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. I can go along with most of the assertions here, but in the articles I have read none of them pay attention to the possibility that Joseph might not have been welcomed by any of his relatives ! In the 21century we see evidence of men and women being shunned, or even worse, when it is perceived that they have brought shame on their family. Has anybody discussed this?
    Or is it just possible that when John says “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11 TNIV) it was true in particular as well as in general?

    • Yes, of course it is a possibility. But what is interesting is that in neither Luke’s nor Matthew’s accounts of the nativity is there the slightest hint of this. It only comes later in the gospels, and most obviously in John, and John 1.11 functions as an anticipation of the way Jesus’ ministry is received; I cannot see any suggestion that this connects with the nativity narratives–can you?

      • Oh yes I recognize that it’s a bit of a speculative application of John 1:11 on my part , but Matthew refers to Joseph’s initial desire to protect Mary from disgrace so there is the whiff of scandal in Nazareth. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the news had trickled out to Bethlehem. I don’t think we can assume he would have been welcomed in those circumstances. He wouldn’t be in many cultures today.

        • I don’t think we can assume he would have been welcomed in those circumstances.

          But surely — given how important hospitality is in that culture — it would have been a massive deal to reject Joseph and Mary, like, on the level of ‘my entire branch of the family is no longer talking to your entire branch of the family’, rather than just a Jane Austen-like ‘we are not at home to Lydia’.

          In which case it would have been mentioned, surely?

          (Regarding protecting Mary from disgrace: doesn’t the fact that Joseph thinks he can spare Mary’s reputation by keeping things quiet rather imply that word hasn’t, yet, got out? Otherwise her reputation would already be gone.)

  2. Ingenious, but it fails to take sufficient account of the statement that Jesus ended up in a manger rather than in the comfort and safety of human accommodation.

      • On the contrary, the purpose of the scriptural account is to demonstrate that Jesus was not born into the comfort of either an inn or a guest room (if your interpretation is correct) but in the humility of exclusion from such a place, and was placed as a newborn into a feeding trough as part of the lowly nature of his arrival in this world. That’s how literature works.

        If what took place was unremarkable, it would not have been mentioned. But it forms part of the infancy narrative, because it does have something to say about the remarkable circumstances of the birth of the king of kings.

        • Where in the account does Luke make any reference to the ‘humility of exclusion’? Animals were included in the home, and any first-century reader would see reference to animals as reference to the centre of family activity.

        • Alan, I recommend picking up a copy of Bailey’s book to see the complete argument. Bailey shows how the birth narrative is indeed connected to the theme of hospitality in scripture, and that the attempt was to show Jesus being born into this God-prepared community for welcoming. This is an ideal rather than a horror.

        • If I’m getting this correctly, it was only “unremarkable” in that it wasn’t what the Jews, generally speaking, would have pictured for the arrival of a great King. In this case “common” & “unremarkable” aren’t exactly synonymous, but also not battling one another. For the birth of the King of the world, it was unremarkable, even if the method itself was common.

          • Yes, I’d agree. But it is much more remarkable that the King of the Universe should take human form. This is what Paul is referring to in 2 Cor 8.9–the poverty of our nature, not the particular poverty of a certain social situation.

  3. Ian – thanks again – I used these insights for a very engaging sermon last Christmas. And included these alternative lyrics:-

    Sleepless night, horrible night
    Baby cried, half the time !
    Round we walked, this Mother and Child –
    Holy Infant not tender or mild.
    Sleep is desperately needed…
    Sleep is all that I need.

    Sleepless night, horrible night…
    Shepherd’s came, what a sight!
    Covered in poo and smelt like a bar;
    Brought their sheep, that’s going to far!
    I can’t wait for the morn…
    I can’t wait for the morn.

    Sleepless night, horrible night
    Son of God? Yes, alright.
    Asleep at last, just look at his face,
    See the dawn of ordinary grace!
    Jesus Lord at your birth.
    Jesus Lord at your birth.

    © Paul Bradbury 2017

    • You might also like Andrew Petersen’s “Labor of Love.” The lyrics start “It was not a silent night / there was blood on the ground / you could a woman cry / in the alleyway that night / in the streets of David’s town.”

      Good stuff. It does use “stable” and might have some other historical inaccuracies, but it is a less sanitized reimagining.

  4. Your diagram does show a further “stable” attached to the house: if the living room and kataluma were already rammed, it’s at least possible this final corner had to be drafted into service. Especially if, as suggested above, they’d heard (as I know from experience, having married into a large news network) about the suspiciously early pregnancy and hasty wedding (if there was one! It’s not recorded…) and, while feeling unable to refuse help (as you say) altogether, didn’t feel obliged to sleep there themselves to make room for a couple of embarrassing “black sheep”.
    We, are, however, like our predecessors, merely speculating on the basis of the scanty information available. And if a more certain “refugee” narrative is required, it doesn’t take long to arrive, hot on the heels of Herod’s men…

    • Thanks Karen. But I don’t think the insights here (mostly from others) are ‘mere speculation’. The meaning of the word ‘kataluma’ is well established, and I have pulled in other evidence supporting Bailey’s observations about one-room houses.

      So I think we have a firm foundation here.

      Again, it is worth noting that Matthew doesn’t make much of Jesus being a refugee, even if his family sought refuge. There was a large Jewish community in Egypt, and we have no reason to think that he did not also have relations there, or at least kinsmen who would welcome the family. It is very different from the kind of refugee situations that we see today.

      • Also if you are referring to diagram 1.3 the stable is not a separate room from the family room (despite the line being there, there would be no full wall there – that line merely shows where the height changes). The stable portion of the room was just a few steps down from the raised family room with the mangers along the half wall at the height for animals to feed from easily. I’ve seen that diagram before with a better explanation. This picture illustrates in a more 3 dimensional way what the simple diagram is getting at – http://www.kenxbriggs.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/NativityGood.jpg

          • Um, which of these images is correct. The “NativityGood.jpg” image shows an entirely different arrangement to the 3D image in your post.

            It would be weird to have the animals in a side area, rather than have a standard architecture where people were above the animals normally – in part because a donkey or sheep could easily jump up on to the sleeping area if the kenxbriggs.com image is correct. One rude, wet, awakening by a donkey in the night would doubtless have you rearrange your living space if at all possible.

          • The Nativity Good picture posted by a commentator matches the 2-d diagram more closely; my 3-d picture is from an unrelated source.

            But what they have in common is the fact that the animals are brought into the living area and (the key point) the manger/food trough is not away in some stable apart from the family, but at the heart of the family home.

    • But in an honour based community, would they not be shunned, bringing family disgrace rather than than welcomed, if they were not married during time the time of conception?

      • would they not be shunned, bringing family disgrace rather than than welcomed, if they were not married during time the time of conception?

        Oh, yes, and they would have known exactly when Jesus was concieved thanks to the ultrasound scan Mary would have had in the Narareth Health Service hospital.

