Last year I wrote two blogs about Christmas stories, one about Luke’s narrative and the other about Matthew’s account. This year I wanted to add a bit more about one particular well-known section in Luke’s gospel, which is recorded in the KJV as follows:
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 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.
From this passage we have a multitude of Christmas traditions in our culture, including nativity scenes of Jesus in a stable or a cave, with animals all around, Mary and Joseph together but alone as she delivers her baby, and shepherds and wise men coming to look on. But how true to Luke’s story is our modern image of the event?
We get good insight from other translations, which help us see better what the underlying Greek is saying. I’ll quote three, though I could use many others that use similar wording.
And Joseph went up from Nazareth to Judea to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his promised spouse, who was pregnant at the time. And while they were there, the days for her delivery arrived, and she bore her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest chamber (Thomas Wayment translation).
And Joseph too went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea into the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and descent of David, to be registered with Mary, who was pledged to him and expecting a child. And it came to pass while they were there, the days of her pregnancy were brought to completion. And she delivered her firstborn son and swaddled him and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no place for them in the guestroom (Kent Brown, The Testimony of Luke, 134).
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, into Judea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to have himself inscribed in the census with Mary, his betrothed, who was pregnant. Now while they were there, the time came for her to give birth; and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him down in a manger, since there was no place for them in the lodgings (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 393).
Even a casual read of these verses will quickly let us see what is not there: there is no last-minute arrival into a crowded city, with Mary, riding on a donkey, ready to deliver her baby at any moment, and Joseph desperately but unsuccessfully trying to find a place for them to spend the night. Luke really doesn’t say anything about where Jesus was born. Luke’s narrative is very concise: Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem before they were married (though betrothed—more or less what we would call engaged today). Having settled into the city, at some point during their stay, Mary went into labor and delivered the baby, which she wrapped in strips of cloth and put to sleep in a manger.
Understanding how homes of the day were often constructed helps fill in the story. The image above portrays a “typical” house. As you can see, the animals were kept in an area downstairs, which might also include a cooking and storage area, while the family lived upstairs. There are several variations of this, such as using the roof for meals and storage (or even sleeping in warmer months), animals being kept in an area attached to the house but not under the same roof, and sometimes the addition of a small room attached to the house for guests. The basic pattern is clear, however: people and animals shared a common living space, and that space was small and crowded, especially if extended family was involved, which it usually was.
The likely scenario from Luke’s account is that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because that was where Joseph had family (Luke is clear it was his family’s city). There they joined with either Joseph’s immediate or extended family, who provided for them a place to stay. In other words, they were staying in a home with many other people, perhaps for several months. During that time, Joseph and Mary were certainly formally married, likely in a small, private ceremony, given their circumstances. And during that time, Mary’s pregnancy came to term and she gave birth, in the house, supported by those same family members.
Our misunderstandings of this event hang on two words in verse 7: “manger” and “inn.”
“Manger” is from the Greek phatné, meaning either a feeding trough or an animal stall. K. Brown uses the first definition in his translation, while Wayment and R. Brown opt for the KJV term “manger.” However, it should be noted that the English word “manger” means a feeding trough, coming from the French verb manger, to eat. So all three agree that it’s a trough, not a stall. Such a manger could have been made of stone (the most likely) or wood.
It is from this word that we get the idea that Jesus was born in a stable or even a cave used to house animals. But note carefully that Luke says no such thing—only that when it was time to lay Jesus down, Mary put him in a feeding trough.
The tradition that Jesus was born in a cave is not strictly a modern one, but started early in Christian tradition. Third-century church father Origen commented that in this day, “in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in the surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians” (Origen Against Celsus, 1:51). By about AD 325, a basilica was built there, marking the spot. Even then, pilgrims were traveling to the Holy Land in search of the locations and relics associated with Jesus.
The apocryphal and widely circulated infancy narrative, The Protevangelium of James, written no sooner than 150 years after Jesus’ birth, elaborates and expands on the stories of Matthew and Luke and perhaps provides the foundation for some of our modern views:
And he [Joseph] saddled his ass and sat her [Mary] on it; his son led it,* and [Joseph] followed. And they drew near to the third mile(stone) [on the way to Bethlehem]. And Joseph turned round and saw her sad, and said within himself: ‘Perhaps that which is within her is paining her.’ . . . And they came half the way, and Mary said to him: ‘Joseph, take me down from the ass, for the child within me presses me, to come forth.’ And he took her down there and said to her: ‘Where shall I take you and hide your shame? For this place is desert.’ And he found a cave there and brought her into it, and left her in the care of his sons and went out to seek for a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem (The Protevangelium of James, 17.2 – 18.1).
