Does it matter that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable?

baby-jesus-in-manger-with-mary-and-wise-menI have posted this every year since 2013, and every year it stirs up a response. Why does it matter? For at least four reasons:

1. It demonstrates how, even with important parts of Scripture, we find it hard to read what Scripture actually says.

2. It also shows how easily we impose our own assumptions on the text, rather than reading it in its context.

3. Resistance to the evidence shows how powerfully traditions have a grip on us, and resist revision.

4. Most importantly, the ‘traditional’ reading that Jesus was born in a stable actually distorts the story of Jesus’ birth, and mutes the central message of the Christmas story—that Jesus wasn’t born in a place where we can happily visit once a year, and then forget about. Rather, he comes to the centre of human life, and cannot so easily be romanticised or ignored.

So here we go…

I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up—though perhaps it is better to do this now than the week before Christmas, when everything has been carefully prepared. But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.

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

The 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 second issue, and perhaps the heart of the matter, is the meaning 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 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. 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 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, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been. 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. that’s 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, 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!)

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56 thoughts on “Does it matter that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable?”

    • Thanks for such clear explanation. I too found this and met no appetite for correction in local church. It matters that we do NOT misrepresent the living God who so carefully provided for every need just as he was in every detail of every day life in the exodus.

  1. Another issue regarding the “there was no room in the inn” for them was the reality of the social concern and familial shame.
    Mary became pregnant out of wedlock and this story was still circulating around that Joseph’s heroic act of marrying her was so she will not be stoned to death.
    None of Joseph’s family would like to take them into their house because of the shame Mary brings with her.
    Just my two cents worth…

      • The interpretation of familial shame comes from some traditional understanding of the text of the Christian communities in middle East. Proof of this is the Nativity story told in the Qur’an. It’s an interpretation that is posing a hypothesis. However, it adds some light on the reality of shame in middle East, whether or not it affected Jesus’ first dwelling. As a possible interpretation, it confirms your earlier point: that Jesus was born in the midst of a relatable human mess.

        • I don’t deny the importance of familial shame—but that makes it all the more notable that Luke makes no mention of it, and it appears to have no impact on his narrative at any point!

    • As Ian suggests, there’s no indication in the text that shame was an issue. We know from Matthew when the Magi visit, they are in a house. So, if the social shame was an issue at the birth, why not an issue later? Did the grumpy old uncle Pharisee leave?

      • I find interesting that Jesus was referred to as a child when the Magi visit (not a new born), and Herod wanted all the boys of age two and younger in or around Bethlehem killed. So suggests could have been at later time than Chistmas.

  2. Thought provoking, and definitely something to take into consideration. My first thought is; why did Luke put this detail here? What was he trying to say? Why did he want us to know that there was “no room” and that he was born and placed in the hay for the animals? I don’t have the answer, but it seems that there is some sense of “second rate” accommodations; whether that mean that they were down stairs instead of upstairs or out in a barn instead of an inn. My second thought is that I would be hesitant to take the current customs of the Middle Eastern and supper impose them upon directly on the past. Also, since we’ve established that the term Kataluma has a wide variety of meanings I think translating it with absolute certitude to mean “common room” (while having a lot of weight to it) is rather bold. However, I will say that I think their understanding of where the animals were kept was a lot different from our understanding, and I like the refreshing perspective. In the end, I’m still asking myself “what was Luke trying to say here?” and not being satisfied by the response “because Luke wanted us to know that he was born in the common room.” Not only that, but the narrative of the Shepherds coming to see them seems to have some incongruity with your translation. Theirs no mention of extended family or “common room” but only of a manger and swaddling cloths. I’m not saying that the two can’t be resolved, and I’d be interested in hearing how they might fit together, but I think it needs some work. Nice investigative work though.

    • Hiya Kurtis,
      Bailey suggests the mention of strips of cloth and manger are to tell the shepherds what quarter of the town to look in. Rich people would have specially made baby clothes like we do today, the less well off used torn rags of fabric softened by use. The richest, out in Roman style villas on their estates, surrounded just by “tied cottages” probably had seperate accomodation for their animals and would pay people to tend to them.

