Jesus wasn’t born in a stable—and that makes all the difference

Alongside putting up the Christmas decorations (usually far too early), finding a Christmas tree, preparing for carol services and planning where to buy your turkey, one of the annual routines at Christmas is my posting the argument that Jesus was not born in a stable.

I will continue to pursue this annual tradition, since it is actually rather important. It demonstrates how much we often read Scripture through the lens of our own assumptions, culture, and traditions, and how hard it can be to read well-known texts carefully, attending to what they actually say. It also highlights the power of traditions, and how resistant they are to change. And, specifically, the belief that Jesus was lonely and dejected, cast out amongst the animals and sidelined at his birth, actually seriously distorts the meaning of the birth narratives, in which (contrary to this tradition) Jesus and his birth are a powerfully disruptive force, bursting in on the middle of ordinary life and offering the possibility of its transformation.

That message is particularly important this year, as we continue to face restrictions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. We cannot easily continue our normal routines and traditions, especially leaving our homes in order to travel to a cold and drafty building to make the once-a-year pilgrimage to a place of devotion, as so many do (and mostly do not return in the New Year). Instead, if Jesus comes to us, rather than us coming to him, if he visits in our very homes and comes as a surprising, disruptive, but ultimately welcome presence, one who will turn our world upside-down and change it forever, then that makes all the difference.

So here we go.


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

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

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

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

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

The difference is made clear in this pair of definitions:

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

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


41VBVURHyMLThe third issue relates to our understanding, or rather ignorance, of (you guessed it) the historical and social context of the story. In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives. Kenneth Bailey, who is renowned for his studies of first-century Palestinian culture, comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy.

Rather, 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, informed and persuasive, understanding of the story has been around, even in Western scholarship, for a long, long time. Bailey cites William Thomson, a Presbyterian missionary to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, who wrote in 1857:

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

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


51VQRBMa1VLI think there are two main causes. In the first place, we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life. Where do you keep animals? Well, if you live in the West, especially in an urban context, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been—despite the experience of many who live in rural settings. I remembering noticing the place for cattle underneath the family home in houses in Switzerland.

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. But the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.

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

If you would like to see how it might be possible to re-write the Christmas story for all ages in a way which is faithful to this, see this excellent example from Stephen Kuhrt.

I preached on this theme at a Carol Service, and you can read my sermon here.


Additional note

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

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

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

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

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

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


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95 thoughts on “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable—and that makes all the difference”

  1. Thanks for this discussion. Some very reasoned thoughts on the message of Emanuel. I understand your point on this being Joseph’s home town. It would be reasonable that he was in Nazareth working on the nearby rebuilding of Sephoras. I wonder what are your thought about the rejection of Joseph and Mary due to their unmarried but pregnant state?

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  2. Thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking article. I was chatting to my friend about it and we were wondering whether Joseph and Mary’s families would have been prepared to host a woman who was pregnant with an (apparently) illegitimate child. Would they have been stigmatised in that culture? And could that be a reason why there was ‘no room’ for them? I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this.

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    • I think the question is whether it was well known that she had an apparently illegitimate child. There is a hint of this in John’s gospel, where Jesus is called Mary’s son (rather than Joseph’s), but I am not sure I can find much hint of the shame motif in Luke’s narrative. Can you?

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      • Thank you for taking the time to reply.
        I think your argument is pretty convincing. It suggests a different emphasis to many sermons that I’ve heard at Christmas time and I’m just trying to get my head around the implications!

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      • Also in John’s gospel (chapter 8) the Judeans in argument with Jesus say – I have always imagined a bit sneeringly – “we weren’t born of fornication.” The implication being, “unlike some we could mention in present company.”

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  3. David Instone Brewer’s article in this month’s Christianity magazine raises an interesting further angle on this – the place of shame in the story.

    He argues that the shame that Mary’s out of wedlock pregnancy would bring on Joseph’s family explains why nobody would accept the couple in their guest rooms. I am not entirely convinced by his argument because he still seems to think that the family were ‘banished’ to the animal shed. Bailey’s explanation of the manger area seems preferable, so if they were ‘banished’ it was only downstairs and they would then still be in the family home.

    However, culturally it it surely undeniable that shame would be a major factor in the events described, and one that needs factoring in somehow. Instone-Brewer does make a very interesting follow-on suggestion that perhaps the shepherds were told first because of the fact that shame was one of the things that defined their occupation.

    Thoughts?

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    • That’s interesting—I hadn’t noticed that. David is usually quite careful in his writing, so I am a little surprised at this.

      First, as I have commented above, there is very little suggesting in Luke’s account anywhere of shame. Have I missed something here?

      Second, I think both the cultural and the linguistic evidence is very compelling that there was no stable, no banishment and no distance. I wonder why David sets that aside?

      Thirdly, there is simply no evidence that shepherding was anything shameful; in fact, in that part of the world quite the opposite. This, again, is a traditional myth, which I scrutinise in this other Christmas post:

      https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/three-christmas-surprises/

      Reply
      • A similar question on the out of wedlock theme had occurred to me on reading your post (though I have been persuaded by KB’s case for some time). Obviously it’s Matthew who highlights the shame theme in his portrayal of Joseph’s dilemma – is that not an indicator of a wider cultural attitude, even if Luke leaves it unmentioned?

