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: 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.
Pandocheion, pandokeion, pandokian (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.
Moreover, 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.’
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 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?
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 Life. He 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.
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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109 thoughts on “Jesus was not born in a stable”
Thanks Ian, I enjoyed this. My father in law’s old long house in Devon was like this, nothing new in sleeping with the animals. So yeh, stable… why not? Great way to boost the immune system! Just as accurate, unless we think a stable is something with race horses in and BMWs outside, I suppose! But then I believe in Father Christmas too!! Myra was just where they made showers, after all!
RED ALERT CHRISTMAS ! – ALARM THE REAL SANTA CLAUS !
How do most people think of Christmas ? A time for family and friends, and a time for good food and drink … prezzies even. Yes a bit of a blow out. Nothing wrong with that ? There is nothing wrong with celebrating but what about Christmas ? What is Christmas and what does it mean ?
Some would have us believe that Santa Claus was St Nicholas, a kindly old saint who once generously gave presents to the needy. The facts of history however, prove otherwise. Actually there is no valid evidence that any ‘ St Nick ‘ ever existed ( in spite of Roman Catholic tradition ). But the customs and traditions from which Santa Claus evolved trace him back to Odin or Saturn – the sun god himself ! Santa has been called many names in different countries all down the centuries but the customs that surround him have remained steadfastly the same. He has always been an old, old, very old grey bearded gentleman, and this is as it should be because his age is immense. Once he was Odin …. but when Christianity drove away the old gods, he remained and appeared again as St Nicholas. He is always someone mysterious and shadowy, outside the run of ordinary human experience. His home is far away in Heaven or at the North Pole or in some remote country from which he comes on horseback, or in a sleigh drawn by reindeer. He may come secretly by night, or openly in the Winter daylight, accompanied by a train of masked demons and strange animal forms. Often he is associated with fire, entering the house by the chimney, or leaving gifts by the hearth ( remember he is the sun god ), and like the ancient gods from whom he is descended, he can read the heart and knows the hidden thoughts and actions of those he visits.
Undeniably, Santa Claus is a ‘god‘ of some sort, for he has the attributes of deity. He can visit every home on earth in one night ( omnipresence ), he knows everything about a child’s behaviour ( omniscience ), he rewards the good and punishes the bad, just like God ! As one author asked, concerning the ‘divinity‘ attached to Santa Claus, ‘can it be that we are back again with Odin, the ancient gift-bringer, still going invisibly about at yuletide, as in past centuries, through the lands where he was once supreme ?‘ Make no mistake, this Santa Claus is nothing less than the pagan god worshipped as Odin or Saturn !
Shockingly, the first Santa can be traced all the way back to a Carthaginian deity, a huge bronze idol whose fat swollen belly was an oven, and whose arms were extended making a ‘lap‘ or ‘altar‘ to which parents brought their children, and laid them on that lap to be roasted alive. As an act of devotion to their false god, they sacrificed their own children. In the ancient custom, the children themselves were the presents the parents gave to Santa. That gives a whole new significance to the act of bringing your children to Santa and putting them on his lap, doesn’t it ? Did you realise that by bringing your children to Santa, you were
‘re-enacting‘ ritual child sacrifice. A bloody business hence the colour of Santa’s costume.
So at the heart of the Santa story is child-killing, hardly an appropriate association for Christmas. In fact this time of year is full of paganism – Jesus is emphatically NOT the reason for the season. Gluttony, drunkenness, lewd behaviour in the work place, over spending – general excess, an unholy mixture, so spiritual is it not. The date 25 December does not appear in the Bible. An 8 month pregnant woman could not travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in December – quite impossible. The census dates do not tie in to December. All the circumstantial evidence, and it is strong, points to October as the actual birthday. Christmas is a merchant’s festival; advertising tries to avoid any mention of Jesus, did you notice that ? Christmas is an inclusive festival for Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, everyone, but who cares, just don’t mention Jesus. Actually, Christianity was taken out of the Season long ago but the ‘festivities’ continue because they are heathen in origin and based on the Winter solstice. So why does the church continue to endorse Christmas ? Well leaving aside the theology, which does not depend on a birth date, the profis don’t want to upset you. Oh, oh, oh, oh surely not, can’t be ……. The Truth will set you free – you what, you what, you what ?
Does it really matter ?
Yes. Why associate yourself with deception and the occult ?
No. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. It is our tradition so lump it.
The turkey has been eaten, the pud consumed, the presents opened and it is all over for another year. Thank God they have gone home. Thank God it is over. Be thankful. Does that sound at all familiar ?
I hated reading this so I will ignore it, so there !
Only three weeks to go and so you will forget all of this by then, my dears. That’s because I am considerate in my timing.
Ken & Heidi finished with Christmas in 1994 – great decision based on theological integrity but with tremendous side benefits. Oh, we like New Year, anniversaries, and birthdays – these dates are secular. Shalom and enjoy life. Yeshua was born – Isaiah 9 6-7
acknowledgement – Dr Russell Tardo
Ken Cameron 9.12.2014 (still valid after 2 years ! )
Here you go – an article on the historical “Saint Nicholas”.
Follow the links given to find out more about the strictly historical person.
You may have a point when it comes to old pagan traditions being co-opted for Christian ones, but your conflation here is faulty. Especially as neither Odin nor Saturn are sun gods.
And then you further conflate this with Moloch.
Basically the whole of your post here is incorrect and full of shoddy reasoning.
September 11 3 BCE was the Feast of Tabernacles. John says “…the word or Jesus became flesh and tabernacled among us. Gk.”September would be warm. The shepherds were out in the fields watching over their sheep. They didn’t do this in winter! Where did December 25 th come from?
Besides the sun god contraversy and pagans coming into the church,etc., it’s when,l believe ,Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Count time from December to September 11 and you have nine months! It is as though God the Spirit was refuting the concept of the Sun god whose birth was claimed falsely ,of course,to be December 25.
