Not in that poor lowly stable
8th December 2021
Picture Jesus’s nativity. Bethlehem town sits still beneath the moonlight, totally unaware that the son of God has been born in one of its poor and lowly outbuildings. In an anonymous backstreet, tucked away out of sight, we find a draughty stable. Inside, warm with the heat of the animals, a family sits quietly. Lit by a warm glow, a donkey, cow and an ox lie serenely at the side of the scene. The cow breathes out a gentle moo and the baby in the straw-filled manger stirs. Kneeling close by, Mary, Joseph and a lamb sit in silent adoration of the child. All is calm, all is not quite right.
I am sorry to spoil the scene, but Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case. This might shatter the Christmas card scenes and cut out a few characters from the children’s nativity line-up, but it’s worth paying attention to.
This long-held idea demonstrates just how much we read Scripture through the lens of our own assumptions, culture, and traditions, and how hard it can be to read well-known texts carefully, attending to what they actually say. It also highlights the power of traditions, and how resistant they are to change. And, specifically, the belief that Jesus was lonely and dejected, cast out amongst the animals and sidelined at his birth, loses sight of the way in which Jesus and his birth are a powerfully disruptive force, bursting in on the middle of ordinary life and offering the possibility of its transformation.
So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and unfamiliarity with first-century Palestinian culture.
The traditional elaboration has come about from reading the story through a “messianic” understanding of Isaiah 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 medieval 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? We’ll get to why this isn’t necessarily the case.
Grammar and meaning
The issue of grammar and meaning, and perhaps the heart of the matter, is the translation of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2:7. Bible versions such as the KJV translate this as “inn”: “And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the second century BC, known as the Septuagint or LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (for example, Exodus 4:24 and 1 Samuel 9:22). 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, like a caravanserai or roadside inn.
Historical and social context
The third issue relates to our understanding, or rather ignorance, 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.” (Bible and Spade, vol. 20, no. 4, Fall 2007).
Moreover, the actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story. As Bailey explores in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (SPCK, 2008), 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 image shows the layout of a typical village home in Palestine with a main room where the family would have lived. It also shows a lower space for animals to be housed at night and a separate guest room.
This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels. In Matthew 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’s critics respond, “No I don’t touch animals on the Sabbath” because they all would have had to lead their animals from the house.
What, 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” (Bible and Spade, vol 20, no 4, Fall 2007).
Why has the stable stuck?
One last question remains. This informed and persuasive understanding of the story has been around, even in Western scholarship, for a long, long time. So why has the wrong, traditional interpretation persisted for so long?
I 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, especially in an urban context, away from the family of course. So that is where Jesus must have been—despite the experience of many who live in rural settings.
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 his chapter in We Proclaim the Word of Life (IVP, 2013). He 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.”
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. But 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.”
The “traditional” reading that Jesus was born in a stable actually distorts the story of Jesus’s birth and mutes the central message of the Christmas story—that Jesus wasn’t born in a place we can happily visit once a year, and then forget about. Rather, he comes to the centre of human life. Here, he cannot so easily be romanticised, ignored or packed away with the decorations in January.