Once more: Jesus was not 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: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture.

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).

41VBVURHyMLThe 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 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.’

1st-century-home-in-israelWhat, 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. 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?

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, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been. Secondly, it is easy to underestimate how powerful a hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture. Dick France explores this issue alongside other aspects of preaching on the infancy narratives in in his excellent chapter in We Proclaim the Word of LifeHe relates his own experience of the effect of this:

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

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

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

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

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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215 thoughts on “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable”

  1. On Carlson’s Blog note #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.,,”
    1. There is no Roman censes for taxation during the period under question.

    2. However, there is a Caesar Augustus decree for an Oath of Allegiance from everyone in the Roman empire in 3 BC. See: https://books.google.com/books?id=zBurLat60hIC&pg=PA127&dq=149.+Loyalty+Oath+Of+Gangra,+3+B.C.&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiexeii0tHdAhVDuVMKHeJiCasQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=149.%20Loyalty%20Oath%20Of%20Gangra%2C%203%20B.C.&f=false

    Josephus also mentioned that an oath of allegiance was demanded by Augustus about twelve or ?fteen months before the death of Herod [Antiquities, XVII, 41-45]. A complete copy of this required oath was found in Gangra, Asia Minor in 1899 and it is dated 3BC. A second partially preserved oath has been found on the island of Samos. If you read this oath there are three things that stand out to me: 1) this oath is not to Rome or the Senate, it is strictly to Augustus; 2) the place where you must give this oath is not specified; 3) Herod is not mentioned.

    3. Here is what I believe:
    When Herod received this decree, he modified it to also include allegiance to himself and he added the requirement that all of King David’s descendants give their oath in David’s home town and all others in their own home town. This required both Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem since they were both related to David and his home was Bethlehem. Herod’s purpose? … To identify and kill the Messiah who he erroneously thought would try to replace him.

    Joseph and Mary remained in Bethlehem after they finished all their temple responsibilities related to the birth of Jesus. There was too much risk in returning to Nazareth right-away since some of the Nazareth people could recognize that Mary was pregnant before she was married, and they would want to punish both Mary and Joseph for this transgression.

    The Magi visited Jesus on December 25th 2 BC and, after they left, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, having been forewarned by an angel in late December 2 BC that their family was in jeopardy.

    Herod died in January, 1 BC and having been told about his death, Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt, and took up residence in Nazareth, Matthew 2:19-23. (Note: Joseph and Mary were in Egypt a very short period).

  2. Brian on December 5 wondered if the teaching of Alfred Edersheim has stood the test of time. In that regard I note that Ian’s main paragraph on “kataluma” recites the same thinking on the meaning of the “kataluma” that Edersheim put in a footnote on page 185, volume 1, of Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1899 edition (Preface for the Second and Third Editions had been signed in 1886 — three years before Ederheim’s death.) Thus, Ian seems to indicate that Ederheim’s thinking from over 135 years ago is still on track.
    On the place of the birth Edersheim reasoned from Jewish interpretation of the prophets (most likely Micah 4:8 — that’s the watchtower reference that probably Tom Nead cited) that the Messiah was to appear in Migdal Eder. Edersheim wrote:
    “And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so, was the belief , that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.” (page 186). Edersheim was deeply impressed to think that Jesus was born in the same birthing chamber as were the sheep destined for sacrifice in the Temple. He saw the birth location not as that of an outcast, but rather a location pointing to a destiny.
    Others have noted that swaddling clothes were used by those shepherds to wrap new born lambs. Thus, the statement by the angel gave the shepherds precise information about where to find the baby.

    • That is really interesting. I think there has been a recent recovery of this understanding of shepherds, and some make a theological connection between the swaddling of Jesus and the preparation of lambs for sacrifice (I cannot remember the link).

  3. A few points: First, all that we can be sure of is what is specifically stated in Scripture. A manger is mentioned. A kataluma is mentioned as not where they were. No stable, no callous innkeepers, no poverty, no shunning. Put certainty and confidence only in what is specified.

    But as long as you remember point one, it’s okay to use some imagination to fill in the unknown details. We couldn’t have Christmas cards or any religious artwork at all without filling in some details with some guesswork at what it looked like.

