Like many of our Christian traditions, the nativity story is filled with both scripture and cultural assumptions. So, as we begin let us re-read the scripture to refresh our memories with the nativity scene. The version below is a fairly standard one, keeping the old wording of Jesus being born in a manger because there was no room at the “inn”. We will address some of the wording later on in the article. I should also 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.
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.
In most English translations we are told that Jesus’ parents found no room at the “inn” and that Jesus was born and laid in a “manger”. Both words are critical to the story. The word for manger in greek does not have a disputed translation. However, the Greek word that gets translated as “inn” is considered to have better translations in the modern era.
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 modern 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 wood boards or even unprocessed boards and nails would have costed more than stone. Moreover, a stone feeding trough can hold both solids and liquids. A wooden one can be sealed to hold water but would require pitch or some tar. Both might not be readily available.
But what does this stone manger tell us about where Jesus was born?
In addition to feeding tools, many of the homes would have been made partially in stone. 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. Properties inside ancient cities did not have room for a separate/detached stable. Of course, a really wealthy person could afford a luxurious setup with a separate building for the livestock but it would not be common.
Does this mean Jesus was born in the lower level of a house? It seems quite possible but not an easy conclusion. Caves located close to a home or series of homes could also serve as a dwelling for the livestock. This was more common outside of the inner city, where the population was sparse. Naturally the number of caves available for such things were few. But, we don’t know what kind of place Jesus was visiting. After all, doesn’t the passage state that there was no room at the inn? Was the manger location relevant to the inn they went to? Did the inn have a livestock business also? Understanding the situation with the inn will lead us to a more firm conclusion.
The word translated “inn” in most Bibles is only used 3 times in the New Testament. That makes it harder to decipher because one must rely on texts people outside the NT traditions. However, there is one Greek text that was used by the disciples and Paul which greatly influenced the Jewish culture and it was the Greek version of the OT, called the Septuagint. The Greek Septuagint uses the word καταλύματι 13 times. In its uses it was never used to indicate a hotel type of structure like an inn. The same is true of the NT. The 2 other locations where καταλύματι is used is in Luke 22:11 and Mark:14:14. Both narratives tell the story of the last supper. In the last supper narrative the “upper room” that they ate the meal in, is the same word that describes where Jesus was intended to be born. It is more traditionally used to mean a “spare room” or a “guest room.” Upper rooms could be rented on occasion when an influx of people come in the city; such as during the Passover festival. However, translating the word to mean an “inn” would be an unnatural use of the word.
Additionally, the Greek language does contain a word to indicate a hotel type of structure. Luke speaks 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. Luke could have easily called Jesus’ birthplace a πανδοχεῖον but he chose not to, even though it was part of his vocabulary.
The reason every one thinks Jesus was born in a stable is because they apply their own cultural ideas to Jesus’ story. But we have to remember that Jesus’ culture had their own way of doing things. The idea that a single woman and her fiancee could just go outside (stables were not seal buildings) in the cold of winter and then birth a baby is outlandish. Women don’t do that even today and we’ve had 2000 more years of experience birthing babies. On top of that, ancient people in Judea did not pay to give birth at an inn. It is possible that they might use the guest room of a relative but usually traveling to such a place while someone is giving birth would be hazardous. Usually a midwife or relative who has experience would come over and guide the soon-to-be mother through the delivery. This is more financially practical than going to a rented room to give birth because it’s hard to know exactly what date you’ll deliver. You might end up being there for weeks and at what cost? That is why midwifes coming to the home was common.
This fact is depicted well 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. These three people were just the start, however. Usually mothers were accompanied by older female relatives to attend to every detail of the delivery. This fact is illustrated well in the narrative by Luke but one can see that at least some relatives could be present.
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, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. (Luke 2:4-5)
Joseph went to where his family is from to have the birth of Jesus. It might also explain why no space 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 a birth down where the animals are.
It is also possible that Joseph had extra relatives since they were gathered together for the taking of the census. It might be a mere coincidence that they had the baby during this busy period but it seems likely that it was planned. 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. But it seems likely that they traveled for the census to a relative’s house. Because the census was so wide it is also likely that some relatives were either already staying at the residence or multiple residences.
If we assume that the birth was in a relative’s home then one needs to have a reason why relatives (or even strangers) would not give up room for the birth. I thing a few things justify such actions. If there was no room for them then a number of people would have been occupying the upper room which would include sleeping and eating. Having a baby in the upper room would have made it difficult for anyone to reside there at a high capacity. Additionally, having just a few people move (perhaps temporarily) to the bottom level for the birth would be much easier than having the entire party in the animal pens and just Mary and Joseph in upper room. Suppose the many relatives did move down into the pens, would be able to find a resting place among the animals or would the animals take up too much space? It is more likely that the baby was born in the pens because there was no better alternative. The relatives there would have probably helped the birth still.
There is one last cultural matter that should be considered which is ritual impurities. According to Leviticus 12 a woman is ritually unclean for 7 days following birth. This is also true for another women who might have physically helped deliver the child and touched blood. The laws of purity during birth were serious enough that the Talmud indicates failed births or births in which the mother dies to be the result of the mother not following the laws of purity. ( See: Mishnah Shabbat 2) Because of ritual impurity the birth almost had to be in the pens rather in the room where all the guests are staying.
Thus, a very culturally appropriate scene unfolds if we assume Jesus was born with the help of relatives in an ancestral home which was too full allow a birth in the living quarters. On top of that the matter of ritual uncleanliness likely played into the decision. So the birth took place as normal in but in the lower level of the home where the livestock was penned. What I am unsure of is if Mary needed to stay in the pens the entire period of her impurity or if she was able to stay in a small section of the house until she needed to take Jesus to get circumcised. Her impurity however did not mean she could have no interaction with others. It just meant she could not enter the temple.
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 an inn that is full. If the house was a country dwelling (not likely) the the possibility of a cave birth is also on the table but unlikely given what we know about birthing culture in the 1st century. The cold and dreary outdoor birth imagined by many isn’t likely what Luke had in mind when he wrote the narrative. Rather, Jesus was probably born in a home surrounded by relatives waiting eagerly. They stayed there with relatives at least 8 days which is the period in which the mother is unclean from birth.