The tradition that connects a cave with Christ's birth is very ancient. Justin Martyr (150 A. D.) mentions it, as does Origen about a hundred years later. Queen Helena erected a church over it (325 A. D.). Here came Jerome (368 A. D.) and dwelt for many years. So far then as early tradition can authenticate a place, this seems well authenticated. Edersheim says it is "the best authenticated of all local traditions." Yet there are objections that have led many to deny the truth of the tradition. The point then demands some further examination.
The objection that Luke says nothing of a cave is not important. His purpose is simply to show the humble and friendless state of the infant child, and this is done by the mention of the circumstances that there was no room for His parents, and that when He was born He was laid in a manger. Any other particulars were, for his purpose, are unnecessary.
A more important objection is that drawn from the fact that tradition makes caves or grottoes to be the sites of so many remarkable events. That naturally awakens our incredulity. Yet, on the other hand, they could not have been selected for such sites unless there were some grounds of fitness in the selection. The Scriptures, Josephus, and all travelers speak of the numerous caves that are found throughout Palestine. They were used for dwellings, for fortresses and places of refuge, for cisterns, for prisons, and for sepulchres. Travelers used them as inns, robbers as dens, herdsmen as stalls, husbandmen as granaries. Many of these caves were very large. One is mentioned (Judges 20:47) being large enough for six hundred men.
Thus, looking upon this tradition, we find no sufficient reason why it should be wholly rejected. Probably there is some measure of truth in it. It is indeed hard to believe that the present artificial cave, so deep down and inaccessible, could ever have been used as a stall for cattle. Perhaps the fact may be that the cave, in its original shape, was connected with a house, forming its rear apartment, and used as a stable.
Adapted from The Life of Our Lord upon the Earth by Samuel James Andrews.