Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Jesus birth, stable, manger phatne, inn kataluma, cave, Bethlehem

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.[1] 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”.[2]

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.[3]

It is reasonable to assume that Joseph had family in Bethlehem and that he was expecting to stay in their guest quarters.[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8] 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 »


[1] 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 …”

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] Were Mary and Joseph shunned because Mary became pregnant when the couple were betrothed but not married? Timothy Ralston thinks not. See here.

[6] 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.)

[7] 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.

[8] 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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Further Reading

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.

Christmas Cardology Series

(1) Introduction
(2) Mary’s Scandal and Favour
(3) Nazareth to Bethlehem
(5) When was Jesus born?
(6) The Virgin Mary
(7) The Wise Men from the East

12 thoughts on “Christmas Cardology 4: Was Jesus born in a barn?

  1. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the Justin Martyr quote. I’ve added it to a footnote. The grave clothes idea sounds interesting.

    I’ve also heard that the cloths may have been the bandages used to bind sheep that were hurt??? Do you know anything about the flocks in Bethlehem: their care and and their use as sacrifices?

  2. Hi Marg,
    Regarding the birthplace

    Due to the census when Joseph & Mary arrived, the little hamlet (town of Bethlehem) was already full and there was no room in (any) house.

    A further clue to what kind of place is found in that there were “swaddling cloths”. These could easily be called “grave-clothes”. In the first century, the Jewish people in the Land of Israel kept these grave cloths in caves.

    The common thing to do when a child was born (to Jewish people then) was to wash the child in water, then rubbed it in salt (Ezekiel 16:4).

    Personally I think the cave may well have had animals in them from times to time. The feeding trough is a good clue. All that to fulfil what was said through the prophet that the mighty house of David would be reduced to what it was in the days of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1).

    We should not exaggerate to the extent as Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (78) did “he (Joseph) took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village”. The birth of Jesus happened there, but later the Biblical text says they lived in a house.

    Just rambling,
    Thanks for the opportunity to learn a little more each time

  3. I go with cave, as the best hypothesis.

  4. I do too. I am very inclined to believe that Jesus was born in a cave associated with the Migdal Eder.

  5. Just cannot express how much I love reading your articles Marg!

  6. Thanks Emma <3

  7. A couple of comments/questions. Was the reason no room was found for them at the guesthouse or room due to the fact that a woman who has just given birth was considered unclean? No men in that culture would want to be made religously unclean. Also, was there a midwife present or did Joseph have to deliver Jesus by himself? I have been thinking that the shepards that came were shepardesses and they then did what would be necessary to clean up Mary and Jesus after the birth. Again due the religous unclean factor. Is there any evidence for this or is it just a wild thought? Also, I have some notes about the swaddling cloths but not sure where they are. Swaddling cloths is a single word and may have been a belly button band or diaper.

  8. Hi Linda,

    I am reluctant to comment on the “unclean” factor because I really don’t know what the custom was at that time. (I.e. If the Jews in Bethlehem strictly observed every law about being made unclean.) And, as far as I know, people only became unclean if they sat on a bed or chair a new mother had been using. (I need to check on this.)

    Moreover, people were often unclean for all sorts of reasons. (Unclean is not the same as being sinful!) I don’t think being unclean would have been a major problem except during high holidays and when visiting the Temple in Jerusalem; but I could be wrong.

    I also doubt very much that Joseph delivered the baby. It would have gone against every cultural impulse. I doubt that Joseph would have had a clue what to do. Childbirth was a woman’s domain, and women did not discuss it with men. Midwives were only ever female in those days. I have no doubt that there were midwives in Bethlehem who would have helped Mary during her delivery.

    I do believe that Christmas cards give a false impression about Mary and Joseph being alone. It is very likely that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem in a group, maybe a large group. And I do believe that midwives attended Mary while Joseph waited elsewhere.

    I can answer your question about whether swaddling cloth/s is plural or singular. The answer is: The Greek of Luke 2:7 and 12 simply doesn’t give this information.

    In the Greek of Luke 2:7 and 12 there is no noun at all for swaddling cloth/s. There is, however, a verb (sparganoō). This one word means the act of wrapping, or swathing, in cloths or bandages. The verb is about the action, not so much about the cloths and whether it was one or several pieces of cloth.