      • Incorrect. The swaddling cloths were not “rags” but well made strips of fine fabric upon which the family’s genealogy was written. In Jesus’s case this was much more poignant because he was a direct descendant of King David and therefore the rightful heir to Israel’s throne.
        Also, Jesus’s family wasn’t poor at all. Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, an area known for quality stone masonry and stone building, in fact Joseph himself was not a carpenter (a poor translation) but a stone mason and probably owned his own company. That is why Jesus often used allegories of corner stones, rolling stones, supporting stones, building on the rocks to teach his gospel, because that business it what he grew up around and what people understood to be the strongest building material.

  3. Kurtis – thank you for helpfully articulating my slight unease with the direction here.

    I have always been concerned about the imposition of one notable Middle Eastern scholar’s experience of C20th Arab culture as a template to interpret C1st Jewish Culture

    • Hiya Simon,

      Not just Middle Eastern but common around the Med. I live in France and it was not unusual for country dwellers to have animals and cooking facilities downstairs and you sleep upstairs even up until the last century. Given the tendency of the whole of Med areas to have flash floods in the autumn it was a sensible arrangement and there are periodic rumblings of discussion whether planning laws in certain areas should insist that housing be built over the garage in vulnerable areas based on this ancient model. There’s one down the road from me. Also sensible for saving on heating. Even in ancient Britain the traditional model for housing was a “hall” downstairs where cooking etc happened and sleeping was in a loft of sorts upstairs and again it wasn’t unusual to have animals indoors at night for protection.

      The strips of cloth reusing worn out clothing is a pretty historical thing not just in the Med areas. People rarely if ever washed outer clothing and would wear linen tunics or cloth wraps underneath but wouldn’t dream of throwing away worn fabric but it would work it’s way down the chain of reuse via children’s clothes to baby to cleaning cloths to menstrual rags or toe rags. Dedicated baby clothes are expensive and for a relatively short period of use given the rate of growth of babies. Also it means you can wash separately the lower ones that are serving as nappies.

      • Partially correct. I agree with you about what you said regarding the way ancient housing was structured in Europe, people lived upstairs and stables and storage were downstairs, just about every farm in Europe was built that way especially in the south.
        As far as lines goes, you are also correct about the reusing and recycling of fabric among the poor and the lowest class, but the swaddling cloths the Bible is talking about are not the same thing.
        The swaddling cloths were not “rags” but well made strips of fine fabric upon which the family’s genealogy was written. In Jesus’s case this was much more poignant because he was a direct descendant of King David and therefore the rightful heir to Israel’s throne.
        Also, Jesus’s family wasn’t poor at all. Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, an area renowned for quality stone masonry and stone building, in fact Joseph himself was not a carpenter (a poor translation) but a stone mason and probably owned his own company. That is why Jesus often used allegories of corner stones, rolling stones, supporting stones, building on the rocks and etc., to teach his gospel; because that business it what he grew up around and what people understood to be the strongest building material

  4. I appreciate the article. Much of what you wrote I have been thinking about for years. 15 years ago there was a documentary on Discovery Channel (of all places!), titled “The Son of God” in which the narrator and various interviewees concluded to what you wrote (among them, a younger N.T. Wright). But as I read your article and the comments below it, I wondered why you didn’t address to coming of the shepherds to see the Child. In a (presumably), busy town of Bethlehem, overcrowded with so many returned family members, and most likely tons of babies and newborns, how did they navigate through the streets to the very house where Jesus was? Yes, I know… the star guided them. But wouldn’t it be easier if the house was on the outskirts of town? 🙂

    On a different note, your argument does give more weigh to the name Emmanuel, God-WITH-us.

    p.s. I didn’t catch the idea about the Bishop of Durham. Were you referring to N.T. Wright? 🙂

    • The reference is to the late +David Jenkins, who is most notoriously remembered for describing the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.

          • Jenkins described the Resurrection as “a series of events in the experience of the disciples through which God convinced them of the ‘livingness’ of Jesus”. And there was me thinking it was something that happened to the crucified body of Jesus. I have no idea what ‘livingness’ means, but there is no doubt that what Jenkins believed about the Resurrection was not what St Paul and his apostolic colleagues believed and taught. When I was at my selection conference, a liberal selector eyed me over suspiciously and said, ‘Well, you’re an evangelical, so what do you think of what think of what the Bishop of Durham says about the Resurrection?’. I don’t know if he was expecting me to issue an anathema, but I replied calmly: ‘When he talks about the meaning of the Resurrection, I agree fully with him. But how he arrives at that conclusion on the basis of what he thinks did or didn’t happen, I have no idea.’ The selector then changed the subject.

