Jesus wasn’t born in a stable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The difference is made clear in this pair of definitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

41VBVURHyMLWhat, then, does it mean for the kataluma to have ‘no space’? It means that many, like Joseph and Mary, have travelled to Bethlehem, and the family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier. So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth. The most natural place to lay the baby is in the straw-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed. The idea that they were in a stable, away from others, alone and outcast, is grammatically and culturally implausible. In fact, it is hard to be alone at all in such contexts. Bailey amusingly cites an early researcher:

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

In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention. This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.

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

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

And Bailey notes that Alfred Plummer, in his influential ICC commentary, originally published in the late nineteenth century, agreed with this. So why has the wrong, traditional interpretation persisted for so long?51VQRBMa1VL

I think there are two main causes. In the first place, we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life. Where do you keep animals? Well, if you live in the West, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been. Secondly, it is easy to underestimate how powerful a hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture. Dick France explores this issue alongside other aspects of preaching on the infancy narratives in in his excellent chapter in We Proclaim the Word of LifeHe relates his own experience of the effect of this:

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

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

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

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

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

Additional note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Good article Ian; I too agree with Bailey about the kataluma. I think we have to accept that the return to one’s ancestral home for a census which is nowhere mentioned in ancient records is someone’s invention, possibly Luke’s; but I don’t think Carlson’s idea that “they made Nazareth their home” works for Luke 2:39, as an harmonisation with the otherwise totally different Matthean account. I think that, like it or not, we are stuck with two accounts of Jesus’ origins that cannot sensibly be reconciled. As a preacher I have always wanted to be able to harmonise them, but as a scholar or at least a student of Luke-Acts I have been increasingly driven to see Luke as a creative storyteller who is quite happy to make up bits of the history that he doesn’t know or even maybe doesn’t like. When I researched the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son at Naim [sic, Lk 7:11-17] I found all sorts of interesting connections to both the Elijah raising (Zarephath) and the Elisha raising (Shunem, just round the corner from Naim), and though I didn’t include it, I have speculated that the story is a Lukan substitute for the story of the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, maybe because Luke did not like the harsh way Jesus engages with the foreign woman. However, I would not go so far as to argue that Luke made up the infancy narrative; rather, that he had some elements in his notebook, and creatively filled in the blanks.

  2. Ian,

    ‘And managed to pull it off without getting lynched!’ I’d also be keen to hear how other CofE vicars have survived after delivering a ‘Novel Nativity Nuances’ sermon.

    Nevertheless, if there is genuine hostility to even careful exegesis, such as yours, it is precisely because of the ensuing ‘theological wrecking’ that often gains currency In the wake of such scholarship.

    Abandoning the notion that Jesus was born in a stable may be quite valid. But, it doesn’t take long for someone to consider it to be one of numerous discrepancies that gives them licence to undermine the credibility of the apostles, and thereby the gospel as presented in the Bible.

    We see a perfect example of this in the words of the first comment to this post: ‘I have increasingly driven to see Luke as a creative storyteller who is quite happy to make up bits of the history that he doesn’t know or maybe even doesn’t like’.

    In any other context, we all know what we would call any other person who makes up bits of s story that they either don’t know or don’t like. And it ain’t ‘a saint’!

  3. I gave a Christmas talk at a young offenders institute one evening and mentioned the ‘myths’ of the Christmas story before getting down to the real reason for Christmas, and the chaplain was not at all pleased with me, saying to me in front of these young men that I had now spoiled his Christmas!

  4. I worked in South Asia, and the story as above makes a lot of sense in that setting. No one travels to villages and stays in a hotel. They stay in the guest room and the place in the household where animals stay would be a place of last resort (but fully understandable if the house was full and the birth was happening). So I wasn’t lynched when I preached this there.
    But back in the UK, I wasn’t lynched so much as met with a “so what” and then “lets sing away in a manger” with a picture of a cattle shed out by itself. Our individualistic society just doesn’t get the importance of embedding the events in family.