(* In some early Christian and later Catholic traditions, Joseph was an older man, widowed, with at least four sons, when he took Mary as a young wife. Though the gospels don’t bear this out, this position was taken mainly to maintain Mary’s perpetual virginity but also to explain Joseph’s death before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.)
In the story, the midwife is found and under miraculous and fantastic circumstances, delivers the baby. This illustrates how early Christians took the word phatné and associated it with the stable/cave notion, which continues to our day.
One interesting aspect of Luke using this term is as an echo of Isaiah 1:3 – “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (NASB). The word used in the Greek translation of Isaiah (the Septuagint) for “manger” here is phatné, the same as in Luke. In other words, ancient Israel symbolically did not know its own master’s feeding trough, meaning the Lord who fed and cared for them, though even a donkey knows that. By placing the baby in the manger and giving that image to the shepherds as the single characteristic they could use to find the baby and worship him, Luke is declaring that now Israel does indeed know its master’s manger, because Jesus sleeps in one and the shepherds worship him.
The second word is “inn.” Given that they were already living in someone’s house, what do we make of the statement, “there was no room for them in the inn”? The Greek word translated “inn” is katalyma, which Wayment renders as “guest chamber,” Kent Brown as “guestroom,” and Raymond Brown as “lodgings.” There are at least three meanings of this term. First, a private home. Second, a room attached to a home. Third, a caravansary or place for travelers to spend the night. Though Luke’s context is too sparse to be certain, Wayment and K. Brown both favor the second definition, while R. Brown opts for a more generic translation (“lodgings”) precisely because he wishes to retain the ambiguity of the phrase.
We are sometimes confused by the whole phrase, “there was no room for them in the inn,” thinking of a modern hotel with separate rooms. We imagine Joseph knocking on doors and being turned away by successive innkeepers. But that is not the meaning of the Greek word translated “room” in the KJV. Topos means place or space, pointing to there not being an appropriate place for Mary’s purpose. Indeed, both Kent and Raymond Brown choose to render this as there being no “place” for Mary—not to give birth (that was already accomplished before this comment was made) but to lay Jesus down to sleep.
Though we can’t be certain from Luke’s thin details, what makes sense in the context of that culture and time is that Joseph and Mary were staying in a crowded relative’s house, perhaps in an attached guest room but with other family members. Kent Brown proposes that it was likely Passover time, which would bring a large influx of visitors to the Jerusalem area, spilling over to relatives and friends in towns like Bethlehem, only five miles away. After giving birth there in the home, when it was time for Mary to put Jesus to sleep, there was no suitable place for her to do that. Perhaps they were lacking quiet, privacy, or even space. Perhaps they had simply not yet acquired a crib of some kind for him to sleep in, offering the possibility that Jesus’ birth came early, before their preparations where complete. Whatever the reason, they improvised and put him in an available feeding trough, probably downstairs near the animals but also the kitchen and storage area, where other women could keep an eye on him while Mary rested from her labor.
Born in a House
Armed with this better understanding the historical situation of families and homes in Judea in the first century, we are on more solid ground saying Jesus was not born in a stable or a cave, but in a home where Mary and Joseph lived (or were guests), surrounded by relatives who would have supported the young couple, certainly helped in Mary’s labor, and perhaps even provided the oil and salt and the strips of cloth used to clean and wrap the new baby. Lacking a place to let Jesus sleep, they improvised and used a feeding trough the first night, which is how the shepherds found Jesus when they came to worship him.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying to jettison your nativity scenes, with their stable setting, straw-filled manger boxes, donkeys and sheep keeping watch, and shepherds and wise men jointly coming to see, because they are a wonderful cultural tradition for our day. They help us vividly tell the story of the birth of Jesus to our children and grandchildren, and to ourselves. But as you carefully lay out the pieces of your crèche, know that the real picture of that day was likely quite different, though certainly no less humble and perhaps even more fitting for the birth of the King of Kings, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Not only was Mary appropriately supported in this great moment of need, but there would be a group of witnesses to all the events, who, like the shepherds, would have “made known abroad” (Luke 2:17) the story of the birth of Jesus.
- Thomas A. Wayment, The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints
- S. Kent Brown, The Testimony of Luke
- Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah
- Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha
- Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers