Myth and Memory of the Savior’s Birth

What do we know about Jesus’ birthplace?

With current scholarship in mind, it appears we can say this:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the fruitful region of Ephrath, in a cave included within (and probably at the rear of) a family three room cave-style home, likely in a home associated with oversight of the birthing of lambs used in Temple sacrifice. The baby was wrapped in cloths most commonly associated with the wrapping of the dead and an apparent protective binding of the Temple lambs commonly born in that area. All of those details were carefully included in the narrative to evoke a richer story for the early Jewish follower of Jesus and provide detail to the fulfillment of prophetic prophecy.

Let’s carefully examine each part of the statement we just made.

We will do so by a process of understanding normal trends of the region in the time, and by examining both text and archaeological evidence.

The Village of Bethlehem

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the fruitful region of Ephrath, in a cave included within (and probably at the rear of) a family three room cave-style home, likely in a home associated with oversight of the birthing of lambs used in Temple sacrifice.

First, let’s consider Bethlehem as the village location and what that reference in the Gospels meant to early Jewish followers of Jesus. The village name is clearly part of Luke 2:4 and meant “house of Bread” (though the name was probably originally derived from a Canaanite unrelated meaning before). It is perfectly reasonable that early followers connected two ideas in the Gospel text: the notation that Jesus was the “Bread of Life” and that He was born in a place called the “house of bread.” Extending the metaphor, the baby was placed in a manger, or feeding trough for animals.

Additionally, we know that some (read: many) shepherds from that village were regularly assigned the task of “keeping watch” over the Temple’s flocks (described below). A key feature of their work included making certain none of these lambs were blemished. To that end, they may have had special training, beyond the normal restrictions found in Baba Kamma 80 a (a Talmudic Aramaic phrase meaning “The First Gate” that refers to the first of three Talmudic tractates in the order Nezikin or “Damages” – an order that dealt with civil damages and torts). Baba Kama 80 offered restrictions on household animals and expressly forbade the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel, except in the wilderness regions. The exception: flocks kept for the Temple-services.

It is reasonable to assume that some, if not all the shepherds in Luke’s account were trusted individuals who were specifically trained for a Temple-related task, and may have even been specifically connected to cave homes that acted as birthing centers. The shepherds were probably educated in keeping the animals from hurt, damage or blemish.

Third, Bethlehem was thought to be the place of Messiah’s coming, based on Micah 5:2, but the Hebrew prophet Micah may have indicated a more exacting location when he foretold (Micah 4:8):

And you, O Tower of the Flock (Migdal Eder), the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, unto you shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem

Scholars debate whether the reference of Migdal Eder – ‘the Tower of the Flock'” referred to a specific tower in the area (not archaeologically identified but widely thought to have existed) or a more common feature of the landscape of the Judean wilderness near to Bethlehem (a common watchtower, the foundations of many of which still exist in the area).

In the story, the shepherds were ostensibly encamped near enough to Bethlehem (in one of the adjacent valley locations) to access the town in a matter of hours (at most). If the tower referred to a specific location, as some believe, it may be it acted as a station where shepherds brought Temple flocks as they were chosen to be transported to Jerusalem, the males for burnt-offerings, and the females as peace-offerings (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). Evidence in the narrative for this may exist in the idea of how directly the shepherds found the baby (as though they knew the place the angels indicated). Many scholars, however, believe it is more likely a truncated narrative indicating the baby was located in an area home that was associated with birthing Temple lambs (known to them), where shepherds would have natural access to check on their property among the attendants. If that is true, the words of the angelic messenger, in that case, were a short hand to help the shepherds know where to look for the baby.

It is clear that many lambs of the region were used by the Temple, and many, if not most, shepherds in that area were involved in the specific regimen of supplying the Temple’s needs (and abiding by their restrictions and protections of the animals due for sacrifice). We cannot know if those specific shepherds were, in fact, doing that work. It would not be unlikely but is not clearly stated in the text.

There are some memories, based now largely on modern Samaritan practices near Gerizim, that in the lambing season the sheep may have been brought to a specific watchtower location and a lower level of that tower (built on a natural cave) functioned as the birthing room for sacrificial lambs. Samaritans maintain controls in the birthing as Temple priest may have done in Bethlehem. The matter is speculative, and though it could conceivably have been part of the events of Luke 2, it is worth noting the shepherds appear to have been outside Bethlehem and came INTO the village to find the baby.

William Thomson, a Presbyterian missionary to the region, wrote in 1857:

It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.

Clearly, Bethlehem is a village associated with the care of Temple lambs. Here are some other important details about the flocks destined for the Temple, showing the scope and normality of that work in the region at the time:

• The twice-daily male lamb offering (known as the tamiyd (meaning continual from Numbers 28:3) was to be tamiym (“without blemish”). Gospel students will recall the fact that the tamiyd was sacrificed the third hour every morning, and Mark’s Gospel recalled that was the same time Jesus was Crucified (Mark 15:25, Mishnah: Tamid 3:7). Further, Mark 15:33 marked the ninth hour as the time of the last sayings of the Savior, and the giving up of His Spirit at the time associated with the second of the tamiyd lambs.

