O Vey in a Manger

Mike Moore casts a sideways look at some assumptions about the birth of Messiah and concludes that they ain’t necessarily so.

The most enduring images of the birth of Jesus, perpetuated through paintings, literature, Christmas carols, nativity plays and sermons, is that the Lord of glory was born in a stable because there was “no room in the inn”. Even though the carols and some of our English Bible versions call Bethlehem a “town” or a “city”, in New Testament times it would have been a village too small to support an inn. Also, inns were normally found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones, but Bethlehem was not on a major road.

Lost in translation

The misunderstanding is due to our English Bibles. The Greek word katalyma should never have been translated “inn”, as it is in Luke 2:7. The 1395 edition of John Wycliffe’s translation of Luke 2:7 reads: “And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.” For reasons known only to themselves, William Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible and the Authorised Version opted for “inn” rather than “chaumber”. And so it has continued. The two exceptions to this translational custom are The New English Bible and David Stern’s The Jewish New Testament. The NEB translates Luke 2:7 as: “She wrapped him in his swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house.” The JNT renders Luke 2:7 as: “She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living quarters.

In Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14 (the only other places in the New Testament where the word appears) katalyma clearly does not mean an inn: “Then he shall show you a large, furnished upper room [katalyma] ...” (Luke 22:11.) If Luke had intended to refer to a commercial hostelry in chapter 2, he would have used pandocheion, the very word he uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan in 10:25-37: “... he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn [pandocheion], and took care of him.” The 1915 edition of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia observes that “Luke with his usual care distinguishes between [katalyma] and pandocheion, and his use of the verb katalúō (Luk 9:12; Luk19:7) makes his meaning clear... It is the word used of the ‘upper room’ where the Last Supper was held (Mar 14:14; Luk 22:11, ‘guest-chamber’), and of the place of reception in Bethlehem where Joseph and Mary failed to find quarters (Luk 2:7). It thus corresponds to the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village...” (available online at com/isbe/I/INN) a lowly cattle shed?

In Luke’s birth narrative, the Messiah was laid in a manger from which animals ate. Does that not strongly suggest a birth in a stable? According to the Biblical and Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey, from the time of King David until the mid-twentieth century, most village homes in Israel and the Middle East consisted of two rooms; one for the family and the other for guests. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower than the living space, in which the family donkey, cow and two or three sheep spent the night. The animals were brought into the house last thing at night and taken outside first thing in the morning. In the house they ate from mangers dug out of the stone floor of the raised family living area.

The katalyma was the room reserved for guests and visitors. Contrary to the traditional Christmas story, Mary was not in labour when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. Luke 2:6 records, “So it was, that while they were there [not upon arrival], the days were completed for her to be delivered.” The ESV reads, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” How could we have ever concluded from the biblical text that Mary was in labour at the time she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem? The idea may have originated with a second-century apocryphal work of fiction, The Protevangelium of James: “And they came to the midst of the way, and Mary said unto him: Take me down from the ass, for that which is within me presseth me, to come forth. And he took her down from the ass and said unto her: Whither shall I take thee to hide thy shame? for the place is desert.” (Protevangelium of James 17:8, available online at

No crib for a bed

Matthew records that when the magi arrived in Bethlehem they entered “the house”, not “the stable”, and there they “fell down and worshipped Him” (Mt 2:11). Jews and Arabs have traditionally placed a high value on family and hospitality, so when Caesar Augustus decreed that the Jewish population of ancient Israel had to return to their home towns to register for the census, Joseph went to Bethlehem “because he belonged to the house and line of David”(Luke 2:4).

"To turn away a descendant of David in ‘the City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village,” writes Kenneth Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (p. 26). Even if there had been no room to stay with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, no village in the hill country of Judea was more than an hour's ride on donkey from Bethlehem, so Joseph could easily have taken his betrothed to her relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

From these considerations, we can construct a more accurate scenario of the events surrounding the birth of Messiah. Joseph and his pregnant fiancée Mary made their way this ancestral village of Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar. There, he and Mary stayed with Joseph’s relatives for the remainder of her pregnancy in a home which was crowded due to the census being taken and where there was no longer any space in “the guest room”. Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child in the family room and the baby was placed on clean straw in one of the stone mangers. The birth of the Lord of glory was indeed humble but the manger in which he was laid was in a warm, friendly family home, not in a cold, dirty and lonely stable.

This is not a call to preachers to devote their Christmas sermons to denouncing the traditional misunderstandings of the birth of Messiah. Still less is it an encouragement to ministers to ignore the festive season and to steer clear of preaching on the nativity. It is a plea for more careful reading, exegesis and exposition of Scripture in order to draw out better and more appropriate applications from the text of the Bible.

This article was first published in the Herald in Summer 2010

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