Where Was Jesus Actually Born?
It turns out that the Messiah might not have been born in a stable, or even in Bethlehem!
Tomorrow night, Jupiter and Saturn will briefly cross paths in the sky and appear to form a single body. Though planetary conjunctions aren’t especially rare, this one is getting a lot of attention because of its occurrence before Christmas. In a year in which good tidings of great joy were conspicuously absent, the astral event is making news. Some are speculating that perhaps this is the astral event that guided the wise men to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Bethlehem. The ubiquitous image of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus squeezed into a Bethlehem stable has a timeless appeal in artwork, crèches, and seasonal plays everywhere, but historians question many elements of its historicity.
The story of the birth of Jesus is told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and the two versions—each of which focuses on a particular theme—are spliced together to form our modern Nativity story. In the Gospel of Luke, the weary couple arrive in Bethlehem after a long journey and are turned away from the “inn” because there was no room. It’s because of the lack of space, tradition tells us, that they end up in a stable and Jesus is placed in a manger. There’s even a scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth in which a woman gives the holy family directions to a cave-like dwelling.
This isn’t quite what the Bible says, however. Luke 2:7 reads, in the NRSV translation, that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” Though we might assume that they were turned away from the ancient equivalent of the Hilton, there’s no actual mention of a stable here. Moreover, the Greek word translated as “inn” (kataluma) doesn’t mean hotel in any kind of modern service industry kind of way. The problem isn’t one of vocabulary. Luke does know the Greek word for a hostel or inn and uses it in his telling of the famous Parable of the Good Samarian. That he uses different language here means that Luke is describing something else here. The question is: what is a kataluma?
In an article published in New Testament Studies, scholar Stephen Carlson argues that kataluma refers simply to space. The meaning, he writes, is that the place that he was staying did not have enough space to accommodate the soon-to-be small family. Typically, Joseph’s family would have put them up in the guest quarters that formed part of the upper rooms of the house. These rooms would likely have included a sort of small guest bedroom. Unfortunately, as Luke stresses, there wasn’t enough room for everyone upstairs, so they likely stayed downstairs in the main room of the house on the ground floor.
The reason that we might think of this main room as a stable is that there was a manger or animal trough there. This does not mean, however, that Mary and Joseph relocated to a stable. In first-century Judea mangers were found both inside and outside the home and were sometimes used to divide the area used to keep animals from human living space. In other words, Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away from a guest house or by family members, they just had to sleep (and, in Mary’s case) give birth in the somewhat less comfortable setting of the main room.
In challenging traditional depictions of the birth of Jesus some scholars go a lot further than just reconfiguring the sleeping plans. Though both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a number of historians argue that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. There are a number of reasons for this. First, in the earliest life of Jesus (the Gospel of Mark), Jesus is only ever associated with Nazareth; Mark doesn’t seem to know a birth story that links him to Bethlehem. Second, in Luke, the event that necessitates Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem is a census. The problem is that there’s no record of a census taking place during the reign of Augustus and even if there had been one it’s highly unlikely that people would have had to have returned to their ancestral home. As Bart Ehrman puts it in his New Testament Introduction, a situation like this would have been a “bureaucratic nightmare” that would have involved “massive migration.” It is unbelievable, he argues, that millions of people were uprooted for this one event, and that no other ancient sources thought to mention it. Given this, a number of more skeptical scholars argue that Jesus was born and grew up in Nazareth. The story about the journey to Bethlehem was a later invention that connected Jesus to King David. As most first century Jews believed that the promised messiah would be a military leader, the connection to David helped bolster Jesus’ messianic credentials.
In the same way, the star of Bethlehem was also intended to present Jesus as a person of global importance. Roughly 50 years before Jesus’ birth, a comet appeared in the night sky. Its arrival took place a few months after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Roman historians report that many contemporaries interpreted it as a sign that Caesar had been deified. Just like the comet that celebrated Caesar or the eclipse that accompanied the death of Jesus, the star of Bethlehem was supposed to herald an event of cosmic proportions. Even so, this doesn’t make the Jupiter-Saturn event the biblical star, nor does it mean that Jesus was necessarily born in a stable, or even in Bethlehem.