Why birth in a stable may have been error in translation


RITE & REASON:Jesus was probably not born in a squalid makeshift animal shed but in a house in which the guest-room was full

THE CIRCUMSTANCES of the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, are recorded in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke. We turn to the latter for details of the birth of Jesus, as follows: “And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

The traditional portrayal of the Christmas story has, it is generally believed, presented a travel-weary Joseph arrive in his hometown of Bethlehem to fulfil the requirement of the Roman census. He goes from door to door in a vain search for a room for the night.

The question has to be asked whether it would be likely, given Mary’s condition, they would have left the place of the baby’s birth to chance. This question is especially apt given what we know of Joseph’s commitment to Mary, as exemplified by his reaction on discovering she was pregnant before they had married, as told in St Matthew’s Gospel.

Moreover, as has been pointed out, the Bible crucially indicates that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem in good time for the birth – “so it was that while they were there the days were completed for her to be delivered” (Luke 2:6).

What should be noted, despite the traditional Christmas presentation of the birth of Jesus, is the Gospel account makes no mention of a stable. Where, then, did the couple stay?

A theory advanced by the responsible Christian periodical Plain Truth, citing established Middle Eastern custom, maintains this would have ensured that they stay with relatives.

So, far from only being offered an animal shelter, residents would have been to the fore in ensuring strangers would never have been forced to spend a night on the streets. It would have been regarded as a grave omission.

Old Testament accounts cited for this statement, Genesis 19:1-3 and Judges 19:20-21, are just two biblical texts outlining the strength of Jewish hospitality.

What is to be made, then, of the text that there was “no room for them in the inn?”

While English translations of Luke’s phrase read this way, Plain Truthstartlingly points out that a rather different meaning is provided by study of the original Greek. The work used by Luke for inn is kataluma, a word used three times, says Plain Truth, in the Gospel accounts, namely Luke 2:7 and Mark 14.4.

In the two latter references, translators used the English term for the Greek word meaning not hotel or inn, but guest-room, ie there was no room for the couple in the kataluma.

In Luke 22:11, Jesus instructs his disciples, “You shall say to the owner of the house, the Teacher says this, where is the guest-room (where is the Kataluma?) in which I might eat the Passover with my disciples?”

The additional information is imparted thus: “when Luke wanted to convey the idea of a hotel or inn as in the Good Samaritan, he used another word (pandochelon)”.

On the question of the “no room” reference, the theory advanced is this: “Located in what was probably a relative’s home, it would have been small and occupied by others who had also journeyed to Bethlehem for the census. Consequently, the lower quarters in the building would be preferable, being more private, and provide extra space in which a young mother could be assisted by others with the birth.”

What, it must also be asked, of the mention of laying her newborn baby in a manger? Would that suggest a stable in a barn?

However, we are told that in the Middle East, mangers were, and still are, to be found inside ordinary dwellings. At night animals were frequently allowed into parts of the house for reasons both of safety and shelter.

A manger, once cleaned and lined with sufficient fresh, dry straw and covered by a blanket, would make a “snug, warm bed”.

Plain Truthcomments: “That Luke makes no more of this than is recorded in the Gospel suggests that the occasion was commonplace enough that no further explanation was necessary.”

The conclusion: “Jesus was probably not born in a squalid makeshift animal shed. But that does not diminish the significance of the account.”

Plain Truthprovides this explanation: “The King of Kings and Lord of Lords was born, lived and died in total contrast to the opulence and extravagance of the rulers of the world.”

It adds: “As a newborn baby He was laid in a borrowed manger. After His crucifixion he was laid in a borrowed tomb.

During His life He said that He often had ‘nowhere to lay His head’. He said He had come to serve, not to be served; to serve the world, not to exploit its resources the honour and the glory could wait . . .”

This survey of the Nativity story in St Luke’s Gospel is certainly unique. But that such a highly reputable Christian magazine as Plain Truthdidn’t hesitate to give it coverage surely means it should not be easily dismissed.