Ken, I’m looking for the rules related to child birth in the first century ‘ 2nd temple period, ie, was Mary required to be apart from others so that they would not become sacrificially impure from contact with her birth? My supposition is that the birth was during the Feast of Trumpets / Tabernacles in the fall, and if one becomes impure, they cannot participate in the Temple service.
The census was taken after the harvest either in the Spring or Fall because taxes were collected at the same time. Not in the dead of winter when resources were limited.
For all your “sensitivity” to cultural obstacles, I find it absolutely stunning that you speak,of Jesus having been born into a normal Palestinian family. I think you have much re-setting to do.
yes I agree it struck me as well, he was born in a Jewish home in Israel, not withstanding this glaring probably motivated by being politically correct error it makes sense what he says
Could you clarify for me exactly when this area of land, presumably incorporating Galilee, Samaria and Judea, was known as a state called ‘Israel’? Thanks.
Ian Paul, I know you will dance about on the exact definition of the word – ‘state’. But David and Solomon both exercised governmental authority over an area called “the land of Israel”. I Chron 13:2; 22:2 and II Chron 2:17.
Note that David also had to deal with aliens in the land. That was a fair while ago – I think before 1948
Wikipedia: “In 135 AD, the Greek “Syria Palaestina” was used in naming a new Roman province from the merger of Roman Syria and Roman Judaea after the Roman authorities crushed the Bar Kokhba Revolt.”
Jesus was born into a Judean family in Judea before the renaming of the land by the Romans.
Yes, that is all true. But ‘Palestinian’ has long been used as a term to refer the the region and its culture. Were you aware that the Jewish newspaper published in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century was called ‘Palestine Times’?
There was no such place as palestine until over a hundred years later when the Roman punitively renamed it after the BAR KOCHBA REVOLT.
Yes, I am aware of that, thanks. The difficulty is that in the literature, including the academic literature, ‘Palestine’ is commonly used to denote the region, despite the minor anachronism.
What most people don’t realise is that, prior to 1948, it continued to be used as a general geographical and cultural reference.
So the Jewish newspaper published in Jerusalem was originally called The Palestine Post (changed to Jerusalem Post in 1950).
The appropriation of the term to have political and racial overtones is very recent.
But all things considered; he was traveling with a pregnant girl who was not his wife. I’m really not sure his family would have been quite so welcoming; or for that matter Mom and Mary waking up ear;y to chat and fix breakfast in the morning.
I was also wondering this – do any of your sources say anything on this account?
First of all Miriam/Mary was Joseph fiancee right? Is your family gone welcome your fiancee or not? Second: if Miriam war really pregnant from Holy Spirit (as some claim) then Yeshua is not the Messiah which Israel expected, why? We know HaMashiach of Israel must be from David line or Miriam, His mother, was from the tribe of Levi and maybe I am wrong, but David is not from the tribe of Levi, is in it? Only Joseph was from David line so that means only one thing which even rabbi Shaul/Paul is saying in Rom 1:3 concerning His Son, who came of the seed of Dawid? according to the flesh,…and that is Joseph is the real father of Yeshua. Of course many will deny this because they still prefer them traditions and not the reality but out there are few of us who try to understand the Scripture and our Creator beyond the human tradition. Shalom.
I believe the Scribes purposefully changed a few things to make it look like The Messiah wasn’t the Messiah. The Greek Septuagint should help clarify That He indeed come from the line prophesied.
Uhmm, Ken Swenson. Mary was Joseph’s wife. Matthew 1:24
Farming communities in North Wales still have this sense of family. My husband could go to several different villages and be warmly welcomed by announcing “I am John, son of Abel, son of Isaac, son of Abel, son of John!” I’m not making those names up!
Doesn’t this substitute one thing that is not in the text (“his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home”) for another thing that is not in the text (“Jesus was born in a stable”)?
I think Ian’s Point (and I hope he’ll correct me if I misrepresent him!) is that the word Kataluma has little to no basis as being translated as ‘stable’. True “his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home,” isn’t word for word in the text, but the study of the historical and social setting of 1st century Palestine suggest that it is a far better interpretation of the text.
Thanks Ian for this. Love your blog. What do you make of the honor/shame component in the story, given that Mary was pregnant before the consummation of marriage, not to mention that the daddy wasn’t Joseph? Even if the BBC’s brilliant “The Nativity” (2010) highlights that aspect of the story too much, surely Mary’s relationship with the family wouldn’t have been all that straightforward given the gossip about her that would have gone before them to Bethlehem. Would value your thoughts on this.
This is all very interesting, but isn’t it a wee bit too academic? There are no references to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem-where the actual event was supposed to have happened. Are you saying that you reject the Tradition which places the Birth of Christ there? If so, on what grounds? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre indicates that Christ was born in a cave-which is the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. How does that fit in with your comments?
The family home could easily have been built over the cave, with the main room being the cave, and the guest room built above it.
Or the tradition could be wrong.
Very good reading, not for the masses, they wouldn’t understand, so how are we to preach during Advent and nativity in the future.
There’s a great example that I link to at the bottom. Do go and have a look! I will also post my Carol service sermon once written.
Thanks, yes please post your Christmas sermon. I will enjoy reading it
I remember this from last year and find I can go along with most of it. Not too sure about the idea that Joseph would have been welcome in his ancestral village. Is it possible that he was perceived to have brought shame on his family? If so is it not also possible that the word spread far and wide?. Shaming runs deep in may cultures today and I can imagine that the network was no less effective 200 years ago. John 1 :11 may have been true on may levels.
They could very well have been shamed. Why didn’t the people occupying the home’s guest-chamber move-out and let Mary in? Maybe the family did not want them out in the cold without shelter so they let them stay but did not give them the best room in the house.
If they were shamed, how come there is not a single mention of that in any of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth?
sorry forgot to edit typos
The issue of shame is an interesting one. Yes, there would have been shame if people knew she was pregnant. They may have returned to Bethlehem 8 months before the birth. Or even 7 1/2 months. That mean there would be rumours, and gossip but not proof.
