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Jesus was not born in a stable (honest!)

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).


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 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.’


1st-century-home-in-israelWhat, 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?


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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19 Responses to Jesus was not born in a stable (honest!)

  1. simon November 16, 2017 at 7:49 am #

    Revisionist Bah Humbug 😉

  2. Edward Pillar November 16, 2017 at 8:11 am #

    Call yourself a scholar?! You should know that Christmas isn’t Christmas without the stable.

  3. Jeremy Pemberton November 16, 2017 at 8:17 am #

    Ian,

    You may be right about this. However, do we know for sure that words kept the meaning that we think they had on one context in every other- especially when they might have been separated geographically and chronologically from each other?

    I think of the problems that variants of English produce. Pants are trousers or underpants depending where you are. A dictionary definition of kataluma might mask this problem? Or is there a way we can know this did not happen in the world of the NT?

  4. Alastair Roberts November 16, 2017 at 3:26 pm #

    I like the idea that Jesus was born in a cave, which is what the early tradition seems to have held, and which led to the building of the Church of the Nativity. While the points about the kataluma are correct, some have suggested that a number of houses in Bethlehem were connected to caves and kept animals in them, which would have made that a possibility.

    Besides the claims of the early tradition (Justin Martyr and Origen, for instance), there are good typological reasons for this. Luke in particular highlights the symmetry between his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (note that the presentation in the Temple is forty days after the birth and that Jesus enters the heavenly temple and the disciples—the Bride—enter the earthly temple forty days after Christ’s rebirth from the dead) account and the account of the Nativity. The sign is closely related in both cases. The first sign of ‘good tidings’ is given to Bethlehem shepherds, who are told that they will see a child (born of a woman with whom no man had lain) wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a feeding trough (probably a hollowed out stone container), in surprising fulfillment of prophecies such as Micah 5 (as the promised shepherd offers himself as food to the sheep). The second sign of the gospel is given to the apostolic shepherds: unwrapped linen garments and an empty tomb (in which no man had previously lain). Both involve angelic appearances, (possibly!) a visit to a cave, marveling, Marys and Josephs, and subsequent rejoicing and sharing the good news with everyone.

    The point of the parallels aren’t hard to discern. The death and resurrection are a rebirth. The womb and the tomb are paralleled. Christ, the promised Son, opens the virgin womb of Mary and the barren womb of the earth.

    • simon ponsonby November 16, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

      Beautiful parallels Alastair – thankyou – I’ve always liked Thielicke’s oft repeated line “crib and cross are made of the same wood” – wanting to hold Christmas and Easter together.

    • Ian Paul November 16, 2017 at 10:47 pm #

      Another part of Luke’s parallelism that I have noticed is that the Spirit coming on Mary with power from on high matches the Spirit coming on the disciples with power from on high at Pentecost. In both cases this leads to testimony and praise of God, and new birth.

  5. Sheila Smith November 16, 2017 at 3:49 pm #

    But, by your reasoning, we do not have to exclude the animals then, as they could still have been in the house!

  6. Bernadette Burbridge November 17, 2017 at 9:08 am #

    When teaching on is subject, I have always been careful not to interfere with the holes in the roof through which they could see the star… This brings to mind the owner of the house who could also see stars after a paralysed man was healed. there may be others.

  7. Penelope Wallace November 17, 2017 at 9:23 am #

    Of course, the idea of ostracism in Bethlehem and even by Joseph’s family can be developed movingly in recent portrayals of the nativity which try to be naturalistic and human rather than traditional. For example, the extremely powerful BBC Nativity of a few years ago. But this implies, as you say, that the Jewish community in Bethlehem rejected Mary and Joseph, and by implication Jesus, which is not helpful, as well as being (as you and Bailey emphasise) probably incorrect!

  8. Oliver Nicholson November 17, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    If we are to be concerned with textual accuracy, it might be worth noting that (despite the reports in the irresponsible press) what Dr. Jenkins of Durham actually said was that the Resurrection is real and NOT MERELY ‘a conjuring-trick with old bones’.

    • Christopher Shell November 21, 2017 at 10:22 pm #

      Not at all, Oliver. His definition of ‘real’ was ‘spiritual’ as opposed to physical: ‘It was a spiritual resurrection: a real resurrection.’ There are myriad problems with this typical faux-clever sleight of hand.

      (1) Spiritual and real don’t at all mean the same thing.

      (2) Physical things are real, so his sentence doesn’t make sense.

      (3) Spiritual and physical need not be opposites since plenty of things are or include both.

      (4) No-one can satisfactorily explain what on earth a spiritual resurrection is supposed to be. One suspects that a video of it would show nothing!! Dr J none the less expects us to be excited about this message, namely excited about nothing happening.

