A seasonal reminder: Jesus was not born in a stable, and it matters!

This morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 by Sam Wells of St Martin’s in the Fields once again repeated that familiar trope: Jesus was laid in an animal trough away from the support of immediate friends and family. The first is true; the second is a mistaken inference based on a misreading of the biblical texts and misunderstanding of the cultural context of the birth narratives. It is clear that even the great and the good need a reminder of what Scripture actually says, so I do not apologise for reposting once more this annual feature.

Picture Jesus’ nativity. Bethlehem town sits still beneath the moonlight, totally unaware that the son of God has been born in one of its poor and lowly outbuildings. In an anonymous backstreet, tucked away out of sight, we find a draughty stable. Inside, warm with the heat of the animals, a family sits quietly. Lit by a warm glow, a donkey, cow and an ox lie serene at the side of the scene. The cow breathes out a gentle moo and the baby in the straw filled manger stirs. Kneeling close by Mary, Joseph and a small lamb sit in silent adoration of the child. All is calm, all is not quite right.

I am sorry to spoil the scene, but Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case. This might shatter the Christmas card scenes and cut out a few characters from the children’s nativity line-up, but it’s worth paying attention to.

This long-held idea demonstrates just how much we read Scripture through the lens of our own assumptions, culture, and traditions, and how hard it can be to read well-known texts carefully, attending to what they actually say. It also highlights the power of traditions, and how resistant they are to change. And, specifically, the belief that Jesus was lonely and dejected, cast out amongst the animals and side-lined at his birth, loses sight of the way in which Jesus and his birth are a powerfully disruptive force, bursting in on the middle of ordinary life and offering the possibility of its transformation.

So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning;and unfamiliarity with first-century Palestinian culture.

The traditional elaboration has come about from reading the story through a ‘messianic’ understanding of Is 1.3:

The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept? (Answer: not necessarily!)

The issue of grammar and meaning, and perhaps the heart of the matter, is the translation of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2.7. Older versions translate this as ‘inn’:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (AV).

There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (eg in Ex 4.24 and 1 Samuel 9.22). And the etymology of the word is quite general. It comes from kataluo meaning to unloose or untie, that is, to unsaddle one’s horses and untie one’s pack. But some fairly decisive evidence in the opposite direction comes from its use elsewhere. It is the term for the private ‘upper’ room where Jesus and the disciples eat the ‘last supper’ (Mark 14.14 and Luke 22.11; Matthew does not mention the room). This is clearly a reception room in a private home. And when Luke does mention an ‘inn’, in the parable of the man who fell among thieves (Luke 10.34), he uses the more general term pandocheion, meaning a place in which all (travellers) are received, a caravanserai.

The difference is made clear in this pair of definitions:

Kataluma (Gr.) – “the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village […] where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected” (ISBE 2004). A private lodging which is distinct from that in a public inn, i.e. caravanserai, or khan.

Pandocheionpandokeionpandokian (Gr.) – (i) In 5th C. BC Greece an inn used for the shelter of strangers (pandokian=’all receiving’). The pandokeion had a common refectory and dormitory, with no separate rooms allotted to individual travelers (Firebaugh 1928).

41VBVURHyMLThe third issue relates to our understanding, or rather ignorance, of (you guessed it) the historical and social context of the story. In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives. Kenneth Bailey, who is renowned for his studies of first-century Palestinian culture, comments:

Even if he has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?” If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honor-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.

P1130012Moreover, the actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story. As Bailey explores in his Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, in the living area, where the animals would feed.

This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels. In Matt 5.15, Jesus comments:

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

This makes no sense unless everyone lives in the one room! And in Luke’s account of Jesus healing a woman on the sabbath (Luke 13.10–17), Jesus comments:

Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the manger [same word as Luke 2.7] and lead it out to give it water?

Interestingly, none of Jesus’ critics respond, ‘No I don’t touch animals on the Sabbath’ because they all would have had to lead their animals from the house. In fact, one late manuscript variant reads ‘lead it out from the house and give it water.’

What, then, does it mean for the kataluma to have ‘no space’? It means that many, like Joseph and Mary, have travelled to Bethlehem, and the family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier. So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth. The most natural place to lay the baby is in the hay-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed. The idea that they were in a stable, away from others, alone and outcast, is grammatically and culturally implausible. In fact, it is hard to be alone at all in such contexts. Bailey amusingly cites an early researcher:

Anyone who has lodged with Palestinian peasants knows that notwithstanding their hospitality the lack of privacy is unspeakably painful. One cannot have a room to oneself, and one is never alone by day or by night. I myself often fled into the open country simply in order to be able to think

In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy.