We see in John evidence that Jesus’ was followed by questions over his birth (the Judaen leaders say they know who their father is, with the possible implication that Jesus doesn’t). But there may not have been proof.
Or Joseph may have just braved it out and fronted down those that tried to affront them.
Shame behaviour is very complex and we can only guess what may have happened.
I have some questions.
If Mary and Joseph had extended family members willing to welcome them and take them in why were they searching for accommodation in an inn? it makes no sense for the Bible to specifically mention that there was no room at the inn unless Mary and Joseph had been specifically looking for room at the inn?
Wouldn’t practically every visitor to Bethlehem seeking shelter that night be a distant relative of each other? After all, the purpose of the census was that everyone had to return to their own ancestral family.
It therefore seems unlikely that Mary and Joseph would have been singled out for special treatment on that night.
Yes it is true that houses often had an area for animals and an area for people. However what kind of relatives (however distant) would stand by and watch a mother give birth to her baby in the area of the room reserved for livestock? Had they been welcomed into a private home by extended family members, surely mother and newborn baby would be in the warmest part of the building by the fire. Not in what was probably the coldest part of the building with the livestock.
Personally I think that Mary and Joseph, finding themselves alone in a crowded town sought lodging in the inn but found no welcome there because it was full. As a result they ended up seeking shelter and privacy in a place normally used for livestock. This is how the newborn baby came to be laid in an animal feeding trough. That makes more sense to me than believing that Jesus was born surrounded by extended family members in a private house.
However, I’m not going to be dogmatic about it because it really doesn’t really matter where in Bethlehem Jesus was born, only that He was.
“it makes no sense for the Bible to specifically mention that there was no room at the inn unless Mary and Joseph had been specifically looking for room at the inn?”
The whole point of the article is to say that the Bible doesn’t say that they had been looking for room at an inn. The article is saying that the word translated “inn” should actually be translated “guest room”, i.e. a spare room in a family house. So the English translation should read, “And she gave birth to her firstborn so and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the guest room.”
Kevin, the point that I was making is that this really makes no sense. What kind of relatives (however distant) would permit a family member born in their home to be lain in an animal feeding trough?
I think you are looking at it from a modern man’s point of view. Living with animals has been part of human cultures since the beginning of time. For them to take a feeding trough and place a blanket in it could make an ideal cradle. It is quite possible it was all they had for a newborn baby to lay.
Did you read the article?
Did you read my reply?
A manger would actually be a fairly good place to lay a newborn, once cleaned and wrapped in a cloth. They can be placed in a position where they can breathe easily, can’t accidentally move in such a way as to put themselves at risk – even if they start flailing around after somehow escaping the cloth.
Where are newborns often put shortly after birth? In a crib, with high sides and a soft, padded surface. What does a manger offer? High sides and a soft, padded surface.
Thank God someone at last made sense of what text actually and clearly said.
Wait… they laid him in the food trough BECAUSE there was ‘no room’… inn or house is academic.
Why was there no room for a young pregnant girl to give birth? What sort of a family withholds comfort to a girl in labour?
The manger may well be comfy but it is implied, in the Bible, that it is not desirable first choice for a newborn baby and only provided as a last resort BECAUSE there was ‘no room’.
We’re not why Jesus was not given sub-standard treatment only that he was BECAUSE there was no room for him.
Except that, as I put out clearly in the article, the ‘guest room’ would have been small, and the main room of the house (with the manger) would have been much more spacious. So being placed in a manger was, when we understand the context, the giving and not the withholding of comfort. As I say in my previous comment, the theme of rejection of Jesus is pretty much absent from Luke’s account, and it is puzzling when people impose it on this text.
Thank you for this article which seems to confirm the impact my visit to the Israel had on me. It gives a different perspective to the birth narrative and still at least for me does not undermine the significant of the Birth. Jesus is still surrounded by people but he still he seeks attention in the middle of all that was going on.
There was a census going on at that time (Luke2:1-3) and people were travelling from afar to be there – hence ‘no room’.
Luke 2:7 is the focal point of this piece and searching scripture in origin of writing, language of the day, etymology, translations and tradition would be key.
It seems this piece definitely has a more ‘western’ slant to it, perhaps even extracting from Medieval persuasion. As a very learned friend and theologan pointed out to me this morning, “that would involve a fair amount of original language work”, and if he says that, it is gold to me.
Isn’t this the time of year that so many want to re-write or re-think the Truth (actually written) ?
Revelation gives us dire warning in that.
Peace to you,
Except the assumption about Joseph being welcomed anywhere, I agree with the fact that around Christmas, there are few descriptions unclear due interpretation of the facts happened in a culture and described in totally different cultures.
I just wrote a post very similar to this 🙂
thanks but why do you refer to a Palestinian home in the first century?
A closer look at the Bible will reveal that Jesus was born in Israel..
The references to Palestine surely do not begin until 100 years after the Ascension when the Roman Emperor Hadrian endeavoured the remove all traces if Israel from the word map and as an anti-Semitic smack in the face re-named the land after Israel’s arch-enemy the Philistines (who were not Arabs of course)
I think you maybe underestimate the effect on tradition of the word “manger” in addition to the word “inn” – for people in the west, mangers are not in houses. But basically it is a helpful new (old?) way of looking at the birth. The concept of Jesus in a lonely stable is sad, but also isolation can be holy and peaceful. Jesus’ birth in fact would not have been either.
Yes, that’s interesting. It is ‘manger’ too…though of course the proper translation would be ‘food trough’ rather than the mediaeval French ‘manger’ (from ‘to eat’). I might lob that into my sermon and Christmas day talk…
What about this he wasn’t born in a stable or a cave but under a date tree , shaded by the palm secluded from everyone with fresh dates for mary as sustenance, why would the most pious women on earth, and not another will come ever , go and ask for a room in an inn where alcohol and may be other illicit things were taking place , a pious women would rather die the put a foot in that place , see what the Muslims quran says on this matter and tells you everything in chapter Marium ( mary)
Because I don’t think that is the slightly bit of historical evidence that this is the case.
