"6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7And 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." (Luke 2:6-7)
Plenty of questionable "facts" have developed over the years concerning the visit to Bethlehem by Joseph and Mary. 1 How many Christmas plays include an "innkeeper" and a "stable?" But neither of these terms is ever mentioned in Luke's or Matthew's accounts of The First Christmas!
Many of our ideas concerning The First Christmas center around two phrases:
1) Mary "laid him in a manger" because
2) "there was no room for them in the inn."
But do these phrases mean that Joseph and Mary could find no room in the "inn," and so were forced to find lodging in a "stable" where Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger?" Not necessarily.
First let's determine whether there was an "inn" with an "innkeeper." The Greek term for "inn" is kataluma and can mean guest chamber, lodging place or inn. The only other time this word was used in the New Testament, it is translated as "guest chamber" (Mark 14:14-15; Luke 22:11). This was the "large upper room furnished and prepared" for Jesus and his disciples to eat "The Last Supper." Likewise, the "inn" in our story may have simply been referring to a similar type room in a relative's home in Bethlehem.
We often picture a "Holiday Inn" with an innkeeper. But it's doubtful that such a public "inn" existed in "The Little Town of Bethlehem." The "inn" was probably a relative's house. 2 Luke simply says that there was no room in the "inn." Elder relatives who had arrived in town earlier may have been given first priority. We simply do not know.
Now you may be thinking, "How could relatives turn away a pregnant woman who's in labor?" The scriptures do not tell us that Mary was in labor at the time of arrival in the town. (Although it would be a wonder that she's wasn't after such a journey!) The text simply says, "and while they were there..." And Luke never tells us that they were turned away to a "stable." He simply states that there was no room in the upper guest room.
But the scriptures state that Mary "laid him in a manger," don't they? Doesn't this indicate that they were lodged in a stable? A "manager" is a feedbox for animals, or it can also be translated as "a stall." But this still does not mean that they were turned away to a "stable." Even wrapping "him in swaddling clothes" was a normal practice of that day.
Houses in those days had upper chambers and lower level rooms. Some houses had a courtyard which "led to a room in the basement," a dug out "cave" used to house animals at night in order to protect them from thieves or cold weather. A "manger" would be there for feeding the animals. Some houses may have simply sheltered the animals on the lower level of the house itself, while family members slept in the upper chamber.
Joseph and Mary may simply have had to stay on this lower level where at some point she had the babe and "laid him in a manager" since there was not room for them in the upper chamber (or "inn"). They were probably seeking a private place for Mary to have the baby. Other women present probably assisted in the baby's delivery. But we don't know for sure.
Of course it's also possible that Bethlehem was so crowded, that Joseph and Mary were forced to find shelter in a "stable" or a "cave." Church tradition teaches that Jesus was born in a "cave." 3 I guess this could either be an "indoor" cave under a house's courtyard, or an "outdoor" cave.
I find one "cave theory" intriguing! This researcher claims that according to Micah 4:8, the Messiah was to be born in the "tower of the flock." The Hebrew words are 'Migdal Edar' meaning "the watch tower of the flock." According to this gentleman, Jacob passed by "the tower Edar" (literally 'Migdal Edar') after burying Rachel in Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19, 21)
He further states that the flocks nearby Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth were "the sacrificial lambs that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem." In this tower, or "this sheltered building/cave the priests would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection." He continues, "These flocks were the Temple's sacrificial lambs and as such, they were birthed in a ceremonially clean place and then wrapped in "swaddling clothes" to prevent injury to the lambs." 4
What prophetic imagery! Imagine if Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, Himself was also birth in this place and wrapped in "swaddling clothes!"
1 - For helpful articles see "What are some of the most common misconceptions about Jesus Christ's birth?" http://www.christiananswers.net/christmas/mythsaboutchristmas.html, and "Nazareth Village, Re-Creating Jesus' Birth" http://www.cbn.com/CBNNews/CWN/122002birth.aspx
2 - Since Joseph and Mary were of the "House and lineage of David," they probably had relatives in the "City of David." Relatives often opened their homes to traveling relatives. But it also possible that the "inn" referred to was a public "inn" with an innkeeper and many visitors. We simply do not know.
3 - See the online article "Where was the Birth Place of the Lord Jesus?" by Cooper P Abrams III @ http://bible-truth.org/BirthPlaceofJesus.html
Origen of Alexandria (185 - 254 AD) wrote in "Origen of Alexandra, "Against Celsus" in Volume 1, Chapter 51. "In regards to the birth of Jesus in
"Tradition says that Jesus' birth place was in cave over which the Basilica of the Nativity was built in
"It was here in a cave near the village that that Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) said Jesus was born."
(Sited in an article, "The Days After Christ Was Born" http://www.abideinchrist.com/messages/mat2v1.html )
4 - See the online article "Where was the Birth Place of the Lord Jesus?" by Cooper P Abrams III @ http://bible-truth.org/BirthPlaceofJesus.html. Mr. Abrams says he cannot prove that this is the same cave as "the cave under the Basilica of the Nativity" which church tradition claims to be the birth-place of Jesus, but says that "it is entirely possible."
I would love to research this issue further myself!