Rather, he is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention.

This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.

But one last question remains. This, informed and persuasive, understanding of the story has been around, even in Western scholarship, for a long, long time. Bailey cites William Thomson, a Presbyterian missionary to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, who wrote in 1857:

It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.

And Bailey notes that Alfred Plummer, in his influential ICC commentary, originally published in the late nineteenth century, agreed with this. So why has the wrong, traditional interpretation persisted for so long?

51VQRBMa1VLI think there are two main causes. In the first place, we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life. Where do you keep animals? Well, if you live in the West, especially in an urban context, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been—despite the experience of many who live in rural settings. I remembering noticing the place for cattle underneath the family home in houses in Switzerland.

Secondly, it is easy to underestimate how powerful a hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture. Dick France explores this issue alongside other aspects of preaching on the infancy narratives in in his excellent chapter in We Proclaim the Word of LifeHe relates his own experience of the effect of this:

[T]o advocate this understanding is to pull the rug from under not only many familiar carols (‘a lowly cattle shed’; ‘a draughty stable with an open door’) but also a favourite theme of Christmas preachers: the ostracism of the Son of God from human society, Jesus the refugee. This is subversive stuff. When I first started advocating Bailey’s interpretation, it was picked up by a Sunday newspaper and then reported in various radio programmes as a typical example of theological wrecking, on a par with that then notorious debunking of the actuality of the resurrection by the Bishop of Durham!

So is it worth challenging people’s assumptions? Yes, it is, if you think that what people need to hear is the actual story of Scripture, rather than the tradition of a children’s play. France continues:

The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. But the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.

And who knows? People might even start asking questions about how we read the Bible and understand it for ourselves!

If you would like to see how it might be possible to re-write the Christmas story for all ages in a way which is faithful to this, see this excellent example from Stephen Kuhrt.

I preached on this theme at a Carol Service, and you can read my sermon here.

Additional note

I am grateful to Mark Goodacre for drawing my attention to an excellent paper on this by Stephen Carlson, then one of his colleagues at Duke. The paper was published in NTS in 2010, but is available on Carlson’s blog for free. Carlson presses the argument even further by arguing three points:

1. He looks widely at the use of kataluma and in particular notes that in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the OT from Hebrew in the second century BC) it translates a wide variety of Hebrew terms for ‘places to stay.’ He thus goes further than Bailey, agreeing that it does not mean inn, but instead that it refers to any place that was used as lodgings.

2. He looks in detail at the phrase often translated ‘there was no room for them in the kataluma‘ and argues that the Greek phrase ouch en autois topos does not mean ‘there was no room for them’ but ‘they had no room.’ In other words, he thinks that they did stay in the kataluma, but that it was not big enough for Mary to give birth to Jesus in, so she moved to the main room for the birth, assisted by relatives.

3. He believes that Bethlehem was not Joseph’s ancestral home, but his actual family home, for two reasons. Firstly, we have no record of any Roman census requiring people return to their ancestral home. Secondly, he argues that the phrase in Luke 2.39 ‘to a town of their own, Nazareth’ doesn’t imply that they were returning to their home town, but that they then made this their home. We already know this is Mary’s home town, and it would be usual for the woman to travel to the man’s home town (Joseph’s Bethlehem) to complete the betrothal ceremonies. After Jesus is born, they then return together to set up home near Mary’s family.

The kataluma was therefore in all likelihood the extra accommodation, possibly just a single room, perhaps built on the roof of Joseph’s family’s home for the new couple. Having read this, I realised that I had stayed in just such a roof-room, jerry-built on the roof of a hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the lee of the Jaffa Gate, in 1981. It was small, and there was certainly no room to give birth in it!

(You can stay there too, by booking here. The site includes the view we had from the roof!)

As we approach Advent, how do we make sense of the language in the New Testament about the ‘end of the world’? Why is it pastorally important to get this right? Is all the language about ‘rapture’, ’tribulation’ and ‘millennium’ helpful—or a distracting fiction?
Come and find out at Ian Paul’s Zoom teaching morning on Saturday 4th December:


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40 thoughts on “A seasonal reminder: Jesus was not born in a stable, and it matters!”