    • I think that from the text it is clear that there must have been something unusual in a child lying in a manger. The threefold reference (vv7,12,15) is a thread which holds the narrative together: the one the angelic host proclaimed was the one the shepherds found. (In respect of another comment here, it seems a curious detail to have made up.)

      I guess the key question is: where did 1C Bethlehemites keep their animals? Did they have distinct stables? There is archeological evidence. I think some of it shows houses were built round an open courtyard and animals such as donkeys would have been kept there. I imagine the shepherds walking along the street, peering in to the courtyards, and then spotting the child in the manger.

    • Hiya Christian, Bailey addresses this, suggesting that by specifying the type of baby clothes and the manger, even the part of the house being used the messengers were telling the shepherds to look in town not out in the country side where the Roman style villas would be in their estates, also he points out that with the lack of privacy and the common practice of women helping each other out when giving birth everyone would know when a baby was being born. Plus the menfolk would be kicked out of the living space where this birth was happening and would be loitering/pacing outdoors or with neighbours. Modern Western levels of privacy and relative social isolation are very new timewise in rural societies. Social media has nothing on the time honoured traditions of word of mouth.

  5. Clearly there is a lot of thought and study that has gone into this. My issue is not with your conclusions but with the question “was Jesus born in a stable?”. The reality is that Luke has no real knowledge of Jesus’ birth in any way (neither did Matthew, hence a completely different birth narrative). Luke’s birth narrative is not a factual recounting of Jesus’ birth but rather a theological thesis that sets up the themes for the rest of the gospel. Luke and Matthew both mold the birth story of Jesus to reinforce the narrative they wish to tell. Given this reality, it does especially matter where Luke says Jesus was born because he doesn’t know (and doesn’t especially care). If you still wish to parse the story, a better starting point is to ask, “how does understanding what Luke really meant for us to envision about Jesus’ birth context alter our understanding of the Gospel as Luke shares it and Luke’s understanding of who Jesus is?” Just sayin’

    • Thanks for the comment. But I’d be interested in exploring your claim ‘Luke’s birth narrative is not a factual recounting of Jesus’ birth but rather a theological thesis that sets up the themes for the rest of the gospel.’ I would agree that Luke recounts things to make theological points, but what evidence is there that he doesn’t attend to facts?

      He claims to have investigated carefully; he locates his story within the history of his day; he writes as a first century historian would do; and whenever there has been a new archaeological discover on a point where Luke appeared obscure, it has confirmed his accuracy. (His description of official in Thessaloniki as politarches in Acts 17.6 is a good example which I have personally explored.)

      If Matthew was trying to shape his facts to e.g. prophetic texts, he did a poor job, since the texts appear to be so mangled!

      And the evidence from Bailey and others is that Luke’s account does in fact fit very well with what we know of first century domestic practice.

      • I’ve much appreciated Bailey’s work relating NT texts to the historical and anthropological realities of Palestinian Judaism and early Christian communities. These insights on the Lucan nativity narrative is a good example and the further theological point about the rescuing of the story from the distancing picturesqueness of our traditional imagination is valuable indeed. But Curtis Price’s comment points toward an important further issue in the understanding and use of the texts that form our canonical scripture about Jesus.

        The gospel of Mark has no nativity story but identifies Jesus as coming from Nazareth in Galilee, a designation clearly common in Christian usage and arguably in line with that gospel’s sense of the surprising and marginal location of true authority. But one may recognize the problem that is articulated in Nathanael’s exclamation in John 1:46 “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The Davidic Messiah, after all, would be expected to stem from Bethlehem, not from some provincial Podunk up in the hills of the north. John has of course already made clear the divine identity and authority of Jesus and thus lets us hear Nathanael’s question as both naïve and irrelevant, but Christians have not been left with either John’s or Mark’s lack of reference to a birthplace as our only solution(s) to the problem implicit in those words. Both Matthew and Luke offer us narratives that affirm, each in its distinct way, that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth not in Nazareth but in the City of David after all (or before all).

