Jesus really wasn’t born in a stable

I am reposting here the article I wrote last year—because I have been struck again how often the message of Christmas is summed up as ‘Jesus was born in a stable’, both within and beyond the church.

If we take the New Testament texts seriously, this simply is not true, so cannot be the heart of the Christmas message. Jesus comes close to us, right here, not over there down an alleyway. This has consequences for our preaching and speaking; see the end of the page for related posts that explore this.

baby-jesus-in-manger-with-mary-and-wise-menI 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: issues of grammar and meaning; ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture; and traditional elaboration.

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).

The 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 straw, 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.’

41VBVURHyMLWhat, 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 straw-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?51VQRBMa1VL

I 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!

PS I would love to hear from anyone who has had the courage to re-write the children’s Christmas story to fit with this reading—and managed to pull it off without getting lynched!

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!)

Related Posts:

Stephen Kuhrt did take up the challenge to re-write a nativity play on the basis of this.

I preached in this way at our main carol service

We also had a sketch based on the idea that a birth might not change very much as a lead-in

Other posts on Christmas include:

Exploring what time of year Jesus was in fact born

Whether Luke got the year of Jesus’ birth wrong

What people are really doing in Christmas traditions

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147 thoughts on “Jesus really wasn’t born in a stable”

  1. The fact that you believe that there was a Roman census requiring all citizens to return to their “ancestral” home debunks everything you have to say. Consider….

    “They go to Joseph’s ancestral home to be counted in the census”. Joseph’s ancestral home – yeah right. And why do the Romans care a whit about anyone’s ancestral home? All the Romans wanted was to know how many were in a city so they could know their tax collectors weren’t holding out on them.

    Concern about one’s ancestral home is a Jewish conceit only. It was included in the story to link Jesus to David – no matter that Joseph wasn’t even Jesus’ biological father. That inconvenient fact is ignored.

    There is no way a peasant like Joseph could know his genealogy all the way back to David. How would he know which is the first home of his (which) ancestor? Which ancestor?

    And this ancestral home nonsense ignores all the other people in the region at the time. Presumably, they too would have to know the home of their prime ancestor. the whole region would have been in turmoil. Thousands of people going about trying to find their “ancestral home” How would everyman know in what city his foremost ancestor lived?.

    This is a contrived conceit to get Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, in order to fulfill Old Testament prophecy. Once again an attempt to connect Jesus with “the house of David” that totally fails if you give it a moments thought.

  2. The manger…”for there was no room”…the ‘gar’ seems to be saying there is something to explain about the oddness of the manger. You would have thought that all these family friends and neighbours being present around the young mum would have found a basket to put him in or a cot from the extended family. I still don’t think the question is really answered by this or by Carlson’s article. The manger remains a sticking point.

    And I do love the imperialistic tones – you’ve all got it wrong. I’m right…mmm…

    Happy Christmas!

    • Thanks Pete. I agree with your observation on the ‘oddness’ question. Yes, I am sure that Luke was noting its oddness. According to Bailey’s reading, the family should have stayed in the lodging quarters, where there would be no manger, and so a basket would be more natural. The oddness is precisely in moving back into the main family home, where the manger was, and that would be a natural place to use.

      Your comment about ‘imperialism’ is a bit odd though. What this reading does is oppose the imperialism of tradition as it mediates the meaning of the text. The traditional reading is imperialist in a very obvious sense, since it depends on a late, unreliable account (the Proto Evangelium of James), mediaeval artistic traditions based on a theological reading of Is 1, and shear ignorance not only of the first century context, but relatively recent practice in another culture, one that is much closer to the historical context than ours.

      In other words, the traditional understanding depends on the imperialism of a Western, Victorian, sentimentalism muting the actual meaning of the text and trampling its cultural assumptions.

      I think that is an imperialism worth challenging—and when the actual facts about the wording, the context, and the meaning of what Luke wrote become clear, then this imperialism starts to crumble.

  3. Ah. That makes sense. My *speculation* hitherto had been based on a few factors:

    1. Luke doesn’t mention a name for the village in the Judean hills where Elizabeth and Zechariah live;
    2. Mary zooms off for a visit (7-10 days’ travel from Nazareth, skirting Samaria by taking the Jordan Valley route?) as soon as she can get away following Gabriel’s visit;
    3. Katalyma means ‘guest room’ in a domestic setting, not ‘inn’, and a commercial setting.

    So I speculated that Elizabeth and Zechariah live in Bethlehem. It is in the right place to be ‘a village in the hills’ of Judea (isn’t it?). It would be convenient for Z as a priest to get to and from Jerusalem for his temple service, and it may be that Luke keeps the identity of the village quiet at first, in order to reveal as a dramatic flourish that Jesus was born at Bethlehem. This makes the birth-time Mary’s *second* visit to E&Z.

    As relatives, as you observe, Mary and Joseph would have been expected to stay with the nearest relative in the town, and if my speculation is right, then she has already visited and established (if it were not already established) a rapport with E that would make it natural to go there.

    But maybe (my speculation ran), coming so far, from Nazareth, they arrived after the katalyma was already occupied, and so used the manger in the animal enclosure within the family home.