  1. Some scholars think it more likely he was born at Nazareth and that the Bethlehem tradition was a later development to interpret Jesus with the messianic David link…..

    • I think they only think that because they believe that they know what happened better than the gospel writers, and so have decided the text is invented or wrong.

      Unless you have come across a better argument?

      • Thanks for this very interesting article. I agree that there is nothing in scripture which says that Jesus was born in a stable – amazing how I have always read that into the text!
        Luke 2:7 does say that Mary wrapped the infant in cloths (so using whatever she had available) and placed him in a manger because there was no guest room available for them, so I can understand why the traditional interpretation arose and persists . It’s still a bit of a jump to assume that they were lodging in the main room of the family home but that could just be my clinging to tradition!

  2. I’d simply say it’s an example of the power of the visual over the written text. When you dramatise something, you change it. Hence the traditional nativity play telescopes the timescale so that everything happens on the same evening: Mary and Joseph arrive, the baby is born, the shepherds and wise men come to worship. But nothing in Luke’s narrative suggests Mary was heavily pregnant when she arrived in Bethlehem, and whilst the shepherds are summoned straight away after Jesus is born, the wise men quite clearly arrive much later.
    It’s okay to dramatise as long as you know that’s what you’re doing.

    • That’s an interesting observation!

      But I also think it is a function of the ‘Nativity is a fairy-tale’ effect as well. We loved to heighten the drama, and keep it all a long way from everyday life…

      • I’ve often wondered how any ritual uncleanness from the birth might have affected people in crowded accommodation, and whether men were even allowed to be present?

        • I think that is an interesting question, and I don’t know of an answer. It is notable that Luke doesn’t mention this, as he is interested in pious Jewish observation in these early chapters. But worth remembering that his account is very compressed.

  3. Two excellent comments from Ian Paul, as a summary of key ideas that rob the scriptures of objective historical reality.
    I’ve been at a Christmas nativity dramatised sketch, at church, a few years back, which was excruciatingly like a secular skit. It would have played well with with unbelieving skeptics, reinforcing their disdain. So relevant for today, a human tradition that can be jettisoned and overlaid with the sale of advertiser’s sentimentality. Rather than our Saviour Son entering into our sin sick world, or as put by CS Lewis, in enemy occupied territory.

  4. There are some Christmastime traditions that could use some adjustment. But while Carlson’s research allows the it’s-not-an-inn option, it does not demand it. An author, especially one dependent on his sources, can use two different words to describe similar things, unaware that scholars centuries later will quibble over the details. So I would advise caution against the desire to write the innkeeper out of the Christmas pageant just yet.

    • Actually, the gospel writers are very precise about the language they use, and Luke especially so.

      I know of no argument whatever that ‘kataluma’ means anything other than a guest room attached to a house, and is certainly different from a ‘pandocheion’. Do you have any evidence to the contrary?

  5. I remember even as a child wondering why Joseph had no relatives with whom he and Mary could stay. I was so excited to read Bailey’s explanation of the story. I later preached on it and found my hearers liked the idea that Jesus really did begin life as one of us.

  6. I note no
    Mention of St Francis crib which surely plays a cultural part in our visualisation of the scene. If “we” project our cultural values onto the ( Greek ) text it plainly began some centuries ago.

  7. I note no
    Mention of St Francis crib which surely plays a cultural part in our visualisation of the scene. If “we” project our cultural values onto the ( Greek ) text it plainly began some centuries ago.

  8. I very much enjoyed this article. I read Kenneth Bailey on the birth of Jesus quite a few years ago, and found his argument compelling. And you’re right about the power of tradition and myth being read back into St Luke’s account. I’m reminded of a “Doonesbury” strip from decades ago in which the parish priest introduces the cast of the children’s Nativity pageant with the words, “And the part of the baby Jesus will be played by a hidden 60 watt light bulb.”

  9. I think you are understanding “stable” to mean “a place far from everyone else”. Which seems like an odd understanding. I think the more natural understanding would be “a place where animal sleep”. And it seems as if you understand “no room in the inn” to mean “no more physical space in the large single room full of people”, which comes from spending too much time in the first century, whereas I think most people comprehend it as “no free private rooms”.

    Or, leaving aside Carlson, if your understanding is that Jesus was born in the place where animals sleep on account of the guest room being already occupied by people who arrived earlier, then this can be simplified to “Jesus was born in a stable for there was no room in the inn*”.