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        • Yes, I would agree. But in one sense that makes it the more surprising that Luke doesn’t mention it, and it is clear that he doesn’t offer it as any part of the reason for Jesus being born where he is.

          Worth also noting a. that the shame motif in Matthew is quite private at every point and b. that the ancient world wasn’t great on its biology, so I don’t know how clearly the dates would have counted. Suppose Jesus was born eight months after they married—why would that be a cause of public shame?

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          • I think it is hard to overstate the shame that out of wedlock pregnancies would have engendered in the time of Jesus. ANE social structure had more in common with the modern day intensely protective Arab culture for women which requires burkhas and total isolation to protect them from shameful interactions with men, than with present day western mores that take such interactions and the potential for intimate relationships as normal. To suggest that family members wouldn’t have noticed a month or two difference in the date of conception seems pretty unlikely. And if they did indeed travel with family (which seems likely), and went to stay with relatives in Bethlehem, it is hard to imagine that the reality behind the pregnancy wasn’t the subject of conversation upon their arrival. So perhaps they were not allowed to use the upper room in spite of her imminent delivery, and consigned to the main downstairs room, at least in part as a consequence of the distaste the hosts may have felt for Mary’s supposed lack of chastity. Another interesting conjecture.

      • Thanks, all fair points.

        The shame question is I think a cultural/contextual rather than a textual issue (and can be readily seen even today in GB amongst immigrant subcultures such as that in which my wife works). The gospel accounts were written in a culture where it would not have been necessary to explain or describe the reactions of those in the story as the readers would have automatically shared it. Kenneth Bailey’s very interesting (and to my mind persuasive) exposition of the parable of the prodigal son to answer the Muslim assertion that the cross is not referred to in that parable is an extended case in point.

        I am afraid I do not know enough to be able to say whether Luke’s primary reader (Theophilus as he is described) was, given his Greek name, actually unlikely to be someone who was culturally Middle Eastern. If he were, that would obviously count against my reasoning and in favour of yours!

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      • I gave an Advent sermon once in which I expounded Bailey’s thesis, complete with images depicting reconstructions of typical first century village homes in Palestine.

        After the service I was met with reproachful looks by leaders of the children’s church who had been busy making cardboard stables with the children. For some reason I have never been invited again to preach in Advent.

        I am glad you spoke up for shepherds (or at least sought to correct the historical record). I heard the line “shepherds were disreputable outcasts” in my teenage years, and I believed that for a long, long time until a few years ago when I began to question it and check it out for myself. Uncritical use of the Mishnah and Talmud can lead to serious errors, especially if we fail to recognise that Judaism underwent significant social changes from the second century onwards. If any one thing has defined most Jews post-AD 70 it is that the vast majority have been urban dwellers, not pastoralists.

        I am glad also that you spoke up for the women of Bethlehem, assisting (as all women around the world do) a woman in childbirth. I find it impossible to believe that Palestinian Jewish women in the first century would have been any different. And it has long been clear to me that the “pantes” in Luke 2.18 who heard the shepherds’ message must refer to a good number of people present at the birth, not simply Joseph and Mary (who already knew). How strange that the popular image of the Natvity owes more to the Protevangelium of James than the Gospel of Luke.

        It was Colin Chapman who, years ago, first put me on to Ken Bailey’s work. Colin had worked for years as a missionary in the Middle East and was acutely aware of Middle Eastern laws of hospitality to strangers as well as one’s own family.

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        • Thanks—interesting comment. Perhaps your experience makes the case for involving children’s group leaders, and parents, in sermon planning…?!

          I think you are right about the massive changes post-70. It is all too easy to read later, rabbinical Judaism back into the NT.

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  4. An interesting and thought provoking article. We have often used the ideas in our Carol Services over the years to get people thinking about how accurate the ‘birth’ story really is or isn’t! It does not detract from the fact Jesus came, died and rose again for us all; and that’s the important news.
    Thank you.

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  5. To be fair to readers of the Bible, misunderstandings tend to come from mistranslations of the original languages into English (and no doubt other modern languages). It seems the translators are as influenced by cultural and traditional factors as the readers.

    But can I ask a question regarding your understanding of ‘manger’ – When the angels appear to the shepherds they are told, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” If the ‘manger’ was a common feature at the time, why would that be a ‘sign’? Or was Jesus the only baby lying in hay?

    Peter

    Peter

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  6. I am still not convinced that the idea of a ‘stable’ has no merit. I accept that it was probably part of the house (as you suggest) and that the ‘inn’ was not a public hotel in the way tradition suggests (though it is interesting that the ESV continues to use the word ‘inn’). However, I do think that Luke specifically draws attention to the fact that Mary laid Jesus in a ‘manger’ because ‘there was no room in the kataluma’ . This suggests to me that Luke thinks that it was unusual to place a child in a ‘manger’, the feeding trough of animals. The strangeness of this is again emphasised by its repetition in vv. 12,16. It further suggests to me that Jesus’ birth was in a peasant’s setting very unlike our own. After Mary places the baby in the manger, Luke immediately draws attention to the shepherds, whom I am inclined to think were ‘outsiders’ of some sort even though they also had a significant biblical heritage. So Luke is definitely trying to tell us that Jesus’ birth was extraordinarily humble (laid in a manger) because of a ‘lack of room’. In typical Lucan fashion the good news comes to those who are the last and the least (even though Luke writes to the privileged Theophilus). In the absence of a better English word, I don’t think stable is too bad after all.

