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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 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!

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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71 Responses to Jesus wasn’t born in a stable

  1. Ian Paul November 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    Jonathan thanks for the question. The reason is that all our certainties about texts are based on information of which we are always less than 100% certain. Part of the reason for this is because we depend on historical information, and by its nature this means dealing in probabilities.

    But when we are faced with two options, and one has the probabilities stacked against it, then we can be confident of the alternative. So I feel confident enough to say that Jesus was not born in a stable, since the idea that he was depends on implausible supposition—or (more commonly) ignorance of the text and its historical context. Most people rely on nativity plays rather than the text of Luke for their information.

    Does that make sense?

    • Dan Cheek December 30, 2015 at 8:06 am #

      I’ve taken 2 Biblical study tours to Israel with Dr. Jim Martin, been to the traditional site of the birth of Christ in the Church of the Nativity, ready Bailey’s book and others. As a result, every year around Christmas I try to lead a study of the text, the archaeology, the history, the culture, and the geography of the birth narrative in an attempt to help address what I believe is the incorrect Western view as told via songs and traditions. I focus on the manager and the inn in particular. I don’t tell people they are wrong. I just ask them to consider new ideas. I have not received any negative feedback with this approach.

      I note Luke’s usage of lodging places in the the birth story and the upper room (the same Greek word for a private room in a home-kataluma/katyluma), and the good Samaritan, the different Greek work for public lodging-pandocheion/pandoxin. No room at the Motel 6? Bethlehem was a small, walled city In the OT and unlikely to have a public Inn. Luke is referring to a guest room in a home. The manager? Just as we put expensive vehicles in our home to protect them, Peasants did the same with valuable animals which explains the manager in the home. Bailey explains the layout. I’ve seen others, including the Church of the Nativity and first century home in Ephraim. All place animals in the home in a lowered platform or a basement or cave. The manager was not referring a wooden barn down the street from the Motel 6. It was an animal area in the home. Several biblical texts underscore this idea of animals in the home: Judges 11:30-34; 1 Sam 28:24; Luke 13:15 for example.

      I understand why historically the story got interpreted based on our own Western context and the word Inn in most Bibles (Note the use of guest room in the most recent NIV). But I believe we now have the tools and information to re-tell the story in a more culturally correct way. There are details open to interpretation, but there is also enough information to at least correct the Inn and barn variation and realize that given archaeology, history, cultural, and Biblical Greek text, that Mary and Joseph stayed in a home with a guest room and animals.

  2. Jonathan Tolbert November 11, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    Yes, I understand. Thank you for the clarification.

  3. Gerald Cook December 7, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    I can accept most of this but it says that there was no room in the inn, implying he had to try one rather than go to any family he might have there?

  4. Ian Paul December 9, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Not sure I have understood your comment. There was no ‘inn’; the word means a lodging place and would have either been the guest room in a family home (Bailey) or their married quarters attached to the family home (Carlson).

  5. Neil December 20, 2013 at 12:12 am #

    I fully accept that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and that animals were kept in the house; but I don’t see that they were surrounded by a loving family. There is no evidence for this in the Bible. What we see is that, apparently there was no room, and they were given a manger to use, which reads like it was a second thought.

    I have heard different understandings of why: some people have said there was no room because they arrived so late, and others have suggested shunning. Recently, partly as a result of reading the comments on here, I have become more comfortable with that reading. Andy Butcher, in his book ‘Street Children’ suggests that Jesus was born on the street; and this makes sense with the fact that the shepherds were just told to go to the town and they would find the baby. Clearly, it wasn’t diffiult for them to find, and it doesn’t seem that they were directed to a house.

    But your insistence that they were surrounded by a loving family seems at best an argument from silence. None of Joseph’s family are named; and this fits with the way Luke records other things-for example, the woman bleeding for 12 years. The alternative account says she spent all her money on doctors; he leaves that detail out. Now I admit it could have been the way you suggest, as Luke was writing an account by asking around, essentially. He wasn’t an eyewitness, and undertook to ‘write an orderly account’ for Theophilus. But, based on the actual facts recorded, no family seems to be in evidence.