    * Inn being a flawed way to describe something that we don’t really have in our culture.

    If nativity plays are more silent of other people than is proper, then they are no more than Luke 2 16 that does not mention the shepherds finding an extended family. And if a gang of shepherds marching up to you to tell about how an angel told them about your baby, and his being the Christ is a normal thing then it should be no wonder if shepherds were held in contempt .

    • if your understanding is that Jesus was born in the place where animals sleep on account of the guest room being already occupied by people who arrived earlier, then this can be simplified to “Jesus was born in a stable for there was no room in the inn*”.

      And I, too, can make anything mean anything if I am allowed to define all the words to mean something other than what they usually mean.

      I recommend Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.

      • An inside place for cattle *is* what “stable” usually means. A house where strangers lodge *is* what “inn” usually means.

        • An inside place for cattle *is* what “stable” usually means.

          OED, ‘stable’:
          A building fitted with stalls, loose-boxes, rack and manger and harness appliances, in which horses are kept. Formerly used in a wider sense: †a building in which domestic animals, as cattle, goats, etc. are kept.

          So not just ‘a place where animals sleep’, a building in which animals are kept. If the animals sleep in a room in the same building as the family, that room is not ‘a stable’; to be ‘a stable’ means to be ‘a building in which […] animals are kept’, not just a room within a building where animals are kept.

          A house where strangers lodge *is* what “inn” usually means.

          OED, ‘inn’:
          An establishment which provides accommodation, refreshment, and hospitality for paying guests, esp. travellers; (also) the building in which such an establishment is based.

          An establishment which provides accommodation etc for paying guests. Not a room within the family home where family-members or friends stay for free. That is called a ‘guest room’, not an ‘inn’. And it absolutely is a thing we have in our culture; it’s where I stay when I visit my brother.

          • Ian isn’t claiming that Joseph is staying with his brother. Yes, the room that your brother keeps you in when you stay with him is a guest room. But if Joseph is going to Bethlehem for the census and staying with a distant cousin – or staying with an absolute stranger who is putting him up for David’s sake – and that is a role that the room-holder often plays then it is fair to call that an inn. Joseph wasn’t visiting relatives. He was lodging in an inn. And because it was 1st century Palestine the operative focus isn’t the monetary cost.

            When I search ‘Inn’ in Bing, I get:
            a house providing accommodation, food, and drink, especially for travellers.

            Which actually describes the situation to a perfect tee.

            On “stable”, no definition of stable is meant to imply that the livestock never leave. But the regular place that they shelter – for example at night to sleep – which is the place where Jesus was born. By your literalistic reading of the OED, if a farmer had a stable and a restaurant and was to connect the buildings by a long indoor tunnel that he no longer has a stable (or, I suppose, that the restaurant was in the stable). A stable is a stable as long as livestock keeps being stabled in it, the construction of a rooftop room does not nullify that.

            (Now the Carlson argument would mean that we are not dealing with an inn and everybody is wrong. But it would mean that everybody is wrong including most of Ian’s piece.)

  10. Thanks Paul.
    Something I don’t quite understand is why the mangers in the diagram are on the first floor family living room and not on the ground floor where I thought the animals were kept. Or were some animals ( perhaps small young or vulnerable) brought up to the living room necessitating mangers there too.
    I get the point about Jesus not being in a remote, cold, people-less stable but does it not seem there were probably animals if there were mangers?

  11. I have really found Ken Bailey’s ideas very thought – provoking and helpful. But I’m still puzzled that when Joseph could say ‘ I am Joseph son of …’ and be recognised as a local, and admitted to the family at any previous time, bringing home Mary who was unexpectedly pregnant might be a bridge too far for the relatives. When I was younger there was much more stigma about pregnancy outside of marriage, and I wonder how this would play out. see also Mt 1:18-25

  12. Very interesting but not sure if it is relevant. The fact is Jesus was born to a human couple and if you except him and believe him you gain Salvation. As one gets older your actual birth place becomes irrelevant. Who and what your parents were and did for you is far more important.

    What is Salvation? Salvation is being part of God eternally. Much more important than were Jesus our Saviour was born.

    And adding to what

    • Salvation is being part of God eternally.