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    • ‘I am still not convinced that the idea of a ‘stable’ has no merit.’ I wouldn’t strongly disagree here. The problem though is that if you use the word ‘stable’ in a modern western setting, people will automatically think of a separate wooden building away from the living space.

      I think the idea that shepherds were outsiders (socially) is probably mistaken, as explored in the post here: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/three-christmas-surprises/

      Our problem is constantly imposing modern estimations of value on the ancient context.

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  7. I have never understood, please enlighten me: Why do people refer to it as Palestine? It is Judea, right? If we’re trying to read our Bibles correctly, surely we notice that the location is never given as Palestine in any of the gospels? Wasn’t Palestine only recognised at a state in the 20th century? I’m not intending to stir here – I’m genuinely ignorant!

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    • Hi Josh, that is a good question!

      It is a bit complicated. You are quite right that the areas under Roman jurisdiction were known as Judea and Samaria along with the other regions, as shown on the map here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judea_(Roman_province)

      Though the gospels do use some of these terms, they often refer to the land of Israel, especially Matthew and Luke, which of course is a term drawn from the OT (see eg Matt 2.20, 8.10, Luke 1.80, 7.9).

      But it was renamed Syria Palaestina by the Romans after the Bar Kakhba rebellion in 136. Details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria_Palaestina

      So it is a later term. However, the term appears to be a corruption of Pelishti, or Philistines, so there was a double insult in using the name of Israel’s historic foe to name the land. But as time went on, this term was used in a non-political cultural sense to refer to the culture of the region, especially in pre-modern times. General practice in the area eg in the 19th century had probably changed little since the 1st.

      Thus commentators have used it as a cultural reference. Worth also noting that the Jewish newspaper based in Jerusalem was called the Palestine Times, reflecting the pre-1948 use of the term in cultural, rather than political terms.

      I should add that referring to cultural practices in the region as ‘Jewish’ is misleading, since it suggests these things had a religious origin or identity, which they didn’t. They were non-religious cultural habits.

      Hope that makes sense and helps a little.

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        • Broadly speaking, because of Roman use, ‘Palestine’ has been used for the culture of the area, even by Jews. The term has only very recently been politicised. And given Arab mobility, some ask serious questions as to whether ‘Palestinian Arab’ can really be a national, political designation.

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          • Although I have used the words “Palestine ” and “Palestinian” as geographical references before, I think this is probably wrong now. The Roman province was called “Iudaea” or Judea ( which was also the name for the southern toparchy), and as Ian notes, “Israel” is used several times in the New Testament to designate the land. Although “Palestine ” was used as a vague toponym by Greek and Roman writers as far apart historically as Herodotus and Ovid, I don’t think this was used by the actual inhabitants of the land in the Persian, Greek, Hasmonean or Roman periods prior to AD 135. To call first century Iudaea/Judea “Palestine” would be as anachronistic as referring to “Roman England”.
            The Philistines themselves, from whom the name Palestine was derived, had apparently ceased to be a people before 586 BC. As a toponym for the British mandate, Palestine designated both Israel and Transjordan, a very large area.

      • I take some issue with the statement you make–in quotes below- as Judaism has never been only a religion and has always been a people, and minhag/custom developed variously not solely based on religious belief or law, but on adaptation to surrounding cultures, historical realities, etc.

        “I should add that referring to cultural practices in the region as ‘Jewish’ is misleading, since it suggests these things had a religious origin or identity, which they didn’t. They were non-religious cultural habits.”

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        • Yes of course—but the things we are referring to here (such as hospitality, the importance of family connections, the keeping of animals) were not distinctively *Jewish* practices, but part of the wider culture of that part of the world. That is why we cannot describe these things as ‘Jewish’ culture.

