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Bethlehem: A Special Village In Judea

Micah 5:2-5
In today's lesson from the Hebrew Bible we find a reference to Bethlehem.
The passage reads:
"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace."
Bethlehem was always a very small village in biblical times.1 Even today it is a small town located between two small villages (Beit Sahour and Beit Jala). So many of the people who live in the area are related to one another either through the father's family or the mother's family. And even the ones who are not related are often close friends.
Micah's prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem must be related to the belief that David, Israel's greatest king, was also born in or near to Bethlehem. Since the Messiah will be a "Son of David," it is fitting that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem. One problem for us, however, is that we must ask if Micah is speaking literally about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem or is his reference to Bethlehem more metaphorical or symbolic? Unfortunately, we have no way of answering this question.
According to the gospel accounts, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.2 I would like to offer an alternative view of Jesus' birth here based more on the culture and history of the land. Because Bethlehem was a small village, there was certainly no "inn" to be found here. In biblical times travelers were dependent on the hospitality of people in villages and towns they might visit. Furthermore, we know from the Greek translation of the Gospel According to Luke that the correct word for the place where Jesus was born3 translates not as an inn but as a special room found within a house. So Luke's passage might more appropriately read, "And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the room (kataluma or guest-chamber)."
Furthermore, early Christian tradition and the Gospel According to Luke suggest that Bethlehem is the home village of Jesus' father, Joseph.4
During Jesus' time, and even today among rural people in the Middle East, when a son marries he brings his bride home to live in the house of his father (parents). Therefore, Joseph would have been living with his new wife Mary in the house of his father, probably in Bethlehem. As you already know, Matthew's and Luke's versions of the nativity story are quite different. Luke has Joseph and his family living in Nazareth and journeying to Bethlehem. Matthew has Joseph and his family beginning in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then moving to Nazareth. Matthew's version is more consistent with the culture of the first century.5 With this in mind I do not believe that it is inappropriate to suggest that Jesus was probably born in the stable (cave) located beneath the family living quarters in his grandfather's house.
The kataluma would have been located in an upper part of the house and separated from the primary family living quarters.6 Because a woman giving birth would require some privacy7 a quiet and isolated place would have been sought when Mary went into labor. The most logical place would have been the cave (stable) located beneath the house. Here Mary would have found straw for bedding and warmth from the cave being insulated with earth.8
Charles Page writes from Jerusalem, where he serves as the Academic Dean for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. For more information about our upcoming study program or for general information about the Jerusalem Center please contact Kristine Haley, the Administrator for the Jerusalem Center, toll-free at 888-431-7902.
1. It is possible that Bethlehem was a fortified town during the time of David. In the Hebrew Scriptures we read, "David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. And David said longingly, `O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate.'" (2 Samuel 23:14-15). This passage implies that Bethlehem was fortified at this time. This somewhat contrasts the image of Bethlehem as a more rural village of farmers and shepherds found in 1 Samuel 16.
2. See Matthew 2:1, 5; Luke 2:4; 15; John 7: 42.
3. The Greek word here is kataluma which means a guest-chamber or guest room which translates not as an inn but as a special room found within a house. So Luke's passage might more appropriately read, "And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the room" ("kataluma" or guest-chamber).
4. See Luke 2:4.
5. There is more detailed discussion of the conflict in these two gospel versions found my book, Jesus and the Land (Abingdon Press, 1995).
6. Today, there is only one place where a visitor can see a typical Judaean first century house which still preserves the "kataluma" and cave-stable. This house is located in Taybeh on the property of a small church.
7. Members of the family would have also desired to be protected against being ritually defiled from the birth of a child in the family quarters.
8. The first mention of Jesus being born in a cave in Christian tradition dates to the writings of Justin Martyr (155-160 CE). By the time of Origen, the traditional location of the birth of Jesus had been established in its present site, beneath the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in Bethlehem.