        There were enough people around trying to discredit Jesus later in his life; if there had been even the slightest doubt about his legitimacy would they not had have used it to attack him? That there is no record of them doing to is not proof of anything but you would think that if he had been called ‘Jesus the bastard’ some record of it would have survived.

        • I have heard it said that when, in Mark 6.3, Jesus is referred to as “Mary’s son”, this might be a snide reference to rumours of Jesus’ unorthodox origins.

          Perhaps were more forgiving than we might think. (I recall reading that in England in the 16th or 17th century perhaps half of brides were pregnant on their wedding day). If Bethlehem were Joseph’s home town, and Mary spent three months with cousin Elizabeth in “the hill country of Judea”, then the two were not very distant during Mary’s first trimester. Perhaps there was a nudge and a wink, and a “Joseph jumping the gun, but at least they are betrothed.”

        • I have heard it suggested that the retort in John 8: 41 of those who were in heated discussion with Jesus (“We are not illegitimate…”) was actually a very loaded reference to his parentage.

  5. Weren’t Mary and Joseph engaged to be married at the the time of identified conception, according to scripture? Clarification needed.

  6. If you go to Bethlehem, you’ll discover that people in the Second Temple period lived in caves. You will find one in the Church of the Nativity itself, and another, in Beit Sahur. In Taibe, you can visit a typical Judean house as well. By visiting these places, you will have a much better sense of what these terms mean. I encourage everyone to visit these places to support Palestinian tourism. The witness of the Palestinian Christians should always ever be a witness to their faith in the God of Israel, and their kinsman-redeemer, Jesus.

    • Thanks for this Judith. Yes, indeed, people did live in caves–as they did until quite recently here in Nottingham.

      BUT no cave is mentioned in the nativity story. Luke is quite clear about where they are; he says there was no space in the guest room, which (as Bailey points out) would be built on the family home, so I think he is right in saying that the first-century reader would naturally assume that the child was born in the home where the animals are brought in.

      The cave tradition comes from the later, and comparatively unhistorical, Protevangelium of James.

    • But the Palestinian Arabs are not Jews, so I don’t see how Yeshua ben Mariam could be their go’el. And sadly there are not many Christian Arabs left in the Palestinian Authority areas. Even Welby has woken up to this fact.

      • Boaz became the go’el for Ruth, from Moab (does that count as Arabia?). And she is explicitly listed in Yeshua’s genealogy 🙂

        • No, the Moabites weren’t Arabs and Ruth converted to Judaism (to speak anachronistically).

          We used to say in New Zealand that the Israelites never settled in NZ because they were driven away by the Moa bites. Er, I’ll get my ephod ..

          • And Palestinian Christians have ‘converted’ to Christianity, and therefore are just as kin to Jesus as Ruth was to Boaz.
            And do not any Christians from that region have ancestry which includes Jews who followed The Way in the early years?

  7. Thanks esp. for the link to Stephen Carlson’s paper which is very good…though I must confess that it did challenge my Sahidic (which is a little rusty).

  8. 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:…

    Just assisting by pointing out duplicate uses of the word “in.”

  9. ….Interesting that some seem to find a need to draw into the story themes that take the focus off the plain and simple (:-) ) story. At best these descriptors are entirely uncommented on by the authors. What’s the attraction? Is it the attempt to be “relevant”?

    Anyway…not a refugee but a hate-crime victim. Let’s be up to date with our distractions. ?

  10. Yes, I am convinced that Jesus was not born in a stable – and I am also thankful that I am not tasked to disillusion those children, who with reverence and shining faces sing this traditional carol.
    I am not a theologian, but I can imagine Father God smiling down on the little ones as they sing this:
    ‘Be near me Lord Jesus
    I ask you to stay
    Close by me forever
    And love me, I pray.
    Bless all the dear children
    In your tender care
    And fit us for heaven to live with you there.’

  11. I know this has nothing to do with Jesus birthplace…but.. Im thinking if Mary was full term Jesus could have been born a while earlier than he was supposed to.,I cant imagine riding on a donkey for days being 9 months prego. Always wondered why Joseph, being a carpenter…. diddnt make some kind of cart that Poor Mary could have been more comfy traveling in….. just ideas Ive had…

  12. Hi Ian,

    I have not read the book referenced, however I have lived in Israel for 10 years now. This is an interesting article, however my problem with this conjecture is that it neglects Niddah Laws. According to Leviticus 12 and 15 Mary (and if we want to be really accurate, she was Miriam) would have been ceremonially unclean due to the flow of blood that comes with childbirth. Anyone who touched her and anything she touched would have been rendered unclean as well. For this reason the host family certainly would have found a separate space for her to birth and recover. If the guest room was full, I think it’s plausible that she would have birthed with the animals, as it was likely the most secluded place in the home. I have strong reason to doubt, based on how I understand both temple and rabbinic Judaism that all of this would have taken place in a crowded family living room.

    Also, just my personal scholarly soapbox: Palestine was not defined until after the Bar Kokhva Revolt. It was a latenized version of Philistia, intentioned by the Romans to delegitimization Jewish authority in the region. If you were to have said “Palestine” in ancient Israel, no one would have known what you were talking about. In my nine years of academic study, if I had misrepresented an ancient civilization with colonial terminology, I would have recieved negative remarks, yet this seems ongoing in biblical scholarship. I think it’s valid to mention for that reason. Also it seems the author of the book cited may have relied more on his experience with modern Arab culture rather than historical first century Jewish practices as if the cultures were the same (again I’m only gathering this from the qouotations in this post as I have not read his book). The Jewish people were set apart, so we have to remember that while there were some overlapping values (hospitality, reciprocity, honor and shame, for example), they were still a distinct people.

    In any case, to develop an accurate conjecture about the Messiah’s birth, it really is necessary to include an understanding of Niddah laws and practices. While this theory presents some interesting ideas, it missed that large piece of practice that would help to better understand what happened that glorious day or night.

    • Callie, thanks so much for this fascinating comment.

      On ‘Palestine’, I have made this comment below: ‘Yes, you are technically correct, in that the Roman term Syria Palestrina was imposed by the Romans, and was actually politically loaded then (as now) in that the terminology was designed to obscure Jewish identity in the region.

      However, I think I am simply following common practice as also followed by Bailey. I think it is important to note the way that until very recently this term was used as a general geographical referent. For example, the Jewish newspaper of the area, published in Jerusalem, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, was called the Palestine Times.

      We should certainly attach no ethnic or political significance to the term.’

      On the question of Niddah laws, that is really interesting, and it is doubly interesting that Bailey does not pick up on this. I wonder whether this is one of the reasons behind Luke’s three-fold mention of the food trough. But, of course, Luke is *not* writing primarily for a Jewish audience.

      Are you aware of any scholarly exploration of this question? I don’t think I have seen any mention of it.

