Few have stopped to think about the architectural history of the actual manger where the Nativity scene allegedly took place. I say allegedly because outside of the Holy Bible there is scarce historical reference to a baby born of a virgin. However, a number of texts reference a man named Jesus and, in fact, a number of scholars and authors have written about him specifically including Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Phlegon. A more modern recitation of Jesus’ birth comes in the book Who Is This Jesus? That still does not answer the question of just where Jesus was born. If one were to go by the lyrics of William J. Kirkpatrick (for the musical Around the World with Christmas) the baby Jesus was born “away in a manger…” But just what is this manger?
Truth be told, the history of a manger is as convoluted as any. It is part religion, part history, part architecture, part agriculture, part community, and partly just confusing. To say the notion of a Christ child being born in a manger due to the lack of vacancy in an inn can be found in the deepest corners of Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and even forensic archaeology. So to try and makes heads or tails of it all let’s go straight to the definition. According to Noah Webster a manger is a long open box or trough for horses or cattle to eat from. So with that in mind, the iconography of a baby in a wooden trough is fairly accurate. For centuries, large sections of the Church have assumed that the manger was in an animal stable. Why wouldn’t a trough be in a stable? In true fashion though, this one assumption uncovers three overlapping questions:
- Was the birthplace a cave?
- Was it a stable or a private home?
- Was it inside or outside the village?
Upon my studies of first century Israel, I maintain the manger was likely a private home in the village, and may have even been a cave.1
In the second century Saint Justin writes that the baby was born in a cave outside the city of Bethlehem. Not possible. Saint Justin has the cave outside the village. Referring back to first century history, a number of Palestinian homes were built into caves.
Why then in Matthew chapter 2 verse 11 does Matthew refer to the birthplace as a home? “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Perhaps because as seen in the photo above most peasant homes in ancient Palestine were, or began as, caves. And it surely goes without saying that a cave – unless it is the Hang Son Doong cave in Vietnam – is little more than a (you guessed it)…a tiny house! So perhaps then it is not the manger that is the issue of contention but rather where the manger sat?
I leave you with this. What then of the manger? The Book of Luke in the Holy Bible tells us, “She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” The Western understanding of this verse has Jesus being laid in a manger. Mangers are naturally found in animal stables. Just have a look at the Fisher-Price Little People Animal Friends Farm. Therefore, Jesus was born in a stable. Historically speaking though, in the one-room peasant homes of Palestine and Lebanon, the manger is built into the floor of the house. The standard one-room village home consists of a living area for the family, mangers built into the floor for feeding the animals (mostly at night as family animals were kept inside at night, but taken out early each morning), and a small area approximately four feet lower than the living area into which the family cow or donkey is brought at night. Perhaps not the American Dream home but a home nonetheless. And with multiple family members in the house, animals alongside them, and built-in storage (even if for animals), it is safe to say that the manger, while not itself a tiny house, was securely positioned inside of a crude, but blatantly tiny house!
What do you think? Have you ever thought about the real history of tiny houses? Have you ever spent time thinking about how humans have lived in small spaces for almost all of history? Let us know in the comment section.
1 2 Samuel 12:3, Holy Bible. New International Version
AUTHOR’S NOTE: inspiration drawn from Kenneth Bailey’s Nov. 8, 2008 article, The Manger and the Inn.