Here is an idea: look at early church iconography.
And see how old it is. Maybe it can give us clues?
Here’s an idea: actually read the text of Luke. See how old it is. Maybe it can give us clues? Maybe Luke was or knew actual eyewitnesses to the events?
As a former assistant editor of Third Way, I have known this for a long time, since we published Dick France’s classic ‘Commentary’ article on this in the magazine not once but three times! (over the magazine’s 39 year history). But it always bears repeating. I preached on this one Christmas at the London Mennonite Centre, and compared it to my mother’s childhood, as a World War I (Jewish) refugee while she was still in the womb, and later an adoptee to a not very well off (also Jeiwsh) couple with a two room flat, in which she slept in a drawer untill too big, and then in the living room.
How fascinating! The rock-like immovability of the monolith of tradition takes a lot of chiselling away. I am more than happy to pick up Dick France’s cloak on this one.
Veronica, this may seem a bit random but did you live in Coventry when you were about 8 years old?
Evidence that they tried three separate inns seems also to be lacking in most sources.
Thanks for this Ian – as Veronica Z says above it bears repeating.
But if we’re talking about erroneous traditions it’s a shame you quoted Dick France repeating a false understanding of what David Jenkins was saying about the resurrection. See also Mark Goodacre’s blog from July 2005 and Andrew Brown in the Grauniad, a couple of months ago: it’s simply misleading to say Jenkins was ‘debunking’ the resurrection when he was arguably trying to point to a more than one-dimensional understanding of it.
In friendship, Blair
Blair, here I think you’re certainly wrong. When the Bishop of Durham said the resurrection was *not* a conjuring trick with bones, he or others complained that he’d been quoted as saying that it *was* a conjuring trick with bones. That complaint was unjustified. He was indeed calling the resurrection as generally understood by Christians, and apparently by the New Testament writers, a conjuring trick with bones. So that complaint was his first error.
His second error was to suggest that the bones would have been where any conjuring was required. The bones would have been in much the same place as before (though doubtless out of joint by now – Ps.22). The place where any conjuring would have been needed would have been the lungs – restoring breath to a lifeless body.
His third error was to say that the resurrection, rather than being physical, was ‘a spiritual resurrection – a real resurrection’. This is the sheerest nonsense, in fact the reverse of sense. If a body comes back to life, now that is something real. Real and tangible. A spiritual resurrection, what is that? and what happens? Nothing. If a spiritual resurrection ‘happened’ (*could* such a thing happen?) this second, I doubt that anyone would notice it. Nor would they be impressed even if they did. Nor would they account it more real than a dead person coming to life!! It is hard to find nonsense of a higher level than this.
Good points. Christopher – Jenkins was actually slandering the conventional historical belief of the Church, that Christ’s body did not see decay. A shame to read David Gillett saying (on the occasion of Jenkins’ death) that Jenkins had been misrepresented and maligned when people understood perfectly well what he was saying in 1984.
One other thing to add: Jenkins called the resurrection “a series of events in which God showed the disciples the ‘livingness’ of Jesus’. In other words, a mental event among the disciples, not a physical event affecting a dead body. What ‘livingness’ means is unclear to me.
But that’s how Jenkins operated. A very second rate theologian.
Having attended one of Jenkins’ lectures, it sounded very interesting and inspiring. However, I had my tape recorder with me and played the lecture back at home and typed it up. I discovered that it was made up of a string of unfinished phrases which were in fact meaningless. Although I have not heard his Resurrection lecture, I suspect that it too may well be of a similar nature.
Do you think there is anything in the fact that in the TR Greek, ‘manger’ has a definite article ? When the angels tell the shepherds the sign of God’s intervention will be that they shall find a baby lying ‘in the Manger’ – en te phatne. Might one infer that ‘the’ manger was a well known specific designated place where animals were quartered in Bethlehem? If the manger was merely, as suggested above, a feeding shelf for livestock brought into a house, how would the shepherds know which house to find the sign of God’s coming in a new born baby?
There was a place outside Bethlehem that served as a birthing place for ewes whose male firstborn kids were designated as temple sacrifices. It would hVe been clean at the time of Jesus’s birth. Very symbolic, and the shepherds would have certainly understood from the Angels that this was the place. It’s fun to speculate.
I have long been convinced that this is a far more accurate reconstruction of events (probably going back to Dick France and Third Way), but Pete Head’s comment of 9 December set me thinking. Preaching a birth as a lonely outcast in an isolates stable is clearly an exegetical fallacy, but might not preaching a birth in a crowded family living space also be an exegetical fallacy?
Luke’s narrative is very spare on details of the actual situation around the birth. That, it seems to me, is because he wants the readers’ focus to be elsewhere. The centrepiece of his account is the angels’ announcement to the shepherds, ‘To you, today, in David’s town, is born Saviour, Messiah, Lord’, and the subsequent angelic song about peace and favour. These are as rich theologically as anything in John’s prologue.
Luke signs off this particular section with Mary reflecting and shepherds praising. I suggest that this is his emphasis and his invitation to readers to do the same.
Well said John – whilst we may or may not infer Jesus was born in a stable based on his being placed in an animal trough or ‘The’ manger – where presumably animals were or had been – Luke’s focus is less on the where but the who and the why. The marvel is not the manger but the man: Saviour, Messiah, Lord.
Amen. Wonderfully said!
An interesting piece – but I still wonder whether the lack of space for Joseph and Mary in the main living quarters was indicative of more than a late arrival. Extended families tend to be quite hierarchical and it would seem possible that either shame (as previously mentioned) or lower status than other relatives for other reasons might have been an issue. If, say, the ‘head of the family’ and his spouse had turned up when the upper room was full, surely someone younger or more junior in another way would have been turfed out to create space?
I have a page on history and Christianity and I took a liberty to publish your article. Very good
Campo Grande – MS Brazil
Enoch Powell wrote about this, a long time ago. He noted the use of topos, meaning place rather than room. Thus, they put him in a manger because there wasn’t a place in the guest room . In other words, no spare cradle so a feeding trough was used.
The gospel traditions, particularly in St John, of ano (this world) and kata (above) mean that the gospels have Jesus entering this world in the lower room, and leaving it through the kataluma, the upper room. I don’t think that point would have been lost on the earliest readers. And, yes, it’s absolutely nothing to do with an inn!
I worked as a volunteer in the summer of 2002 on an archaeology dig across the Jordan River, near Amman, at a place called Al-Umayri. One of the projects of the team had been to rebuild a period home. It was a four-room place, with the top floor used for grain and food storage, and sleeping (the roof was also a sleeping place). The bottom two “rooms” were what we’d consider a carport: probably open on one side in warm weather (most of the year), and closed in at winter’s coldest. There was a stone or adobe fence around the yard to keep the animals from wandering. The houses were not large, as people probably didn’t spend a lot of time indoors.
From what I’ve learned of medieval England, many old cottages were built in a comparable fashion, and only closed in for exclusively human use in the 1500s and Early Modern periods. They made use of the heat from the animals and their dung.
This was not Mary’s first child was it?
She and Joseph had others?
If not first child then the birth would have been a quick one – so they were caught off-guard.
It irritates me that 21st people relate Jesus to the refugee crisis…….that his family or rather he, was a refugee.
In the Orthodox tradition, Mary was 14 years old when discovered to be with child, and Joseph was a much older man – a widower with sons from his first marriage who was also married to his brother’s wife and taking care of his brother’s sons as well.
It is highly unlikely that Mary would have had any other children, and is also the basis of the ‘Mary, ever-virgin’ narrative. The brothers of Jesus mentioned throughout the gospels and other holy literature are Joseph’s children and nephews, who knew Jesus as he was growing up.
Hi Narelle! If Jesus was not Mary’s first child, we would not be talking about this birth today. Christians believe that the virgin birth of Jesus is one of the signs given by God to confirm His only begottenness. If Jesus had been born into a family of older siblings, the recountings of his disciples would have been quickly proven wrong and we would have never heard of Him. The Bible is clear on the point that Jesus was indeed born into poor and humble circumstances, and His teachings and life lead us to deal compassionately with all the downtrodden (which certainly includes refugees). Shalom.
Jesus was born of a virgin, so yea. Jesus was definitely her firstborn. She has other children later, but Jesus was the first.
Mary had other children (unless you ask someone who believes in her perpetual virginity), and Jesus was, without a doubt, her first (Luke 2:7). But, even so, she had just spent a long journey walking, and perhaps even, at times, riding on a bumping-along animal. Even a pregnant woman who has never given birth before has to pop sometime! And I’m making a guess that the journey would have induced that process. Maybe it’s ok to read the text how the beloved Christmas carols portray the event. Maybe they were THAT MUCH in a rush to find somewhere, anywhere for Mary to start pushing. Perhaps they only made it to the edge of town and couldn’t make it to family who—for all the luck!—lived on the opposite end. I can appreciate Ian’s exegesis (with a little eisegesis thrown in for good measure), but there is still a vast amount of theological insight to be gained with either view.
While in Nazareth last Spring, I was stunned to see a “manger”, and actually an unusual double one, in one of the “cave homes” beneath the Sister’s of Nazarene’s guest home. It was hewn of stone, and just the right size to hold a newborn. It forever changed my image of the rickety wooden structure commonly shown in Nativity scenes.The one room home we visited was much as the article describes, and was described to us as one of the homes “Jesus might have lived in, and almost certainly visited” in the first century. An amazing experience.
I had heard this before. It makes sense. It also makes Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11 easier to understand, as to why he would not have expected a human to be the first to come out of his house. But it ruins our pretty little stable scenes, as artists have portrayed them. 😉
I rather like the idea of Luke having the life of Jesus begin and end in a Kataluma – an upper room, a guest room, whatever.
This ties in to the Orthodoxy tradition of Joseph and Mary’s betrothal as well. In their tradition, Mary was a 14 year old temple ‘acolyte’ who was found to be with child while still a virgin. Joseph was a much older man – a widower who was also married to his brother’s wife after his brother passed away. He had older children in the home from both his original relationship and from his brother’s family.
Travelling back to Bethlehem from Mary’s temple / dwelling place due to a census would be very logical, as well as their being no room for them in common areas (due to the family already there).
This aspect of Mary and Joseph’s relationship also explains the early church’s ‘Mary, ever-virgin’ narrative with the fact that brothers of Jesus are clearly mentioned in the bible. There would be no distinction between step-brothers and full brothers in the language at the time.
Don’t think anyone has answered Justin’s points. I think he wins the agreement here…
“…a Carthaginian deity, a huge bronze idol whose fat swollen belly was an oven, and whose arms were extended making a ‘lap‘ or ‘altar‘ to which parents brought their children, and laid them on that lap to be roasted alive.”
What was the name of this deity, and what is the source that shows it was worshiped in this way?
This makes sense to me. It also struck me while reading the article and the comments that Jesus was called “Emmanuel”–God with us–so why would He be born in isolation rather than a room full of people and animals? Why not be with us from the start of His sojourn in our world? Our western view of things has caused misinterpretation of the Bible in many cases, or at least a lack of understanding more fully the writers’ messages.
Also, betrothal, or as we call it “engagement,” is much different now than it was then in the first century. Now it is often viewed as simply a wedding planning time, but then it was often arranged by the families and involved a written contract signed by both parties. The dissolution was essentially what we would now call a divorce, with legal, social and possibly economic ramifications, so there may not have been much shame associated with Mary’s pregnancy until after Jesus was born a little too early, since Joseph chose to stay in the relationship rather than end it.