    Your explanation, however, is also guesswork. It’s slightly more probable guesswork, but just like the stable imagery, your version does not have the certainty of Scriptures. So we should tell people, “How dare you guess that Jesus was born in a stable, when I have a slightly more probable guess that he was born in a living room (attached to a stable)!” Since the shepherds visited at night, and the animals were brought in at night, he was probably surrounded by all the same animals that show up on our Christmas cards, complaining with moo’s and baa’s because a baby was occupying their feeding trough. So why can’t I call it a stable, even if it wasn’t a separate building? It was a shelter for animals (as evidenced by their manger), wasn’t it? A stable by definition, regardless of what it’s attached to.

    And the angels clearly intended that a swaddled baby lying in a manger was a “sign,” something so unexpected that it would tell the shepherds this must be the place. No other child would fit the sign. If he was lying in a living room, in the most natural spot to lay a baby in that room, how was that any sign at all?

    Wouldn’t a kataluma be more private than the main living area? If they were welcomed into a family setting, wouldn’t the other guests have been moved out of the kataluma into the main living area to give Mary the privacy of a separate room? And why mention that there was no room for them in the kataluma, unless Luke was explaining that they were displaced from where you’d expect to find them, to a less desirable location (the only question being how much less desirable and how unusual for a baby to be born there)? And if this was Joseph’s home, why would which room the baby was in need to be mentioned at all?

    • Yes, you are quite right to say that there were animals around–but of course that is because there were animals around in the home all the time. So it is not true that the animals were a special feature of the nativity; they were just a feature of everyday life.

      And I don’t agree with you that the piece is ‘just more guesswork’. We know what a kataluma is; we know houses had one main room (from historical and textual information as set out); we know that animals were brought in; and we have a good idea of the setting from the language that Luke uses.

      I am not sure I buy the idea that the ‘sign’ the angels point to would have been unexpected. Every baby in the ancient world (and in most cultures until quite recently) would have been swaddled. I think the strange thing about the ‘sign’ is that this special king has in fact come into the world just like every other baby—and isn’t that in fact the whole point of the incarnation?

    • “no callous innkeeper” – Agreed
      “no poverty” – Disagreed
      “no shunning” – Agreed

      “there was no place for them in the inn”: The word “inn” is used only twice in the New Testament and each of these is translated from a different Greek word.

      In the first of these (the good Samaritan story) the preferred translation (one listed first) is “public inn”(Luke 10:34 ESV)

      In the second (Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem) the preferred translation is “guest chamber” (Luke 2:7 ESV)

      Some examples from other Bible versions:
      Bible in Basic English “… no room for them in the house.”
      International Standard Version “… no place for them in the guest quarters.”
      Today’s New International Version “… no guest room available for them. “

      In the Jewish culture, at that time, providing hospitality to travelers was not optional; it was an obligation. [Ref: Alfred Edersheim ; SKETCHES OF JEWISH SOCIAL LIFE; Chapter 4]

      Also, by offering “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” for sacrifice in Luke 2:24 this indicates Joseph and Mary were poor. Those who were able on such an occasion were required to offer a lamb for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering. If not able to bring a “lamb,” then they were permitted to bring two turtle-doves or two young pigeons, Leviticus 12:6-8.

      Because Mary was an unwed mother, I doubt Joseph and Mary would be looking to stay with family or friends in Bethlehem. And the above scriptures suggest to me that their plans for housing in Bethlehem was to find a free guest chamber. However, since many people had come to Bethlehem for the registration, none were available.

  4. Maybe… Joseph wasn’t there at the birth. Maybe (and unsurprisingly) other women from the family attended her. Maybe a woman with experience. Midwives are hardly a new phenomenon…

    Maybe the shocking thing is the mere ordinariness of God taking flesh in a normal loving home. “Tears and smiles like us he knew” describes a God who truly becomes one with us of of us.

    Maybe in looking for further “extraordinary” we miss the true splendor of the incarnation.

  5. All this hair splitting is hilarious. I don’t care if Jesus was born in a manger, among family, or in the desert. The point is that Messiah was born. How or where doesn’t matter. That Jesus was born, lived, and died to save, and redeem mankind is. Focus on what is important.

  6. Personally, I’m not looking for the “extraordinary”. I’m looking for the truth.

    “…God is true” (John 3:33). However, that does not mean translations and interpretations of God’s word are true. I believe God is consistent and when I find inconsistencies within scripture or between scripture and secular history and/or science, this leads me to the question “Why is there an inconsistency and is there a change that would bring us closer to the truth?” Some of what I have found is not very significant but does change the “color” of the narrative. For example: “Mary was 12 to 14 years old (let’s assume 14) when she walked the 85 miles, by herself, to visit her aunt Elisabeth who was 89 years old and 6 months pregnant.”