    I don’t think the shepherds helped with the delivery or washing up afterwards because of the message the Angel gave to the shepherds: You will find the baby wrapped in cloth (or cloths) and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12). When the shepherds got to the manger, the delivery was well and truly over; and Joseph was with Mary and the baby (Luke 2:16).

    Sorry I can’t help more. You might want to read the other articles in the Christmas Cardology series which I think will shed more light on the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Some of the comments left by readers may be helpful too.

  9. I love JESUS from all my heart…

  10. I love this article – so well laid out! Thanks for all the time and research that went into this!

  11. Some comments on the word «topos» (‘place’) in Luke 2:7: Can this word also mean ‘space’?

    I see that most english Bible translations still talk about an inn. But one that translates «guest room» is the NIV: «and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.»

    I don’t know much about koine greek, but in my naive and amateurish way, I think out from what things are like in norwegian. The NIV has not only omitted «topos» altogether, but also changed «guest room» from definite singular form to indefinite singular. In norwegian, that would be a bone-breaking abuse of language. But maybe greek definite singular is different?

    The CEB does it differently: «She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.»

    Out from my limited understanding, this seems so much more right. The CEB respects the definite form. And if I assume that the CEB has got everything else right, then the word «place» is, so to speak, «out of place» here (sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one). In the CEB version, «place» just _has_ to be «space». I am a little surprised that they don’t see that themselves.

    In norwegian, we have a word «plass», which can mean both ‘place’ and ‘space’. It means ‘place’ when it is used as a countable noun, and ‘space’ when used as a mass noun. I have a suspicion that «topos» maybe works the same way.

    Something similar is the case with the english word «room». One can count the number of rooms in, say, an inn. But one can also measure how much room there is in, for example, a specific room. «How much room in the room?».

    I noted some other verses where «topos» is used:

    Luke 14:22, CEB: «The servant said, ‘Master, your instructions have been followed and there is still room.’»

    Isn’t «room» being used as a mass noun here? I think so. It has a meaning that also «space» could have, but «place» could not.

    Acts 25:16, CEB: «I told them it is contrary to Roman practice to hand someone over before they have faced their accusers and had opportunity to offer a defense against the charges.»

    Here, «topos» is translated as «opportunity». This could be an abstract meaning of «room» or «space», but not of «place».

    Romans 12:19, CEB: «Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.»

    «Room» is used in an abstract sense, and again as a mass noun. One could have written «space» instead, but not «place».

    Hebrews 8:7, ESV: «For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.»

    Here, it seems to me that the ESV says it best. And again, ‘occasion’ could be an abstract meaning of «room» or «space», but not of «place».

    Well, I don’t know how convincing you find this. I believe there are reasons to rethink how «topos» works. But I am just an amateur.

    Anyway: Merry Christmas Marg, to you and everyone in your house!

    1. Merry Christmas, Knut!

      I think the CEB gets it right in Luke 2:7. I think the CEB does a good job in Luke 14:22 too, simply because the English word “place” would have sounded weird in this sentence.

      Also, “opportunity” (“possibility”; “chance”), as in “a favourable circumstance for doing something” (BDAG) is another valid meaning and use of topos in ancient Greek, even though its connection with the usual meaning of topos, “place,” is not immediately apparent. (See Acts 25:16; Romans 12:19; Ephesians 4:27; Hebrews 12:17; and a debatable example, Romans 12:19)

      The Greek definite article and the English definite article have some very different rules. It’s not unusual for English translators to add an article that is not in the Greek text, or judiciously ignore a definite article that is in the Greek text. Luke 2:7 has three definite articles in the Greek. Most English translations “ignore” the first two.

      Several of the English renderings of topos in your comment are not precise translations or common uses of the word. However, the meaning of the whole sentence, the overall context, makes the English sentences reasonable and sound translations. Nevertheless, the primary sense of topos remains “place” or “location,” and even “position,” or as Thayer puts it, “any portion of space marked off, as it were, from surrounding space.” (“Topic” and “-topia” are related to topos.)

      It really is a minor point, but when I read the Greek text, I still get the sense that there was no place, no spot, for Mary and Joseph in the kataluma. But I do not wish to be pedantic about it.

      Perhaps we have a slightly different understanding of the English word “space.” To me, “space” does not necessarily have actual limits or boundaries, it is nebulous, but “place” does have boundaries and fits better with what I know of topos.

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