The Birth of Jesus

Several traditional elements of the Christmas story are nowhere in the scriptural text.

by Marc Turnage

Tradition. It’s a word Tvye clings to throughout Fiddler on the Roof. As Christians, we also have our traditions — from worship styles and service order to readings of biblical passages. Some of the most enduring Christian traditions center around Jesus’ birth story. Everyone knows about the inn and the stable, longstanding elements of Christmas pageants and nativity crèches. We are also familiar with Joseph and Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem just as she is due to give birth, which precipitates their need to find immediate lodging from uninterested innkeepers, usually dressed in their father’s bathrobe. We believe these elements are parts of the story, yet I find something interesting as I guide Christians through the land of Israel and challenge them to read Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Many are shocked to find those traditional elements are nowhere in the scriptural text. Luke assumed his first-century readers understood the cultural and linguistic details of his narrative, and therefore, did not provide the background modern readers need to understand his account of Jesus’ birth.

An Inn in Bethlehem?

Most modern readers do not realize that Luke did not explicitly mention Joseph and Mary’s accommodations in Bethlehem. Luke’s ambiguity concerning where Mary and Joseph stayed does not appear in most modern translations that support the traditional Christmas picture of Joseph and Mary having “no place in the inn.” For example, the New Revised Standard Version reads: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (καταλύματι)” (Luke 2:6,7, NRSV).1

The Greek word κατάλυμα is a generic word meaning “lodging, place to stay, accommodations”2 or possibly “guest room, dining room.”3 Luke used the word κατάλυμα twice in his Gospel (2:7; 22:11; cf. Mark 14:14). Luke’s use of the word in 22:11 refers to the “upper room/accommodations” where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples. If Luke had intended that Joseph and Mary found no room in an inn, he would have used the preferable Greek word Ï€ανδοχεῖον “inn,” which he used to describe the place where the Good Samaritan took the man beaten by robbers (10:34).

The Syriac, Coptic, and Latin translations of the Gospel of Luke likewise did not understand the Greek word κατάλυμα to mean “inn” as they variously translated the final clause of Luke 2:7 “where they were dwelling,” “in the house of dwelling,” or “in the place of dwelling.” In other words, the early Christians did not think Joseph and Mary could not find lodging in an inn. In short, Luke never mentions an inn or an innkeeper. We should understand his use of κατάλυμα in a generic sense of a “place to stay” or “accommodations.”

The misunderstanding of the Greek word κατάλυμα as “inn” has also impacted how translators understood the final clause in Luke 2:7 (“because there was no place for them in the inn”: διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόÏ€ος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι; NRSV), in part because translators assumed that the problem facing Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem was the fact they were denied a place to stay. This also has led to the traditional assumption that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem while she was in the final days of her pregnancy. Luke, however, presents a different picture: “It happened that while they were there, the days for her to give birth were fulfilled” (2:6, author’s translation).

According to Luke, Joseph and Mary had been in Bethlehem for an undisclosed period prior to the birth of Jesus,4 and, therefore, had a place to stay. The definite article, τῷ, before κατάλυμα in verse 7, then, is anaphoric and points back to the accommodations presupposed for Joseph and Mary in verse 6.5

Joseph and Mary had to stay somewhere prior to Jesus’ birth, and it is this place that the phrase “the accommodations” (τῷ καταλύματι: 2:7) refers.6 Also, their accommodations prior to Jesus’ birth proved unsuitable for the birth and neonatal care of Jesus and His mother. Thus, the phrase should not be translated “there was no place for them” but rather as “they did not have a place.”7

The entire clause at the end of Luke 2:7 should be translated “because they did not have space in their accommodations” or “because they did not have room in their place to stay.” In other words, the room where Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem prior to the birth of Jesus could not accommodate Jesus’ birth.

Bethlehem, the Town of Joseph

A Roman census required people to register in the place where they owned land. Thus, a person registered for taxation purposes in the place where he lived or in the principal town of his taxation district.8 Joseph’s compliance with the census and registering in Bethlehem indicates that Bethlehem was Joseph’s “own city” (Luke 2:3), and not merely his ancestral home. Fulfilling the mandate of the census in Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–4) indicated he owned property there, and perhaps he lived there. At the very least, Joseph had family in Bethlehem, which underscores that he and Mary did not need to stay in an “inn.”

Modern readers often assume Joseph brought Mary with him to Bethlehem because he had to for the Roman census. This is simply not true. In fact, Luke describes two separate events taking place in the lives of Joseph and Mary: 1) Joseph’s compliance with the census in Bethlehem where he owned property, and 2) Joseph’s gathering of his betrothed (2:5) Mary into his home.