These are some of my thoughts after reading the article and the comments.
interesting, but i have to say that the use of the term “palestinian” to describe the people who lived in that land at that time is incorrect and misleading. jesus would certainly not have referred to the land in which he lived as palestine and would absolutely not have called himself a palestinian. he was yehudi (jewish) and lived in the land of yehuda (judea), which at that time was a jewish province under roman rule. about 100 years after jesus’s death, the jewish people rebelled against rome and were crushed. only then was the land renamed palestine by the emperor hadrian, at least partially in an attempt to erase the jewish connection to the land. while it certainly makes more sense to look to middle eastern cultures to understand life in that region at that time, it’s silly and incorrect to make it sound as though the modern palestinian arabs existed as a people more than 2,000 years ago
I love how all this care and attention to detail—in particular the examining of the scriptures in their cultural context—was put into an extremely benign part of an already (originally) Pagan holiday that has almost nothing to do with the Bible or the birth of the Messiah.
Yet as the modern day church, we look at other scriptures that actually have an impact on our daily living and our Christ-like character and we “constantly impose our own assumptions about life” on them and choose not to view them in their cultural context. This way we can ensure they conform to our world view.
Of course we look at Paul’s instructions (for example) about covering our women’s heads, or that they should stay quiet and we say “Well, that needs to be looked at in its cultural context.” But then we look at verses like Leviticus 20:13 and your average pastor/elder/parishioner doesn’t bother to examine the overwhelming amounts of studies and evidence that conclude that these verses, too, need to be examined in cultural context. The work has already been done, but it’s easier to quote this scripture at our gay neighbors as we explain to them why they’re not welcome in our church.
I note the comments made by Andy Neale and Nick re Ian Paul’s reference to the society that Jesus lived in as Palestinian. Some people in support of the current Palestinian campaign for self-determination seek to rewrite history.
This kind of theological revisionism does not help the campaign for Palestinian self-determination and it is similar to the historical revisionism by certain people who claim that either the holocaust never happened, or that the number of Jewish deaths is greatly reduced.
By calling Jesus Palestinian and not Jewish, its one way of writing out any Jewish connection to the current land of Israel and Palestine.
I do support a two state solution and I am not a Likud supporter. If I was an Israeli citizen I would vote for parties of the Israeli Left.
However, what is Ian’s problem in stating that Jesus lived in a Jewish culture ?
Was King Herod a Jewish monarch ? Were the defenders at Masada Jewish or Palestinian ? Was the temple that the Romans destroyed during the their siege of Jerusalem a Jewish place of worship or a Palestinian place of worship ?
It further raises the question that if Jesus lived in a Palestinian society, where did the Palestinians at that time originate from ? Over to you Ian.
Jesus was a Jew born in Israel not a Palestinian born in Palestine. The Romans in the second century, seeking to wipe Israel’s memory off the map renamed it Palestine, possibly a derivation from Philistine. To describe Jesus today as coming from Palestine is simply theologically, historically, racially and linguistically wrong not to mention politically insensitive.
Kenneth Bailey is drawn in as ultimate authority on the context of Christ’s birth, leading to a rejection of the traditional and some might say more natural understanding of the text. Professor Bailey was a distinguished African & Middle Eastern missionary academic and leading expert in 20th century Arab folk culture. However, we must pause before we uncritically adopt Bailey’s cultural experience of twentieth century Arabic culture as interpretive key for Jesus’ first century Jewish one. The two are not the same.
Just one further comment, as Islam did not come into existence until a few hundred years after Jesus, what was the religion of the Palestinians at that time ?
You say that there is no record of a Roman census requiring a return to ancestor homes. Dr. Ernest Martin in his book The Star That Astonished the World (previously The Birth of Christ Recalculated) makes a case the the census as actually a world wide enrollment required by Roman authorities. The enrollment was a prerequisite to the award of the title “Father of the Empire” to Caesar with took place in February of 2 BC. There are records of this enrollment having occurred. Of course a census for tax purposes is unlikely as the Romans did not begin taxation census’ in Judea until 4 AD. Martin also makes the case that the nativity occurred in late summer of 3 BC as would have the Roman required enrollment. This makes sense as the Fall rains would not yet have occurred, the harvests were largely complete, and Luke specifically mentions the enrollment as the cause of the travel as opposed to one of the three annual Feasts of in-gathering to Jerusalem required of Jewish males. Martin’s related chronology of the nativity and visit of the magi 14 months later on December 25th in 2 BC is related and fascinating. Martin notes that, when the Magi visited, Jesus and family were then residing in a house (as opposed to an in or manger) and Luke uses the greek term more often used for a toddler than an infant in referring to Jesus. So, for some reason we do not understand, Joseph apparently chose to re-locate his family to Bethlehem following the nativity and his return to Nazareth thereafter. Martin’s chronology makes sense of Herod’s slaughter of all children in Bethlehem of 2 years of age or younger as the Magi came to Bethlehem in response to a set of celestial signs that left them uncertain of whether they indicated conception or birth. Add the human gestation period of nine months to Martin’s estimate age for Jesus of 14 months and you arrive at a 24 month time period, or two years. Martin cites a 2nd century codex that describes the toddler Jesus standing beside Mary at the visit of the Magi. Martin’s re-dating of the death of Herod the Great to January of 1 BC has since been accepted by Jack Finegan and incorporated into his revised “Handbook of Biblical Chronology”. I highly recommend Martin’s book “The Star that Astonished the World”. It can be found and read on line at the Associates of Scriptural Knowledge website. Take care and God bless!