      • Hi Ian,

        Its wonderful to dialogue with you here. Thank you for sharing your perspective on the use of “Palestine”. I think being an Israeli citizen (I’m Gentile Christian, my husband is Messianic Jewish), I prefer for scholarship and to use the more specific terminology, be it Ancient Canaan, Ancient Israel, and in this case Judea may have been best, because it does carry such political significance today, and lends towards very bizarre arguments (Jesus was a Palestinian refugee, etc – which I saw you address nicely above). Thank you for knowing about the “Palestinian Post” as well. That gave me some comfort!

        As for Bailey neglecting the Niddah laws, I personally assumed it was because it was irrelevant to his experience in the Middle East. Being a woman who has birthed three children (so far) in Jerusalem, I’ve had opportunities to learn about Niddah laws from my Jewish neighbors and healthcare providers. Asking about their practices is a great way to build relationships and it enriches my own understanding of scripture, as well as how I chose to live out my faith. The Niddah laws for childbirth are actually quite beautiful in that they allow for a new mother to rest with her baby and establish breastfeeding, since a ceremonially unclean women could not care for a home. She also would probably not receive the multitude of guests that are so common in American culture after a new baby arrives, because of the separate position she is called to maintain. That time of separation is also interesting to me in light of Rev 12. The woman gives birth, and the baby is snatched up, and then she is sent into the wilderness for a time. I think there’s some sort of prophetic significance to that Law as well as general health benefits. God’s word is so amazing to me!

        I have read that some researchers on Niddah practices believe that there was actually a special home that the women went to for that recovery period. I googled to see if I could find a link for you but I haven’t been able to locate it. There are two women that I’ve come across in my studying on this over the years, Claudia D. Bergmann and Carol Meyers, who specialise in women’s issues in the Hebrew Bible. I don’t presume either of them to be believers, but rather Jewish researchers, and quite interesting.

        Also, I looked up this passage in the Complete Jewish Bible, because I wanted to see how David Stern worked to contextualise the story. He translates kataluma as “living-quarters.” Verse 7 says “…She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living-quarters.” He’s taking a more similar approach to Bailey, that this was not a hotel situation, which is sound given the Greek.

        I do think the western mind neglects to understand how agricultural this society was, where animals would have been in much more close proximity than what we experience today. Personally, I don’t believe this event happened in a stable or barn in the sense that we understand it, but I don’t think the birth took place in the living room either. I really do believe they were taken to the most secluded area because of the Niddah laws and just a woman’s natural inclination to birth in privacy, which probably was the animal lodging below given the crowded situation (I’m an architect btw, and I love the models presented here). It would have been quiet and private. The women could help attend to her without her risk of being exposed to other men in the home. It just makes the most logical sense to me. In any case, the feeding trough is the humble place our Savior was laid and clearly more significant to the overall picture of what happened than where he was actually birthed, otherwise that would have been included, I think!

        Wonderful Discussion!

        • Thanks for this further reflection.

          I think it is true that many people in the West now have lost touch–but I think it is a phenomenon of the last 30 years only, and a product of consumerism, globalisation, and the industrialisation of food production.

          I can still easily remember grocery stores and seasonal food, which predates the supermarket era (*corrected*), and have reconnected with that by growing some of my own produce…

      • The Niddah laws are interesting – however, Jesus certainly wasn’t a Pharisee and neither were the great majority of the people who were too poor to live according to the lay-priestly principles of the Pharisaic party. Jesus didn’t observe Pharisaic hygiene regulations. The Talmud is post-biblical by some centuries and represents the triumph of Pharisaism over Diaspora Judaism. I don’t know how far we can retroject these ideas into first century “Palestinian” Judaism.

        • Brian,

          Niddah laws are part of Torah Judaism in the OT. The Rabbis certainly put law around law, but its a biblical practice according to Leviticus 11 and Leviticus 15. If you look at those passages, you can get a sense that it was fairly demanding even without the pharisaic interpretation. This is also why the story of the woman with the blood who touched Yeshua’s tzit-tzit was so profound. She risked making him spiritually unclean, yet he healed her and praised her, rather than rebuking her. I’m with you that He was not a pharisee, because He wasn’t, but Niddah was still an issue for all women, according to scripture. 🙂

    • Callie…. or anyone…

      Why do we call her Mary and not Miriam? It seems odd. It’s not that Miriam is used elsewhere. Presumably it’s the Greek route that “obscures” this?

    • Popping in to read the follow up to my own question referencing the use of “Palestine” which seems historically out of place and noted the Niddah issue.
      Niddah as I understand it would only impact the contact that Mary would have with Joseph bith during labor, the birth, and in the weeks after and not bystanders or the room itself. But my understanding is only through modern practice and Hebrew texts and not historical perspectives.

      • Tzivi,

        If you look at Lev 11 and Lev 15, it doesn’t impact the room in general, but it would impact anyone and anything she touched or who touched her. I’m pretty sure I clarified that above in my original comment. Just intuitively, I think they would have given her a private space because they would have honored their ceremonial laws when it came to blood, and because a birthing woman is naturally going to want privacy. JMO.

        The main thing about this discussion overall, I think, is to be cautious to not replace one conjecture (born in a barn/stable) with another (born in a busy living room) because the bible doesn’t actually tell us. Either way, we are trying to make an informed guess. I think its an informed guess that she would have been in the most private area of the home possible, which could have been the animal quarters since the guest room was full, and she selected a feeding trough in which to lay the new baby Messiah. 🙂

  13. I appreciated the article but was distracted by the author not knowing the difference between straw and hay. Straw is inedible-used for bedding. Hay is edible used for eating.

    • Ooh, thanks for pointing that out; changed. I know it full well, having a guinea pig who needs hay but growing strawberries that, of course, need straw. I am not sure whether the error is mine or Bailey’s…but perhaps both of us have been influenced by erroneous sung tradition: ‘See him a-lying on a bed of straw…’

      • Emma is correct in saying straw is bedding and hay is food. Therefore, Ian Paul, “See him a-lying on a bed of straw” is in fact correct, not erroneous!

        • Fair enough–though in the blog I did connect it with animals eating, which is different. Barley was grown in the area, so barley straw as well as dried grass (hay) would have been known. (The boy in John 6 had barley loaves, common for the poor.)

    • And lots of hay stacks are straw stacks… and both rare these days. I recall being with an uncle in the late 50s as the farm labourers built a straw stack. Sharp, scratchy and rough!

  14. I found this article posted on Facebook. I have to humbly ask, what is the incentive of publishing this article in a public forum? Is it intellectual stimulation and to be recognized or to glorify God? Is is suitable for the general public or a better kept discussion for the educated that are mature enough in faith? There are plenty of intellectual atheists that love to find proof of errors in the word of God. Doesn’t this fuel their denial?

    • The intention is to encourage all (Christians and non-Christians) to pay attention to what the gospel actually says, rather than what school plays and mediaeval traditions say. I sincerely hope that God is glorified by doing so!

