A manger was a shelter for animals similar to what many people today would call a stall. Even if the manger was relatively clean, it was an unfitting place for a woman to give birth. Yet, according to the Bible, it wasn’t just anyone who started life in a manger, but a king who was the Son of God. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that many people want to know why Jesus was born in a manger.
Jesus was born in a manger because the inn in Bethlehem where they sought shelter didn’t have any available rooms. They may not have searched for an inn elsewhere because they were legally required to be in Bethlehem for Caesar Augustus’ census and because Mary’s delivery was imminent.
Why did Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem? Where was the manger? Why didn’t the inn have any vacancies? What was the manger like? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see How Many Wise Men Visited Jesus? to learn more.
Why did Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem?
Not long before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census (v. 1-2). The decree required Joseph, along with Mary, his pregnant and betrothed wife-to-be, to travel to Bethlehem, the City of David (v. 3-4). Joseph was a Jewish man and a descendant of King David.
Censuses were important in the ancient world to give civil authorities insight and information into the population of their jurisdiction as a whole as well as each region, city, town, and village. Often, the primary purpose of having such information was related to taxation.
When the Roman authorities decreed a census, people had to return to the place of their birth to be counted. Though the Bible doesn’t explicitly explain why this was the case, historical records from other censuses reveal that it may be because a person, or their family, owned land in the place of his birth.
Also see How Old Was Mary When She Gave Birth to Jesus? to learn more.
Why didn’t Bethlehem’s inn have any vacancies?
Luke reports that the census coincided with the end of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph traveled to Bethlehem “to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child” (v. 5). Some scholars speculate that Joseph took Mary along because she also had to report to Bethlehem. Yet others theorize that Joseph took her because she was so far along in her pregnancy.
Even though the betrothed couple may not have preferred to have their son born while traveling, sometimes expectant parents don’t have a choice. So “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (v. 6).
Joseph and Mary sought respite in an inn in Bethlehem. There may have been only one because Bethlehem was a small village. The inn denied the couple’s request because there was no room for them. Because of the census, there were probably other people in Bethlehem that required lodging.
Luke’s description that “the time came” for Mary to give birth refers to her showing physical signs that her child’s birth was imminent. There was likely no time to find another, more suitable location, like a different inn in a neighboring town.
So Mary gave birth to Jesus “and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (v. 7).
Also see How Old Was Joseph When Jesus Was Born? to learn more.
Where was the manger?
Scholars suggest two possible locations for the manger. Based on historical records from the time, some believe the manger may have belonged to the inn. Yet others citing a tradition in the church think it may have been in a nearby cave.
Was the manger near the inn?
Some scholars suggest that the manger was attached to the inn or its courtyard. An adjacent dwelling place for animals was a typical setup for an inn in the first century because visitors needed a place to keep the ones they traveled with, like a donkey.
Though Luke doesn’t mention that the manger belonged to the inn, the suggestion is consistent with the fact that Mary’s delivery of Jesus was imminent.
Was the manger in a cave?
Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D) is known for defending the Christian faith against heretical and skeptical attacks. In his book, Dialogue with Trypho, which scholars date to 155-160 A.D., he mentions that the location of the manger was in a cave in (or perhaps just outside of) Bethlehem. He writes:
“But when the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him” (Ch. 78). 
Some Bible scholars argue that Justin’s description of the manger being in a cave is credible for a few reasons. First, people at the time placed mangers in caves carved out of rocky hillsides because it protected animals from the elements. Second, Justin only lived 40 miles (about 77 kilometers) from Bethlehem, suggesting he may have been familiar with the area.
Historian and theologian Craig Keener writes, “By the early second century A.D. even pagans in the area were reportedly widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone’s home, and they reported the site of this cave to the emperor Hadrian.” 
Also see Was Jesus Born In April? to learn more.
What was the manger like?
Whether the manger was in a cave or not, it likely was a structure similar to a stall. It may have been made of wood, stone, clay, or a combination of materials.
Because it was a shelter for animals, it likely had bedding like straw and a trough for food and water. The Bible doesn’t describe the inside of the manger when Joseph and Mary used it for temporary lodging.
Nativity scenes today often include animals like cows, camels, and sheep. The Bible doesn’t mention these animals in association with mangers, but it does refer to oxen and donkeys.
For example, in Luke 13:15, Jesus says, “Then the Lord answered him, You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?”
Three verses in Old Testament also associate mangers with oxen and donkeys:
- Job 39:9, “Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will he spend the night at your manger?”
- Proverbs 14:4, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”
- Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
Luke doesn’t mention the presence of any animals, but that doesn’t mean none were there. If Mary’s delivery was imminent, there might not have been time to move the animals to another place.
Also see How Old Was Jesus When the Wise Men Came? to learn more.
 The IVP Bible Background Commentary by Craig Keener. p. 184.
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