Outside of his death and resurrection, there is perhaps no story from the life of Jesus as well known and widely imagined as his birth in a Bethlehem stable.
Though we have two New Testament gospel accounts of the events surrounding Jesus's birth, the version of events found in the Gospel of Luke has easily played the most significant role in developing Christian images of the Nativity.
From the King James Version of Luke, chapter 2:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee...unto the City of David, which is called Bethlehem...to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife...And while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Although Luke's account provides most of the commonly-known details of Jesus's birth, we use the Gospel of Matthew to add a guiding star "in the east," leading three wise men to Jesus's side, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
As a result, Christian tradition has created a sort of combined image of the Nativity: wise men together with shepherds, worshipping the baby Jesus, who lies in a wooden manger inside a covered stable, cows and lambs resting contentedly in the background, as a magnificent star glows in the sky overhead, superimposed over a host of singing angels.
This image is reinforced in everything from great works of art by Renaissance masters, to modern Christmas hymns and nativity scenes. Ask most people to describe the scene of Jesus's birth, and they will talk about stars and stables, mangers and three wise men, shepherds and a "heavenly host" of angels, and the gentle lowing of the cattle. A few might even throw in a little drummer boy in the shadows.
Of course, as many folks realize, a number of these images are either downright absent from the New Testament accounts all together, or are twisted out of context.
I have written before about the varied discrepancies between the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke, including how we tend to combine images from these two otherwise differing accounts of the same event, to effectively create a third account that does not actually exist, so I won't repeat myself here.
Instead, I want to focus on the actual place where Jesus is said to have been born - inside a stable in Bethlehem.
To begin with, it may come as quite a surprise to many readers to discover that, in fact, no writer in the New Testament ever once mentions anything about a stable. There is, quite simply, no stable in any New Testament account of Jesus's birth.
This may almost seem shocking to some people. Why in the world do we imagine Jesus born in a stable when the birth stories of the New Testament don't actually mention any such thing?
The widespread nature of Christian belief in a stable can be illustrated by a very brief survey on the Internet. At a website called www.JesusAnswers.com, they have this to say: "When they arrived at Bethlehem in the evening, Joseph wanted to find a comfortable place for his wife Mary...The only place they found was a stable with camels, donkeys, and sheep."
Apparently this website doesn't realize camels aren't native to Palestine, and are also considered ritually unclean. But I digress.
Another article, this time at www.christianity.about.com, puts it like this: "While in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Probably because of the census, the inn was too crowded, and Mary gave birth in a crude stable."
Clearly, the notion that Jesus was born in a stable is quite widespread, and it would seem that very few people actually realize that no writer of the New Testament ever places Jesus in a stable at birth.
It doesn't take a scholar of the New Testament to figure out why the image of the stable has developed in Christian tradition. The Gospel of Luke does tell us that Joseph and Mary were unable to find a place to stay in Bethlehem, and therefore Jesus was placed "in a manger." And a manger, after all, is a feeding trough. Surely, some might argue, this implies a stable?
As it turns out, the answer to that question is no.
There are two reasons why Luke's account cannot be taken to imply a birth in a stable. One is a purely archaeological reason, the other is essentially a historical reason.
Archaeological discoveries in modern Israel have demonstrated that within ancient Jewish cities, feeding troughs - or mangers - were stone basins placed, essentially, along the curb in front of ancient buildings. To put it simply, when travelers brought donkeys into the city, they tied them up in front of the building and left them there to eat - much the same way that a cowboy in the Old West might have tied his mount in front of the saloon. If a resident inside an ancient Jewish city owned a donkey or some other grazing animal, that animal would typically be kept within the courtyard of the house, where a manger would be situated.
This is evidenced, among other things, within another passage from the Gospel of Luke itself. In chapter 13, Jesus is teaching about working on the Sabbath, and states: "Does not each of you, on the Sabbath, untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?" Animals were fixed to the feeding trough, which itself sat on city streets or within residential courtyards. If mangers were understood to be situated inside an enclosed structure like a stable, what reason would there be to have the animal tied to the manger?
Simply put, when Luke tells us that Jesus was placed "in a manger," because there was no room inside the inn, he is saying, in effect, that Jesus was born either on the sidewalk in front of the inn, or perhaps more likely, in the courtyard appended to the inn. But in either case, there would certainly have been no stable involved. (Interestingly enough, the word translated in this passage as "inn" is probably better translated as "guestroom," implying that Joseph and Mary weren't trying to get lodging at an inn at all, but rather inside a relative's house.)
And this moves us to the second reason why Luke could not have been implying a stable for Jesus's birth. From a historical standpoint, stables simply didn't exist, in any widespread fashion, in ancient Israel. The climate of Israel is mild, with average temperatures ranging from the low 40's in winter to the mid 80's in summer. Some areas are dry, and others are more rainy, but snow and bitterly cold temperatures are a rarity. There was simply no climatic need for stables - or barns - to house cattle. It's interesting to note that at least one ancient stable area has been excavated in ancient Israel, in the area of Meggido, a city which was abandoned around 500 B.C.E. This stable, however, was made of stone (unlike the typical Nativity image of a wooden stable looking like something found in 16th century Europe), and there are a number of archaeologists who have argued that, in fact, it wasn't a stable at all, but a warehouse or storage building of some type.
The simple fact is, people in ancient Israel kept animals in pastures or within residential courtyards. They did not house them in stables or other walled and covered structures. Such structures, for the most part, would have been unnecessary, except, perhaps, in cases of kings housing their battle horses and so on. Regular cattle and beasts of burden - donkeys, cows, oxen, sheep, etc. - would have lived out-of-doors.
In the end, it seems that we are forced to accept that our common and widely-accepted image of Jesus's birth in a stable simply is not true, whether from a Biblical, archaeological, or historical standpoint. The New Testament does not tell us Jesus was born in a stable, and archaeology and history demonstrate that there is no reason to suppose an implied stable in Luke's account.
Based on historical context, the implication in Luke's account is that Jesus was born in an open-air courtyard (or maybe even on the side of the road!), placed in a feeding trough for lack of a bed, and bundled in soft blankets to protect him against the night air and the cold stone interior of the manger.