Alister McGrath: Christmas in the Cave

Posted by Kendall Harmon

It's always nice to learn something new. I was talking to some Lebanese students in London recently. They were looking forward to returning home for Christmas, and celebrating this great feast in traditional Lebanese style. In the West, we think of Christ lying in a manger in a stable. In Lebanon, I was told, Christians depict the nativity as taking place in a cave. The reasons for this are lost in the mists of time. Yet the image of Jesus being born in a cave is rich and suggestive.

As we reflect on what Christmas means for billions of Christians across the world, this image can help us unlock some of its themes, and help us understand why it is seen as being so significant....

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Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch Year / Liturgical SeasonsChristmas

10 Comments
Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:22 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. francis wrote:

The cave location is an ancient tradition from an apocryphal Gospel.  In the gospel Joseph must run to get help and when he returns Jesus has been born by miraculous transportation from the womb of Mary.  And so ‘apocryphal’.

December 27, 9:17 am | [comment link]
2. Catholic Mom wrote:

Well, I think that in Bethlehem, the “grotto” of the Nativity is actually a small cave-like structure made of stone.  So if you went there and thought that the structure was historically accurate, that would be your conclusion.

December 27, 10:12 am | [comment link]
3. TomRightmyer wrote:

In the grotto under the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, the birth place is marked by a star with an altar nearby where the Latin rite commemorates the birth of Jesus and nearby a stone manger where the Orthodox commemorate the birth.  The Nativity icons also show the birth in a cave.  IIRC Raymond Brown’s book notes that the innkeeper’s gift was privacy for the birth. The usual inn was an open place, enclosed for safety, where people spread their bedding in the open.  The Nativity icons also show two midwives though they are not mentioned by St. Luke.

December 27, 2:00 pm | [comment link]
4. francis wrote:

The inn and the cave represent two differing traditions, slight deviations from Luke.  There is one midwife and Salome, two women, in the cave tradition.  The cave tradition evidently is mentioned by Justin Martyr, but gets quite a sell from the “Protoevangelium of James” that also contains various early additional traditions.  It was obviously consulted more than Luke.

December 27, 4:39 pm | [comment link]
5. David Keller wrote:

I am quite certain it doesn’t make any difference what the venue of the birth looked like.  Luke doesn’t tell us because it is essentially irrelevant. All he says is she “laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn,” (which conflicts with Raymond Brown’s opinion). Once again, it really doesn’t matter, but I’ll stick with Luke. Its worked for me up until now.

December 27, 5:55 pm | [comment link]
6. c.r.seitz wrote:

#5, I believe Fitzmyer/Brown agree an ‘inn’ (from the greek to ‘let down (harness?)’ is a caravansarry—a place where groups of people slept. Open (access) but covered. ‘There was no room’ and it was probably inappropriate for a birth anyway. So Luke speaks of a manger (feeding trough for domesticated animals). This would have been in the open air proximate to the ‘inn’ (or perhaps in a cave?). I don’t think Brown is questioning Luke, but clarifying what Luke is saying. I am happy to be corrected.

December 27, 6:16 pm | [comment link]
7. francis wrote:

I would go radically Luke here.  Bailey shows that Luke’s inn for the Good Samaritan is ‘pandocheion’ as found in (10:25-37).  The word here is ‘katalyma’ as found in 22:11, a spare room, guest room or upper room, at least a room associated with the house.  Therefore the manger is the family manger; on the same level as the main family room, but available for the animals who would be in their lower portion of the house for the night.  Plummer, Marshall and Bishop would agree against the Western tradition.  The most important issue here is hospitality, says Bailey, which makes no appearance in the typical reading of the event.

December 27, 7:12 pm | [comment link]
8. David Keller wrote:

#6—Dr. S—I wouldn’t correct you at all. I don’t do Greek so the root words are not in my lexicon (is that a Greek word?).  I do think the inn keeper was probably a pretty generous guy.  My only real point is the exact locale is so far down my list of things to worry about, it is basically irrelevant to me.  The incarnation is all that matters.

December 28, 2:57 pm | [comment link]
9. cseitz wrote:

There are some fascinating lines in Jerome where he speaks about being able to look from his desk toward where Jesus was born. One gets a sense that Christianity has gained its own momentum and the interest in ‘travelogue’ (even of the modern Bailey variety) hasn’t played much of a role.
If the manger means anything other than feeding trough cum crib—the poverty of Christ’s birth is a major theme in the Tradition—it is probably to be found in Isa 1:3. There we find the ox and ass of later creche scenes as well. (There is no inn-keeper in Luke).
Luke seems to want to say the significance is that the shepherds’ sign and the actual place of birth is one and the same thing (2:17), and the wonder this evoked in others (v 18) and in Mary (v 19). A similar significance theme occurs with the naming of John in the first chapter (1:63ff). The locale is important because of what God is doing with it, as it then bears witness.

December 28, 3:27 pm | [comment link]
10. francis wrote:

Where it takes place in the NT is usually as important as what or how it’s said:  city of David, house of David.  We have lost that, along with the cultural significance, since the church has lived outside the Land for thousands of years.

December 28, 5:15 pm | [comment link]
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