It is Luke’s Gospel that gives us the famous picture of the newborn babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Lk 2:1-20). Luke never specifies that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave; he only states that there was no room for them in the inn. Many have come to imagine the birthplace as a stable because of the note about the manger, another name for an open box or feeding trough for livestock. The image of a cave can be traced back to the apocryphal “Infancy Gospel of James” (probably written in the mid-second century), which places Mary and Joseph there at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Another possibility that scholars have offered is that the Holy Family might have ended their journey in the courtyard or on the first floor of a typical Jewish home. Residents of that era typically slept upstairs while the animals were stabled on the ground floor. It is an intriguing idea that both accommodates our image of animals present at the birth while suggesting that Mary and Joseph weren’t as isolated from human civilization as we tend to imagine.
We will probably never know the exact location of Jesus’ birth, but clearly Luke’s narrative makes the point that the Holy Family were transients at the time of Jesus’ coming.