Light on Luke 2

A very common view of what happened in Luke 2 goes something like this: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem precisely as Mary was giving birth. They searched and searched but could not find hospitality anywhere because it was so crowded. Finally, they find a commercial inn where the inn-keeper (somewhat grudgingly!) gave them a smelly stable because it was all he had left. There are a number of misconceptions about this picture that I would like to correct by summarizing the arguments of Kenneth Bailey’s book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes on this passage.

First of all, we have two translation issues at which we need to look. Firstly, the force of verse 6 is important: “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (ESV). Other translations are similar. They came to be registered in the census, not for Mary to give birth. It just so happened that while they were there, the pregnancy ended. Presumably this left Joseph plenty of time to search for adequate accomodations.

Secondly, the translation of verse 7 and the “inn.” There is a word for “commercial inn” in Greek. Luke did not use it here. He used a word which Bailey argues convincingly ought to be translated “guest room.” The guest room would be a normal part of a three-room house, which consisted of a guest room, family room, and, connected by a very short stairway (4 steps), a stable. People of that time kept their animals indoors both for warmth and for protection from theft. But no people would ever be housed in the stable. In other words, Joseph and Mary found a normal house in which to stay. However, the guest room of that house was already full, and so the family with which they stayed made them a part of their family by having them stay in the family room. Nowhere does the text say that Jesus was born in a stable. That is a myth created by centuries of tradition and, unfortunately, many otherwise good hymns. the mangers were actually two or three feet (a la the stairs) higher than the stable, and were troughs cut into the floor of the family room. They were cut low so that the sheep or ox (or any other animal kept there) could eat with relative ease in the middle of the night without stepping in the feed or getting manure into the feed.

And now for some cultural considerations: 1. Joseph was of the family and lineage of David, which was held in high honor. Any descendent of David would be much more likely to receive good  hospitality than bad. 2. Mary was close to giving birth. Women in labor were top priority in the realm of hospitality. Women took care of other women. The idea that Mary would have to give birth in the smelliest part of the house, or worse yet in a commercial inn’s stable is ludicrous, given the standards and importance of hospitality of the first century. 3. Witness the reaction of the shepherds. If the shepherds had come to see Joseph and Mary in a stable, they would certainly have taken them away, saying something like this, “How dare this town give you such a poor reception! We can do better than that!” If the shepherds returned, rejoicing for all they had seen and heard (vs. 20), that would certainly include the level of hospitality that they had seen given to the family. The fact that they returned without taking Mary and Joseph with them indicates that they could not give any better hospitality to the family than what they were already receiving.

Speaking of the shepherds, Bailey reminds us that they were considered very low-class. This fact gives special emphasis to the sign given to them by the angel. Being wrapped in swaddling clothes (like a peasant!), and being placed in a manger (in other words, in a normal person’s house, not a mansion or palace) would give them hope that they could actually see this child and would not be repulsed as being unclean (which they were most of the time, ceremonially speaking). This was a Savior for them. Is He yours as well?


  1. December 24, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    So…you are saying understanding the Bible within its ancient context matters? We should take into account implicit cultural codes, reader/hearer expectations and assumptions, etc.?

    Interesting. I thought the Bible is primarily and essentially Divine and only secondarily and contingently (and lamentably!) human? I may need to warn your presbytery. It seems Enns, modernity, post-modernity, Liberalism, Barthianism, Roman-Catholicism, legalistic-Judaism, and secular humanism have infected you Rev. Keister! : )

    More seriously, Merry Christmas everyone. Especially for those of you who conduct(ed) worship services tonight, I hope you were able to facilitate rich encounters with our Lord for everyone there! I am praying for you all that the Spirit anoints both you and your congregation in attendance to help those who do not know Christ encounter him richly tonight!

  2. greenbaggins said,

    December 24, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Seeing that your comment is not intended to be “serious,” I will not really take it as such. However, a brief note might be in order. I applaud the use of background information from the historical context, literary context, theological context, in order to explain passages of Scripture. I do not agree that Scripture itself should be defined by these extra-biblical helps, nor should Scripture’s authority depend on these extra-biblical helps.

