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

  1. Funnily enough we are doing a Christmas Play this year “wot we wrote” (well in final draft stage) that is trying to use this idea. So there is no inn and no innkeeper and they stay with a family. We are even hinting at the “massacre of the innocents” – though toned down from the original draft!

    I totally agree that Christmas is usually too tinselly; or in our attempts to rush on to Easter we use any little clue to not allow it to speak in its own right.

    Who knows if it will work but we have bet the church on it this year and it will be our main service for the whole Christmas season. So, no carol service and no Nativity Service. Also using a Gospel choir to back it all up.

  2. Will, how amazing and how (as they say in the Civil Service) courageous! Would love to hear how it goes down…

    (I vaguely remember seeing something online about how the massacre bit was really important to Christians living in areas of war and persecution…)

  3. Thanks John. Yes, it is entirely convincing, and it is really baffling to know why commentators don’t make more of this. It really changes the story.

    In fact, I came to this recently when editing We Proclaim the Word of Life and Dick’s chapter in it. He puts it very well. One of the things little known about Dick is that he was often the first to pick up what are often thought as pioneering changes in biblical interpretation, or was the originator himself.

  4. I’ve not dared/risked being QUITE as authentic as this (yet!) but I have had them staying in the animal-area of a house, on occasion. And I don’t let Mary ride the donkey (don’t usually even have a donkey), don’t dress her in mediaeval blue and never have ‘three kings’ visiting a ‘baby’ – and not at the same time or place as the shepherds.
    Oh – and I also avoid talking quails and singing kittens!

  5. How interesting. I’m not sure what the blue is about; some say it is first-century colour of virginity, others that is it mediaeval royalty.

    As I’ve thought about this, what i find most interesting is that the tradition inverts the actual story, putting Jesus away from the host family rather than with them.

  6. It’s interesting that it’s only with recent versions of the NIV that the ‘inn’ of Luke 2:7 has become the ‘guest room’. As far as I can see, this and the Complete Jewish Bible (living-quarters) are the only contemporary translations which challenge the tradition. However Young’s Literal Translation (Young of Young’s Concordance) of 1898 (and possibly also the original edition of 1862 but I can’t check) says ‘guest-chamber.’ That really was trailblazing!

    Meanwhile Will, including the Massacre of the Innocents in your play may not be as difficult as it seems (at least when it comes to numbers: I’m not sure about the gore side!) William Albright estimates the population of Bethlehem at that time as about 300. That would mean possibly six or seven male children under two. Not quite the Syrian tradition of 64,000! (

  7. I’ve been telling this Christmas story for over a decade since reading both Bailey and France and writing a Crossway Bible Guide on Luke (which has a section called ‘where was Jesus born and does it matter?’) in 1999. What I have found is that people find this version more plausible and moving and that it fires children’s imaginations in all sorts of ways. Over the past few Christmases we have built a nativity scene as part of our family carol service that has centred on a normal house (built of cardboard) with animals downstairs and people all over the place that has led to great conversations about what it means for Jesus to move into our neighbourhood (as the message puts part of John 1:14).

  8. My orthodox friends tell me the blue is about ‘meaning’, not about reportage; whilst local historians are proud that it was the Coventry dyers in mediaeval times who created and stablised the elusive ‘sky blue’ (hence the football team). Either way, no 1st century wife-of-a-tradesman-who-could-only-afford-two-doves would have been wearing it!

  9. I’m cool with Mary birthing in the main room, but am, then, curious about why Jesus laid in a manger?

    I’ve noticed in many, if not most, paintings of the nativity over the centuries that Jesus is laid in a trough, on the ground, somewhere, anywhere except where babies almost always are — in someone’s arms! Babies are not put somewhere away from other people, but passed around, held, nursed, rocked, cradles, walked. What gives?

  10. With regard to tradition inverting the actual story, that never stops! (I say this as one whose son was the ‘narrator/merry wizard’ and whose daughter was a ‘banana in pyjamas’, visiting a school stable-scene.)

    But you’ve not tackled the thorny question of where they were living, before they turn up to ask for space at the kataluma…

  11. Susan, thanks for commenting. The baby Jesus would presumably have to be put somewhere for him to sleep, or when his parents sleep. If you look on the diagram from Bailey’s book that I have included, you can see that Palestinian homes typically have recesses in the ground which would be lined with straw. In a context where you would have little by way of built, wooden furniture, this would be the obvious place to lay him.