    • Robin December 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

      My question adds to this. Why, if the animals are kept in the lower level are the mangers in the living room? And animals don’t eat straw, they sleep in it.

      • Jon October 31, 2015 at 12:38 am #

        The manger was no doubt carried to its location as with straw on it would have provided a very safe place for a child to sleep, without fear of rolling out………….The wolf and the lamb themselves will feed as one, and the lion will eat STRAW just like the bull Isaiah 65:25

        • Ian Paul November 1, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

          How do we know it was portable, and was carried anywhere…?

  6. Ian Paul December 20, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    Thanks Neil for your perceptive observations and questions.

    In one sense, I think you are right; the idea that he was surrounded by family is an argument from silence—almost. Some things to note:

    1. As you point out, Luke’s accounts are often quite compressed, leaving out details. So the question for readers and preachers is should I fill in the detail, and if so how?

    2. Family and friendship relations are an important theme in Luke. Look at the relation of Mary and Elizabeth. Look at the group of women who support Jesus.

    3. We do need to read this in its historical context. Even if Joseph was going to his ancestral home, as Kenneth Bailey points out, it would be unthinkable in that culture for him not to have been welcomed. Or as Stephen Carlson argues, this was already his family home. See the comment from Ellie Hart in Cyprus earlier that this still happens.

    4. I don’t think Luke was without an eye-witness account—that of Mary. That is why he includes the journey from Nazareth which Matthew (telling the story from the male perspective) omits to mentions. There is an intriguing gap in the ‘we’ passages in Acts, which could well be the time Luke left Paul to go to Joppa to talk to Mary as part of his research.

    Two points for me: first, we do need to read against the story’s historical context, but filling in the gaps is a dangerous thing. We need to ask what Luke’s point was from the story itself as we have it. Second, the themes we like at Christmas, of poverty and marginalization, can be found in plenty of other places–we do not need to conform this story to such themes artificially.

  7. Liz December 23, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    AMEN! I read Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes a few years ago and since have been trying desperately to get this across to other people! I haven’t gone so far as to re-write the nativity yet, but I have had a couple of GREAT chats with my youth groups and a couple with students at my school. This is the first other declaration of this I have found, it is nice to see others have picked up on the inaccuracies of ‘tradition’ too.
    God Bless.

  8. David December 24, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    I think the “lack of privacy is unspeakably painful” example is key (although to some degree it works against the author: it might make a cave in the field rather preferable and thus still possible!?!). I recall reading many years ago someone arguing that the relocation to the stable was not for reasons of lack of hospitality (there is a smell of antisemitism around the popular story of a brute jewish innkeeper!) but for reasons of care — the young mother not being crammed in an overflowing ‘inn’ for reasons of privacy and sanitation. That source also pointed at Matthew 2:11, of the wise men visiting the family in a *house* (although the Greek word oikos might have a wider range of meanings), which need not be different from the birth-place , unlike is usually presumed.

  9. Simon Marshall January 4, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Many thanks for this; clear and instructive as always. I’ve taught and preached the same ideas for a number of years, both as a pastor and college lecturer, for exactly the reason you mention, that we need to hear the actual story of scripture. As evangelicals we place great store by scriptural truth – and then play fast and loose with the story of the nativity! Most of the time, the reaction has been negative, “you are ruining the Christmas story” summing up the general reaction.
    I think it is good to see that there 2011 NIV has chosen to translate kataluma as “guest room”. There is hope yet…

  10. Earl May 16, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    My thought is that Joseph and Mary were not accepted in Nazareth or Bethlehem by their families. In the view of family and others, the new baby was the result of an immoral act. I am sure they were the butt of many unkind words. I would imagine Joseph heard a lot of jeers and insults at work and in the community. I believe that Joseph and Mary were shamed and one reason he left Nazareth was to to start over and to begin a new life.and what better place than where you grew up. So this was a great opportunity to relocate, since he needed to make that trip anyway and Mary was pregnant. (But again I doubt that they were welcomed with open arms, even though they were family). We know that Joseph and Mary had a house that is mentioned in scripture and they lived and worked there until they moved back to Nazareth. I do agree with you that they were in a kataluma that was offered to them by a friend or family member.


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