The Gospels reflect the Jewish cultural world of the first century. Luke’s description of Joseph and Mary in 2:5–7 carefully portrays the process of marriage in first-century Jewish homes. According to ancient Jewish marriage customs, the marital process included two phases. The initial phase was the “betrothal” (אירוסין), which took place at the home of the bride’s father, where she remained following the ceremony (m. Pesahim 3:7; m. Ketubot 5:2). The groom gave his bride money or something of value and told her that through it she was betrothed to him “according to the law of Moses and Israel” (m. Ketubot 4:9).9 When the bride and groom felt ready for marriage, they held the marriage celebration, which culminated in “home-taking” (נישואין) the bride into the home of the groom.

Typically the married couple began their married life in the home of the groom’s parents. The groom’s father customarily set aside a room in the house for the newlywed couple or built an upper room, a marital house (חתנות בית) on the roof. These attics could serve also as guest rooms after the married couple built their own home.10

Luke characterized Mary as Joseph’s “betrothed” when he took her from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke, however, describes them as cohabitating at the time of Jesus’ birth (2:7). This transition of Mary from being Joseph’s betrothed to cohabitating with him indicates that Bethlehem was the site of the wedding, when Joseph brought Mary from the home of her father (Nazareth) into his home (Bethlehem).11

Galileans strictly prohibited premarital intimacy between a betrothed couple (t. Ketubot 1:4; b. Ketubot 12a; cf. Luke 1:27), which means that for Joseph and Mary to cohabitate, as they clearly were by the time of Jesus’ birth, a marriage ceremony took place in Bethlehem (cf. Matthew 1:24,25).

Joseph’s act of bringing Mary from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem brought her into his home, most likely the home of his parents. The small marital chamber for the newlywed couple could not accommodate the relatives, midwives, and people needed to assist with Jesus’ birth.

In antiquity the most critical moment of the pregnancy was the moment of childbirth. Mary would have required assistance to give birth. Archaeological discoveries in Bethlehem, around the Church of the Nativity, and in Nazareth have revealed that many small homes consisted of one large room divided into two sections, with one section being more elevated than the other. In regions of hills, like Bethlehem (and Nazareth), these village homes were built in front of caves, which functioned as the back of the house.12 Villagers kept their animals in their homes, typically using the cave or the back section of the home as the animal’s lodging. Stone mangers often separated the two sections of the home, which also enabled the animals to eat once owners brought them into the house. These homes could also have a small room on the roof or the side of the house to accommodate family members and guests.

When we read Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth within the cultural, religious, archaeological, and linguistic world of the first century, his story looks something like this: Joseph, who lived in Bethlehem (or at least owned property there), brought Mary his betrothed from Nazareth to Bethlehem where they were married. While they were living there, most likely in the small marital chamber built by Joseph’s father, “their accommodations” (τῷ καταλύματι) could not handle those on hand to help Mary with the birth of Jesus. Mary, then, gave birth to Jesus in the front, living room of the house and laid Him in a manger, which served the animals within the house.

It looks quite different from our Christmas pageants and nativity crèches, but it fits the first-century world of Jesus and Luke’s account. In this way, it reminds us as modern readers that we must engage the reality of the Incarnation: God came in time and place (Galatians 4:4), and His coming must be understood from the standpoint of that world not ours.


1. Scripture quotations marked NRSV are taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version / Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. — Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, c1989. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

2. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 899.

3. W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 415.

4. This also suggests that κατάλυμα did not mean “inn.”

5. Stephen C. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010): 326–42).

6. Because the definite article before κατάλυμα refers back to Joseph and Mary’s accommodations in verse 6, it is appropriate to translate the Greek phrase using the possessive pronoun “their,” thus “their accommodations.”

7. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary, 335,36. The dative pronoun αὐτοῖς should be understood as a dative of possession, not a dative of advantage; hence the translation of οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόÏ€ος as “they did not have a place” instead of “there was no place for them.”

8. E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135) (ed. G. Vermes and F. Millar; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973), 1:411–13.

9. S. Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (ed. S. Safrai and M. Stern; Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1972), 2:754,55.

10. Safrai, “Home and Family,” 2:730,31.

11. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem,” 339.

12. The earliest artistic depictions of the birth of Jesus show Him being born in a cave. Also, an early noncanonical Gospel, the Protoevangelium of James, describes the birth of Jesus as taking place in a cave. Only from the Middle Ages onward does Christian artwork show Jesus’ birth occurring in a barn.