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  8. The question of where Jesus was born and who was there, takes us into socio-historical or socio-economic questions where our answers either shape our political views and / or are shaped by them.
    The shame that Matthew records is the shame that Joseph would have felt, but Matthew tells us Joseph accepted Mary and presumably therefore protected Mary – I think I am right that after betrothal sexual relations were permitted (though I can’t find the source for this). In that case Mary would not necessarily have been ostracised and so might have been readily welcomed into the home.
    Houses were small so any extra people would have put a strain on space. It seems harsh to exclude the inn-keeper in the current economic climate, but the birth does seem to be domestic in location.
    I am more puzzled by the shepherds. Are they the night-watch, the poor employed night-workers, or are they the hard-pressed owners of a few sheep who take turns to keep watch, or are they better off, though still doing some night-shifts? In the OT shepherd also seems to have a range of meanings, even if the metaphor becomes a positive one for a Ruler.
    [Was Amos a sheep-owner shepherd, or a hired shepherd – it depends which word for shepherd we take as more important?]
    If Matthew had included the shepherds we would be definitely looking for the OT allusions, but Luke is writing to a more Gentile group and I suspect this group would see these night-workers as poor and marginal. How poor and how marginal?
    Are they those who could never attain purity because of the work they did, and so part of the “sinners”, the people of the earth, rather like the tax-collectors?
    Or are they the elite who are handling the sacrificial sheep as some argue? If so, Luke does not let his readers in on this information! [Maybe he did not know!]
    I suspect that the honest answer is that we cannot be sure; Luke intertwines the census of the Emperor with the lives of very ordinary people, like Mary and Elizabeth. The shepherds seem to me to be in the “ordinary” group – but I don’t think we can be dogmatic about their actual economic and social status, and we need to be wary about using modern categories for what was a very different culture and class-structure.
    It is helpful to ask why Luke includes this account, what it does to the overall message of the gospel, what Luke thought it added or affirmed. For me, the answer is the ordinariness of the first witnesses, to whom the angel choirs sang and who were given the privilege of being the first witnesses. Maybe it was fitting that shepherds outside Bethlehem should witness the birth of the new David, when the first David had looked after sheep on those same hills?

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  9. Really enjoyable, always informative (annual) read – thanks! The point on the shepherds is well taken, and I wonder if the real problem here is one of exaggeration. That fact that the shepherds were not quite the lowest of the low as many make them out to be, does not rule out the point that they are also slightly surprising heralds of the birth of Jesus, at least on the face of it. I think preachers can use them as an example of the surprising ways in which God in Christ draws people to himself and uses them, in much the same way that the visit of the Magi is surprising, because of who chooses to worship (Gentiles) and who refuses (Herod). I wonder also if there is a hint in Luke’s account that it is the availability and willingness of the Shepherds that means they were used by the angels. After all – there cannot be many people pulling a night shift in such a culture? In Luke’s gospel this somewhat fits with the theme (though I know the wise men do not appear here), of Jesus looking for and finding ‘saving faith’ in surprising places.

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  10. I take some issue with the statement you make–in quotes below- as Judaism has never been only a religion and has always been a people, and minhag/custom developed variously not solely based on religious belief or law, but on adaptation to surrounding cultures, historical realities, etc.

    “I should add that referring to cultural practices in the region as ‘Jewish’ is misleading, since it suggests these things had a religious origin or identity, which they didn’t. They were non-religious cultural habits.”

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  11. Carlson’s contribution inspired me to try and put together a new narrative. It seems to me that the following is both credible and consistent with the Biblical narrative:
    1) Mary’s family regularly stay with Zechariah & Elizabeth during their regular visits to Jerusalem for the major festivals.
    2) Through Z & E a marriage is arranged between Joseph of Bethlehem and Mary
    3) The betrothal ceremony takes place in Nazareth and Joseph returns to Bethlehem to prepare a place for them as an annex to Joseph’s parents house.
    4) The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary
    5) Mary tells her parents and they panic – will Mary be stoned to death? (I have read somewhere that Galilee was perhaps a more zealous area than Judea can’t find a reference now). They decide Mary should visit Elizabeth. As a priest, Z knows about angels appearing and perhaps something can be sorted out with Joseph but anyway it would be safer.
    6) During Mary’s stay something is indeed sorted out with Joseph (with the help of the angel) and it is decided that Mary (then 3 months pregnant) should return to Nazareth before it is obvious she is pregnant and that Joseph will come and take his bride complete the marriage,
    7) M & J live peacefully in Bethlehem until the baby is born. The hastily built annex is a bit small so the birth happens in the family room and Jesus is laid in the manger.
    8) Shepherds visit
    9) Many months later Magi arrive
    10) After they have gone the family flees to Egypt
    11) When they are able to return their initial thought is to return to Bethlehem, but they do not consider it safe so go to Nazareth. Time has passed in no one will calculate the exact age of the child so they should be safe from the religious zealots there.
    This seems to make a lot more sense than the traditional telling of the story to me. Any problems?

    Reply
  12. And now for a not-so-scholarly question:
    When you visit Bethlehem you are shown the cave of the birth, marked with a silver star under the church of the Nativity. This supposed place of the birth was already identified by the time of Egeria. So while it is probably not The Real Place, situating it there – or as in a place like that – is fairly ancient practice. How does that fit in with defining the birth by non-Palestinian understandings? Were they getting it wrong that long ago?

    Reply
  13. As a retired progressive Christian preacher, I read the post and every comment, remembering my Advent sermon writings. I wish I had the benefit of all of these thoughtful reflections and intriguing questions back then!

    A query: why did so few women get involved in this particular discussion?

    Reply
    • I think it is quite well documented that women are much more reluctant to engage in online conversations generally.

      I also think it is clear that discussions in comment all too quickly engage each other in a combative debate between commentators, rather than commenting on the content of the article.

      Women are less combative or ‘agonistic’ than men generally, and so mostly do not engage in these kinds of exchanges. I wish it were not so, but there we are.

      Reply
    • There is an article on this in the Washington Post, but it is subscriber only.