    A parallel, as some others have mentioned, is the practice which was common until recently of putting babies in wooden drawers from a chest.

  12. When we were in DRCongo the nativity play ALWAYS ended with the slaughter of the innocents – the 9 year old boys, complete with authentic army swagger, would come and decimate all the small children (who watched the play from a mat near the front of church).
    Death and the precarious nature of life very much part of their everyday experience,

  13. Dear Colleagues, (@Ian, I was a student at St Johns 79-82)…and after a first tour to Israel with Ed Ball and Stephen Travis I travelled there 6 more times. Usually in early January. It was never ‘ice like stone’ cold, and yes I know that Christmas was a post Constantinian decree, but we have romanticised it out of proportion. I draw to your attention Christina Rosetti’s hymn ‘In the deep mid winter’ which reflects European concepts on to the Incarnation. When I talk about the Christmas story I begin with the Grotto of the Nativity and go from there! A last question…why are no family members mentioned Mary and Joseph do seem to be alone despite the commentaries.

  14. I, too, am in the midst of writing our drama for our Christmas Musical. As I read this, my anxiety level spiked! I think I can manage it! As the one character laments the fact that Jesus was born in a cow stall, the antagonist can reply “…not technically” or, “yes and no”!!
    It’ll be eye-opening, that’s for sure!

  15. I have often talked about who is missing from the story, and so have ended up with a nativity scene that has a lion (the lion and the lamb), a pig (one kid from the Midwest answered that question with – where were the pigs? So, a man from the congregation carved one.) A duck (don’t ask), and what I am waiting for now, a midwife. I then invited the congregation into room. It gives me the opportunity to demythologize the story is such a way that it brings Jesus into the middle of the community rather than taken away from it. They get it, without being offended by it.

  16. Paul I think that one of the consistent features of the gospel stories is that they make little mention of the incidental characters and focus solely on the principal actors. For example, if you read John’s gospel, it seems as though Jesus spent most of his time alone, though in fact this was probably not the case.

    The reason for this is partly literary, in that they were writing a kind of ‘bios’ or ‘life’ of Jesus, and given the length of the gospels had to put in only the very essential stuff—which is why the stories are often very compressed.

    But it is also theological and cultural. Those in the same culture would not need the details putting in, since they would know them already. And the writers really wanted to keep the focus on the person of Jesus.

  17. I teach this every semester as the primary case study from the book of Luke (along with Bailey’s reading of the Lost Son in Luke 15) and it always surprises the students. I stress that when we read without background information we are at the mercies of poor historical readings (plug for historical background and how important it is).

    Another text that does a nice job of this is “A Visual Guide To Gospel Events.” In their the authors have an actual photo of the large family room with a possibly storage cave recessed in the breezeway/entrance that was normal for a lot of Judean homes. It gives a more vivid visual which is a bit more helpful than Bailey’s diagrams, but not a lot. Thanks for posting this.

  18. In a course I taught on the Infancy Narratives I introduced the class to the information that Bailey produced in his book JESUS THROUGH MIDDLE EASTER EYES. I displayed the diagram that is shown in the article above. The information was well received.

    However I mentioned this aspect of Bailey’s Book in a review on Amazon and got some challenges.

  19. Paul, I was at St. John’s in 1979, with Ed Ball and Steven Travis, as well. It was a transformational experience.

    This discussion surprises me only in the fact that I am thoroughly embarrassed that in all of these years I never questioned the traditional story with proper study. Now I have gone back to my favorite sources, to which I would add not only Baily but also Malina and Rohrbaugh’s “Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.” The learning curve for me is to renew a challenge of my own assumptions about a text. I love to push assumptions, particularly cultural assumptions, so am embarrassed I never challenged my own. Thank you for the excellent discussion.

  20. I know some older people who come from the mountains of the poorest parts of Greece. They like many others lived upstairs in their house while the animals lived below. This is how i pictured the Gospels. The Inn and the manger are one and the same.

  21. There’s a lot of effort here to focus on what structure Jesus was born in as more important than the fact he was born, and born in the city prophesied for the Messiah’s birth.

