandonment and isolation, but one of compassion and protection and of the order of family life in traditional Jewish society of the first century. It is also interesting to note that the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is in the middle of the city where the family homes would have stood in antiquity and not in the surrounding countryside.

Dr. Claire Pfann:[3] We sometimes read Luke and we picture Joseph and Mary traveling in the rain on a cold December night. And Mary is in labor, in pain, about to deliver this baby and Joseph frantically walks from door to door knocking on the Motel 6’s of Bethlehem—which there weren’t any, of course—trying to find accommodations.
But actually, if we really read what Luke has to say, he says they went to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s ancestral home. That means they had extended family there. They were going to a place where they were known and loved, and where they would receive hospitality. It also says in the Gospel of Luke, “While they were there the time came for her to be delivered.” Now, that’s a non-specific amount of time. How long were they there before the baby was born? Two days? Two weeks? Two months? It could have been three or four or five months. We really don’t know. So the picture of them being in a familial setting, surrounded by people who they might know, and that might help with the delivery, is actually supported by both Luke and by Matthew.

Dr. John Ankerberg: So there are four historical and archaeological facts that mark the place where Jesus was born. First, archaeology has shown that the Church of the Nativity was built on the area of the Bethlehem of Jesus’ day. Second, the Church sits on the top of a hill where typically patriarchal homes were built. Third, there is a cave underneath the Church of the Nativity which usually would have been used as a storeroom or a place to keep the animals. And fourth, tradition points to a cave in Bethlehem as being the very place where Jesus was born.

Dr. Stephen Pfann: The tradition of a site, like a birth site, like Bethlehem is actually strengthened by the fact that the earliest record that we have of the tradition of Jesus’ birthplace goes back to Justin Martyr, who 15-20 years after Bethlehem was totally destroyed by Roman armies, said that the pilgrims came to visit a cave, a cavea. We go there today, it’s at the top of a hill, which is just where a patriarchal home would be built—on top of a hill. And patriarchal homes are kept for many generations, and kept within the family. So the tradition of Jesus’ birthplace there in the middle of the second century, is actually extremely close to the time when those homes were still in existence in Bethlehem. So knowing that Jesus was born there, that his family’s patriarchal home would have persisted there until their destruction around 137 AD, and then just 15 or 20 years later Justin Martyr saying that that’s where people commemorated his birth, actually brings it into the category of probably being the place where Jesus was born.
Dr. Randall Price:[4] Now we find also that when you go back to the history books and look at Paulinus of Nola, he notes that Hadrian who was the Roman emperor from around 117 to 138 AD built a sacred grove to Adonis over the site of Jesus birth to efface Christianity. And this was the very purpose of Roman religion: to supersede previous religion. So indeed they recognized already that something very dramatic in the case of Christianity had occurred at that spot. And then we have at the beginning of the 4th Century, Helena the mother of Constantine, coming to identify the spot that tradition says Jesus was born, and she identifies that place today as the Church of Nativity built on the foundations that she laid. Then in 385 AD St. Jerome comes to that spot to be there to translate the Vulgate and yet he says already in the time of his arrival it’s the most venerable spot on earth. So these things together point to the fact that from earliest antiquity, Bethlehem was the one place noted in the Christian world as the birthplace of Jesus.

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  1. Dr. Hillel Geva: Archaeologist on staff with the Israel Exploration Society and editor of leading Hebrew journal on Biblical Archaeology–Qadmoniot. Has worked with some of the most important archaeological excavations in Jerusalem since 1967 and was editor of scholarly book Ancient Jerusalem as well as author of many articles in leading journals. Works also as a guide for the State of Israel with Christian groups and is well-versed in archaeological backgrounds and connections with Christian sites.
  2. Dr. Stephen Pfann: Director of the Jerusalem School for the Study of Early Christianity and of the Nazareth Village. He is well-published in the area of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Dead Sea Scroll concordance, journal of Roland DeVaux, excavator of Qumran settlement) and has been assigned the Daniel fragments from Cave 4 for translation and commentary and also is working on the mysterious Angel Scroll. He is a leading scholar in the area of Jesus and His cultural and social background in the Second Temple period.
  3. Mrs. Claire Pfann: Faculty member, Center for the Study of Early Christianity, 1988-present. Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, University of the Holy Land, 1998-present. Contributor, The Comprehensive Concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Production Editor, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXVII . Contributor, The Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible. Contributor, Hebrew University Bible Project: “The Alignment of the Aramaic and Greek Texts of Ezra and Daniel.” An expert on Jewish birth practices and culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus.
  4. Dr. J. Randall Price: President of World of the Bible Ministries, Inc.; Ph.D. From the University of Texas at Austin in Middle Eastern Studies with a concentration in Hebrew and Archaeology with graduate work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; He has been involved in archaeological excavations in Tel-Yin’am, Jerusalem and is the current director of the Qumran Plateau Excavations Project in Israel.


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