      A research article looks at this in relation to online research publications, and notes the importance of women’s risk aversion:

      ‘It could be that gender shapes scholars’ weighing of the relative risks and rewards associated with commenting. Decades of research have shown that men and women often behave differently in situations involving risk taking [34–37]. Men tend to be more willing to engage in high risk behaviours [38]. If women are more risk averse, then they should be more concerned about the negative consequences of publicly challenging someone who can retaliate. If this is true, in addition to depressing women’s commenting rates overall, gendered disparities in commenting should be stronger where risk to career is more salient, such as when authors do not have a permanent position. We would also expect weaker gender differences in commenting where the target article is authored by a more junior person, and hence where the risks of opposing them are lower.’
      https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0230043

      And a study here from the Guardian. It talks of women ‘being silencing’ but that is not really what is happening. If public comment is risky, then you have to be less risk-averse to comment, and that is a well attested sex difference.

      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/23/women-are-silenced-online-just-as-in-real-life-it-will-take-more-than-twitter-to-change-that

      Reply
      • Ah, you’re creeping onto Know(man’s)land here! (Let the reader understand. ) Watch out for snipers.
        Actually Jordan Peterson pointed this out a few years ago, that YouTube (for example) was overwhelmingly (70% or more) a male environment when it came to the comments.
        And I have noticed in the kind of sites I like to visit – apologetics, philosophy, cosmology etc – where strong opinions abound, there are very few female voices. Amy Orr-Ewing is the only female apologist I’ve heard of, and a very able one she is. Is thee a female Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris out there?
        More broadly, I have often wondered how far our culture’s contemporary concern with risk assessment and risk avoidance reflects not just the power of lawyers and insurance companies but also the greater salience of women in professional and public life. Attitudes towards covid mitigation may reflect this as well.

        Reply
  14. That is for the article! It’s my first time reading it.

    I’m not a Biblical scholar, but I have a question in response to the threads regarding the shame Mary and Joseph may have experienced among relatives in Bethlehem. It seems to me that having a baby (Jesus) “out of wedlock” would only be shameful if it were actually true. Since Mary and Joseph had both received angelic messengers with the truth of the matter and, it seems, taken it to heart, why do we think they would have accepted the humiliation silently and not shared their testimonies? Couldn’t we also assume that they told the truth about the situation to the relatives and been accepted to stay in the house?

    Reply
  15. Hi Ian, Thanks for the blog. I have been convinced of this way of looking at the Christmas story since I first read Kenneth Bailey’s book around 10 years ago. It added a real depth and understanding to the story. The only issue with it is that it has taken away part of my enjoyment of Carol Services. I have tried to not let it bother me but I find so many wholes the the carol services and carols now. I have spoke to a number of Pastors, and speakers who have said that they agree with this interpretation but there would be such an uproar from many of the people attending that it wouldn’t be worth it. I find this disappointing but understandable. At the very least I would like to see some of this teaching inserted into a normal Service in order to enrich the understanding and theology of the congregants. But maybe this asking too much.

    Reply
    • Hi Peter, This is indeed a difficult situation. It is similar to what I experience with the carols themselves. I am a music director in a traditional church, and I can barely program a carol that is different (but still found in our hymnal) than the 6 or 7 that we “always” must do at Christmas, let alone a newer one with some updated theology included in the text. This is true throughout the liturgical year, but it is especially painful to me at Christmas. People generally want to cling to what they they find comforting (familiar), especially during this difficult time we have been through over the past several months.

      Ian, I really appreciate you writing about this every year. It is comforting to me to learn new things (even though I have been hearing bout this since I was in seminalry about 10 years ago).

      Reply
  16. This is a less scholarly response than most. This concept is familiar to me and I have embraced it for some time. I raised my children, and now influence my grandchildren, with a vibrant constantly changing nativity scene. Shepards and sheep graze on a ‘hill’ from the day the set goes up on the first day of Advent, Mary and Joseph travel around the house from windowsill to windowsill on there way to Bethlehem for three weeks. Does anyone sell a ‘Palestinian house’ like you describe that can be used in a nativity set? Or marketed a set that more closely fits this description of Jesus birth? To some this may seem commercial or trite, but I believe we are greatly influenced by what we see and touch, both as adults and as children.

    Reply
    • It’s a JUDEAN house. There was no such thing as a “Palestinian house” in the first century because there was no such place as “Palestine” before the Romans imposed that political name in AD 135. The name of the Roman Province was Iudaea (or ‘Judea’).
      We don’t talk about “English houses” in the first to fourth centuries because the land (including Wales and parts of southern Scotland) was called the Province of Britannia (with political subdivisions, as Iudaea had). We say “British” or “Romano-British”.
      I agree the term “Judea” is a little untidy because it was also the name of the southern subdivision, but overall, the name of the Province was Iudaea, so something like “Roman Iudaea” seems the best descriptor, just as “Roman Britain” best denotes the other end of the Empire. (Note that we also say “Gaul”, not “France”, which, like “England” and “Palestine “, is obviously anachronistic and inaccurate.)