    We are so educated and enlightened these days, that we obviously can piece together every minute detail, and in the process the minute details become the major issues. So why stop at the lodging question? What about the whole world tax – why, I doubt the American Indians brought tax money to Jerusalem. Some quality time is deserved to be spent on that one.

    But for the purpose of debate, can we be so sure about the open arms welcome? Would not the fact that Mary was NOT carrying the child of her husband Joseph, possibly cause proper Jews, even their own kinfolk, to shun them, as opposed to welcoming them into their homes as guests? The speed and power of gossip could not be underestimated, even in those days.

    And agreed, the wise men bearing the 3 recorded gifts came to visit Jesus well after his birth, in a house, as recorded in Matthew 2. I find no scriptural deception that they visited him in the delivery room.

    After all is said and done, here is the Son of God, the Anointed One, born not in a palace with royal fanfare, but in a house/stable/shelter of some kind. Not a fitting place, at least in our human minds, for the Messiah that would save the world. Did the inn really have the no vacancy sign lit, and was a manger the King’s first crib, as stated in the King James version? And do we really care about the exact chronological and architectural details? My birth certificate doesn’t say anything about who came to see me in the hospital nursery, or how upscale the delivery room was. But it does say the city I was born in, who my parents are, and testifies I was born.

    So much satisfaction spent in disproving the scriptures over trivial things only opens the heart to distrust of the gospel over major issues. The main focus of the gospel is Jesus, not motels.

  22. Some good reasoning, but like much of modern scholarship it goes beyond the evidence.

    Reading the Fathers or even Chesterton shows that Christ wasn’t born in a stable but in an underground dugout or cave, so that point isn’t contestable. However when the author of the article leaps to this conclusion he loses me:

    “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.”

    The traditional understanding of Jesus being born poor and alone is ancient not Medieval in origin, and should therefore not be cast aside so quickly – so many assumptions and generalizations are made in assuming to tell us what really happened – especially when we’re talking about a supernatural event. For that reason and also more importantly because the conclusion conflicts with the text of Luke:

    “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger”, the ‘she’ being Mary.

    Now tell me, if a woman gives birth surrounded by family “right in the thick of it”, why is the mother wrapping the child in swaddling? And why is Mary laying him in the manger? Wouldn’t common sense dictate that all these wonderful blood-relative females (who never give you any privacy!) would be all over the situation, doting on the new born babe? Another problem I have with this interpretation is this: What kind of relatives let a PREGNANT WOMAN GIVE BIRTH IN THE LOWER ROOM WITH THE ANIMALS? Seriously, I know there are cultural matters at play, but I’ve got to think that if in 1st Century Palestine everybody’s family, you’re telling me that they wouldn’t make space in the upper room because the PREGNANT WOMAN IS ABOUT TO GIVE BIRTH IN THE LOWER ROOM WITH THE ANIMALS. These Palestinians are so warm so welcoming, but please, get your pregnant body down there with the oxen. It doesn’t add up.

    How do we know Joseph and Mary actually made it to a known relatives residence and didn’t have to pull over to the first structure they came across? How do we know that there wasn’t any tribal animosity at play? How do we know that they weren’t shunning the couple? After all, Mary came back from her cousins house swollen with child; Joseph was going to divorce her – he avoided a scandal, but maybe certain tongues were wagging in the family?

    This would accord more with the “shunning” tinge to the words ” there was no room for them in the inn”. Notice it doesn’t say “no room at all in the inn” or “no room in the inn”. It says there was no room for THEM in the inn.

    On the level of parallelism and foreshadowing, we do know is that Christ is rejected by his own: in Nazareth where he and his preaching is ridiculed, and when he is crucified in Jerusalem. Being rejected by his own even at his birth in Bethlehem is the kind of balance we find all over scripture

    When we take a little bit of scholarship, mix in some academic ponderings and conclusions, and then throw out 2000 years of traditional understanding as it has been handed down, I say stop. At least stop for a moment, and consider what you’re doing. A friend I have in construction says that the first rule of remodeling a structure is to never remove anything until you understand why it was put there in the first place and what its purpose is. I wish more scholars would take that kind of care when it comes to our deposit of Faith.

