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News – The stable is for real!

December 2008 | by David Rushworth-Smith

The stable is for real!

 

In Bethlehem’s Manger Square, there is a remarkable exhibition of miniature ‘stables’ at the Peace Centre. These have been donated to show how different ethnic groups envisage Jesus’ birthplace.

 

Clearly, folk in Nevada think the ‘stable’ was like those in cowboy films. Christians in Shanghai assume that the Bethlehem ‘stable’ was modelled on those along the Silk Road. Each ethnic group has its own view of what ‘stables’ in Bethlehem were like.

     This remarkable collection reveals how far the Christmas story has travelled. Not only do people on every continent sing about Bethlehem, the baby and the shepherds, but they have their own mental pictures of it all.

     But, is the story about Christ’s birth ‘in a stable’ for real? Can we be sure it isn’t a delightful myth? I have spent years considering the matter. I started to research ancient secular records presuming that there was no ‘stable’ and even, perhaps, no baby.

 

Ancient records

 

These records confirm that the Romans did hold a census regularly in the Holy Land, for the purpose of taxation. Furthermore, Caesar Augustus did send someone called Sulpicius Quirinius as a legate to the Middle East. He established a military base in Syria in 7 B.C. and later became governor of Syria, just as the Bible says (Luke 2:2). Again, the Roman census was always based on a family’s links with a particular town or city.

     So, the Christmas story definitely records historical events, but then so do some nursery rhymes. Hollywood is proof enough that historical facts often get mangled! However, the first four verses of Luke chapter 2 ring true. Both parents had family links with Bethlehem, so history suggests that they had to register in that Judean town.

     You don’t ignore orders in a police state. Joseph and Mary had to be in Bethlehem on the census days even though she was expecting a baby. But a stable?

 

The donkey shed

 

Remember that all this happened before the days of mobile phones, or even postal services. Joseph and Mary couldn’t book a hotel room in advance. But surely they had relatives in Bethlehem? Why didn’t they head for a relative’s home?

     Who says they didn’t? After a lot of reading, talking and studying – on the streets and in homes, museums and hotels in Bethlehem – I am now convinced that Joseph and Mary did head for a relative’s inn.

     However, there was no vacant room. Perhaps other relatives had got there first. But there was the ‘donkey shed’ –  affording shelter and privacy (apart from the donkey).

     I have visited many ancient houses in Bethlehem which have ‘donkey sheds’ (yes, donkeys are still ridden even though some sheds now house cars).

     Many of those ancient houses were built over caves in the limestone rock, while others had ‘donkey sheds’ created as ground floor rooms with arched ceilings. Animals can walk straight into these ‘donkey sheds’ while the residents and guests climb steps to the living quarters.

     To us, such an ancient inn resembles a house with a garage underneath. But 2000 years ago a ‘donkey shed’ might well have served as an annexe to accommodate the travel-weary couple.

 

The story comes alive

 

Originally, the ‘donkey shed’ would not have been called a ‘stable’ (a Latin term found nowhere in the Bible) but for us the word makes sense. Donkeys, like horses, are kept in stables today, though not along with sheep and cows!

     Knowing this makes the story come alive, as does the mention in Matthew 2:11 that the wise men found Jesus in a ‘house’ rather than a stable. I am convinced that the Saviour was born in the ‘donkey shed’ of an ancient Bethlehem residence.

     I am also sure that Justin Martyr was right to claim that Hadrian deliberately desecrated this very special ‘donkey shed’ by building a pagan temple above it. Yet we can still visit it today, beneath Constantine’s later ‘Church of the Nativity’.

     The Christmas story is no myth. The Saviour did come into our world to rescue us from sin. The ‘stable’ is one of the proofs!

David Rushworth-Smith

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