      Reply
      • James you are mistaken here. ‘Palestine’ was used from the 5thC BC, as a Greek translation of the term found in the Hebrew Bible. The Wiki entry is helpful here:

        ‘The first clear use of the term Palestine to refer to the entire area between Phoenicia and Egypt was in 5th century BCE Ancient Greece,[7][8] when Herodotus wrote of a “district of Syria, called Palaistinê” (Ancient Greek: Συρίη ἡ Παλαιστίνη καλεομένη)[9] in The Histories, which included the Judean mountains and the Jordan Rift Valley.[10][ii] Approximately a century later, Aristotle used a similar definition for the region in Meteorology, in which he included the Dead Sea.[12] Later Greek writers such as Polemon and Pausanias also used the term to refer to the same region, which was followed by Roman writers such as Ovid, Tibullus, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, Dio Chrysostom, Statius, Plutarch as well as Roman Judean writers Philo of Alexandria and Josephus.[13][14] The term was first used to denote an official province in c. 135 CE, when the Roman authorities, following the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, combined Iudaea Province with Galilee and the Paralia to form “Syria Palaestina”. There is circumstantial evidence linking Hadrian with the name change,[15] but the precise date is not certain[15] and the assertion of some scholars that the name change was intended “to complete the dissociation with Judaea”[16] is disputed.[17]

        The term is generally accepted to be a translation of the Biblical name Peleshet (פלשת Pəlésheth, usually transliterated as Philistia). The term and its derivates are used more than 250 times in Masoretic-derived versions of the Hebrew Bible, of which 10 uses are in the Torah, with undefined boundaries, and almost 200 of the remaining references are in the Book of Judges and the Books of Samuel.[3][4][13][18] The term is rarely used in the Septuagint, which used a transliteration Land of Phylistieim (Γῆ τῶν Φυλιστιείμ) different from the contemporary Greek place name Palaistínē (Παλαιστίνη).[17]’

        If we call these ‘Judaean’ houses, it suggests something unique to this province. It isn’t. It is about the region and its culture, not the province and its religious distinctiveness.

        Reply
        • Please see my comment above for December 1 7.18 pm where I recognise the use by Greek and Roman writers. Most languages have names for other countries (e.g. “Germany”, “Allemagne”, “China”, “Korea” etc) which have little or no relation to what the inhabitants call it. My point there was that in the Persian, Seleucid, Hasmonean and Roman period prior to AD 135 the land was not designated “Palestina” by the inhabitants or rulers. Persian “Yehud” from Hebrew “Yehudah” gave rise to the name of the Roman Province of Iudaea. If the term wasn’t used in the first century, it shouldn’t be retrojected. I don’t think “Palestine” is a helpful term historically for the same reason I wouldn’t talk about “Roman England “, and the problem became worse in the 20th century. British Palestine also denoted a huge area, including present day Jordan. Maybe the old word “Levantine” conveys the regional-cultural meaning best. It’s worth noting that Roman Iudaea was not culturally (or at least religiously) uniform: it comprised Judah, Samaria, Galilee and Paralia, and the latter two areas had significant numbers of Greek- speakers and pagans.

          Reply
          • One last comment on this. The actual name that Herodotus used for the region was “Suria he Palaestinè” or ” Palestinian Syria” and this was Romanised in AD 135 as “Syria Palaestina”. Jerusalem was also renamed then as “Aelia Capitolina” in an attempt to abolish its Jewish character.
            The prior Roman name Provincia Iudaea was derived from the smaller tetrachy of Judea, which in turn was from the Herodian Kingdom of Judea (37 BC – AD 6), which comprised all the land, and was the successor of the Hasmonaean Kingdom of Judea (154 – 37BC), which also included Samaria and Galilee. The name is derived, of course, from the Persian province of Yehud, a small region focused on Jerusalem, as the successor of the pre-exilic Kingdom of Judah.
            So my conclusion is that the Greco-Roman name “Syria Palaestina” was not how the land was known by the actual inhabitants from the 2nd century BC until AD 135. It was Judea, “the land of the Jews”. I am not aware of scholars referring to “Palestine in the days of the Hasmoneans”, for example.

  17. Inn and Guest house/room does not make much difference. There was no room to place the Baby in that place. He was placed in a manger. “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?” The explanation is given that ‘manger’ is a place where the animals are tied. In today’s language the place where the animals are tied and kept is ‘stable’. There we have the trough of hay or something to feed the cattle. To make a big issue of it to earn some attention has become a way to make money now-a-days. This has nothing to do with the major teachings of the Bible. Why make a big issue of this? Motive is not good.

    Reply
  18. The notion that Bethlehem, according to Mark Goodacre, could have been Joseph’s hometown (as opposed to ancestral home … which could be both, actually) is okay. However, to this day, Lebanon, for example, has this “ancestral home” bit where people are technically registered and from which they pay taxes and vote in elections. It was the same in ancient China. And Japan, which inherited some of this tradition still has what’s called a “legal” residence (or legal registry). As a Japanese, I have an address of registry (even though the family hasn’t lived at that place for several generations now), and, while this is not used for taxation or voting or census purposes (anymore), it is the required address to be used when applying for a passport, or registering oneself as a resident in another city (so it’s different from residential registration). All family records — births, marriages, deaths — are recorded in this family registry. So the notion of Bethlehem being the ancestral home and thus requiring to go there for census or taxation reasons has examples there in the region and beyond.

    Reply
  19. Matthew : “she was found to be pregnant..”