  23. John M, thanks for commenting. I am not sure whether you have misunderstood what I am arguing when you say ‘So much satisfaction spent in disproving the scriptures..’ My point is precisely the opposite: I want to question tradition on the basis of what the Scriptures actually say. The idea that Jesus was born in a stable comes from somewhere other than the Scriptures, and I think it takes away from their message.

    I agree with you on the dangers of thinking that we now know everything. But it is a matter of fact that we know a lot more about life in the first century, and have much better and earlier manuscripts of the NT than any generation before us, including many of the church fathers. So in fact there are some really good grounds for questioning traditions that grew up out of lack of understanding of some basic realities of life in the first century.

  24. John M, on your other points: yes, the focus of this post was limited to where Jesus was born—but there are only so many issues one can tackle in 1500 words! Sarcasm aside, the question of the tax does deserve attention, because other historical accounts appear to contradict Luke’s claim about Quirinius, and I for one do think it matters whether the gospel accounts are accurate.

    Your two questions about whether Mary was shunned, and whether the birth place was fit for a king, are important. But they don’t in fact appear to be that important to Luke; it is Matthew who picks these up. I do think there is some value in paying attention to the particular interests of each gospel writer, as this leads us to explore important things we would otherwise miss. Reading through Luke’s account, it does seem striking that Jesus’ birth is consistently welcomed by the faithful of Israel, including Mary herself, Elizabeth, Zachariah (after one false start), Simeon and Anna. It is notable here that the majority of those welcoming are women, and Luke’s account of the actual birth (according to my proposed reading) is in line with this. By contrast, Matthew notes those who don’t welcome Jesus, who are mostly men. (There is a similar pattern at the end of Jesus’ life in his death and resurrection.)

    But please note one core point, central to all careful Bible reading: it is important we translate words correctly, and there is really little support for translating kataluma as inn.

  25. Other John, again, thanks for commenting and testing out my thesis. I think there is some irony in your suggesting I go beyond the evidence, and then appealing to the Fathers and to Chesterton! I am not quite sure why you think I ‘leap’ to my conclusion; where do I make the jump?

    I do think the idea that a pregnant woman should go into the guest room rather than stay with the family arises from our notions of what counts as hospitality, rather than a realistic assessment of what was going on. The women in the family would naturally act as midwife, so putting them in another room is no help at all. Why do I think there was no shunning going on? Well, simply because I don’t want to go beyond the evidence! Luke makes no mention of this at all, so if we want to suggest this, we have to bring the idea from somewhere other than Luke’s account—either from Matthew, or from ‘tradition.’

    Again, as I mention to John M, there is simply no grounds for translating kataluma as ‘inn’, as translations (including the TNIV and Young’s Literal) are beginning to recognize.

    On the question of throwing out the tradition, it actually isn’t the case that the current, dominant tradition has been the only story for the last 2000 years. As I mention, a ninth century manuscript preserves the tradition of keeping animals in the house, which Matt 5 clearly assumes has one room. And this reading of the birth story has been around for more than 160 years.

    Why did the tradition arise? Like many, out of ignorance of context, out of slightly careless reading, out of mediaeval over-interpretation of Isaiah 1.3, and I think out of a Victorian, romanticized vision of the Christmas story. I do think all of these together do obscure what Luke is actually saying.

  26. Ian,

    Thank you for responding. I’d like to clarify one point I don’t think you addressed:

    “The women in the family would naturally act as midwife”… only Luke doesn’t mention any such thing. He specifically says Mary wraps Jesus in swaddling and places him in the manger herself. This supports the teaching that Mary delivered Jesus supernaturally, without travail, and without the breaking of her virginity, with no need of a midwife.

    I’m not questioning your general scholarship here. It is worthwhile and excellent to study and know more about the cultural milieu Christ was born into. But to my mind (which I admit is not a very great one), I think when we apply general circumstances that existed at the time to what occurred during a single event we must be very careful.

    Yes, let’s get rid of the stable, and the Victorian accretions. Let’s correct Medieval understanding where applicable. I love that you bring archaeology, sociology and geography, into this; that is so very valuable.

    But the text in Luke very much lends itself to a lowly, discreet, humble, miraculous birth and Mary seemingly without the benefit of any midwife or help. Would it be worthwhile to try to harmonize your findings with this understanding?

    I agree that Jesus is not “not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy.” I don’t know Christian who thinks God needs anything from us. Feelings of love and tenderness for a God who would stoop so low? Yes.