    But some discoveries are very significant. For example: some theologians came to the wrong interpretation of when King Herod died. This introduced inconsistencies between scripture and secular history, opened a door to atheistic criticism, gave us the wrong date for Jesus’ birth, distorted our nativity traditions, and made a secret of magnificent, divine beauty. Literally, thousands and thousands of books and papers use a date for Herod’s death of 4 BC, which has affected the birth date of Jesus. Yet, the evidence of history, archaeology and astronomy is now showing Herod died in early 1 BC and that Jesus was born in 3 BC, which aligns scripture and secular history.

    What other magnificent, divine wonders are hiding behind other inconsistencies?

    • In defence of theologians, I suspect it was historians rather than theologians who decided upon the date of 4BC for the death of Herod the Great. Then, the theologians had to try to fit the Biblical record around this date. (Is the main reason for the date that 4BC is the ancient date for the start of the reigns of his successors?)

      • Hi David,
        Good point. Most of the early Christian Historians believed Jesus was born from 3 to 1 BC and they had access to many historical sources not known to us. So, the question becomes; When and how did 4BC for Herod the Great’s death seem to become an unquestionable “fact”? I don’t find this is scripture translations or commentaries. Probably this all started when astronomers found solid facts about when eclipses occurred. But the earliest reference I have found for this is 1971; Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East, by M. Kudlek and E. Mickler. I need to dig into this further

    • “Personally, I’m not looking for the “extraordinary”. I’m looking for the truth.”

      I’d suggest that’s what *everybody* on this blog is doing ?

      I can’t recall anyone going to the stake over a date for the birth of Jesus and, for myself, have not yet read thousands and thousands of books dating Herods death. Perhaps at 68 I’m too young ? ? I’m content that the birth is given all the good historical context it needs in the scriptures.

      Other views are available…. Vardaman is reported as saying the census was every 17 years under Augustus and took 2 years to complete (starting in the spring). He places the first at 12BC and the second at 6BC. He draws in evidence from the Lapis Veneus in support. That ends up with a much earlier date for Jesus birth…. But then “one says this and another says that…” Very few people are actually experts in their own right. Most are copyists and we repeat what we think fits pro – tem.

      The exact date would be interesting but always provisional….

      • Ian,
        My note was in response to your use of the word “extraordinary” in your December 11th blog. I believe *most* of the bloggers on this site are not looking for just “extraordinary” events.

        Over the last 16 years of Bible study I have run into many, many references to Herod dying in 4 BC and I’m sure there are orders of magnitude more references that I have not seen.

        Scripture combined with astronomy tells us, down to an hour/minute range, when Jesus was born (Revelation 12:1-5 “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars … gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron , but her child was caught up to God and to his throne …”) When we accept the date for Herod’s death as 4 BC, we miss the astrological signs of the Star of Bethlehem, miss the date when the Magi visited Jesus, and miss a major event that occurred at Jesus’ crucifixion (View YouTube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGUlWa2r).

        Re: “Other views are available”
        Caesar Augustus kept a personal diary, called Res Gestae, of major events that occurred during his reign.
        “The census (registration) of 3/2BC is mentioned only by Luke and Tertullian (Augustus wrote an account of the major events of his life; he wrote of of?cial [tax] censuses in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD, but nothing of the year in discussion, yet Luke said the whole Roman world was involved).

        a. The year 2 BC was one of the most important in the career of Augustus, as he was sixty years old and it was the Silver Jubilee of his rule (begun in 27 BC; it was also the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome).

        b. On February 5, 2 BC, the Senate and the people of Rome awarded him the highest of all decorations: Pater Patriae (Father of the Country).

        c. There was no year like it for celebrations in Rome, and the festivities and celebrations encompassed the Empire in its entirety (including the provinces).

        d. Augustus knew beforehand of the special honor and issued an “edict” calling for a fresh registration of all who lived within the borders of the greater Empire (Luke 2:15).

        e. The purpose of this registration was to secure an oath of allegiance to Caesar Augustus in his Jubilee year.