      The errors here are in the tradition, not in the word of God–so surely this piece would rob them of an argument…? They might even be persuaded that the Bible was a historically accurate, and so truthful, account…

    • If we’re thought to be basing our faith in sweet-carol falsehoods that leaves us more open to critisism…. and that would be fair enough surely?

  15. Since the point of the article is liguistic precision, might I point out that the area in question wasn’t Palestine?

    The Romans only imposed the name Palestine after suppressing the Bar Kochba Jewish uprising in around 132 CE, taking the name from the small coastal strip populated by the Philistines which now approximates to Gaza.

    So to talk about 1st Century Palestinian customs is inaccurate in relation to what happened in a Judean town to a couple from Galilee.

    • Jon, thanks for pointing this out.

      Yes, you are technically correct, in that the Roman term Syria Palestrina was imposed by the Romans, and was actually politically loaded then (as now) in that the terminology was designed to obscure Jewish identity in the region.

      However, I think I am simply following common practice as also followed by Bailey. I think it is important to note the way that until very recently this term was used as a general geographical referent. For example, the Jewish newspaper of the area, published in Jerusalem, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, was called the Palestine Times.

      We should certainly attach no ethnic or political significance to the term.

      • “We should certainly attach no ethnic or political significance to the term.”

        But unfortunately some are doing this. Thus those silly tendentious cartoons that appear at this time of year showing Joseph and Mary (she on a donkey, of course) being stopped from entering Bethlehem by the Israeli security wall.
        Yes, ‘Palestine’ was the accepted word in the 19th century when the Palestine Exploration Fund was established, but this was before the word took on ethnic or political significance (something that really only happened in the 1960s). The problem is we don’t have a single neutral geographic term to embrace first century Judea, Samaria and Galilee – and Philistia. The second century Roman term ‘Palestina’ is doubly unfortunate because it is anachronistic (like referring to Anatolia as ‘Turkey’) and was intended to replace the Jewish character of the land. Maybe the old biblical term ‘the Holy Land’ should be revived! (Well, if you can say ‘Holy Island’ and ‘Holy Loch’ …)

        • According to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine_(region) the term ‘Palaistin?’ for the region between Phoenicia and Egypt was used by the Greeks in the 5th Century BC. So, it does have ancient origins as a regional designation.

          I note that such a regional designation is needed. For instance, the very interesting information on Jewish names around the 1st century, and how they vary between different regions, and how this provides support for the accuracy of the Gospels, needs to be able to distinguish Jews living in Egypt and, er, Judea, Samaria, Galilee.

  16. What I’m finding really interesting is the traction that this is getting this year. I’ve seen it shared on about 6 different places, e.g. being picked up by our students, and shown in church links (all unrelated). I wonder why there is an increased interest in it.

    • Yes, I am interested too! By the end of today, it will have had about 100,000 views. I am not sure it is doing anything very radical, other than offering clear engagement with the text and its historical context.

      Perhaps such an approach is increasing novel…?

      • I learned about this string after my wife shared a copy of the original post that was discussed by her Wednesday morning women’s bible study group. I truly appreciate the commentary and several pastors have, over the years, emphasized the need to understand the customs, language, geography and philosophies in place during the time of Jesus’ life in order to have a deeper understanding scripture. This dialogue has reinforced that notion and reminds me not to overlay contemporary Western thinking on Holy Writ.

  17. It must be very difficult ( as it is with me ) to visualize then an now.

    After seeing the diagram of the homes of Mary and Joseph’s relatives, it all makes a lot of questions answered. Knowing that Mary was not with Joseph before Jesus was born, is enough for me along with scripture, to believe what the angel told Joseph regarding Mary .
    I am glad that the most wonderful birth was not in a barn or stable. God is good all the time.
    We can rejoice in the wonderful truth of Jesus birth and why He came to be my Saviour.
    John 3:16

  18. Simon above – and remember, there were most certainly children in bathrobes with proud parents taking photos with their phones.

    • Yes, this was before GDPR and Safeguarding put an end to that. Unfortunately, Herod didn’t undergo training from the new Safeguarding Lead for Bethlehem.

  19. Thank you for the paper by Carlson. The idea that Bethlehem was Joseph’s home does lead to some interesting thought. The paper mentions ancient Jewish practice in which a marriage started with the ‘betrothal’ (not the same as modern engagement) at the bride’s family, then the groom would take the bride to his family in a ‘home-taking’ which finalizes the marriage. On p339 there is a footnote where Carlson quotes Box: “If Joseph’s home was in Bethlehem, by taking Mary, his betrothed, with him when he left Nazareth for his home-town, he was performing the central and public act which proclaimed the marriage.” [i.e. this is the journey of Luke 2:4,5]

    This led to a thought (while, not inappropriately, walking to a practice for our carol choir) that there is a connection between this act and the census. Might it have been that Joseph was anxious to finalise his marriage to Mary so that it would be in place for the census and so officially recognised, and the son which was expected would therefore be offically his, and so in the line of David. If I am right, this is an affirmation of Joseph’s faithfulness.

    That Bethlehem was Joseph’s home also means that one should be open to a time gap between 2:5 and 2:6. I.e. Joseph comes home with Mary, completing the marriage, and then, perhaps weeks later, the time comes for the child to be born to the now married couple. Unfortunately, this scheme does put another nail in the coffin of the idea of the desperate Joseph, trying to find a place for Mary – to whom he is only betrothed – for whom labour has started.

  20. Born as an outcaste in a cold, draughty stable; or in the huggermugger warmth an ‘ordinary’ family? I think the question relates to a recent blog on do we especially find Christ in those on the margins. How far should our attention focus on the marginalised, the refugee, the homeless; and how far focus on ITV watching, Mail/Mirror/Sun reading (and Brexit voting?) ‘ordinary’ people?
    Focus on the outcaste and the marginalised often wins admiration in the wider society – thus the affection for the marginalised-ministering but generally ineffective Rev Adam Smallbone in the unlamented tv series ‘Rev’. By contrast ministering a gospel of repentance and new life for ‘ordinary’ people raises the challenge of how far (to quote your discussion of the ‘Marginalised” blog) we are allowed to say what people widely find ‘distasteful’.
    It is not an either/or, but I think the persistence and the attractiveness of the sentimental poor baby Jesus in the stable story is that it makes him very other from most people’s ordinary life, and therefore less relevant and less challenging.

  21. The comment/question on “niddah laws,” seems to emphasize the point that the birth was not “remarkable” or “uncommon,” as the birthing conditions would have been common for any woman, be she named Mary (Greek)/Miriam (Hebrew) as the mother of Jesus (Greek)/Yeshua (Hebrew).

  22. Back to the donkey… On Advent Sunday, my vicar was expounding the BCP gospel, Matt 21, and suggested that it was the Zechariah prophecy about the Messiah riding on a donkey that was the inspiration for the nativity donkey.