• Male lambs born in the Bethlehem area, were most often used exclusively in the Temple, as this was the best and most steady commercial outlet to satisfy the needs of the Temple. Many, if not most of the new flock were routinely set-aside to be the TAMIL, i.e. the morning sacrifices which began each day. Lambs could also be used for burnt offerings (Oleh dedicatory offerings). Female lambs were more often chosen for use in peace offerings (Shelmim). In short, the hills around Bethlehem were home to the hundreds of lambs used in ritual worship in the Temple.

• The number of lambs needed each year depended upon the length of that year. The Hebrew calendar has regular length years (kesidrah), shorter years (cheserah or a deficient year with 353/383 days) or longer years (shlemahor complete year with 355/385 days). Sacrificial lamb numbers ranged, then, between 706 to 770 sacrificial lambs per year plus addditional lambs needed for Passover (Pesach ) and various elective offerings (Shelmim,etc).

Clearly the most common usage for these lambs born in Bethlehem was this: they were destined to become sacrificial lambs. That isn’t any more a stretch that referring to Detroit as a “car city” or Pittsburgh as a “steel city.” The reference likely evoked imagery of Temple lambs to many early Jewish followers of Jesus (though we cannot know for sure what they thought). In fact, the Mishnaic memory recalls:

An animal that was found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, or a similar distance in any direction, the males are [considered] burnt offerings. The females are [considered] peace offerings. Rabbi Yehuda says, those which are fitting as a Pesach offering are [considered] Pesach offerings if it is thirty days before the festival.” (Shekalim 7:4; from Sefaria online trans.)

Some students of the Word take special note of the definite article before “manger” in the text, and understand that to mean this was a birthing place the men already knew.

The Cave Birth (and Kataluma)

There are some who insert in the story of the birth the idea that there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the local caravansary, and surmise the parents of Jesus were allowed to occupy one of the attended birthing caves in the hillside. That doesn’t seem likely, since the shepherds were directed to the village to find the child, and it doesn’t seem to take into account the literal wording of the text. Luke recorded:

Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The phrase “no room in the inn” gave rise to the idea the couple was “stuck” in an animal stable as a last resort to give birth , but that is a merely implied in the English reading. The Greek term for “inn” (Luke 2:7) is kataluma, normally translated “guest chamber” and used also in Luke 22:11. It was a term that could be used in its time for a hall, as in a place refitted for occasion. Luke used pandokheion when he desired to designate a commercial inn (cf. Lk 10:36). Conversely, the other use of kataluma in the Gospels is in Luke 22:11 (and its parallel in Mark 14:14) where it clearly does not mean an inn.

As such, consistent with the three-room cave style homes found in Tibe/Ophrah in Ephraim, Nazareth in the Galilee and Bethlehem in Judea (areas with significant chalk geological intrusion) we find remains of caves used as stables in the cold time of year, center rooms used as storage or work space that could be given as a “kataluma” in the time of guests, and a front room for living space. Luke made clear there was “no room in the kataluma” which was a makeshift guest space in the family home Joseph.

Some Bible teachers reason that Torah restriction for impurity offer evidence the child was born in a place away from a family home, based on the Levitical laws (Leviticus 12 and 15). They reason that when a woman was ritually unclean (as in childbirth), she had to live apart from her family so as not to defile the household. They offer in evidence the careful observance of Mary of the timing of her Temple visit. After the cessation of blood and required time of waiting, a woman and her child would perform the necessary rituals of purification to be ceremonially clean and return to the household with the rest of the family. Though this was true during the sojourn in the wilderness, there is little to validate that practice in the period of the First and Second Temples for villagers. We simply don’t know how this was regulation specifically observed. It may have ranged in observance from separation of sleeping areas by a curtain to a separate lodging. It is not certain that Mary would have felt the need to be outside the house, and the text seems to indicate that she was in the family home, but in the cave at the rear recesses of the home.

There is another important historical evidence some scholars use to signal the birth of Jesus was outside the family home, outside the village, and perhaps at a cave near a specific tower. Origen wrote it was generally accepted in his day that the Nativity took place in a cave at Bethlehem which could be visited in his time (cp. Origen of Alexandra,”Contra Celsum”, book I, chapter LI).

Justin Martyr claimed Jesus was born in a cave outside the city of Bethlehem. The statement reads:

But when the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi came from Arabia and found Him. I have repeated to you…what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the Cave.

(From: Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, LXXIX. Cf. The Writings of Justin Martyr and Athenagoras, trans. by M. Dodds, G. Reith and B.P. Pratten (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1868), pp. 195–196). It is also notable the Protoevangelium of Jacob similarly suggests the birth of Jesus was outside the village in a cave. Sources of that period echo each other.