        f. Josephus mentioned that an oath of allegiance was demanded by Augustus about twelve or ?fteen months before the death of Herod [Antiquities, XVII, 41-45]” [Ref: http://www.versebyverse.org/doctrine/birthofchrist.pdf%5D

        Re: “Very few people are actually experts in their own right. Most are copyists”
        Agreed. There are a lot of puzzle pieces to be put together and many of them disagree. The challenge is putting them together is such a way that scripture is consistent within itself, secular information is consistent within itself, scripture and secular information are consistent with each other, and different views/perspectives of the same event are consistent with each other. For example, looking at Jesus birthday from the perceptive of; John the Baptist’s birthday; Augustus’ Oath of Allegiance; and Scripture/Astronomy are consistent with each other.

        Re: “The exact date would be interesting but always provisional….”
        Agreed. What science calls “truth” is not absolute. I usually refer to as “conditional truth”. It is the best we know at this time but is surject to change. Take the Star of Bethlehem for example: “Astrophysicists … cite such an alignment occurs about every 38,000 years. [Ref: http://catholicstraightanswers.com/three-kings-truth-behind-star/%5D

  7. My understanding is there is no historical record of Herod’s edict to kill children under 2. That there is no census of people returning to their ancestral roots – which would have been ridiculously difficult for Jews all over. There is no other mention of Bethlehem in the Gospels. This story was added to fulfill the prophecy from the Old Testament. Also, the virginal birth, apparently, was a common myth used in other pagan cultures long before Jesus. I do think the myth is powerful and beautiful, but I don’t think it’s factual.

    • Hi Harriet,
      No other mention in the Gospels? How about:

      “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” (and other references in Matthew 2:1-18)

      There has been a perceived issue between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke in that one seems to associate the holy family with Bethlehem but the other with Nazareth, with the latter needing to explain why the birth was in Bethlehem. But the idea, new to me, that Joseph’s home was Bethlehem, and tha the journey in Luke 2.5,6 was the “home-taking” (see the paper by Carlson linked by Ian), gives a resolution to this difficulty. I have just noticed in Matthew 1.20 the message to Joseph (in NIV): “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife…” The verb translated here ‘take home’ (paralambano) does seem in its uses in the NT to have the sense of actual ‘taking along with’, rather than ‘taking to oneself’. It is the verb Matthew uses for Joseph taking Jesus and Mary to Egypt, for example.

    • Harriet,
      As for the killing of the children under 2 – Bethlehem was a small place (archeologists estimate 400 people) so we are probably not talking very many children. I believe also that children were less valued – because so many died in infancy anyway. Couple that with the fact that Herod was known to be quite a brutal ruler and killed lots of people. It would therefore (regrettably) be seen as an unremarkable event.

      As for the Census if you read the conversation above you will find a reference to an article by Carson who puts forward cogent evidence that Bethlehem was Joseph’s actual home not just his ancestral home.

  8. It is interesting that Carson also suggests that bring Mary home to Bethlehem completes the marriage. So Mary and Joseph were married by the time Jesus was born. That sheds a new light to me on Matt:1:24 which also implies that they were married before the birth.

    • Hi Nick,
      I was also impressed by this observation for the same reason that it helps to see how Matthew and Luke are in alignment. A criticism of Luke has been that he seems to have Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, and then has to contrive a reason for them to go to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth.

      If you split Luke 2:4,5 into two sentences as in NIV, it sounds like Joseph needed to travel to register. However, with it a single sentence – as in Greek and KJV, I think it could be read as the reason for Joseph’s journey was specifically “to be registered with Mary.” That is, complete the wedding process so that she is his wife for the registration, and the son she is carrying will be his son, in the male line of David. Thus the Empire provides a means for Jesus to be recognised officially as a Son of David.

      • The registration wasn’t done for a census, taxes or to register they were wed. It was in response to Caesar Augustus’ 3 BC decree that everyone in the Roman empire should give him an oath of allegiance. This oath was modified by Herod to include allegiance to himself and to designate that descendants of David should register their oath in Bethlehem. This last requirement was done so Herod could identify any possible Messiah and kill him because he thought, wrongly, the Messiah would seek to replace him. Both Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem because they were both related to David.

        • Hi Mel,
          I’m not suggesting that it was simply Joseph being registered, rather that the general registration required of everyone meant that Mary would have been registered as his wife as a by-product.

