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Christmas 2014: Jesus was not born in a stable, says theologian

We've been mistranslating the Greek word for inn all along

Tom Mendelsohn
Wednesday 24 December 2014 13:54 GMT
Schoolchildren perform in the traditional nativity play
Schoolchildren perform in the traditional nativity play (Getty Images)

It's the story that everyone knows: Jesus was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals and shepherds, because there was no room at the inn.

But now, a British biblical scholar is challenging the nativity tale, and insists that a closer reading of the Gospel of Luke demonstrates that Mary is more likely to have given birth from the comfort of a family's upper room.

"I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas," wrote Reverend Ian Paul on his blog, an evangelical scholar at the University of Nottingham, "but Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case."

This misconception hinges, he claims, on the mistranslation of the Greek word "kataluma", which has historically been taken to mean inn.

The word is used elsewhere in the bible as a word to mean "private upper room" where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper in the Gospel of Mark. Meanwhile, Luke uses another word - "pandocheion", meaning a gathering place for travellers - to refer to an inn.

There's a social context Rev Paul believes modern readers are missing, too.

He writes: "In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives."

Taking into account the fact that most people's homes at the time would have had one room for family, and either a second room for guests and animals, or a space on the roof, it seems, he says, much more likely that there would have been no space in the guestroom.

"The family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier," he argues. "So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth."

The manger aspect of the story is easily explained too. "The most natural place to lay the baby" would have been "in the straw-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed", says Rev Paul.

So what does this mean for our religious understanding of the story? Some scholars, including Rev Paul, believe that the story as we have it today promotes the idea that Christ is somehow ostracised from society, rejected by his people and forced into a lowly cattleshed. Instead, he says, we should be seeing the newborn Jesus as arriving in a busy, loving and welcoming family home - and not distanced from humanity.

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