Clearing Up Misconceptions

Over time, many beliefs with little to no Biblical basis have crept into common Christian thinking. This web series aims to correct some of the most commonly held misconceptions about the Bible.

Misconception: Jesus was born among the animals in the stable because there was no room for Joseph and Mary at the inn.

Several years ago, I attended a Christmas drama performed by members of a local church. The main character of the play was an innkeeper. He was eventually forced to turn away Joseph and Mary (who had just arrived in Bethlehem) because the hotel was completely booked. However, the innkeeper still found room for them in one of the area stables. The cast performed wonderfully, and their portrayal of the night Christ was born is fairly common, but how does it compare to the Word of God?

Information about Christ's birth is recorded in the second chapter of Luke:

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of 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 be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

It may come as a surprise to many that the Bible does not provide us with many more details than this about the birth of Christ. The following passages in Luke 2 discuss the angel's announcement of Christ's birth to the shepherds and the shepherds' subsequent visit to see Jesus. Matthew 1:24–25 states that Joseph took Mary as "his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS." The following chapter discusses the visit of the Magi some time later and the escape to Egypt.

A few points must be made as we compare the modern retelling of the birth of Jesus with the truth of Scripture. First, the Bible certainly teaches that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it does not state that Joseph and Mary arrived in that town just in time for her to deliver. In fact, this scenario is highly unlikely since it is doubtful that the two would attempt to make the arduous 70 mile trip from Nazareth in the final stages of her pregnancy. Also, Luke 2:6 implies that they were in Bethlehem for a while before Jesus was born ("while they were there, the days were completed").

Second, the Bible makes no mention of any innkeeper who told them that the inn was full for the night. The reason we imagine this scenario is because the translators of most English versions have chosen the word "inn" to translate the Greek word καταλυμα (kataluma), which gives modern readers the wrong impression.1 Jesus used this same Greek word in Luke 22:11 to refer to a "guest room." This room is now known as the Upper Room—the scene of the Last Supper, the meal that Jesus ate with His disciples the night before His Crucifixion.

That may not sound convincing to most people who are familiar the traditional telling of the Christmas account. But consider that the Greek language has a word for hotel or inn. In fact, Luke used it in Luke 10:34, when he wrote about the Good Samaritan who took the beaten man to the "inn" (pandocheion, πανδοχειον) and paid the "innkeeper" (pandochei, πανδοχει, v. 35) to care for the man.

Since Luke was quite familiar with the proper term for inn, why didn't he use it in the account of the birth of Jesus? The probable answer is that Joseph and Mary did not attempt to stay at an inn. The Bible states that there was no room for them in the kataluma, which would be better translated as "guest room."

Joseph and Mary returned to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem because of the census (Luke 2:1–4).2 As the census was proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire, many Jewish families would have needed to travel to Bethlehem during this time and lodged with relatives who lived in the town.

Joseph and Mary probably stayed with Joseph's relatives in Bethlehem, but because of the large influx of people, the house would have been crowded and the kataluma (guest room) was full. Consequently, Joseph and Mary would have been relegated to living in the lower level of the house. It is hard to believe that pregnant Mary would have been turned away from a relative's home in a society that greatly valued familial ties.

Archaeologists have excavated first century homes from the Judean hill country. They have discovered that the upper level served as a guest chamber while the lower level served as the living and dining rooms. Oftentimes, the more vulnerable animals would be brought in at night to protect them from the cold and theft. This sounds strange to many of us, since we wouldn't dream of bringing some of our cattle into the house at night, but even today in some countries of Europe (e.g., Germany and Austria), the farmhouse and the animal quarters are often different parts of the same building.

There is biblical support for the concept of animals being kept in the house. The infamous account of Jephthah (Judges 11) states that he planned to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return. Apparently, he expected an animal to come out of his house. Little did he know that his daughter would come out to greet him before any of the animals came out. So there seems to be biblical precedent for keeping animals in the house.

This is where the manger comes into play. Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in the lower level of a crowded house, in which some of the animals had been brought in for the night.3 She then wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and laid Him in the manger (feeding trough).4

Of course, we should never become so focused on the peripheral details of this account that we miss the most important point. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became a descendant of Adam so that He could ultimately go to the Cross and die in our place. Now the descendants of Adam can be saved from an eternity of separation from their Creator. God gave His Son to this world, which is the greatest gift that could ever be given. Let us celebrate this truth and tell the world about God's amazing love.

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Footnotes

  1. The first English translation of the Bible was done by John Wycliffe around 1382. Here is Luke 2:7 from his Bible: "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." The word commonly translated as "inn" was first translated into English as "chaumbir" (chamber), which refers to a room or bedroom rather than something like a motel. Back
  2. It is intriguing to think that Joseph and Mary may have understood that they were in the process of fulfilling Micah 5:2, which reveals that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Back
  3. It is also possible that the animals were not in the house that night, but the room was still equipped with a manger for the times that the animals would be brought in. Also, some homes in the Judean hill country were built right into a hillside, so the lower level may have even been a cave, with the house built on and around it. Back
  4. The Greek word for manger is φατνη (phatnē). It refers to a trough or open box in a stable designed to hold feed or fodder for livestock. This same word appears again in Luke 13:15 where several translations use the word "stall," although "manger" would fit in this verse also as animals are often tied to the actual feed trough. Keep in mind that the proper understanding of a word is based on its context. In Luke 2:7, 12, and 16, Jesus was born and then placed or laid in a manger. He was not born in the manger. It makes sense that Mary wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and then laid him in the feeding trough, which served as a makeshift crib. Back