Jesus Was not Born In a Stable and Other Christmas-Related Details

Christmas stable nativity

Jesus Was not Born In a Stable and Other Christmas-Related Details

Since once again it’s that festive season, I thought it might be good to link everyone to a couple pieces on Luke 2 by Stephen Carlson.

In the first (recently published in NTS), he shows (in spite of the constant threat of the Spanish Inquisition) that Luke 2:7 in fact involves no “inn” (the word traditionally translated “inn” actually suggests an extra room or “place to stay”), nor does Luke suggest that Jesus was born in a stable, barn, cave, or anything of the sort. It’s an excellent article, and though it might take the fun out of nativity scenes for some folks, it is well worth the read for those interested in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth.

Christmas stable nativity

This image is very much unlike where Luke says Jesus was born, since he was not born in a stable.

The end result is that in Luke’s account, Mary seems to have given birth in Joseph’s family’s house in Bethlehem, being forced to put Jesus in a manger, which would have been in the main room of the house, since they didn’t tend to have barns or stables for their animals like in the modern world, instead bringing the animals inside. Luke 2:7 is probably best translated something like this:

And she bore a son, her firstborn child, and they wrapped him in baby cloths and laid him in a manger, because they had no space in their accommodations [for him].

Yup, that’s right. No stable, no inn, no innkeeper. But on the plus side, it’s better exegesis of what Luke actually says. So it has that going for it. Which is nice.

In the other, he observes (quite rightly) that Luke 2:2 has regularly been misconstrued, leading to the idea that Luke somehow just “made a mistake” or engaged in creative storytelling by invoking a census under Quirinius nearly ten years before Quirinius was governor of Syria (Quirinius became governor in 6 CE; Herod the Great died in 4 BCE). Rather, Carlson shows that this verse actually says:

This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.

or [alternately]

This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.

Carlson’s reading is compelling and most likely right (Acts 5:37 demonstrates that Luke is aware of the proper timing of Quirinius’ census), so it is again worth a look for those interested in what the biblical texts actually say about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

  • Stephen C. Carlson
    Posted at 22:10h, 25 December Reply

    Thanks for this, Jason, and merry Christmas to you.

  • Marcia OConnor
    Posted at 10:57h, 26 February Reply

    I agree that the images of Christs birth are inaccurate but the fact of His humble birth, whether in a barn or in a home is still an amazingly lowly beginning for someone whose name is still in the minds and on the hearts of a large percentage of human kind….. That is the miracle.
    I have a question. What is the origen of the painting you used to illustrate your article? Artist?

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