  23. It’s hard to read this when you use the term palestian culture- it was Jewish culture. Palestine did not have that name until after Jesus’ time – and it is a reference to Philistines at a much later date. Please start saying Jewish or traditions of Israel.

    • Thanks for the comment. See my response twice above about the use of this term. I don’t think you are correct in talking of this as ‘Jewish’ culture. As Bailey highlights, this is the cultural context shared amongst all those living in the area, Jewish or not. I am simply following him in using a general term for the area, which did not until very recently have any religious, ethnic or political overtones. See the comment about the Jewish newspaper which was called ‘The Palestine Times’.

      A better term would be ‘ancient near eastern culture’ but that is a little clumsy…

      • I guess I’ll respond here instead of on my thread mentioning the same use of “Palestine.” In fact the reason I was so irked by the use which continued to grow as I read on (having attempted to ignore it) is that it IS in fact very clumsy. It’s clumsy in that it doesn’t match time-periods. And to call it “Palestinian culture” when no such thing existed at the time is disjointed. “Jewish culture” because the people in question were, in fact, Jewish….or even “near Eastern culture” if you’d like to make the point that the culture was shared geographically would have been less grating.
        “Palestine” was not the common usage at the time which I think everyone has pointed out.
        As far as the newspaper called the “Palestinian Times” yes of course! Because the land was called Palestine by the Ottoman Empire that notation persisted until the formation of the state of Israel. But that’s a 20th Century usage, not first.
        If you are quoting another work then so be it but I agree that it seems so out of place in an article specifically about historical accuracy.

  24. What a negative post. Luke is wrong, the Bible is wrong. No manger…….. I think I just wasted a lot of time on something with no spiritual benefits.

    • Did you actually read the article? The whole thrust is: Luke is right and the Bible is right, but the distortion and inaccuracy of tradition nativity stories is wrong and unhelpful because it doesn’t actually attend to what the Bible says.

      Do have another read of the piece.

    • Well, that is not what people think when I talk about it–nor what the 100,000 people appear to think who read this each year. The idea that the biblical narrative might be rooted in historical fact and culture is actually very compelling. Christmas is about real life, and not a fairy tale.

    • Mike
      Since when was examining in detail whether the story we tell of Christmas is the one the Scriptures tell? I’d say it is crucial and I’m grateful for Ian’s blog, this post and his challenge.

      • My first sentence above should have ended with the comment by Mike: ‘majoring in the minors’ – I was too addled by his criticism of Ian to write properly

  25. Ian – I have wanted to ask this question for decades, but in the context here of your following Kenneth Bailey’s practise of naming Israel as Palestine, and the discussion of Jewish Culture, ANE culture etc may I ask: are you aware of any scholarly critique of Bailey along the lines that he was an Arabist who projected a medieval Arab Muslim culture onto his reading of C1st Jewish culture. Callie’s fascinating comment above presented the question again. What would an Israeli born, Jewish scholar of second temple Judaism make of Bailey’s readings?

    • Good question. I like Bailey’s work but sometimes he can be a little too neat n his explanations, relying on literary sources instead of the impreciseness of a living culture that was in flux and wasn’t always written down. I have a similar problem with an over-reliance on later Jewish sources which may also retroject later experiences and debates. In previous generations, Edersheim’s 19th century work was popular among evangelicals. I don’t know whether it has stood the test of time. If there is one thing the Dead Sea Scrolls and 20th century archaeology (not to mention Ed Sanders) have taught us, it is the diversity and ferment of first century Judaism in the Holy Land.

      • Thanks Brian
        Indeed. Your point about multiple Jewish cultures in the time of Christ is well made.
        I enjoyed Edersheim years ago, but do wonder how much of his NT commentary was based on later Diaspora Jewish culture, even modern Eastern European Hassidism.
        Whilst respecting Bailey as a man and as a world class scholar, Arabist and Semitic philologist, I am slightly hesitant to accept face value his conclusions that sometimes appear to equate modern Muslim Arab responses to the parables as being the hermeneutic key to knowing what Jesus must have meant.

    • Simon that is a great question. I think there are at least three strands to this.

      The first is to note that Bailey is being quite general in his observations. For example, the reality of keeping animals in the main house, which probably has one room, is a common feature of many cultures, and it is only relatively recently in the West (mostly since the industrial revolution) that we have lost touch with this kind of aspect of living. I think it is significant that Bailey connects his more recent observations with documentary evidence going back a couple of hundred years. Yes, cultures are diverse, but pre-industrial societies actually change very slowly, and human connections with animals and the seasons have mostly been a universal phenomenon. My illustration of the additional room built on the Jaffa Gate hotel is an example of continuity of basic practice.

      Secondly, Bailey’s insights here actually line up with what are otherwise puzzling aspects of the text, and of course correct some basic misreadings. This is particularly persuasive in noting the Luke’s language of the room having no space, rather than the people having no space for them.

      Thirdly, as Brian correctly says, there was a diversity in religious practice that has not been appreciate in the past. However, Bailey is not focussing here on religious practice (as I have pointed out to those complaining about my use of the word ‘Palestinian’) but about widespread cultural and social practice. So I don’t think that recent discoveries affect this argument.

      (On the other hand, I am not sure about his take on shepherds; I suspect that they were actually well to do and respected).

      There is quite a good appreciation of his method and his rationale here: https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/kenneth-e-bailey-on-jesus-through-middle-eastern-eyes/

      • Yes, for all that I am fan and user of Bailey’s work, I am not convinced that shepherds were outcasts either. I remember hearing this at school, but since David was a shepherd and it’s a title for Yahweh, there could be nothing intrinsically wrong with being a shepherd. By the time of the Talmud (IIRC) maybe a different view prevailed.

  26. Not being a scholar on the subject, I hesitate to stick a toe in the discussion, but….
    1. Does it change our message for salvation?
    2. I sort of lean toward the watchtower for the temple sacrifices which was supposed (no references) to be in the fields outside Bethlehem.

    • 1. Yes, I think it does. Jesus didn’t come as one of those ‘other’ poor people over there, to be pitied once a year. He came as one of us.

      2. I don’t think I understand your point here.

  27. For those who like to quibble about mythology… I guess if we’re going to go there we may as well mention that he wasn’t likely born in December, and that he probably wasn’t even born in Bethlehem – more likely Nazareth. The bottom line: Jesus was born in a hectic, messy state, God meets us where we are – and that is good news to humankind now and always.

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity”

      • I agree. Jesus was not born in December. As crazy as it sounds, we now have a rich set of data from different resources and perspectives that seems to narrow the date of Jesus’ birth to September 11th, 3 BC between the hours of 6:15 and 7:45 pm. (December 25th being when the Magi visited Jesus).