  3. Vaughan Smith said,

    December 25, 2008 at 1:41 am

    Hi Lane,
    Have you heard Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son? If so, what do you think?

  4. greenbaggins said,

    December 25, 2008 at 7:59 am

    I have that book, but haven’t read it yet. I imagine that I will like most of what he says (as I have so far). What do you think of it?

  5. Vaughan Smith said,

    December 25, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    I haven’t read his book, but I did hear an interview he gave on the radio. He managed to do some tricky exegesis on the parable and remove repentance from it entirely – the prodigal son’s return was an attempt to trick his father into taking him back and giving him more stuff.

    It was interesting, but seemed strained and left a bad taste in my mouth. It coloured the rest of the interview for me, which included this view on Luke 2.

  6. December 27, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Duly added to my long-term list of books I definitely intend to get one day!

  7. E.C. Hock said,

    December 27, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    In Luke 2:7, I have heard in sermons that “manger” was more like a cave, not a stable. True, the “stable” setting, per se, as we have come to picture it, is not necessarily justifed. Yet, since it says “no room” in the “inn”, it would appear at first reading that they stayed in a place sufficiently removed from the main house, not in the family room. And , that caves nearby were commonly used for animal shelters. My contextual questions would be: “why would the inn-keeper, presumably unknown to Mary and Joseph, surrender his family room to this particular couple? Was this a current practice? Had no other traveller come and asked for accomodations at this busy time and be offered this room? I can see why a cave might be available given that no one else wanted it.

    It is hard to tease through what are the accretions of a popular tradition as compared to more novelty or even a scholar’s speculation in trying to read back a limited degree of cultural data into the scene. Countless exceptions can arise to every generalized usage as drawn from a flexible term. The picture of rejection, humility and poverty more vividly come to mind in the setting of a cave for livestock as compared to a family room. K. Bailey’s book notwithstanding, I would be interested to read what other contributions to this cultural question are being made by NT scholars in this area. At this point, his view hits me as yet more speculation than something closer to the scene in mind.

  8. Tom Albrecht said,

    December 27, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Several matters appear to offer some trouble. If, as you suggest, Joseph and Mary arrived some time before the birth, how is it that in all that time Joseph was not able to secure an open guest room in all the houses in Bethlehem?

    Secondly, the shepherds are told the sign would be a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Given the low class of the shepherds, is it reasonable to expect they were free to go from house to house in all Bethlehem looking in each family room for a child matching this description? Edersheim and others do not care for this scenario, and prefer the view that the family took up residence in a nearby cave that was used to house animals. This would have been a more likely place to shepherds to find a child in a manger since it was their stomping ground so to speak.

    Thirdly, if a woman to woman thing would prevent Mary from giving birth in the smelliest part of the house, how is it that these same women could not find more suitable sleeping arrangements for the child?

    I must admit I’m having a hard time visualizing the configuration of the manger with respect to the floor of the family room. Are you saying the manger was actually the stairs descending into the stable area?

  9. December 29, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    Lee Irons, at, has some interesting comments re: Bailey’s interpretation. Normally, I’m leery of Irons’s views, but this post is relatively sane.

  10. Steven Carr said,

    December 30, 2008 at 10:16 pm


    Interesting theory, but unconvincing. I think I’ll stick with the traditional interpretation. It seems more fitting with Christ’s humiliation.

    Here is what Jaimesson Faussett and Brown say about the conditions of Christ’s birth:
    “wrapt him . . . laid him–The mother herself did so. Had she then none to help her? It would seem so (2Co 8:9).
    a manger–the manger, the bench to which the horses’ heads were tied, on which their food could rest [WEBSTER and WILKINSON].
    no room in the inn–a square erection, open inside, where travellers put up, and whose rear parts were used as stables. The ancient tradition, that our Lord was born in a grotto or cave, is quite consistent with this, the country being rocky. In Mary’s condition the journey would be a slow one, and ere they arrived, the inn would be fully occupied–affecting anticipation of the reception He was throughout to meet with (Joh 1:11).”

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