Like many of our Christian traditions, the nativity story is filled with both scripture and cultural assumptions. So, before we begin today let us re-read the scripture before we get ahead of ourselves.
Luke’s Birth Narrative
1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.
18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
I would first mention that the birth narrative in Matthew does not record the birth as much as it does the visit of the Magi. Luke is the only gospel that tells the birth story with any amount of detail.
So, let us take a look at Luke. I made two words bold in the passage that I think will point us in the right direction. Below I will examine those two words in detail and we should have a better idea of where Jesus was born.
A manger is essentially a feeding trough for hay or grain eating animals. Contrary to most people’s belief not all mangers were made from wood. We have to remember that our context was different than Jesus’ context. In locations like Bethlehem it was very common to make rough hewn stone into objects, as opposed to using wood for everything. Stone was widely available and mostly free. Gathering planed wood boards and nails would have costed more than stone.
Moreover, many of the homes would have been stone also. It was common to see them either carved into existing stone structures or build from stone or adobe style bricks. The standard 1st century Palestinian home would have had the bottom setup for the animals in the winter or at night, so the manger would have been located in the bottom level of the home, not a disconnected barn or stable.
If the family had livestock staying in a separate location it would have costed a lot to have two homes and space was also an issue. Instead, one might utilize a cave or a stone structure as a home for the animals, but this would leave the livestock vulnerable to theft or predators. This was more common outside of the inner city.
In summation, the manger indicates that Jesus was most likely laid in a stone structure which would be part of a home or possibly an external stone structure but more likely a home.
The word translated “inn” in most Bibles is only used 3 times in the New Testament. Luke 22:11 and Mark:14:14 both tell the story of the last supper. The “upper room” that they ate the meal in is the same word used to indicate where Jesus was born. It is more traditionally used to mean a “spare room” or a “guest room.” Using it as a rented room like an “inn” would be an unnatural use of the word.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint (LXX) and it is often a good tool for seeing how Greek words were used about 200 years before Jesus was born. A lot of words that are scarce in the NT can be found in the LXX multiple times, thereby helping us understand the language much better. Since the original language of the OT was mostly Hebrew the translation into Greek is even more helpful to modern interpreters because the translators would have had Jewish cultural knowledge. The LXX uses the word καταλύματι 13 times, and never once was it used to indicate a hotel type of structure like an inn.
Additionally, Luke does speak of a real inn when he tells the story of the Good Shepherd (Luke 10:30-37).
and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn [πανδοχεῖον] and took care of him (Luke 10:34)
πανδοχεῖον is a word used by Luke to indicate a temporary room where someone can pay for lodging. This reinforces the notion that Jesus indeed was born indoors in a typical Israelite style house and not out in the cold in some wooden stable structure.
Besides the language issues, one must consider cultural practices. The reason every one thinks Jesus was born in a stable is because they applied their own cultural ideas to Jesus’ story. But we have to remember that Jesus’ culture had their own way of doing things and they are different than ours.
Today we go to hospitals and maybe a few family members show up and maybe not. In ancient times a team of relatives would be utilized to give birth. This fact is depicted in an ancient carving showing a post-birth mother saying a final farewell after unfortunate birth complications, leading to her death. In the carving is the husband, mother, and mid-wife. This fact is also illustrated in the narrative by Luke.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. (Luke 2:4)
Joseph went to where his family is from to have the birth of Jesus. It might also explain by no room was left in the guest room. If multiple family members were there for the birth the home would be pretty full. Moreover, birthing was messy and having one in a spare room already filled with people might have been more complicated than having down where the animals are.
It is also possible that Joseph and his relatives were gathered together for the taking of the census due to the language of verses 4-5. It might be a mere coincidence that they had the baby during this busy period.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. (Luke 22:4-5)
However, we cannot know for sure who was in the home when Jesus was born or the specific reason why they had the birth with the animals rather than swapping rooms with whoever was in the guest room. Many mysteries still abound around the birth of Christ.
In summation, I believe it is very likely that Jesus was born in the bottom level of a home owned by relatives of Joseph, not a stable outside somewhere near a hotel that is full. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.