    As an aside – has anyone got a good background to Luke’s census? Or is the jury on the dating and historicity of the event still out?

  5. I first came across this explanation in “Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas” by Roger Highfield, which has two chapters on the Biblical accounts of Christ’s birth, as well as other chapters on our cultural expression of Christmas (including why we don’t like Brussels sprouts!). It’s an easy read so worth recommending to someone who isn’t up for a more in-depth version.
    I have no knowledge of Greek, but I find it conceptually useful in talking about the use of the word “inn” in Luke, to making a comparison between our use of the terms “guest room” and “guest house”. Could kataluma have both meanings, as your comment on the LXX seems to suggest?
    And finally, some years ago I mentioned this view at a Scripture Union holiday where one of the kids was a Middle Eastern Christian (I am sorry to say I can’t remember if he was Lebanese or Jordanian) and he said this made sense to him in relation to contemporary living arrangements in his homeland.
    Your knowledge is much deeper than mine but I hope these comments are of some interest.

  6. Thank you for this, Ian – it is a good read. This was discussed recently at our NT Greek class – I am a beginner. I am also one of the musicians at our church and I will be playing at two carol services, in addition to regular services, and I will be playing ‘Away in a manger’ without protest, because our parishioners love it so much

  7. I’m working on a Christmas lesson for the glitter weary kids ministry leader and I think my re-telling of the ‘story’ would just about fit into this. It’s only been up a few hours but I’m pretty sure I won’t be lynched… I’ve always found church kids love to get behind the stories when it’s presented correctly.

  8. And I once read that if it were the end of December, the sheep (and shepherds) would all be in the houses at night, not out on the fields.

  9. Interesting article. Have you ever noticed that the tradional representation of the stable, with a side or half a side cut away, is not so that we can see the interior but exactly how one would build a sukka? Move that from Israel to Middle Europe in the Middle ages and the middle of winter and you have stable!

    As a retired RE teacher, when I was teaching I discovered that what really upsets the kids isn’t the absence of stable but the information that there was no donkey. I used to offfer prize for anyone who could find me gospel proof that there was a stable. I haven’t paid up yet. I used to teach Luke and Acts for the old C.S.E. so I got to know him quite well.

    As for more precise dating, I favour Chanukah for the Incarnation (look closely at the Prologue and read up on an chanukiah (Chanukah menorah)) and Succoth for the Birth in 5 B.C. I have more detailed stuff on my blog if you are interested.

  10. This interpretation does not necessarily conflict with the traditional understanding (which is supported by scriptural teaching that the Messiah would be rejected and come from lowly origins, Isaiah 53:2-3) that Jesus was ostracized by his extended family at birth. It is equally plausible that Mary and Joseph were refused accommodation in the kataluma due to Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock, and instead were forced to stay and give in the area of the home that was normally reserved for the animals.

    The fact that the baby is in a manger is given prominence in Luke’s account. It is mentioned twice, once by the narrator to emphasize that “there was no room” and once by the angels as a means for the shepherds to identify the baby in question. So it is clearly unusual that the baby was in a manger. If the manger was the “most natural place to lay the baby,” it would be common to find babies in mangers, and this would provide no sign for the shepherds, nor would it have anything to do with lack of accommodation in the kataluma. Luke suggests that the manger is a less-than-ideal situation, and that at bare minimum, the Infant King, the Son of David, should have been given a place in the guest room of his ancestral home.

    In fact, this understanding could actually highlight the Messiah’s rejection. Traditionally, we assume that a compassionate “innkeeper” took pity on the couple and offered the best he could–his own stable–since his inn was full. On the contrary, it was not an unknown innkeeper, but most likely Joseph’s own immediate family members who for whatever reason were unable (or unwilling) to provide adequate accommodations in the family guest room. Why would the grandparents provide the newborn heir to the throne of David anything but the best accommodations in the house (even at the expense of their own comfort)? Quite reasonably given the hints that Luke provides, it was because they questioned the legitimacy of Mary’s pregnancy.

    Traditional Western ideas about Jesus being born in a barn or animal shed do need to be corrected, but it does not necessarily follow that the Messiah was welcomed into a wonderful and hospitable family setting. Luke’s account demonstrates that he did not receive the reception that he deserved, even by his own extended family, and hints at family dysfunction.

    • John,
      Some counterpoints
      1)starting with your conclusion. I disagree that Luke demonstrates the family got a poor reception. Luke is excellent with facts. He states them and we interpret and fill in information based on our perspectives and bias.
      2) your opening statements suggest that the act of shunning Mary’s pregnancy outweighs the culture of hospitality. I see temporary Biblical instruction for unclean people to stay out of the camp, but I don’t see that as shunning. However I see many Bibical example of hospitality. And that culture is still an Eastern custom.
      3) if they stayed in the house, and were offered that part where the animals stayed, they were in the same open room as the family room, but only a few feet lower according to Bailey’s illustration and according to a 1st century home I visited on a Bibical Studies visit to Israel. We welcome pet animals into our homes. We store our valuable cars in large garages directly attatched to our homes. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they brought valuable and important animals into their home to secure and protect that value. Putting the family in that area of value does not seem to be a disgrace.
      4) Luke’s audience is a Greek who is unfamiliar with Israel customs. Luke, also being Greek, found that placing the baby in a feeding trough an interesting detail. But he explains why they did so. Because the guest room was either too small (no room) or occupied. So the child did not have a private place. He was placed in the family area where the manager also was. It seems highly likely that a baby placed in such a central location would be ignored. More likely he would receive a warm reception, thus explaining comments about Jesus being revived into a lioving home.
      5) I see no evidence from Luke that they questioned Mary’s pregnancy. Even if they did, Luke’s facts and an understanding of the culture and context can lead the reader to conclude the family was still received into a typical peasant home.
      6) if the family was ostracized, why did they stay after the baby’s birth (he was a child when the wise men came) and why was Bethlehem Joseph’s first choice to return to when he was called out of Egypt? Bethlehem was either Joseph’s actual home town as suggested by other authors, or he perceived the small town as welcoming enough to return to.

      I think this author and Bailey have provided a good understanding of this passage by interpreting it in its textual, historical, cultural, and geographical context.

  11. I’m glad this was written, since this very topic developed in discussion at Biola University years ago. A related issue concerning the time or season of Jesus’ birth also developed, and the “traditional” image is an imaginative touch but has no scriptural support. I won’t expand on that here, but any deviation from the images of a cave-like stable and shepherds shivering on snowy hillsides seems to draw a negative reaction from those who’ve accepted the Madison Avenue version of the Nativity.

  12. Thank you for your insights, much appreciated.

    I have preached recently and made similar comments (in terms of layering our own cultural assumptions over the text) and I’m still in one piece – happy to report.
    I also made reference to “the three wise men”, highlighting the absence of any number in the text. I survived that one as well.

    One question I have is the reason why “Palestine” is referred to, rather than the more accurate “Judea” (because so called by Matthew in his Gospel) and “Galilee” as the backdrop of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and early years.

    With respect, it seems somewhat incongruous withe thrust of the article to point out wrong assumptions around the actual nativity (and rightly so) but then use “Palestine” as the geographical areas where the events take place.
    I stand to be corrected, but I’m unable to find the word (ever so loaded these days!) in the four Gospels.

  13. It’s always fascinating to see the different interpretations of this story and others too. The gnostic gospels are worth a read, as are the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The eternal compulsion to correct another person’s viewpoint also rears its head. Personally I’m more interested in John Allegro’s analysis of biblical language and stories as featured in ‘The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross’. This takes the reader back to the original Aramaic language and the Sumerian fertility gods that pre-dated Abrahamic religions.

  14. Very interesting and helpful article. I remember being taught in primary school nearly 40 years ago that, in Palestine at the time of Christ, houses were constructed so that the animals could be brought in at night and I have thought for a while that Jesus must have been born in this part of a typical Palestinian house. Your article helps shed further light on this. Interestingly, I have seen houses with built in animal shelters in Switzerland.


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