        The fine article above treats details in the Lucan narrative nicely and, as said, with salutary theological import, but I don’t believe that privileging that narrative as *historiographically authoritative* in regard to the biography of Jesus of Nazareth is justified. Yes, he writes in the form of a first century historian, but that’s not the same thing. We have three other gospels, not only the non-Bethlehem-referencing two I mentioned above, but also Matthew’s, in which Joseph and Mary are not described as coming from Nazareth and visiting in Bethlehem but appear instead to be resident there to begin with, and in which after the miraculous star-led visit of the Magi they flee to become refugees in Egypt and only after they return to Palestine decide to settle in Galilee, afraid to return all the way home. That story is canonical also, true for us as Christians, true in our imaginations and in our preaching and contemplation. But it doesn’t mesh with Luke’s different way of answering Nathanael’s question. Both Matthew and Luke are authoritative for us, but they are different in ways that resist historiographic harmonization. Loving and valuing both gospels, I don’t want to see either one contorted to fit the other.

        BTW, I now recall that in my father’s collection of essays entitled *Meanings* (Fortress Press, 1984 & 2008) there’s a nice discussion of this nativity issue entitled “Quis et Unde.” (The Latin phrase means “Who is he and from where does he come?”)

        • Dear John, thanks so much for commenting and for your observations.

          I agree with you that there is not *necessarily* a reason for a priori acceptance of Luke’s historiography at face value. But I hope that one of the things that we have learnt in the guild over the last 30 years is that a previous generation’s modernist and positivist criteria for what counts as ‘historical’ have not served us well.

          We need to read these accounts with the full historical seriousness that we would give to testimony, which makes both historical (factual) claims as well as interpretive ones. We also need to take seriously the rather different parameters in the ancient world both for how they understood precision and what counts as history.

          When we do that, I don’t think that the conflict you suggest between Luke and Matthew is fatal to the historical reliability of either. I have tested this on what most people call the most challenging ‘conflict’ in the gospels, the accounts of the death of Judas—and it turns out that the conflict is more apparent than real.

    • This is difficult to claim considering that Luke twice cites Mary as a source of information (not necessarily a direct one) – as one who remembered the details.

      Mary would likely have stayed (Ac 12) in the house of Mark, practically Luke’s closest associate.

  6. Liked this greatly. On an aside, I had the opportunity to talk to the Bishop of Durham on the subject of sound bites at a university dinner in 1985. Whatever his real views, with regard to the resurrection he said to me, ”What I actually said was ‘the resurrection was more than a conjuring trick with bones. The press left out ‘more than’ when I was quoted’.

    I recall contemporaneously a modern myth concerning the destruction by fire of the rose window at York Minster because the Bishop of Durham was preaching there. Both events, whilst true were separated by over a month.

    • Yes, but the truth is he did not believe in the resurrection as any kind of historical or physical event. He sat in that German liberal protestant tradition of seeing it as subjective and existential.

    • If it was ‘more than’ a conjuring trick with bones, then that ought to it was ‘at least’ a conjuring trick with bones albeit more than that. Yet to confuse things further, I don’t think he really thought that. (1) The impatient dismissal implied by the phraseology ‘a conjuring trick with bones’ means it (resurrection in the natural non-invented sense) is not an idea he had any sympathy with. (2) Then there was his protestation that it was ‘a spiritual resurrection, a real resurrection’ (as though physical things are not real….). From this and other evidence it looks like he disavowed the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. (In any ‘[very] real sense’.)

  7. One detail about homes in Bethlehem that would help is that many are built into hillsides so that there is an open space under part of the home. In Israel I’ve often seen people parking their cars there, using the space as a kind of carport. This is the most obvious location for stabling animals in ancient times. The diagram of the home above assumes that it is built on a flat surface, which is not likely the case.

  8. I have seen this argument from many different perspectives over the years. The first time would have had to have been in the 60s when my Pastor did a series of sermons on the events leading up to Christmas and then concluding with an EAster Sermon on The Sunday closest to Christmas.

    A number of commentaries have dealt with this issues.

    Although i have never been to Israel, i have traveled in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and have seem similar structures that compare to the diagrams. And i was privileged to visit some ancient ruins along the border of Iraq and the Saudi Kingdom. These ancient two story buildings mesh with your diagrams as well.

    From a practical perspective (and some first hand connection to farming in rural Alabama) It seems logical to me that Animals would have been segregated from the downstairs living area by wall, fences or some thatched or woven barrier. Especially when dealing with goats. Goats are extraordinarily intelligent and inquisitive. No pot, container, or shelf would be safe from goats wandering ab0ut unsupervised and untended. So likely some area of the ground floor would have been dedicated to livestock, with a dedicated door for them to enter the home. If you think about what animals are going to leave on the floor no self respecting Jewish Mother is going to allow animal waste to be tracked throughout the home.