    I wonder how it was found out … and, primarily, does this refer to Joseph “finding out”?

    Unknowable but still interesting…. Maybe it points to the involvement of some of the family?

    Reply
    • Just like to point out that a woman menstruates every 4 weeks or so. Mary wouldn’t know that what the angel had said had come true for up to 4 weeks.

      I would assume she would tell her family what the angel said. Quite probably another member of her family would have been present, if, as has been pointed out earlier it is virtually impossible to be alone in that culture.

      Reply
  20. I spent a fair amount of time with kataluma last year in writing a thesis on guest/host themes in Luke related to salvation. The most prominent use of it in the LXX is in Samuel; it’s not an especially common word, so I’d be a little wary of making too definite an argument based solely on its definition.

    In Luke though, my only pushback on your argument is that rejection of Jesus the guest is an extremely important theme throughout the gospel. Narratively, Jesus being rejected at some level even at birth is perfectly in line with his reception by Israel—they did not know the hour of their visitation.

    The connection between the inn and the upper room is significant in this same vein—Jesus the rejected guest is now the host. The Kataluma in Luke 22 also has a genitive possessive “mou”—Jesus claims the room as his, a word that is conspicuously absent in Matthew.

    Reply
    • Hi Brian, that sounds interesting. Is you thesis available online at all? I’d agree with you that it is a very general term, which I think its etymology points to.

      On the theme in Luke, I would push back again: unlike in the Fourth Gospel, the theme in Luke is of both rejection *and* acceptance. I noted on a previous blog post on passages from Luke that the willing reception of Jesus by pious, observant Jews is also a prominent theme in Luke, and it puts the lie to the lazy progressive trope ‘Jesus was rejected by religious people’. https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/the-presentation-of-jesus-in-luke-2/

      I think you are right about the connection between the two katalumai, but I still don’t see the theme of rejection in the Lukan birth narrative.

      Reply
    • “mou” isn’t used in Luke 22.11, according to most texts. It is used in Mark 14.4. Nolland thinks it was added to Sinaiticus to conform Luke to Mark.
      I don’t see a rejection of Jesus in his infancy and childhood in Luke 1-2. Simeon foresees this will happen (2.34), but there is nothing in these chapters to match Herod’s murderous intent. Instead, when Jesus comes to the heart of the Jewish faith, the Temple at 40 days and 12 years of age, he is greeted with joy and amazement.

      Reply
      • I’m not familiar with Nolland’s argument, but why would the mou be added to conform Luke but not Matthew?

        I can see how one might not see rejection in this story, and it’s not a hill I’d be willing to die on, but I think that Jesus’ role as guest is incredibly important through the gospel and Luke is usually pretty clear when someone receives Jesus appropriately, the one who is the ultimate host who brings salvation. I think this part of the story is a bit ambivalent—it’s unclear whether Jesus was shown proper hospitality in part because Luke doesn’t go into much detail about his reception (in contrast to most other hospitality encounters). The lack of room sounds negative on the face of it, perhaps in contrast to the reception from the shepherds. With them, Jesus is now revealed as the host/Savior because they became his guests.

        I don’t disagree with some of the practical merits of seeing the other angle, I just think that Jesus’ more significant role is as the oft-rejected (by “good” Christians)stranger/guest who we are called to welcome as part of our own salvation. I’m okay with that being a part of the Christmas story.

        Reply
  21. Dear Ian Paul,

    I shared your article on Facebook, and a lot of my Hungarian friends told me that they have difficulties understanding English. Would you mind if I translated your text into Hungarian, and published it on my timeline? With your name as author of course and with the original link.

    Best wishes,

    Alpar NAGY
    Reformed pastor from Transylvania, Romania.

    Reply
  22. Read with interest and happy to learn about another perspective which meets the rules of reasonable.
    Moreover the modern christmas story and practice is one that has little resemblance to the original in truth or action

    Reply
  23. I read it all. This discussion was wonderful and illuminating and challenging and exciting and thought-provoking! I stumbled upon it and am so grateful for the stumble 🙂

    Reply
  24. Thank you for your efforts to spread good Biblical scholarship and theological awareness to so many confused people! What tireless work, as demonstrated by the multitude of comments you have received above with regard to rejection and shame. How many times can you point out that this is simply not in the text? It is a complete fabrication of Western popular culture. I suspect that this obsession with shame is precisely the reason that the stable narrative has endured for so long. I believe it is much more than simply an historical misunderstanding, or a materialistic attachment to our adorable little creches! 🙂

    The “rejection narrative” simply does not hold as it cannot be argued from the text and is also not found in the writings of the early Christians on the Incarnation. The question of rejection and shame comes later, with Jesus’ death on a cross. On another one of your posts, a commenter asks “what then is Luke trying to say here?” and insists that he remains unmoved by the idea that Luke wanted simply to point out that he was born in common conditions – in a common room with the animals. Why is this so obvious and yet still so unconvincing to so many people? I believe it is because Western Christians are obsessed with the idea that Jesus must have been rejected by everyone, right from the very start. I think suspect that there is a deep anti-Semitism that drives this entire train of thought.

