(Editorial Note: As a gift to our readers, we’re posting a second time this week on the theme of Christmas; Enjoy!)
Matthew and Luke both give brief discussions of Jesus’ birth. They emphasize the importance of his birth, but they manifest little interest in the circumstances. Matthew, for example, mentions only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Herod the king. He offers no insight into the specific location of Jesus’ birth or the circumstances surrounding it. Luke provides a little more information, but even he focuses his attention on the significance of Jesus’ birth rather than on the situation in which Jesus was born. He notes that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem “because he was of the house and lineage of David.” The text does not say that Jesus was born shortly after their arrival in Bethlehem, but that may be the implication of the passage. Luke states only that there was no room for them in the inn and that the baby was placed in a manger after the birth. Luke devotes no attention to the location of Jesus’ birth or how his birth affected Joseph and Mary.
In his discussion of where Jesus was born, Luke uses two significant terms. The first is kataluma which is the Greek word translated “inn” in most English translations. It is a very general word, rather similar to the words “lodging” in English or “posada” in Spanish. This word is used in various ways in the Bible and in Greek literature outside the Bible. It may describe a public inn where people rent lodging. It is used in Luke 22:11 to describe the guest room in a private home. It is used in the Septuagint to describe a public shelter where people might gather for the night. Some commentators note that it may describe an eastern inn which often consisted of a series of rooms arranged around an open courtyard.
The second important term is phatnē which is often translated “manger.” This word was used in two primary ways. It was used to describe a stall or stable in which animals were kept. It was also used to describe a feeding pan or trough that was used to feed animals. The use of this term may indicate that Jesus was born in a stable, but it is by no means conclusive proof. It was common in first-century Palestine to keep animals at night inside the family home or in a shed attached to the family home. It is also possible that Mary and Joseph were allowed to camp out in the open area of the village inn. There is also an early Christian tradition that locates the birth of Jesus in a nearby cave that was used to stable animals.
In the mild climate of Palestine, animals often spent a good part of the year outdoors in the pasture. It is possible that Joseph and Mary were allowed the use of an area where animals were sheltered in cooler weather. Luke makes no mention of animals being present at the time Jesus was born.
The circumstances of Jesus’ birth are certainly interesting; we wish we knew more about them. The evidence does not indicate that Jesus was born into a situation of absolute poverty; it seems that Joseph and Mary were making the best of a difficult situation. It does indicate that He was not born among the rich and powerful. He came to earth as one of the common people of the land; He came as one uniquely qualified to be our Lord and Savior.