    So the real question is this where was just born? In a stand alone stable? The evidence does not seem likely. But could Jesus have been born in a private home, in the area that is usually dedicated for animals, this seems possible. I think it is more likely that they in an open courtyard with some form of shelter with the animals, the urgency of Childbirth likely maybe probably motivated them toward the first area of some sort of protection from the elements and some form of privacy.

    One final note, on a very personal level, i come from an large extended family, 10 aunts and two uncles on my Mother’s side and 8 aunts and 3 uncles on my dads side. Even at an early age i can remember sleeping under the coffee table in the living room, at least there you would not get stepped on. In my middle school days two or three cousins could sleep in the basement with the dog (the dog did not like company) and we could do no harm in the basement.

    Looking back, Christmas was always a time in which there was never room for the eldest son to sleep in his own bed.

  9. Dear Ian, what is a sola-scriptura-leaning theologian doing encouraging us to think that scripture may not be accepted literally. Very dangerous ground for gafcon supporters here

    • Dear Ron,

      Please read the article. The whole point is that when you actually read the text, you do not find many of the details often assumed by the nativity plays to be enacted in schools and churches over the next few weeks.

      (I also note that a literal reading of the text should be contrasted with typological, analogical or allegorical readings. It does not mean a naive reading.)



    • “Dear Ian, what is a sola-scriptura-leaning theologian doing encouraging us to think that scripture may not be accepted literally. Very dangerous ground for gafcon supporters here”

      – I’m glad you agree that the words ‘This is my body’ should not be understood literally.

  10. One problem… the “cutaway” picture is not the same kind of house at all as the “one room house” described and diagrammed earlier. The lower picture is of a typical pre-exilic Israelite “Four Room House” which has 3 rooms perpendicular to a back room, typically two stories. That house went out of use during the Babylonian Exile and so would not figure at all into the story of Jesus’ birth.

    • Thanks Dr Stone—yes, you are quite right, and I need to find a better picture that correlates with the Bailey plan. As it happens, there are loads online; this sort of thing is clearly of current interest.

  11. Thanks for this, I have often encouraged people to remember the ordinariness of the birth of Jesus, the likelihood of Joseph and Mary being one travelling couple amongst many, some of whom may have been pregnant too, of Jesus being one baby born at the same time as others. etc etc

    Jesus birth was obviously in one sense amazing, but in another sense very ordinary, God became man and dwelt among us.

  12. Thank you Ian for reminding us of this again. In previous years it has caused me to strip things back to the written words. Others have made useful further comments on this in previous years as well. When you start to look at the actual text there is so much that we take for granted that is not in the text. For example:

    1) Where does it say that Joseph lived in Nazareth at this time?
    2) Where does it say that a heavily pregnant Mary traveled to Bethlehem just before the birth?

    If conception before wedlock was a scandal (which it seems from the evidence it was especially in Galilee which appears to have been a very religious community) why does it not get a mention when Mary and Joseph move to Nazareth? Matt 13:55 leaves us in no doubt that if there was scandal in Nazareth it has been forgotten by the time he started his ministry. What if Mary married Joseph and moved to Bethlehem early in the pregnancy before it was noticeable (e.g. just after Mary returned from visiting Elizabeth)?

    Reading the words in the gospel narrative and trying to shut out the other spurious traditions can give some interesting alternative views on what might have happened.

  13. I love it when someone isn’t afraid to think these things through, slaughter a sacred cow or two, and bring us the truly authentic sense of events. Thanks, much appreciated (although I still enjoy nativity plays)

  14. Some cool thoughts here.

    I’ve never heard anyone suggest Jesus and his parents were refugees because they had to stay in a stable/give birth in a stable. People have called them refugees because they fled for their lives to escape Herod’s jurisdiction/reach. Saying the stable was the misguided reason is a pretty lousy straw-man argument for claiming he wasn’t a refugee.

    • I don’t think I ever say that not being born in a stable means he wasn’t a refugee?

      But the same principle applies; there was a very large and flourishing Jewish community in the Nile Delta in Egypt, and it is most likely that Joseph would have gone to relatives there. So, although there are some parallels, it isn’t the case that Jesus and his family were refugees in same situation of modern day economic or conflict migrants.

  15. You write “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 ESV says in Luke 7: “… because there was no place for them in the inn.”
    I am very new to both NIV and ESV but I thought the ESV to be the most up to date translation. Why the difference, please?


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