by Dr. Terry C. Hulbert


Bethlehem is located about five miles south of Jerusalem, on the east side of the “Patriarch’s Highway” that ran along the ridge between Shechem and Hebron. Here David was born and tended his father’s sheep. Three miles to the southeast of Bethlehem, Herod the Great had built an extensive residence/fortification, the Herodium. There Herod was buried, within sight of where Jesus had been born.


Many traditions about the birth of Jesus, upon further research and reflection, have little basis in fact. Jesus was not born in a stable, but in the home of a member of Joseph’s extended family that lived in Bethlehem. Some misconceptions concerning the circumstances of His birth result from a mistranslation of kataluma that means “guest room,” not “inn.” They also reflect a Western rather than a Middle Eastern understanding of the cultural factors involved. When he referred to the inn where the Samaritan brought the wounded Jewish traveler, Luke used this term pandocheion (Luke 10:34).


There is no indication that Jesus was born immediately after Mary and Joseph arrived, or that He was born at night. The text, “…while they were there, the days were accomplished for her to give birth,” suggests that His birth took place at a later time, perhaps days or weeks after their arrival (Luke 2:6).

The Place of Birth

Mary gave birth to Jesus in a family home. With reference to Jesus‘ birth, Luke used the word kataluma, translated “guest room” in Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14. It was in that kind of “guest room” that Jesus celebrated the last Passover with His disciples. (Bailey, 1980)

When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they found the guest room in a family member’s home already occupied, perhaps by other relatives who had returned to their ancestral town to register for the census. Arrangements were then made for Mary to give birth to Jesus in another part of the house, presumably the “family room.” Luke probably mentioned this detail to account for the availability of the manger when the shepherds arrived, rather than to suggest inadequacy in the conditions of Jesus‘ birth.

(The “Tayibeh house,” located at the site of Ephraim, some twelve miles northeast of Jerusalem, provides an example of the kind of home in which Jesus was born. This early 20th century Arab dwelling is very similar to the kind of homes in which people lived in Jesus‘ day.)

The Manger

Animals were usually brought into the lower level of rural and small town homes at night for safety, and in the winter, to provide warmth. The manger was usually carved from stone, measuring three to four feet in length. The cavity that usually held fodder for animals would be just the right size and located at just the right height for a baby! (The phrase, “born in a manger,” is unscriptural and patently an impossibility.)

The angels had identified the manger as the place where the shepherds would find Jesus. Since they also mentioned the cloth wrappings used for newborns, the angels may only have been emphasizing the normalcy of His birth circumstances rather than intending to provide a means of identifying the baby. In any case, finding the baby lying in a manger, wrapped according to common practice, apparently caused no surprise to the shepherds or problem for the family members present. Jesus‘ birth, surrounded by a loving family, reflected the customs of a humble, first century family.

The Family Home

Mary and Joseph had returned to Bethlehem to register for the Roman tax because it was the homeland of their families, traced back to David of the tribe of Judah. Although they had settled in Galilee, their tribal roots remained in Bethlehem. Recent research has suggested that a group of Judeans had returned from Babylon about 100 B.C., establishing such towns as Nazareth, following the Maccabean reclamation of that region (Pixner, 1992). With many relatives living in Bethlehem, it would have been unthinkable for Mary and Joseph to seek a public inn, if indeed one existed there. In that small village, family members would not have expected or accepted such a rejection of their hospitality especially in view of the imminent birth of a firstborn child.


entered this world in conditions similar to those common in his day and much of the world twenty centuries later. It was not the “lovely” setting that is often stressed.

To impose a Western interpretation on the circumstances of Jesus‘ birth tends to distort the reality of the event for us and to deprive non-Western people of an understanding of the people and events recorded in the Scripture.

Jesus‘ birth in a local family home and His being found in a manger by shepherds previewed His availability to all people, even those whom many of His day would exclude.

* Bailey, Kenneth E.: “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7” in Evangelical Review of Theology, 4:2:1980.
* Pixner, Bargil. With Jesus through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel. Rosh Pina: Corazin Publishing, 1992.


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