The Christmas Story: The ‘stable’ Jesus was born in


  • Question 159, from Helen P, United Kingdom

    Christmas cards and nativity scenes depict Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn and seeking sanctuary in a stable, but I was told that Mary and Joseph stayed with ‘family’ and were downstairs with the animals which was quite normal for that time. Which is right?

    One problem with harmonising the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke is that there seems to be some disagreement over where the story begins. Matthew makes no reference to Nazareth until after the family return from Egypt when Joseph settles there for safety (Matthew chapter 2, verse 22-23). In chapter 1, verse 24, it says he took Mary home as his wife even though she was pregnant, so Mary may have come from Nazareth, but Joseph may have come from Bethlehem.

    This would make sense in the light of Luke’s story about ‘each having to go to their own home town’ during the census. It should be noted that the census and historical data that Luke gives to explain Joseph having to go to Bethlehem are almost certainly wrong, as external sources to the gospel record censuses being taken, but none that match to Luke’s description. Also, notably, Quirinius (mentioned in chapter 2 verse 2) wasn’t the governor of Syria until after the death of Herod the Great.

    The traditional Nativity
    If Joseph was from Bethlehem, then it is likely that Jesus was born in a humble family home, which may have contained animals. However, Luke’s account is the source for most traditional nativity imagery as it contains the ‘classic’ story of Joseph and Mary being turned away from the inn. It may be they took refuge in the stable below the inn, or possibly in an animal shelter in nearby fields. This latter possibility would explain the proximity to the shepherds, who Luke records were the first visitors to Christ.

    The details in Luke’s account are sketchy and don’t mention a location for the ‘manger’ that Mary laid Jesus in (chapter 2, verse 7). However, Luke’s story has echoes of John’s gospel of Christ coming to a world ‘who did not receive him’ (John chapter 1, verse 11). The reference to there being ‘no place’ for Jesus is telling, as is his acceptance by the shepherds – ‘outsiders’ who were often unable to keep the religious demands of the day. The message Luke seems to be implying is that Jesus has come for the humble, the poor, and the marginalised.

    Born in a cave?
    Finally, if Jesus was born in a ‘stable’, it would probably have looked very different to the wooden constructions depicted on most Christmas cards. Animal shelters in the area were often little more than caves, perhaps with small constructions over them. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, allegedly founded in the fourth century by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, contains a small rock grotto which is claimed to be the site of Jesus’ birth, and which matches the kind of rudimentary animal shelters used at the time.

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