    I was quite chuffed with my speculation, but now I think your reasoning makes more sense.

    • I quite like this idea, especially as it links Jesus and cousin John more closely–John would have been a baby crawling around as Elizabeth assisted with the birth. Baskets and such may already been used by other relatives’ children.

  4. I think we need to consider the literary devices of the text. Verse 7 compares between “en phatve” and “ouk…en tw katalumati.” That is the point! Nobody yielded their places. So Jesus had to be in a manger. Jesus was rejected from His birth by humans, but He gladly came to us to save us. And furthermore, verse 7 should be compared with verse 1, which highlights the highest political position. Verse 7 underscores the lowest position of the world which signifies His humbleness. We need to understand the meaning first within the text as considering literary device and structure. Knowing their culture is also important to understand the text, but we should not believe there was only one building structure at that time. It will mislead us. And it is not the point of the text, I think.

    • Thanks, Yun, but I am not clear that this is the case in Luke. Many of his readers would be well aware that the food trough was in the main room of the house, and there being ‘not space for them in the guest room’ does not suggest someone else was there, simply that it was not big enough.

      In Luke’s nativity, a major theme is not rejection but welcome. Mary welcomes the angels message (which is the usual homiletic point drawn from the annunciation); Elizabeth welcomes Mary; and it seems that Joseph and Mary are welcomed into a home. There is a clear theme of rejection in John’s prologue (‘he came to his own, but his own did not receive him’) and in Matthew (mostly through the person of Herod the Great), but the text here is quite different.

      The humility of God in Luke is not that he came to those lower than us, the readers, but that he come to people just like us, and into the humdrum of our ordinary lives.

  5. Thanks, Ian.

    But still I could not get what you said that “it (guest’ room or living room) was not big enough” for the baby Jesus (???). And the manger is definitely for animals not for humans. It must have been dirty and stinky. We cannot say that as a welcome with a warm heart.

    The motif of the beginning part of Luke seems to be “heavenly visitation” rather than “earthly welcome.” The angel visited Zechariah and Mary, and then the Holy Spirit came upon both Elizabeth and Mary that they might bless praise the Lord for what He has done. The heavenly King (Jesus) visited the earth (into the manger!), and it was compared with the earthly king Caesar Augustus. The angel and the heavenly host visited the shepherds, and finally the shepherds visited the baby Jesus with the heavenly messages which they had received.

    I do not mean arguing against you. I saw the other day a preacher mention an interpretation on this text similar to yours and introduce Kenneth Bailey. Even though it sounds a fresh and new idea, I am asking to myself and to you, “is the text really saying that (welcome)?”

    • Thanks Yun…but I can’t help notice that you are imposing 21st century assumptions onto the text. For example, the idea that the manger must have been ‘dirty and stinky’ is an idea from a culture that does not live in close proximity with animals.

      I think the contrast was not between the wealth of kings and the poverty of a poor human family, but between the specialness of kings and the ordinariness of humanity. When Paul says in 2 Cor 8 ‘for our sakes he became poor’ I don’t think he is talking about relative human poverty but the poverty of becoming a finite human being.

  6. Thanks for your insights, Ian. I had already seen things which challenge the traditional views of the nativity etc., e.g. an image I found entitled ‘Away in a Manger, Not in a Barn’ and a photo of a model of a typical Israelite home in the Semitic Museum at Harvard Univ..
    Btw I TOTALLY agree with you about sticking up for ‘truth’ – as long as it is carefully researched -against sentimental tradition.
    I would be grateful for your advice sometime (IF you have time) because I have been working on a range of PowerPoints on the life of Jesus (for different age-groups) which incorporate maps and the above-mentioned non-traditional images etc.. But I will have to re-read the comments posted about Bethlehem & Nazareth… and perhaps revise my PP on the early yrs. of Jesus’ life in view of these comments.

  7. Very good comments… but as usual, we are all speculating using our own or others interpretation. The main fact is clear though… Christ was Born and the day, hour or second is not the point, whether it was in the stable, house, or barn, doesn’t really matter, or the timeline. it is interesting for sure, but at the end of the day, the length of the straw doesn’t really matter. We should focus on the fact that God sent a Savior. A side note, a manger could have been brought into the house for Christ. Just like we bring in the cot or such for a guest to use. Have a blessed day.

    • No, I don’t think we are all ‘speculating using our own interpretation’. The argument I have offered draws on established and verifiable facts, not opinion. It is rather important that the Saviour comes to us in the midst of ordinary life, not simply at festivals and not to be visited once a year!

  8. Dear Ian,
    Thank you for your discussion on Jesus’ birth place. I think it would have been providential for Mary given her position of being with child before she and Joseph came together. I’m assuming that family members would have considered the couple as newly-weds. What I mean is that in the main room of the house, others would have heard the news passed on by the shepherds.
    Luke 2: 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. (ESV).
    I’m also considering that it would have been difficult for family members to take in this profound news without some sort of formal announcement. Think of the difficulty Jesus had in explaining his future course to his own disciples. Even after the resurrection they hadn’t taken it in immediately.


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