      (5) The gospels don’t speak of nothing happening but of something remarkable (that normal people like you and me could agree to be remarkable) happening.

      (6) He *is* equating the-resurrection-as-normally-understood with ‘a conjuring trick with bones’.

    • Brian November 25, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

      Christopher Shell is correct: ‘Dr Jenkins of Durham” did NOT teach that the Resurrection was an event that happened to the body of Jesus; he describes it as ‘a series of events whereby God convinced the disciples of the livingness [whatever that means] of Jesus’. In other words it was an experience of the disciples, not Jesus.

      • Brian November 25, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

        from Wikipedia which confirms what I said, that Jenkins was a heretic on the Resurrection of Christ:

        According to his BBC obituary, he considered “the resurrection was not a single event, but a series of experiences that gradually convinced people that Jesus’s life, power, purpose and personality were actually continuing.”

  9. Colin Edwards November 18, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

    I’m glad to see this raised again. If enough of us keep chipping away at it, we’ll see it changed. Or at least, not exported to other places. This is really important in mission

    I worked in Bangladesh, and the idea that Jesus was born in a household, where the animals would have had their corner, with extended family around, is massively important. It highlights family and hospitality, which are two very significant values there. It also highlights family celebration of the King and the kingdom amoung us.

  10. Sara MacVane November 19, 2017 at 6:55 am #

    And of course in Matthew’s account, Jesus’ family lives in Bethlehem (no census, or other excuse to get them to David’s town), so according to Ian Paul’s explanation of a typical house , we can include the animals, should we so wish (and also give up on “Away in a Manger” , whew, thanks for that)

  11. George November 21, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    As Alastair points it, there is no «either/or» paradigm here. The idea of the cattle comes rather from the canticle of Habakkuk 3: «Between two animals thou art made manifest.»

    Theologically, it is very fit that Jesus be born in the midst of the animals. If on one side we emphasise him to be God made human, on the other hand he is also the word made flesh. Flesh, not only like homo sapiens, but like the other animals too, in order to redeem them too.

  12. PaulK November 21, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    Hi Ian, thanks for this post. What you describe is something I was introduced last year in a book and accepted at the time but did not explore further. So it is great to see you detail your thoughts and reasons as well.

    I have two questions for you. Hope you have time to give your perspectives:

    1) Whilst under normal circumstances it would be unthinkable for Joseph to not stay with his family, does the fact that Mary was pregnant during engagement but prior to marriage change anything?

    I’m not actually clear who knew what. It seems to be as I type that only Joseph knew (presumably because Mary sent word) and that Jesus was assumed to be Joseph’s son as stated by others in the gospels (though some have suggested that comments in John’s gospel that “we are not illegitimate”, we know who are father is” was an attack on Jesus’ parentage – but now I think about it, this is probably read into the passage rather than read out of it. What do you think?).

    If there was no scandal then, your argument stands. If there was a scandal, then does your argument about where Joseph obviously staying with family become less strong. What do you think?

    2) How did the shepherds know where to find the child? If the angel’s words “lying in a manger” implied a stable that might have narrowed things down. (Some have postulated a theory that Jesus was born in the Tower of something or other that was the birthing place of the sacrificial lambs that the Bethlehem shepherds were lokking after – a place that they were familiar with. But I find that unconvincing.)

    So how do you imagine the shepherds would have found the newborn Jesus among the houses of Bethlehem? Is it simply that the population was comparatively low even with the census, that perhaps there was only one baby born in Bethlehem on that day, and communities being as they were in those days everyone would have known? Or something like that?

    The angel was very clear that the sign was a baby in a manger. So that had to be unusual or significant. Would Jesus lying in a household manger have been noteworthy? If so, fine. If not, does that call the idea into question. What do you think?

    I really hope you (and perhaps others) have time to respond.

    Thanks again for this post, and your other posts too. I’ve appreciated reading your blog.

    Best wishes,

    Paul

  13. Maria Istoc November 25, 2017 at 8:33 pm #

    I haven’t been able to read the whole article yet but I looked at some of the best French translations and I have to say that the word is a manger even in the most literal translation done by a French Jew as well as in the Bible de Jérusalem, the TOB and of course Chouraqui therefore I am afraid that it is a lot of noise for nothing.

    • Ian Paul November 27, 2017 at 7:11 am #

      Of course the word ‘manger’ is there in translation, since it is there in the Greek text! If you read the piece, you will see that I am not contesting the presence of a manger. But what I am pointing out is that the manger is found in the house, not in a stable somewhere else. It is the stable that is not mentioned.

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