        What appears to be the two major errors that sent us down the wrong path are 1) Herod’s death was miss-calculated from Josephus’ data as being in 4 BC, which means Jesus’s birth date had to be prior to this and 2) the word in Luke 2:3 translated “census” or ”taxes” was mistranslated and should have been “registration” or “enrollment”. Caesar Augustus required an Oath of Allegiance from all the people of the Roman empire in 3 BC. This is what brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

        Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the great mathematical minds of human history. In 1609, he developed the Laws of Planetary Motion. Being a religious man, Kepler soon set his equations grinding on the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem. But Kepler, like his contemporaries, assumed Jesus was born before 4 BC. When Kepler looked in this time frame, he failed to find the star. This was not because his equations and/or his computations were wrong. He was looking in the wrong time frame. When the right time frame is used some of the wonders of God are revealed … and they line-up with Revelations 12:1-5.
        See: http://www.versebyverse.org/doctrine/birthofchrist.pdf
        http://www.askelm.com/star/ Chapter 5

          • I assume, in this case, Josephus was not wrong. It was the interpretation of Josephus that is incorrect. Josephus identifies King Herod died after an eclipse of the moon (Antiquities Book 17, Chapter 6, Section 4) and before the springtime Passover of the Jews (Antiquities Book 17, Chapter 8, Section 1; Book 17, Chapter 9, Sections 1-3; Wars Book 2, Chapters 1-3)

            “… when astronomers in the last century told theologians that an eclipse of the Moon occurred during the evening of March 13, 4 B.C.E. (and could be seen in Palestine), this eclipse is the one that theologians accepted as the one referred to by Josephus. They particularly preferred this eclipse because Josephus also said Herod died before a springtime Passover. Since March 13, 4 B.C.E. was just one month before the Passover, they felt justified in placing all historical events associated with Herod’s death and his funeral within that twenty-nine day period. The truth is; however, it is completely illogical to squeeze the events mentioned by Josephus into that short period of time. By selecting the wrong eclipse, modern scholars have been forced to tighten considerably the historical events into an abnormally compressed space of only twenty-nine days.”

            “[The theologians] have thrown to the wind the testimonies of the majority of the early fathers of the Christian Church who placed the birth of Jesus from 3 to 1 B.C.E. If those early fathers would have been consulted and given a reasonable amount of credibility (which they deserve), then Herod’s death would have been sought for somewhere around 1 B.C.E., not three years earlier as is commonly done today.”

            “We have new historical documentation quite independent of the early Christian fathers or Josephus showing that Herod died in early 1 B.C.E. … This evidence, along with that given by Josephus, will provide a great deal of evidence to show the eclipse mentioned by Josephus was that of January 10, 1 B.C.E.”

            Reference: The Star That Astonished The World by Ernest L. Martin; Chapter 8: Astronomy and the Death of King Herod This chapter provides a complete analysis of the timing of the events that occurred during this period.

      • There is nothing “progressive” about heresy. Lesson #1 from Orwell: don’t let others decide your language – a game that the left has been playing for a long time now (political correctness, “hate speech” etc).

  28. Personally, I think your inclusion of Isaiah 1:3 is meaningless. It could have and should have been left out. Your constant references to “Palestine” and “Palestinian” with regard to the people, structures, and culture is nonsense. Using them instead of Jewish culture, Hebrew culture is politically correct poppycock.

    The sheep were in the fields, it likely wasn’t December 25th, it wasn’t snowy.

    Jewish tradition tells us that if a boy wanted to get married, he had to build an addition onto his father’s house, which Joseph would have been doing in Nazareth. Since they were traveling to Bethlehem, they didn’t have a house. If the census caused thousands of people to pick up and go to their hometown, that would create write the housing shortage, wouldn’t it?

    So they got put into the detached garage, it’s not a sob story.

    • Thanks for your comment…kind of…

      Is 1.3 is *the* place where the mediaeval tradition found its animals which have made their way into the nativity story, so omitting it would omit an important elements of explanation.

      As I have said (I think three times now) above, ‘Palestine’ has for a long time (since the second century) been a general designation for the region, with no cultural, ethnic or political overtones until very recently. The Jewish newspaper for the region printed prior to the establishment of the State of Israel was called the Palestine Times–though you might think that is ‘poppycock’. If so, do write to the editor.

      Perhaps a better term would be ‘first century near eastern’ or ‘Levant’. But you are quite mistaken in referring to ‘Jewish culture’. Jews were not the only ones living the region, and the practices that Bailey is highlighting were universal, and not particularly Jewish. He is talking here about cultural and not religious practice.

      No, it is not a sob story–which is precisely my point.

      • “But you are quite mistaken in referring to ‘Jewish culture’. Jews were not the only ones living the region…”
        Quite so. The region had been Hellenised since the days of Alexander the Great, 300 years previously, and while Judea was strongly Jewish (albeit with an openness to Greek culture among the elite), places like Galilee and around were more mixed, with Gentile cities with pagan worship, theatres and pig-keeping – as the gospels themselves make clear.

    • Hi Keenan,

      Jewish tradition tells us that if a boy wanted to get married, he had to build an addition onto his father’s house, which Joseph would have been doing in Nazareth.

      Is there archeological evidence for this from the 1st century or thereabouts? If it is true, then many houses would surely have a number of rooms. I found this on the Web just now: http://www.jesus-story.net/nazareth_houses.htm In particular, note the drawing with animals inside the courtyard. Not many rooms, and no separate stable (but animals shown inside the courtyard).
      Since they were traveling to Bethlehem, they didn’t have a house. If the census caused thousands of people to pick up and go to their hometown, that would create write the housing shortage, wouldn’t it?
      I believe that there is no evidence that for ancient censuses people were obliged to travel away from where they live to some notional place of origin. This suggests that Bethlehem was Joseph’s home. But, as Ian says, this does not make much difference. If his ancestry was from there, then he would have been welcomed anyway. In favour of Bethlehem is that Joseph took Mary, his betrothed, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It seems unlikely that this would have been acceptable in the culture for a man to travel with his betrothed unless this journey was the coming-home representing the finalization of the marriage. See Carlson’s paper, linked to in the post for background to my comments.

      I might also gently suggest that the domestic culture of modern-day Palestinians might be closer to that of 1st century Jews, than that of their Jewish neighbours whose ancestors dwelt in Europe for many centuries.

      P.S. As in my comment above, according to Wikipedia, the Greek version of the name ‘Palestine’ for that general area is found in the 5th Century BC.

      • David, thanks for the link to that site, which is excellent.

        On a related page in the same set, http://www.jesus-story.net/nazareth_about.htm I found this comment:

        Young Jewish men were expected to be literate. The Jewish queen Salome Alexandra had made reading and writing compulsory for all Jewish boys – for study of the Torah.

        This again blows out of the water many of our assumptions about the first century context, and I would suggest this *is* a point where Jewish culture was distinct from cultures around.

  29. So, I am living here in Jerusalem and have visited the Church of the Nativity many times, which is supposed to be the place where Jesus was born. I have a friend doing his PhD here in Israel who almost dug at the Church (for his PhD), and he said that the place is an “A” as far as being the actual spot where Jesus was born.

