Please read the short introduction, here, first.
While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger [phatnē], because there was no guest room [kataluma] available for them. Luke 2:6-7 (NIV 2011)
Inn or Guest Room?
Of all the scripture verses about the birth of Jesus, possibly no verse has been elaborated on as much as Luke 2:7. Numerous nativity plays feature an innkeeper turning Mary and Joseph away from his door, but kindly offering them a space in a barn or stable full of farm animals instead. Yet there is no innkeeper in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth and there probably was no inn.
For several years now there has been some discussion among Greek scholars about the Greek word kataluma (κατάλυμα), traditionally translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7. The etymology of kataluma suggests a place where a traveller can relax and unwind, and the 2011 edition of the New International Version justly translates this word as “guest room”.
In a culture that prided itself on hospitality, inns were rare in Israel. Instead of inns, travellers were usually welcomed into private homes, whether large or small. Larger homes often had guest quarters.
It is reasonable to assume that Joseph had family in Bethlehem and that he was expecting to stay in their guest quarters. What we learn from Luke 2:7, however, is that Mary and Joseph did not use the usual guest accommodation because, literally, “there was no place for them.”
Many ordinary houses in first-century Judea had a downstairs area to house livestock overnight. Perhaps Jesus was born in this downstairs area of the house. This is plausible considering that Mary used either an animal’s feeding trough or an animal stall as a place to lay her newborn son: the Greek word phatnē used in Luke 2, which has traditionally been translated as “manger,” has both meanings.
Jewish people are generally fastidious about cleanliness and have numerous laws that cover hygiene. If Mary did give birth to a baby in a place where animals were normally kept, it would have been clean and the animals housed elsewhere. It is highly unlikely Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus were surrounded by cows and sheep, or other domesticated animals, as is typically illustrated on Christmas cards.
What was so special about the manger?
The manger (feeding trough or stall) is mentioned three times by Luke in his account of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7, 12 & 16). When something is mentioned three times in the scriptures it is usually done to highlight its significance. Moreover, the angel explicitly stated that a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger was a sign to the shepherds. There was something significant about the manger (Luke 2:12).
The shepherds, as directed by the angel, went looking for the baby in a manger (Luke 2:8ff). Did the shepherds go house to house, or stable to stable, looking for the baby in a manger, or did they go straight to the watchtower of the flock—the Migdal Eder? Here was a manger that all the shepherds were familiar with.
The Bethlehem Migdal Eder was the base from which the temple flocks pastured on the Bethlehem hills. The lambs used in the temple sacrifices were taken from these flocks. Ewes were taken to the Migdal Eder when they were delivering their special lambs and the stalls were kept very clean for this purpose. Was this where Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was born? (Micah 4:8; cf. John 1:29.)
Approximately 33 years later Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday, at the same time that the sacrificial Passover lambs were being taken from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in anticipation of the Feast of Passover.
Wherever he was born, it does appear from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus Christ—the promised Messiah, the King of Israel, the Saviour of the world—was born in a place where animals were usually kept.
Part 5 »
 The traditional use of “inn” began with the first English translations of Luke 2. At that time, “inn” may not have been a faulty translation. In her paper No Room in the Inn, Ruth Magnusson Davis observes that when Tyndale’s New Testament (1526), the Matthew Bible (1537) and the King James Bible (1611) were being produced, the English word “inn,” which they all use, had several senses. It could refer to not only to public inns, but also to private houses or seasonal residences …”
 Kataluma is also used in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 and is usually translated here as “guest room”. Luke used a more specific word for “inn” (pandocheion) in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:34. Stephen Carlson, in his paper titled “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7” in New Testament Studies (2010), suggests a different, more specific, scenario. Brice C. Jones comments on the paper:
Through a detailed lexical and semantic analysis of the term κατάλυμα (traditionally translated “inn”) and Jewish patrilocal marital customs during the time of Jesus, Carlson demonstrates that the reference to κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 alludes to a marital chamber built on top, or onto the side of, the main room of a family village home… there was no space in their room, Mary had to give birth in the larger main room of the house, where the rest of the family slept.
 For example, the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8-37 had a guest room built especially for Elisha the prophet to use when he was visiting the town. Admittedly, the Shunamite woman and Elisha were living in the ninth century BC, not in the first century AD like Mary and Joseph.
 Bethlehem, also known as the city of David, was Joseph’s ancestral town, as he was a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16-17; Luke 1:27; 2:4ff). Despite its long and turbulent history, it is possible Joseph had family in Bethlehem. Jesus, a descendant of King David, was born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1a).
 Were Mary and Joseph shunned because Mary became pregnant when the couple were betrothed but not married? Timothy Ralston thinks not. See here.
 The Greek word for manger/stall (phatnē) is also used in Luke 13:15 where it is usually translated as “stall.” BDAG gives these possible meanings for phatnē: manger; crib [as in a stall or pen for cattle, or a rack or manger for fodder used in a stable or house for cattle]; stable; even a feeding place under the open sky (in contrast to a kataluma.)
 The idea that animals were near the infant Jesus may come from chapter 14 of the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. (Isaiah 1:3) The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Abacuc the prophet, saying: Between two animals you are made manifest. In the same place Joseph remained with Mary three days.
It is possible that Jesus was born in a cave. Origen, in Against Celsus 1.51, writes that “in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding his birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he was born, and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling-clothes.” Perhaps the tower of the Migdal Eder was built upon this cave. The Proto-Evangelium, or Infancy Gospel, of James 18ff relates that Mary and Joseph stayed in one of the many caves in Bethlehem used to shelter flocks of sheep over the winter. Justin Martyr in Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 78, also states that Jesus was born in a cave.
 The watchtower was also used by the shepherds as a refuge and a lookout when flocks of sheep were under attack. More about where Jesus was born and the Migdal Eder here.
© 8th of December 2010, Margaret Mowczko
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Ian Paul has written an excellent post entitled Jesus Wasn’t Born in a Stable that covers some of the same ground as this post.
Ian had another article, Three Christian Surprises, where he discusses (1) whether the shepherds were poor outcasts as some claim, (2) the significance of baby Jesus being swaddled, and (3) whether the Holy Family were abandoned and alone.