The architectural and cultural information in the article is fascinating and thought provoking to say the least. The dialog after the article equally as fascinating. However, when it comes right down to it WE JUST DON’T KNOW, right? So much has been hidden or not even printed in the Bible. It’s a history book with flaws when you read it both horizontally and vertically. But I still believe in Jesus and that he walked the earth and was a very, very special man. If he WAS a gift to the world, then we celebrate that gift by giving gifts at Christmas. But Jesus is not the only other special prophet. When we look up we all see the same God, although we pray to deities of different faces and names. To me, they are all one in the same and mankind’s problem is that we let RELIGION get in the way of FAITH. So many people killed each day in the name of religion. Not what the prophets had in mind, by a long shot.
If I had a super power it would be time travel, so I could go back in time and see the meet the likes of Jesus, Mary (both Mary’s actually), Aristophanes, Caesar, Shakespeare, and many others. Until then, I put my faith in the spirit in the sky.
It’s not historically plausible that he was just a special man. Either you believe him, that he is the way, truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him (notice the exclusionary way to God) or you have to side with the Jewish authorities who thought he was mad, dangerous and worked for the Satan. The claims he was making, to organize Israel around himself, to reorient sabbath and cultural boundaries, suggest that either he had authority to do this (which meant He actually was God) or that he was straight up crazy. The choice is yours. Which makes more sense when you see his interactions with other people?
I also see you seem to think that “When we look up we all see the same God.” What is true about this is that, yes only one God exists, but what is not true is any implication that all religions point to this same God. It’s also not accurate and you need to go ahead and study each religion on its own claims, and when you do, you will see that they don’t all believe or lead to the same things. They are quite different.
As an aside, Norman Greenbaum is not a good source of theology. Stick with the NT witnesses, your future depends on it.
Except that the earliest traditions of the Church place Jesus’ birth in a cave. This can be seen in Nativity icons throughout the Holy Land even today. And in Bethlehem, a town where sheep were kept in the fields year round to supply the Temple, livestock were stabled in caves. And the Church of the Nativity, which was built by people quite familiar with the Palestine of the early centuries AD, is built on top of a cave that has been universally recognized as the birthplace of Christ since at least the late First or early Second Century.
This article tries to tell us how our traditions are ignorant of Holy Land customs, while simultaneously ignoring the unbroken traditions of those Christians still living in the Holy Land.
Dear Mr Stout, thanks for commenting…but can I add a couple of reflections?
First, I am always curious when non-canonical sources are cited as ‘our earliest traditions’. Our earliest traditions are in fact the gospels, which often predate these other ‘early traditions’ by a couple of centuries. So why are they not given more authority?
Second, Luke’s narrative makes a strong and direct link between there ‘not being enough room’ and ‘laying in a manger’ which suggests the two things are closely linked. That implies that the guest room and the manger are in proximity. That raises an issue for any reading which suggests a disconnection.
Thirdly, I don’t have a problem with a cave, if that is the place the family were living. But the impact of the traditional reading is that Jesus was born *away* from the family, whereas Luke appears to situate his birth within the family. People in the West don’t usually think of a cave as a normal dwelling place, as those in the first century might.
A couple of thoughts. There is little doubt that Jesus was Galilean. He associates mostly with Galileans, he travels widely in Galilee, he is depicted as traveling to Jerusalem from Galilee on at least three occasions, his associates are directly accused of speaking with an accent. The main reason that history does not record Luke’s Roman census requiring people return to their ancestral home is that it probably didn’t exist. Joseph was almost certainly traveling to Jerusalem, as required by his custom, as a pilgrimage to attend one of the three annual feast. Why Luke (a gentile) was unaware of this is difficult to understand, but he is likely reciting oral traditions that had been muddled over time. We know also from Luke 2:41-43 that “every year his [Jesus’s] parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover,” so it is likely that they also (at least occasionally) attended the other two pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem as well. “Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place that he will choose (Deut. 16:16). The midrash depicts numerous episodes of devout families making such pilgrimages together during this time. From the timing of the announcement of the conception of John soon after the service of the priestly division of Abijah, and the statement that Jesus was concieved while Elizabeth (John’s mother) was in “her sixth month,” we can deduce the most likely time of year that Jesus was born. He would have been born during the week of the Feast of Sukkot (or Booths). It is also interesting to note that, during this time, the Bible states, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42-43). So, it is at least likely (or certainly worth considering) that Jesus was born in a booth (a goat-haired tent) and placed in a phátn? (or feed crib).
Thanks Marcus. I cover the point about the time of year in my post on Jesus Wasn’t Born at Christmas: http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/when-was-jesus-born/
But I don’t really know why we should be so confident that Luke made such a simple error, when in fact the timing you mention would have been so theological significant—so that it would fit very well with John’s prologue!
Given our relatively scant knowledge of the period, do we know better than Luke?
Ian, I believe almost all scholars have already concluded (as your article did) that Luke was mistaken. First of all, as you note, there is no secular record of a census as Luke describes. Second, there is no record of the Romans (or anyone else) requiring travel to accomplish a census. In fact, the Romans were very adept at tax-collecting, and could well have conducted a census without having hundreds of thousands of people travel to their ancestral homes. In fact, we know that they did conduct census without such travel requirements.
You ask, why we should be so confident that Luke made such a simple error. I would say, because Luke was not trying not to. From his own account, we know that Luke was not personally knowledgable of the facts he was documenting. He was collecting oral and written traditions and interpreting them for theological purposes for a gentile-Christian audience. Luke, as he says in his own writing, was trying to reinforce the certainty of what was already being taught (Luke 1:3), rather than to document history precisely. This, significantly, is what modern (and historical for that matter) Christian teaching tends to do as well.
We may ask what beliefs (what was being taught) Luke was attempting to document. Well, it is likely that Luke (and Theophilus) believed that Jesus was a Galilean, born in Bethleham (as most of us do today). So, Luke was attempting to document (or rather explain) this fact. The Gospel of Matthew (a Jewish Gospel written to a Jewish audience) simply omitted this problem and instead had Joseph take Jesus to Nazareth after escaping to Egypt, in order to hide him from those who would do him harm.