The issue with these sources is the many historical details that Justin Martyr and others of his time added to the story for the purposes of showing Jesus to have fulfilled prophecy. They seem excellent sources for early thinking about the Gospel and sharing it, but not great sources for detailed historical analysis of the original events.

If the shepherds knew of this home in particular (as had been suggested), it would likely have been because Joseph’s family was involved in the network of places used to birth lambs for the Temple, though this is mere conjecture. It is not unreasonable or even unlikely, but nowhere close to certain.

The Swaddling Wrapping

The baby was wrapped in cloths most commonly associated with the wrapping of the dead and an apparent protective binding of the Temple lambs commonly born in that area.

There are a number of possibilities of how we should understand the reference to the “swaddling cloth” put on Jesus. The Greek verb tense of Luke 2:12 should be translated “having been swaddled”.

First, we should understand that historical memory includes the fact that babies were wrapped after birth in various ways in the Biblical period. In a passage about God’s inordinate grace to Israel, we read about God’s care of the nation:

Ezekiel 16:4 As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing; you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths. 5 No eye looked with pity on you to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.

While it is true the prophet Ezekiel wasn’t offering intentional detail on wrapping infants, he does show it was a known practice that demonstrated (along with salting the newborn) at least minimal care. Notably, Job offered a side reference to the same practice in Job 38:8-9 as God disputed with Job about how things were created:

Job 38:8 Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; 9 When I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band

It appears in both Ezekiel and Job, the reference was toward a common image of nurture and care after a child is born. The real issue is whether the cloth referred to in the narrative of the birth of Jesus denotes something more. Why would the swaddling clothes be something more? Textually, this action was taken, according to the angel of the Lord, to be a sign to the shepherds. Does that suggest it was something unusual in its time or place? If it does, perhaps we need to look further at other possible explanations.

Beyond the Job and Ezekiel references for child care, it is easily attested that such wrappings were widely used for the bodies of the dead. These were wrapped or covered, and often cloth was kept in a family home to be prepared for such an eventuality. Some cite this as a cloth wrapped on one’s person during a long journey, to aid in case of injury or wrap in case of death. This is oft repeated, but without any obvious source. It isn’t beyond the norm that one would use the allegory of “coming to die” for the baby in the manger, and this may explain some of the use in the text. Yet, how would that make sense to the shepherds to whom the symbol was given.

A third possibility should be mentioned, because there is a reference in the (Apocryphal) Wisdom of Solomon 7:3-6 that may relate the identification of this cloth to the royal line of David. Traditionally the words of Solomon said:

7:3 And when I was born, I drew in the common air, and fell upon the earth, which is of like nature, and the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do. 7:4 I was nursed in swaddling clothes, and that with cares. 7:5 For there is no king that had any other beginning of birth. 7:6 For all men have one entrance into life, and the like going out.

The text argued as though the wrapping cloth was symbolically related to the fact that he was of a kingly line. It is at least plausible the comment of this cloth related to the “son of David” designation, but it doesn’t seem obvious in the narrative, unless the shepherds knew something we cannot discern in our reading.

Some promising notes can be found in a fourth suggestion of the use of swaddling “cloths.” This use involved a reported use in subduing animals at sacrifice, where strips of gauze-like cloth were used to restrain a lamb being prepared for inspection before sacrifice to prevent thrashing that they not “blemish” themselves. Mishnaic sources offer evidence for this, found in the terms of sacrifice as something that had to be “bound” (Hebrew `aqad) in order to be valid. The grammatical term for “binding” an animal for sacrifice is the Hebrew akeida and was specifically mentioned in Abraham’s “binding” of Isaac in Genesis 22. Some suggest such a binding of baby lambs set for sacrifice may have been intended to halt thrashing that could cause blemish or injury in their first couple of hours of their lives. We simply don’t know if that practice was routine or widespread.

The benefit of this last suggestion could be more simply explained if we link the shepherds to Temple duties. If it was true the shepherds were trained to deal with the specialized needs of Temple lambs, and if the practice of binding extended back from the time of the Mishnaic memory to their time and place, the wrapping could have been significant. Surely, later Gospel allusions would be made that Jesus was our sacrificial Lamb, and John the Baptist later announced.

Here is what the preponderance of evidence suggests:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the fruitful region of Ephrath, in a cave included within (and probably at the rear of) a family three room cave-style home, likely in a home associated with oversight of the birthing of lambs used in Temple sacrifice. The baby was wrapped in cloths most commonly associated with the wrapping of the dead and an apparent protective binding of the Temple lambs commonly born in that area. All of those details were carefully included in the narrative to evoke a richer story for the early Jewish follower of Jesus and provide detail to the fulfillment of prophetic prophecy.