          The words used by Luke (the noun ‘apographe’ and the verb ‘apogapho’) are related to writing in etymology, and from biblehub.com the meanings of the verb are given as:
          a. to write off, copy (from some pattern).
          b. to enter in a register or records; specifically, to enter in the public records the names of men, their property and income, to enroll (cf. ????????, b.); middle to have oneself registered, to enroll oneself

          Therefore, the use of ‘registration’ and ‘to be registered’ (as in ESV, NIV) or ‘enrolled’ (ASV) seem fair. I’m not sure how the verb and noun can be seen as the occasion for making an oath of loyalty. In the contemporary accounts of this oath you propose, what is Greek words are used in reference?

          • Hi David,
            I agree. “registration” or “enrollment” are better interpretations. Now the question becomes: “What is this registration for?”

            A complete copy of Caesar Augustus’ Loyality Oath Of Gangra, Asia Minor 3 BC was found in 1899. A second Augustan oath has been partially preserved from the island of Samos. You can read the actual oath and it’s requirements in Ancient Statutes – Loyalty Oath of Gangra, 3 BC [https://books.google.com/books?id=zBurLat60hIC&pg=PA127&dq=Loyalty+Oath+Of+Gangra,+3+B.C.+found&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi3itzlkLXRAhWBRCYKHTx7AjwQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=Loyalty%20Oath%20Of%20Gangra%2C%203%20B.C.%20found&f=false]. This oath is also referred to in Augustus’ diary of his accomplishments and by Josephus (See: http://www.versebyverse.org/doctrine/birthofchrist.pdf)

    • “Marriage” is two separate processes/events in the Jewish culture at that time; Betrothal, which is a legal and financial covenant; and Marriage, which is a consummation. These two events can be far apart. Matthew 1:24 doesn’t refer to consummation. It refers to Matthew 1:20. The intent is to cre3ate a public perception the consummation with Joseph has occurred so Mary will not be punished as an unwed mother. Luke 2:5 reinforces this by saying Joseph went to Bethlehem “with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” No consummation with Joseph has occurred.

  9. One of my major resources for researching Christmas Narrative consistency is “The Star That Astonished the World” By Ernest Martin. The focus of this book is far more than the Star of Bethlehem.

    You can purchase this paperback book from the following site for $23.95. which includes shipping in US. This is done by going to the site and clicking “order Book” at the end of the first line.

    Or you can read it free by going to this site, scrolling down to the Table of Contents and clicking on the chapter you would like to read. Chapter 5 links Revelation 12:1-5 to Astronomy and Jesus’s birth.

    Or you can buy it from Amazon for $63.89

    I find this book to be very helpful, but you will need to judge it for yourself. I have one assumption, that I know of, that results in a disagreement with the author. The result of Jesus’ first rejection at Nazareth, Luke 4:16-31, is they want to kill him. This suggests to me they are Fundamentalists. If Fundamentalists find Mary is pregnant before she is married, they may want to stone her to death. If they find out Mary was six months pregnant when she “married” Joseph, both Mary and Joseph would be in trouble. In order to keep their secret: 1) They would want to have a reason to leave Nazareth before the baby is born – God provides this through Caesar Augustus’ decree for an oath of allegiance; 2) They would not want to stay with family or friends in Bethlehem [assuming they have some there]; 3) They would not want to return to Nazareth shortly after the baby was born – they would stay in Bethlehem.

  10. Ian, I know people substitute other words in songs with which they are not happy such as ‘In Christ alone’; so I wondered if you maybe substituted the word ‘annexe’ for ‘stable’ whilst singing carols?

  11. IN the interest of historical context why is Palestinian culture mentioned? The people in the area would have considered themselves Jewish and they lived in Judea. They would have been confused if you referred to them as Palestinians as the name for the region did not come into existence until after the Romans crushed the final Jewish revolt.

    • See the discussion above in several comments. But the point of the observation about animal keeping is precisely that they are *not* in any sense ‘Jewish’. They did not arise from religious practice but from widespread cultural habits in the region, and would be shared by all who lived in the area—and indeed many others since. Yes, the term ‘Palestinian’ is anachronistic in strict terms, but it has long been used as a designation for the region, since the Roman designation of Syria Palestrina, and Jews in the region called themselves Palestinian for this reason until 1948. Its misuse as a political and ethnic term is very recent.

