The Manger and the Inn

December 11, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

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There are some aspects of the story of Jesus’ birth that have entered traditional thinking but that don’t sync up with what is stated in the Gospel accounts. These include Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn and having to stay in a stall or a cave where animals were housed; that the evening they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor; that the shepherds and the three kings gathered together around the manger in which Jesus lay. A closer look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth paints a somewhat different picture than the traditions that have grown up around it.

To begin, let’s look at where Jesus was born and the accommodations Mary and Joseph were able to find. Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and other than that, no further details are given. Luke states that Jesus was born in the “city of David,” and adds that the city of David was Bethlehem. Throughout the Old Testament Jerusalem was called the city of David, as it was where David and many subsequent kings of Israel reigned. But Bethlehem was the city where David was born and where his family was from, so it was also known locally as the city of David. While local readers of Luke’s Gospel would understand that he was speaking of Bethlehem, Luke specifically mentions the village’s name since he was writing mainly for non-Jewish believers and they wouldn’t make the connection.

Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem because Joseph was from the royal line of King David and it was required that he return to his ancestral home for the census which was taking place. Because it was required that people return to their ancestral homes for this census, Bethlehem, a small village, most likely had numerous people visiting, meaning that most of the accommodations were full.

The general understanding is that Joseph and Mary went to the local commercial inn where travelers would lodge, and because it was full, they were turned away. The fact that the village of Bethlehem was not on one of the main roads makes it somewhat unlikely that it had a commercial inn. The Greek word that Luke uses, which is translated as inn, is katalyma, which is used three times in the New Testament. The two other times it’s translated as guest room.[1] When Luke wrote about the good Samaritan who took the man who had been left for dead to the commercial inn, he used the Greek word pandocheion.[2] So most likely he would have used the same word for inn in the birth story if he had meant a commercial inn. Most likely he was saying that there was no space in the guest room rather than no room in the inn.

Let’s take a look at the housing situation in those days. Peasant village homes in Palestine in the first century consisted of two rooms—the main room in which the family cooked, ate, and slept, and the separate guest room, which was a room either attached to the end of the house with a separate entrance or built on top of the main house.

The idea of the simple one-room living space was referred to when Jesus spoke of not hiding your lamp under a bushel, but putting it on a stand so that it gives light to the whole house.[3] If the whole house is lighted by the one lamp, then the house would need to be all in one room.

The main room of the house also included a place for the animals, which was either a few steps lower than the floor of the main room or was separated from the main floor by some heavy beams. The door to the house would lead into the stable-like area which housed the animals. There would be a few steps upward from the stable area to the family’s living quarters. The head of a larger animal, like a donkey or a cow, when standing in the animal area, would be able to reach the floor of the family’s living area. It was from mangers dug into the floor of the family’s living area that the larger animals would eat their hay. Smaller animals, such as sheep, would eat out of wooden mangers placed in the stable area. People who lived in villages in those days sheltered the animals overnight within their houses both to avoid theft and to help warm the house. They would bring the livestock inside each evening, and first thing in the morning would take them outside.[4]

The first-century readers of Luke’s Gospel would most likely have understood that Joseph had to take his pregnant wife to Bethlehem as required because of the census. As someone from the lineage of David, Joseph and Mary would have been welcomed by those in the village. Joseph likely would have had relatives or friends there, but even if he didn’t, because he was of Davidic descent, he would have been shown whatever hospitality could be given, especially because Mary was pregnant. In normal circumstances they would have been given a guest room in someone’s home to stay in. However, due to the census, many others were required to be there as well, so there were no guest rooms available in the private homes in the village. In keeping with the hospitality of the village, which was customary for any Jewish village at that time, Joseph and Mary were brought in to someone’s main living space, probably that of a relative or friend, and while they were there, her pregnancy came to full term and Mary gave birth to Jesus.

After the birth, the baby was wrapped in strips of cloth, as was the way of the poor in that day, and laid in a manger—meaning either in the feeding trough dug into the floor of the main room near where the animals were kept, or in a wooden manger, the type used by smaller animals, which would have presumably been moved out of the stable area and into the main room of the house.

This understanding of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth is in alignment with the Jewish culture of the time and with the hospitality that would have typically been shown to those going to their ancestral villages, especially to someone coming into a village with a wife who was ready to give birth. For the people of the city of David to turn away a descendant of David with a pregnant wife would have brought the village shame.

So, where did some of the traditional interpretations of the Christmas story come from? A number came from an early writing from around AD 200, called the Protoevangelium of St. James. Scholars have determined that the writer wasn’t the apostle James, wasn’t Jewish, and didn’t understand Palestinian geography or Jewish traditions. It tells the story of Mary’s birth and life, and carries on into the birth of Jesus. It’s from this story that people got the idea that Mary started labor the night she got to Bethlehem, that Jesus was born in a cave, that Mary was alone in childbirth, that Joseph was an old man who already had sons, and that Mary was not only a virgin before Jesus was born but that she remained a virgin all her life. Some of these concepts have worked their way into the traditional stories in the Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox beliefs.

I thought it might be interesting for you to hear this different-than-the-traditional outlook of the circumstances when Jesus was born. I shared it mainly for your interest and for the purpose of trying to bring the Christmas story more into the first-century context. I have found that reading the Gospels with a first-century context in mind helps me better understand what Jesus meant in both His words and actions.

Of course, whether Jesus was born in a cave, an animal stall, or a village home isn’t crucial and certainly isn’t worth debating. What is crucial is that He was born, that He died for the sins of the world, and that everyone has the chance to hear about it. We know Jesus because at some point in our lives someone told us about Him, either when we were children or later in life. We’ve been so blessed because of it. Jesus has asked us to share what we have received with others. That is His commission to us. He asks us to sow the seed in others’ lives, or to water it, or to reap the results, depending on the person. He asks us as His followers to both show His love and tell others about Him, to introduce Him to those who haven’t yet met Him. He will guide you as to what method to use, depending on those He’s leading you to, as each person is different and has different needs. But all people need Him. They need His love, peace, and salvation. Each of us has the means to bring Him and His love into the lives of others, so let’s do what we can, shall we?


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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Green, Joel B., McKnight, Scot. Editors. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992.

Pentecost, Dwight J. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

[1] Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14.

[2] Luke 10:34.

[3] Matthew 5:15–16.

[4] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 28–34.