Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Was Jesus Born in a Stable?

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 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, 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, 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.  


Anonymous said...

You pose an interesting theological perspective, which is still in line with Luke's. Emphasizing the fact that Jesus was born in the manger underscores the emphasis that Jesus being born in the most humble of ways to the most humble of people. Thus, if as you say one possibility is that it could've been on the street, would only strengthen Luke's point as to whom Jesus came to save and for whom the Gospel is intended.

Nice post!

Trent N. said...

I'm starting to wonder if any of this even matters to people. I tell my Christian friends about things that mainline Biblical scholars and historians say that challenge the Biblical account and they just give me a blank stare. They won't attempt to accept it yet offer no challenge to it. I'm beginning to find it all rather pointless. Matthew and Luke could have told us that Jesus was born on the planet Xenu and rode a saddled comet down to Bethlehem and I don't think modern day Christians would believe it any less.

Scott said...

Rev: Thanks, as always, for reading. I thought you'd probably like this one. It's interesting to imagine baby Jesus in a stone feeding trough on the side of the road, with a slew of other travelers camped out around poor Mary, who is sitting there newly post-partum on the dusty sidewalk.

'Course, Luke's account isn't literal history anyway :-)

Trent: I tend to agree with you, of course, which is one of the reasons why you see fewer and fewer of these kinds of posts from me.

Some people will stare at you blankly, while others will get outright hostile, while still others will nod and smile and act like they get it, but then continue on believing what they always believed.

I think this is why a lot of the great spiritual leaders of the ages have long said that you have to "get there" on your own. Just hearing it from someone else - even a friend, family member, trusted co-worker, etc. - isn't enough. You have to be ready to move forward spiritually.

Anonymous said...

Trent: You have finally hit upon something that my family came to understand years ago. People lie to themselves about all sorts of things all the time, and they do it because they want to believe the lie. So many have no desire to be intellectually challenged about anything, ESPECIALLY their religious beliefs. Don't try to confuse people with the truth. They want to believe what they are told. It's like a security blanket.

We were an extremely devout, church-going, if nonetheless moderate, family when Scott and I were growing up. It took some challenges and eye-opening experiences that our father faced to see what most "Christians" are really like when it comes to seeking a true understanding of what they profess to believe. The Blank Stare sums it all up.

BC said...

As Elissa has said, you are discovering what I discovered in many years of teaching adult Sunday School up until about 18 years ago: People do not WANT to learn anything that is different than what they were taught when they were children. This is particularly true of "religious" people. You can teach them a new skill or a new piece of music perhaps. But they are not in the slightest interested in investigating their own beliefs and where they came from. I saw this vividly in teaching adults, asking them why they believed what they did and showing them in some cases that the Bible does NOT support those beliefs. And ironically, I'm talking about a literal interpretation of that book they claim to believe in! They don't believe the Bible! And they don't know what it actually says, again, even literally. Of course, the more literal you are, the more contradictions are actually there. Thanks for your post. We've all been at that point where we realize that many "church people" are interested in everything but questioning what they believe. Church is the most narrow minded (and ethnically segregated) hour of the week.

BC said...

Of course, what I discussed in my last post leads one to seriously question why we have "Sunday School" for adults if none of them are interested in learning anything new. And trust me...most are not! They are interested in socializing, feeling good, and hearing what they want to hear. And when that doesn't happen, they let you know about it! One comment I got from a very educated person in my class was, "Can't we just talk about happy things?"

Anonymous said...

Nice post but, managers are not always found in front of a home, They were also found in the place for the cattle which may not be a closed enclosure but it is a stable which may have had roofs. It does not mean that if the climate was moderated there is no need for a stable, stables are more useful for animals in the summer rather than winter. If Joseph and Mary didn't get an inn to stay, Joseph wouldn't made his wife to deliver on the road side. Jesus was not born in a relatives house, if so it would be accounted, He was not born in an inn as Joseph didn't get a place there, He was not born on the road side as Joseph or any human would not allow his wife deliver on the roadside. He was born in a shelter which should be a stable(I don't say it was a stable)where else we can see a manager. Moreover there were fields nearby so think of the place as village rather than a 20th century fox town with managers outside saloons.

Scott said...

Anonymous: Thanks for leaving a comment. There is abundant archaeological evidence to show that mangers existed primarily in two places within ancient Jewish towns and villages - along the street, and within the courtyards of homes.

The word commonly translated as "inn" in the gospel of Luke doesn't refer to something like a "hotel." Instead, it means simply a lodging place or guest room. The word is used again by Luke - and also by Mark - during the story of the Last Supper. The "upper room" where Jesus ate his final meal is actually the same word translated as "inn" in the birth narrative.

More than likely, Luke was attempting to say that Joseph and Mary were unable to stay in their relatives' home in Bethlehem because there were too many people there, so they were relegated to the courtyard of the house, where there was a manger for animals. It's entirely possible he actually had a street-side manger in mind, although that's impossible to prove either way.

You may not think that any respectable husband would permit his wife to give birth on a street corner, but I could just as easily remark that no respectable husband would require his 9-months pregnant wife to make the 3-week journey by donkey-back from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the first place!

When studying history, it is important to realize that your personal values are not necessarily the same as the personal values of people who lived hundreds of years ago, in different societies, with different customs and expectations.

Anonymous said...

Oh, if we could only speak to the ass that is the most reliable "witness" in this debate. He would probably just say that Mary just got off him in a sheltered place and gave birth to the Lord of Glory, on that warm spring evening.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard this?