  12. I’m curious as to your continual use of the term “Palestinian” in this article. I have to admit, when the term was used in reference to the land it grated on me as historically out of place since “palestine” as a land was not widely codified until the Ottoman Empire in my minimal understanding of history. Why not Judea?? Isnt that what the land was called at the time of Jesus? Is that too “Jewish?”
    But ok, I’ll ignore it because I love a good Christmas critique as much as the next person. Maybe the author is superinposing a modern-day land designation for relatability. Maybe he’s really into making a political point. Ok. Your choice. The location is the location and the name has changed over the centuries.
    But then….”Palestinian culture….”
    Really?!?! It was THAT offensive to write Jewish culture??? There was no “Palestinian” culture at the time of Jesus’s birth. And Jesus’s culture would have been Jewish, unless they’ve changed that since I heard it told.
    what kind of anti-Semitic time machine are you employing here?

    • Se the discussion above. But the point of the observation about animal keeping is precisely that they are *not* in any sense ‘Jewish’. They did not arise from religious practice but from widespread cultural habits in the region, and would be shared by all who lived in the area—and indeed many others since. Yes, the term ‘Palestinian’ is anachronistic in strict terms, but it has long been used as a designation for the region, since the Roman designation of Syria Palestrina, and Jews in the region called themselves Palestinian for this reason until 1948. Its misuse as a political and ethnic term is very recent.

      • (Again,) according to Wikipedia, Greek writers were using the term for the region from Phoenicia to Egypt in the fifth century BC. The Roman name of Syria Palestrina did not arise out of thin air. It seems utterly fair to use it to describe regional practices in the first century. Judea was a political entity forming only part of the region.

        See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine_(region)

        • My understanding is that the Greek designation was not widespread and in use anywhere in 1st century “Palestine” itself? That’s why “Palestinian culture” seems especially awkward because culture is an expression of a people and that people had no connection to Greek “Palestine” or 20th century colonial “Palestine.”

  13. Just how would the Jews anywhere have handle this oath? Swearing to alien gods and at pagan temples. Just what would Roman administration outside Jerusalem have been like?

    In the third year from the twelfth consulship of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of a god, March 6, in the � at Gangra, the following oath was taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them:

    �I swear by Jupiter, Earth, Sun, by all the gods and goddesses, and by Augustus himself, that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and to his children and descendants all my life in word, in deed, and in thought, regarding as friends whomever they so regard, and considering as enemies whomever they so adjudge; that in defense of their interests I will spare neither body, soul, life, not children, but will in every way undergo every danger in defense of their interests; that whenever I perceive or hear anything being said or planned or done against them I will lodge information about this and will be an enemy to whoever says or plans or does any such thing; and that whomever they adjudge to be enemies I will by land and sea, with weapons and sword, pursue and punish.� But if I do anything contrary to this oath, or not in conformity with what I swore, I myself call down upon myself, my body, my soul, my life, my children, and all my family and property, utter ruin and utter destruction unto all my issue and all my descendants, and may neither earth nor sea receive the bodies of my family or my descendants, or yield fruits to them.�

    The same oath was sworn by all the people in the land at altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts.� In this manner did the people of Phazimon, who inhabit the city now called Neapolis, all together swear the oath in the temple of Augustus at the altar of Augustus.

  14. It makes absolutely no difference where he was born (house, cave, stable, etc.) The main point is that He was born. End of story… the rest is all speculations and causes division.

  15. Cannot wait for all of those concerned about arguing worthiness on their judgment day as having been a great debunker!!
    Prefer to first my donations to the poor and needy!

    • Strange that you think it is either/or. And strange too that you think carefully reflecting on the truth of what Scripture says to be a mere exercise in virtue point-scoring for the day of judgement.

      God calls us all to read the scriptures carefully and build our lives on it. I hope you do that as much as I do.

  16. Thanks Ian for an excellent article. I would also mention that there is no discussion about Jesus fulfilling the Jewish festivals. I have no proof, but it is strongly suggested in the gospel of John that He was born during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. John 1:14 states the Jesus came and dwelt among us. The Greek means “to pitch a tent” or to “tabernacle” among us. My theory is that He was born on the first day of Sukkot, and then circumcised on the 8th day as required by Torah, which would have been the last day of Sukkot. Another issue is that He was not born on December 25th. I will not elaborate or I would be writing an article of my own. Thanks again for your article.


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