    But the statement “He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention” is what I am having difficulty with. The text doesn’t seem to support it. It is left to the angels to declare His miraculous birth to strangers tending their flocks in the fields. There is no textual support for a family raising the alarm at what they had just witnessed.

    Just as a thought experiment, could you harmonize your findings in some way with that? Mary gave birth with no travail, and no loss of virginity – an understanding that I know is ancient and supported by Luke’s text with her actions – wouldn’t that have been a huge deal? Could you imagine the midwives looking at each other in disbelief? Wouldn’t they have shouted such a miracle from the rooftops? Wouldn’t the whole village have heard of this? Would it not have reached Herod’s ears as to what had happened? And when the Magi arrived, wouldn’t someone in his court have put two and two together and known exactly who they were hunting for?

    To me what you’re declaring here seems to run into the virgin birth; maybe there’s a way to square that, or maybe your saying your research is evidence against it? Or maybe I’m a bit obtuse…

  27. Thanks for your generous response John. I do think we are coming at the text from a quite different point of view in relation to tradition. I don’t see any hint of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and in fact a straightforward reading of Matthew 12.46-50 contradicts the idea. There is no grammatical justification for reading this as ‘half-brothers and -sisters.’

    I was brought up Roman Catholic, and when I came to personal faith, spent some time considering these issues. I don’t agree with the RC idea of the Church’s tradition having equal authority with Scripture, and so I made a decision to join the Church of England when I was 17.

  28. Jesus was actually born in a cave. I know ’cause I saw the icon. We mustn’t tamper with the traditional conception though. Next thing you know, someone’s going to come along and demythologize Round John Virgin (the missing person in most Christmas scenes). He’s now pretty much confined to a certain line in “Silent Night.”

  29. On the shunning thing, there is evidence for this elsewhere in the gospels, where Jesus is described as ‘son of Mary’ (Matthew 13.55) instead of being known by his father. This might also point to the early death of Joseph.

  30. Can we also stop applying the term “Palestinian” to people which existed almost a century before the Romans invented the term? That was one of the things they did when they conquered Israel toward the end of the First Century to try to strip the Israelites of their heritage and their identity. They romanized the name of the Jews’ long-time enemy, the Philistines, and applied it to the land; it was their “final solution” to the Jewish “problem”. In my mind, using that name for God’s people is insulting to say the least.

  31. I am neither theologian nor preacher but have a background in sociology and have been a midwife and have also stayed with my Ugandan extended family, and would like to say my piece!

    I have thought that Joseph had many relatives in Bethlehem and there would have been many others like Joseph and Mary arriving from elsewhere.

    The house, as described in an article in Third Way some years ago could have had an upper living room over a stall for the animal and a store room for the hay, straw or whatever with a dividing wall. In that wall was a hole with a manger built in, so the animals could be fed easily. Many farmsteads in Europe had the animals below. If the floor of the upper room is wood the animals living below help to keep the place warm. I’ve seen such places in Wales and in Normandy.

    When they arrive Mary is in strong labour, maybe the second stage and in no condition to climb to the crowded upper room. I would help her to deliver resting on a straw bed. Yes the women would be there to help and Joseph no doubt despatched to get water for drinking and washing. Baby would be put to the breast immediately (this helps them both and facilitates the third stage of labour. The baby Jesus can then be placed in the manger beside her while they deal with the afterbirth. Virgin, first baby -yes some pain, stretching and possibly tearing but a normal, quick birth suggests no problems (after all God the Father is in control) Then Mary would be assisted to bathe baby and wrap him and let him sleep while she too rests. ‘Swaddling clothes’ were use in the Middle Ages was this also a practice in Jesus time?

  32. Post script. Question for Ian ‘Was Mary really an unmarried mother?’

    William Domeris in a contextual approach to Bible Study on Matthew’s Gospel says that the first stage of the marriage often translated as ‘betrothal’ was a legal contract- they were married but had not yet ‘come together’.

    I have also read that in the culture of the time it was not unusual for the pair to have ‘come together’ before they actually set up home together, so the only one besides Mary who knew he was not the Father was Joseph himself.

  33. Nelson, thanks for raising this question, which has bothered me over the years—but I don’t think it is quite as clear as you suggest.