    The church is built over a network of caves, and the supposed spot is in one of the caves. It was customary (I am told) for animals to be kept in these caves because they were a kind of natural protection from the elements (and the “Shepherd’s fields” are also full of them). You can also still find shepherds out in the desert areas using similar caves for their pens.

    So my question is, are you aware of how to reconcile these two “facts”? I am wondering if houses were built into these caves, so that the caves were used as the place for the animals and the structure was built extending from it.

    I am aware of Bailey’s work, but I haven’t read it myself. I am just wondering how this reading stacks up with the archaeological evidence of the actual (?) place. I did see that you mentioned above that he probably wasn’t born in a cave. I assume, then, you just reject the Church of the Nativity as the site?

    • It really depends on what you mean by ‘archaeological evidence’. There is actually none for the Church of the Nativity being *the* right place of Jesus. It certainly has some early attestation from the second century, but there is nothing in Luke’s account which identifies the site as a cave; that tradition comes from the Protoevangelium of James, which is late second century, and includes some details which are certainly unhistorical (though also includes others which likely are, for example in mentioning midwives).

  30. You don’t really talk about the obvious: men wouldn’t have been present for childbirth. Childbirth in the ancient world usually consisted of women being surrounded by other women of the family and midwives (which we know extended back even to the time of Moses in Egypt). So that also would’ve required some additional finagling of the sleeping situations for the actual childbirth in any case.

    Also, most ancient mangers found via archaeology in Israel have been made of stone (and filled with hay).

    • Thanks Joanna, that is a great point. And it is another reason why the kataluma would not have had enough room for them. But it is also a contradiction of the popular depiction of ‘lonely Mary’.

      Yes, I am aware of the stone mangers; but I am not sure we can deduce anything numerical from that, can we, since if the buildings themselves have been demolished, the actual situation would no longer be evident. I wonder if the most we can say is that ‘many food troughs were made of stone’ (as indeed they have been until very recently).

  31. And lo, the lord made flesh did come so that pedants could argue incessantly about the minor details of his life. Yea, their focusing on details did allow them to completely ignore the Lord’s admonitions to be generous to one another and to endlessly quibble over differences, and even to make yet scores of “true and correct” denominations over the teachings that the early organized Roman Church edited to insure their own autonomy over all citizens; bureaucracy and nit-picking without end, amen.

    • And lo, the Lord was sore vexed when people ignored the words that he had spoken through his prophets, words breathed out by his Spirit [2 Tim 3.16], and he did see that the peoples were content with distant fairy tales, and that they set up a shrine which they did visit but once a year, and then did continue with their daily lives as normal, untouched by his coming close to them.

      And then there were some who took the trouble to study the Scriptures, and see what truths they did truly contain, and verily, there was much rejoicing in heaven. And good news was preached throughout the land, and the word grew in strength and number.

    • From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
      From the laziness that is content with half truths,
      From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
      Oh God of Truth, deliver us.

      ~ Ancient Prayer

  32. Since I have not seen anyone else bring it up….the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and other books in Scripture are not first hand accounts. They do not reference each of their eye witness views as it is at the crucifixion where one says “Call out the name of who struck you.” That would be an easy task. It is not until another explains, “His hands were bound and His eyes shrouded.” That we see why they would mock Him in such a way. Arguing over each of them and how it is said is like arguing over a glass half full or empty. You must take in ALL the information to get the entire picture. Just as in modern languages many things are even now still lost in translation. It takes some digging to get the entire picture. Another example, and I do not know the actual Greek words used as I do not have my reference available at the moment, is the words of Christ “The Church is within you.” Taken literally it seems as if Christ is saying the Church of God is within our beings. When in fact He was standing in a crowd and a better translation would read, “The Church (or Christ Himself) is in your midst.”

    • Thanks for the comment. You say ‘the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and other books in Scripture are not first hand accounts’ but in fact there is good evidence that they are, or at least are based on eyewitness testimony. The most persuasive case is put by Richard Bauckham in his landmark Jesus and the Eyewitnesses now in a second edition. In fact, Luke begins his gospel by emphasising his careful research based on eyewitness accounts, and in Acts 21 indicates the time when he could have done his research.

      I agree that we need to read the gospels together, and sometimes need to see the ways they work together. I explore a little of this in this article: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/undesigned-coincidences-and-historical-reliability/

      On your last point, the verse you are thinking of is Luke 17.21: ‘…the kingdom of God [not ‘church’] is among/within you’. There has been some debate about this, but the phrase entos humon should be understood as meaning ‘amongst you’, in your corporate presence, rather than as interior to the individual.

      • In the present context, it seems an obvious point to suggest that Luke 2.19 and 2.51 are signs that Luke’s source for the infancy narratives was Mary herself, who would have also known the story of her cousin Elizabeth directly.

        I will also sneak in a comment that the notion that Bethlehem was Joseph’s home at the time of the birth of Jesus makes Matthew’s account sit much better with Luke’s. There is no reason to explain why the family remained in Bethlehem until the Magi appeared (for they surely did not appear at the birth). After the flight to Egypt, the family did not return to Bethlehem because it probably seemed still dangerous, so went to Nazareth, where Mary’s family dwelt, and a nice out of the way backwater. Thus, Nazareth became their ‘own town’ (2.39).

    • Luke is probably the final gospel-writer to write, and he speaks of the 4 gospel-writers almost (but not quite) as a collective, closely and directly related to eyewitnesses.

      It is more impressive even than that, since he says ‘from the first’, which emphasises the excellence of his sources. What applies to the final gospel-writer applies even more to the earlier ones.

      (Of course, you could say that the more-than-two sources to which Luke lays claim in his preface may include unknown ones. However – his material is in direct parallel to Mark, John and Matt, leaving only (by and large) what is generated by his OT templates and what he himself avowedly researched ‘from the beginning’, including likely access to eyewitnesses re the women followers, Zacchaeus, Emmaus pair. He was a familiar of many in the early church. How much more so his 3 predecessors?

  33. I can’t beleive some of these comments suggest that Jospeh may have been rejected by his family. This was Jesus being born! Next you’re going to tell me that Jesus was rejected by the Jewish religious leaders that memorized the prophesy of His coming and or that Jesus was denied by his disciples? .. oh wait.

    • …except that the rejection of Joseph by his family isn’t actually mentioned anywhere, is it? It is pure conjecture, which actually rather goes against the grain of the narratives.

    • You have touched on a very important point that has a big impact on how we read the Bible; who did the Jews think the Messiah was going to be???

      The great rabbinical schools in which the Pharisees had received their training connected the coming of the Messiah with a grand revival of Jewish secular power. They didn’t understand the spiritual nature of the Messiah. As a result, this is what the leaders taught the people and why the leaders and people had a hard time accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

      “The mashiach [Messiah] will be a great political leader descended from King David. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments. He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions. But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being.”
      Reference: http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.

