Every year there is the nativity scene.  I used to see it around shopping centres, but it seems to be more and more dominated by Santa now. But you know the scene: Jesus is at the centre, held in Mary’s arms. Joseph is looking over her shoulder as animals in the stable gather around the family. But what’s wrong with this picture?

There is no stable.

Go back and read the accounts of Luke and Matthew and look for the word “stable”.  You will not find it.  Jesus was not born in a stable.

“…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”  

Luke 2:7 NIV

The base assumption is that when Jesus was laid in the manger, that it must have been located in a stable as it is, and was, in European farms. However, in the 1st century Middle East, a manger was not in the stable, it was in the ‘kitchen’. The lower section of a house which had a connecting section where food scraps were left for animals to eat in a ‘manger’. In fact, animals were generally penned inside the home rather than out in a separate section of the property. They lived next door to the food preparation area.

Life-sized reconstruction of a typical Middle Eastern House in the c1st.  Note the upper room (kataluma) and the lower floor where animals were housed.

What about the inn?

Actually that is a mistranslation. Apologies to all the kids who played the role of ‘innkeeper’ in the nativity play, but the word inn (kataluma) is the same word for the “upper room” (Luke 22:11).  It was a part of the home where families would house guests, since it was crucially important to be hospitable in the Middle East. Generally, such things were not outsourced to private enterprise like hotels or inns.

Instead, it is likely that the house that Joseph and Mary approached belonged to a relative, who due to the census at the time, was unable to house them in the place generally reserved for guests. Subsequently, they were forced to reside in the lower, more humble, section of the house.

Why does this matter?

Do I say this because I am a grinch and want to destroy all the romance of Christmas?

No, nor am I suggesting that we burn down all the nativity scenes we see in shopping centres because they are inaccurate. That Jesus was not born in a stable has no major bearing, theologically-speaking, as it does not reduce the humility of Jesus’ birth.

However, we must remember that during Christmas, we are celebrating a historical event — and as such, we want to ensure we are as accurate as possible, as it is very easy for things to become shrouded in myth, and as faithful to Scripture as possible.

Embellishment may help some stories become better, but we already have the greatest narrative already — it needs no additions.