    For one thing, the word was used flexibly for at least five centuries before Jesus to describe not a particular people but this general area and its culture. For example, Aristotle in his Meterology says: ‘Again if, as is fabled, there is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in it floats and does not sink, this would bear out what we have said. They say that this lake is so bitter and salt that no fish live in it and that if you soak clothes in it and shake them it cleans them’ which must be referring the Dead Sea.

    The Wikipedia page notes:

    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 other surrounding cities such as Ashkelon to form “Syria Palaestina” (Syria Palaestina). There is circumstantial evidence linking Hadrian with the name change,[17] although the precise date is not certain,[17] and the assertion of some scholars that the name change was intended “to complete the dissociation with Judaea”[18][19] is disputed.[20]

    There is no doubt the Romans wanted to avoid any reference to Judaea, but the use of both terms ‘Syria’ and ‘Palestina’ suggests they weren’t quite s directed as you make out.

  34. Jean–thank you so much for saying your piece! I think your construction is entirely plausible given what we know. Before anyone else comments (!) none of this is in Luke, but (unlike the traditional story) is does fit with the text.

    I think you are right about both your observations concerning the betrothal process. The first point it clear from Matthew 1, and given the young age of typical betrothals, the second part also makes sense.

  35. For years I have been annoyed with nativity scenes and church Christmas programs that place the “Wise Men” (always 3…) beside the shepherds. I haven been a teacher of children in church and in Christian schools and I have always believed we need to be as honest as we can be regarding Scripture. This is one “myth” I am glad is finally being exposed. This past Christmas as I was privately reading the story, it suddenly occurred to me that the Bible doesn’t say Jesus was born the night they arrived in Bethlehem. Scripture says ‘…while they were there the time came that she should be delivered…’; could Jesus have been born a day or two or three after they arrived? Is it definite He was born at night? God could chose any time He wanted to announce the earthly birth of his son. It seems obvious from Scripture that the announcement was made at night but that does not require the birth to have taken place then.

    To me, the “stable” and “manger” ideas do not require Jesus to have been born away from others. Actually a public stable could be rather open to public view. A town crowded with people coming for the census might take on some characteristics of New York City – a city that never sleeps; activities in a stable, whether night or day, could attract attention of passersby who might pause to see what is happening. And women, being women, would very likely take pity on a young woman going into labor and feel it their duty to assist her. A variety of women may have been on hand – the innkeeper’s wife, the lady living across the lane, a lady passing on her way to the market. If Mary had been in a private home, her female relatives would have surrounded her and none of these other ladies would have been needed nor admitted to assist. Would the family have allowed a group of shepherds to enter their home to view the baby and tell their “wild tale” of angel messengers?

    I am glad the Christian community is questioning the “traditions” that have crept into the beautiful story as given to us in Scripture. We need to make sure we keep separate the truths that Scripture tells us from the things that may (or may not) be true. Our goals should be to teach what God says and to direct all praise and glory to Him, not to weave a delightful “story” that will create a beautiful picture and amaze others with our storytelling ability.
    May Christians lead the way in our communities to share God’s Word truthfully throughout the year.

  36. Very good article, well thought out with tradition, culture, and scripture. I only have one question/problem. Know that Joseph married Mary after she became pregnant would people have less likely to offer hospitality? I am not suggesting that they would have gone to an active or abandon shack of a stable but, would their situation not have made hospitality rare?

  37. That’s an interesting question, and Jean Walker’s comment touches on it above. I think it is quite hard to tell, and I suspect the evidence from Matthew I mention in my comment probably says more about whether Joseph was still alive. Not sure if Bailey has written on this.

  38. Those are great thoughts and points made. I don’t disagree with your approach of challenging people’s assumptions. The component I do disagree with, however, is the title “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable.” It appears many of your main points or statements are opinions supported by reason or even facts.

    – “it would be unthinkable that Joseph …”
    – “This makes no sense.”
    – “It is my impression that …”

    I’m not at all implying those supporting the original Christmas story have 100% proof; but your title “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable” sounds to me like you are declaring there is 100% proof that they are wrong. Though others may read those six words differently, why to you phrase your title that way? Is it a truth or opinion that their beliefs are wrong without a doubt, that “Jesus wasn’t born in a manger”?


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