      No, that’s heresy. We do not and cannot become ‘part of God’. Salvation is being with God, in the presence of God eternally. Not being ‘part of’ God; that would be us creatures becoming part of the divine, which would be a pagan apotheosis, an abomination which has no place in Christian theology.

      Much more important than were Jesus our Saviour was born.

      Did you miss the bit at the top about how this was not published unprovoked, but in response to someone on the radio promulgating the false narrative? If nobody told the false story, then yes, you’re right, this wouldn’t be relevant. But as long as people are spreading falsehoods it will be relevant to correct them with the truth.

      • Read II Peter 1:4. We do become partakers of God’s divine nature in terms of pure Christ-like holiness and Christ’s resurrected immortal body, but we do remain humans. This is why the NT calls us to mature in being Christ-like or sanctified to more and more fully love God and others with all that we are. Read the early church fathers. Those in the East called it theosis. Those in the West called it deification. The present purpose of our salvation in Christ is to heal the fallen image of God in people as much as that is possible which is a lot more than being saved from a bad future of hell or to a good future of a new heaven and earth.

  13. Thank you. This will go into my collection of Biblical informative articles alongside ‘angels don’ t have wings’ (I wrote that one! ). There is a truth here, though wrongly romanticised by sentimental nativity scenes. I’m thinking in terms of Philippians 2. The measure of love and purpose which sends – drives – the Don of God to come from the glory of glories into our dark, sin-loaded world is mind-blowing. To be born as a man is descension enough. To be born, not as a king, but as a ‘peasant’ – more so. To be born outside of marriage, outside of an established family home, in an alien (to them) town… What selfless sacrifice, even before the cross, is so evident here. So that you could be saved. So that I could be. Let’s not lose that in the ‘technical’ discussions, important as they are.

  14. OK. But this is setting up a straw man to knock down. So what if it was a guest room and not a stable. The observation doesn’t change the narrative. And tradition story always mention Jesus being one of us and with us. As for the family being isolated, we’ll they had their fair share of that too. This to me is the most piteous form of biblical scholarship. You get to the end and think “So what?” Talk about straining a gnat and choking on a camel. All in the quest of finding something new or being in the group who really know. Happy Christmas although I suppose we are not even allowed to say that for suitably esoteric biblical reasonings

    • Hi David. No, it wasn’t a guest room rather than a stable. The guest room is what there was no room in, rather than an inn. So the birth took place in the main living space, not a stable, since that is where the food trough would have been.

      In Luke’s account, there is simply no suggestion that the family were isolated. On the contrary, they were surrounded by people celebrating the birth and praising God. It became the centre of village life, and people stopped what they were doing to share in it.

      ‘So what?’ So Jesus takes centre stage, and cannot be merely visited at Christmas and then forgotten, as so many do today. It makes all the difference.

      I don’t really know why you feel the need to use derogatory terms like ‘piteous’, or write this off as an exercise in power. It is neither. In my experience in ministry it makes people sit up and read the nativity with renewed interest seeing it with fresh relevance. It is very empowering.

  15. Interesting thoughts. Definitely it makes sense that Jesus was not born in a western style wooden shack as depicted in most Nativity scenes. Do consider, however, the Eastern Orthodox tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. Whether this was in a separate place or a hollow under a building, the Gospel account does not tell us. Orthodox icons of the Nativity depict a cave, rather than a wooden stable. Our perception is often shaped by popular art, just as the Gospel tells us that Jesus fell down on his face praying in Gethsemane, not standing up on his knees are you see in many paintings.

    • Yes indeed. The only trouble is that I don’t think that tradition has any foundation in history or in the text. All the (circumstantial) evidence is that Jesus was born in an ordinary home.

      • The cave may relate to the Protoevangelium of James, from the second century or later, which has Jesus born in a cave outside Jerusalem. The narrative takes a firm hold in the East.

  16. Hi Ian, thank you for this article, it has prompted a very lively family WhatsApp discussion, and a claim that you are being revisionist in your theology, which made me laugh an awful lot. Thank you for putting up this article again, and stirring a conversation to look again at the text in Luke. I’m now deep in Marshall’s commentary having great fun reading and thinking and wondering. Plus finding some more questions to prod and ask within my family WhatsApp!

    • Glad to hear that Tamsin! ‘Revisionist’ is an interesting term; being part of a reformed church, the C of E, shouldn’t we always be ready to revise our thinking if, and only if, reading Scripture carefully calls us to…?!


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