      Jesus is fully human and fully divine. What does fully human mean? He has to grow to maturity without acting like God or be treated by family and friends as God.

      Yes, Jesus’ family, friends, disciples, Apostles … didn’t really understand who Jesus was until after his resurrection.

  34. I was referring to the authors not being there at the birth of Christ as it wss not their own first hand, on the scene knowledge. I do know that there was extensive research and investigation put in by them. My main point was that each account should have slight variations because no two people seen or experienced the exact same details. And that there will be many things which are lost in translation because many words cannot be translated completely.

    • Indeed, and eye witnesses do not only relate facts, but what they perceive as their significance.

      On your second point, that is why both scholars and ministers need to be reading in the original language, in this case Greek. That is not for the purposes of impressing anyone, but to avoid the things that might be lost in translation, as you rightly point out.

  35. I do have one puzzle about this. It seems to be suggested that it was an obvious thing to lay the child in the ‘manger’, as if this was a common and obvious thing to do. However, the shepherds are specifically told that a sign that the child was the one they were to find was that he was lying in a manger. This suggests to me that the practice was unusual. Also, this is presumably why it is remarked on by Luke’s source, who remembered the shepherds arriving and relating how they knew that this child was special.

      • I had forgotten that 2.16 also mentions the manger. It does seem to be something of note.

        If the manger was a normal place to find a baby, the story in modern guise runs:
        They laid him in a cot because there was no space in the spare room.
        You will find the baby dressed in a baby-grow and lying in a cot.
        They found Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in a cot.

        Whatever the case, I suspect that Jesus was the only baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem that night 🙂

  36. Ther are so many common misunderstandings about Christmas, most if not all of them reinforced by Christmas carols (which I still love, by the way).

    It almost certainly wasn’t the deep midwinter, there was no snow, the magi weren’t kings, there weren’t necessarily three of them, they probably weren’t called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, Jesus’ birthplace wasn’t a cattle shed, there was no inn, or inn keeper, all babies cry – even little Lord Jesus, and nowhere in the Gospels does it mention angels singing as a choir. Apart from that…

    • “Tears and smiles, like us, He knew”.

      Singing “Once in Royal…” straight after “Away in a manger” might give a sermon starting thought!

  37. You’all just gave me a headache! I got lost in trying to understand if the Gospels were descriptive or metaphorical. That sound you just heard was my head exploding.

  38. I think, in the spirit of historical Christianity, there should be a new denomination created over this idea/issue (to add to the existing 10,000+ denominations), where much controversy is whipped up, and Christians are once again seen as arguing over trifles. A good name for the new denomination would be: Unstablists. So you’d have the “Stablists” and “Unstablists”. Yes, I think that would be an nice touch!

  39. Jesus as a baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a stone manger – probably in a cave.

    After Jesus’ death, his body was wrapped in cloths, and he was laid on a stone slab in a cave.

    As to the angels announcing Jesus’ birth, nowhere does the Bible say that they sang. Rather, they SAID: “Glory to God in the highest ….. etc. … you shall find the babe……”

    • The word legontes can actually mean ‘said’ or ‘sang’. In the book of Revelation it is explicitly used in relation to the ‘new song’ of the redeemed. There is no mention of a cave in the gospels, and given that that would offer a convenient parallel with the tomb (physical birth/resurrection birth) it seems odd not to mention it were it the case…

  40. an angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds. That angel was then joined by other angels who praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

  41. I find this all very fascinating. It is not lost on me that we each see the birth of Christ through our own cultural filter. This is certainly not historically correct, but perhaps makes Christ more relatable. Our nativity has always shown the figures to be light skinned Caucasian people…not at all likely. Handcrafted nativities I have seen from Africa or Asia reflect their own skin tone and features. While Christ or Mary or Joseph were not these races, Christ was certainly a gift to all. I love that you have given us an historically correct touchpoint of Christ’s birth, but feel there is room to apply it generally also without diminishing its narrative or intent. Merry Christmas to all!

    • My personal opinion is when you can get closer to the truth it doesn’t diminish the narrative. It expands it and reveals even more wonders of God.
      Merry Christmas

  42. What are your thoughts about the Levitical law of uncleaness after birth. Do you think this would have influence homeowner with a crowded house to let them stay? (Leviticus 12)

  43. As a child of immigrants in NYC, whenever anyone traveled we stayed with relatives. Cousins in Ireland have gotten jobs with distant cousins in Austria, descended from Irish relatives who emigrated to Austria in the late 1700’s. As a child I always assumed Jesus stayed with relatives in Bethlehem and if born among animals and laid in a manger, it was for warmth and comfort and a courtesy from the cousins. And really, how many “inns” would there be in little Bethlehem rtoo accommodate the horde of the clan descending on the town? People stayed with relatives, a custom that is still honored by many.

    I never bought thsat Jesus was poor either. Mary’s cousin was married to a Temple priest, an aristocrat. Jesus was presented in the Temple, so the parents had enough money to travel. Mary Magdelene comes across as a wealthy cousin (and anything but a prostitute). The women who travelled with Jesus must have been from families with some means. And Mary and Margaret as ghosts also come across as relatives of some means. And now we know that a rich Roman city was being built at the time of Jesus and Joseph, the builder (a better translation), could have gotten some good jobs there. There were indications that Mary his mother could read Scripture, or at least had a good bit memorized. I’m not saying that Jesus was rich, just that he was not poor and his family was moderately prosperous. The whole overty thing came across as weird. And then I learned how the Franciscans invented the whole Christmas brouhaha as a lucrative money raiser.

    • You mild scepticism aside (!) thanks–I think this is a really interesting perspective. But we do need to be careful, in any context, from imposing a modern understanding of socio-economic stratification on an earlier culture. The rise of a (moderately wealthy) middle class is inextricable tied to the development of an industrial society. So I am not sure I would suggest that those in the priestly class were ‘aristocrats’.

      • My point was that my extended family, not surprising given their rural and conservative (not in politics) background, was acting in a pre-modern way. Hospitality for relatives of the same tribe/clan is an ancient practice..

    • If one follows the idea that Bethlehem was Joseph’s own town, then they did not have far to travel to Jerusalem for the presentation in the temple. I think their offering of a pair of birds does not indicate significant wealth as this is for those who cannot afford a lamb.

      On the other hand, I recall reading something that suggested that ‘tekn?n’, conventionally translated carpenter (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3), could be a word for a skilled artisan, and therefore could be a notch up from a simple labourer. On the other hand if Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town, but after the sojourn in Egypt, the holy family went to Nazareth to keep out of the way, Joseph may have needed to find a new trade, as he had no land there.

  44. I seriously doubt anyone can argue the details of any event portrayed in the Bible since, at best, they are all conjecture. That’s why religious beliefs are called faith. I happen to treasure the memories of my little children and grandchildren dressed up as donkeys and lambs or angels and what have you celebrating Christmas. It never bothered me that it was all a story made up in the past that really never happened.


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