    As you point out, it also cleverly keeps Jesus far away from us and on a pedestal, making it both impossible and pointless for us to actually follow Jesus, which was the entire point of the Incarnation (read Athanasius, people!). After reading these comments it seems to me that the stable is but one manifestation of the grand theological error made by the Latin church, which continues to pervade all the Western church traditions… this desire to turn Jesus into a personal emotional release catharsis for individual shame, rather than God’s redemptive plan for humanity and the world.

    The gospel tradition makes it abundantly clear that there were some who followed Jesus and there were others who rejected him, but an anti-Semitic Christianity needs for Jesus to have been rejected by ALL the Jews, right from the start. There are several comments that contain this caricatured demonization of ancient Jewish culture by assuming that they MUST have been rejected in an honor/shame society.

    I notice that you have mentioned several times that you see hints of a shame motif in Matthew… I am curious where are you seeing this?

    Reply
  25. Travels in Israel/Palestine to various archeological sites support your view, and offer opportunity for fresh interpretation of birth narratives. The scarcity of wood, the rock and caves, these are factors supporting single room, single family homes. Safety of livestock was primary; so, yes, at night they were brought in too. Thank you for posting this article.

    Reply
    • Thanks for this. You are quite right to highlight the scarcity of wood, which we easily forget. I remember visited excavated houses at Chorazin, with roofs made of basalt blocks because of a lack of timber in the area. Quite startling.

      Reply
  26. A question was asked as to why more women aren’t commenting on this blog. Ian then posted a research position about women being risk averse. But no man including Ian looked at the behavior pattern that ensued after Katie on December 3rd posted a very provocative question challenging the premise of the ‘shame’ position of this post. Ian’s response was a mere ‘That’s an interesting question…’ But when Brian posted on December 4th, Ian responded in an engaging way that drew out the conversation.

    So why should any woman comment if their opinion is not going to be engaged with? Women aren’t risk averse; we just get to a point through demonstrated behavior by men where we know there’s no point in engaging with you. You ignore us and so we ignore you in return. We get to a point where what you/men say has no meaning nor value for us. Ian nor the rest of the men on this blog don’t even see the pattern. But it smacked me right across the face. I think we all must give a huge Thanks to Katie being the ‘risky’ one even if she was ignored. Keep going Katie!!!

    Reply
    • Sorry, that’s a bit daft. I don’t engage with all comments, and I sometimes offer one line and at others comment at length. If you look down the whole comment list you will find I have engaged at more length with some women, and in only one line or not at all with some men.

      If you want to press that point, you will need to offer something more systematic. I regularly interview women scholars, and I invite guest posts from women and men—though the women more often decline, and the men more often accept.

      Katie wasn’t ignored, and neither have you been. But if you are going to claim there is a pattern here, you are going to have to demonstrate it a bit more convincingly.

      Reply
  27. The house where Yeshua (Jesus) was born was a Jewish home. The term Palestinian would have had no meaning to the people at the time since it only referred to the Philistines who were long gone by then. The word was not applied to the region until over 100 years after Yeshua’s death and resurrection, and then meant the land of the Jews. There was no place or people group with that name.

    Reply
    • On the contrary, the term was used by Ovid in the fifth century BC with reference to the region as a whole, so it is not anachronistic to use it.

      It has no racial or political sense when used in this way, and you might be interested to know that Jews living in the region in the 19th century called their Jewish newspaper the Palestine Times, since that was the name for the region.

      Reply
  28. I’m so very glad I found this! I am studying last minute (regretfully) for a brief sermon I am supposed to preach this evening on a zoom Christmas service. I was assigned Luke 2:7, and I came across another page with a study disputing the whole stable notion. It blew my mind, and I wanted to see if this was something more people knew. I Google searched “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable” and here i found your writing. Im so glad I found this and I can’t wait to introduce this new information when I preach this evening. My mind is swimming with all of the implications this information now provides for preaching Jesus birth. In reading the comments I saw the debate about the shame aspect. I have to agree with the author that there doesn’t appear to be a shame aspect. Once Joseph agreed to claim the baby, who else would have known the baby was “illegitimate”? If there was any shame it could have been aimed at Joseph for not being able to keep his hands off of her before the wedding . For those saying they wouldn’t let them stay in the katamula because of shame- the text clearly states that there was NO ROOM. Another possible explanation i haven’t seen anyone mention was that maybe Mary who was pregnant and ready to burst was unable or advised not to climb up a ladder to the Katamula. If she was due and ready to pop and katamula was on the upper level, climbing the ladder to get up there was not safe. But I still think the text explains it clearly with “no room”. If they wouldn’t let her up there due to shame, why even let her in the house?

    Reply
  29. Hello Ian

    Inspired by you, I’ve written a version of the Nativity in rhyme for children, with Jesus being born in a relative’s home – it includes the Biblical narratives from Matthew and Luke and asks some questions at the end. I am about to submit it for publication; its sequel, The Legend of the Spider and the Fly (based on a mythical tale told to me by a colleague decades ago) is already going through the publication process. These two are under the umbrella of a series called ‘The Bible Detectives’ aimed at engaging children in reading the Biblical text.

    If you’d like to read either or both of those, I’d be very happy to send them to you. They don’t take long to read (each one about 5 or 6 minutes).

    Reply

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