So, we are faced with three real posiblities: 1) Luke was right, but we have no secular record of it, (Luke’s version, which is mostly dismissed by scholars) 2) Luke was wrong and Joseph was from Bethlehem (as Matthew allows), or 3) Luke was wrong and Joseph was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I believe that #3 is the most likely from all internal and external evidence.
We have no reason to expect Luke to have placed any theological significance on the annual pilgramage requirements and/or the feasts themselves. The Christian church itself quickly lost any significance that these events held and we have no record of early Christians (particularly non-Jewish Christians) participating in them as the Jews did.
So, the simple answer is Luke had no reason to tease out this fact because it did not serve his purpose.
I am happy that you connected this event to the prologue of John. The significance of Jesus as the “Light of the World” and the statements “Light has come into the world.” (John 3:19) fit very well with the notion that Jesus was born during (or at least associated with) the Feast of Sukkoth and its festival of lights. Also, the concept of Jesus and “living water” fits as well with the water libation ceremony during Sukkoth.
Thank you for your very thoughful articles. I am now a devoted reader of Psephizo!
If you email me directly, I’d be happy to share many more thoughts on this and other interesting tidbits that I have studied.
May God bless!
My reference to Luke 1:3 should read Acts 1:3.
Well, that’s based on the assumption that any of Luke 2 is historical, which it is not, beginning with the idea of the census and the move to enroll for it. That said, within the literary passage of Luke 2, there is no indication that Joseph and Mary were specifically trying to stay with family members, just that they were looking for room anywhere. And, modern translations do use something like “guest room.”
What’s interesting i think is what is included and what is not included in the text. Perhaps we take what is included (and Ian makes interesting comments about how we have assumed some things not included) with the assumption that it was carefully crafted with intention, and explore what might be revealed by those things?
“Psephizo scholarship. serving. ministry.” Oh, really!
“Jesus was not born in a stable.” Then prove it. “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.” Hardly is not definitive. “… ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture;” Careful on the use of ignorance as I have seen traces of it in your article. “…so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept? (Answer: not necessarily!)” Not necessarily means …but COULD HAVE BEEN! 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). A Manger is a manger. No room for them is no room for them so they would not have stayed with relatives etc, Why? Because God’s word says there was no room for them and I will trust God’s word over man’s word any day. There was no welcome place for the son of God, Jesus Christ the Savior. “… reception room in a private home.” Where does it say that in God’s word? “Pandocheion, pandokeion, pandokian (Gr.) – (i) In 5th C. BC Greece an inn used for the shelter of strangers (pandokian=’all receiving’)” God’s word says there was no room for them and again no room is a plain and simple statement for the ordinary person to understand. If I go to someone’s house and they say there is no room, is that simple code meaning to go upstairs and stay in a private reception room reserved for strangers? This isn’t rocket science. “… unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members.” Not it is not unthinkable, it happens all the time. Family arrive unannounced and they have to go stay somewhere else because guess what, there is no room for them, i.e. unwelcomed. “This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels.” What is kind of, it either is or it isn’t. I am not contesting this, just prove it was truly and unequivocally the case, the honest to God truth on the night Jesus was born. “So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth.” Then why take Jesus down into the lower depths and place him in a manger? The Bible does not say He was born in a manger, birth would have taken place standing up, but God’s word does say that Jesus was laid in a manger. Who is going to put their child in something animals eat out of if Mama and Papa are upstairs or wherever the family are or even bring a manger in where the family are staying/sleeping? “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.” Really? I still cannot find that in God’s word. “The idea that they were in a stable, away from others, alone and outcast, is grammatically and culturally implausible.” No it is not implausible. All the disciples abandoned our Savior and Jesus was indeed treated as an outcast. Why do you in the name of scholarship want to climb on a high horse to show yourself above the common person and try to convince God fearing people not to trust what the word of God says but to put their trust in people like you? :”…constantly impose our own assumptions about life.” You are imposing and assuming sir. I am not assuming but rather holding to what is sure, God’s Holy Word. If it is in God’s word I believe it. What someone says could be, might have been, is possible, is likely to, etc. are not phrases I am interested in. I am only interested in what God says in His word. “So is it worth challenging people’s assumptions? Yes, it is, …” Here is where I agree with you. I challenge your assumptions. You could have not said it better especially for the scholar you are and surely you want to share truth and not innuendos! It is always a good thing to build one up and not cause disparage. “The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us.” The cross is such a problem for many in the world. The cross is the solution for the problem that people are alienated from God. “And who knows? People might even start asking questions about how we read the Bible and understand it for ourselves!” And I pray that people start asking questions on reading and understanding the Bible from God Himself in their times of prayer, devotions and listening to His still small voice. Martin Luther broke with traditions of men and sought answers directly from God and His holy word. “… re-write the Christmas story.” Seems to me that is what you have done in your article. We are not to re-write what God has said. The Christmas story is good enough as it is. You cannot improve on what God has said.
Who the f*** is Jesus?
He is, according to any reputable historian, the historical figure who influenced the history of the West–and probably the world–more than any other single person. Do check out a history book some time.
I will add my “two cents” here, We can go on and on about when or where but thankfully one thing we cannot deny or refute is that Jesus was born, lived a perfect life, died in the place of us all and is now seated at the right hand of the Father and all who place their trust in Him are forgiven and reconciled back to the Father. It is good at times to look into the details however getting stuck there could cause us to miss the point of why it all happened, and this, in my view is the real issue.
The place in Bethlehem that you go see his birthplace is a cave. It might not of been called that in the past or translated differently.
Yes–but there isn’t actual objective evidence that this was indeed the place of his birth. The tradition of a cave is later than the New Testament.
A good article, and fascinating commentary; thanks, Ian! One minor error that seems not to have been picked up by the (likely all urban) writers: one would expect hay (which is edible fodder, and thus more valuable) in the manger, not straw (which is inedible bedding material).
Thanks for the correction!