We all know the story of the birth of Jesus, who was born under the roughest conditions, alone in a stable because “there was no room at the inn,” the Bible Gospels say. But do they really? According to one British religious scholar, not only is the story false — but the Bible itself never says that it’s true.
The whole story of Jesus being born “away in a manger” — that is, in a stable on a bed of hay surrounded by animals — is based on a bad translation of the Greek Biblical text, which itself could have been translated from Aramaic, a language that would have been spoken by Jesus, assuming that he did indeed exist, another point some scholars dispute.
While Reverend Ian Paul, a theology professor at the University of Nottingham, does not dispute the very existence of Jesus, he called into question this week the accuracy of the birth story of Jesus, as it has been handed down for centuries.
“I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up,” Paul wrote in a December 22 blog post. “But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.”
So why does nearly everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, believe that the story in the Bible specifies Jesus’ birth as taking place in a stable? Paul say the misunderstanding comes down to three factors.
“I would track the source to three things,” he said. “Issues of grammar and meaning; ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture; and traditional elaboration.”
To sum up Paul’s argument as simply as possible, the whole problem comes down to the poor translation of one Greek word, “kataluma.”
The word has been traditionally translated in English versions of the Gospels — specifically The Gospel of Luke, in which the supposed “manger” story appears — to mean “inn.”
But that’s not really what it means, Paul says. In fact, the word means “the private ‘upper’ room” in a family home — which is how it used in The Gospel of Mark, describing the room where Jesus and his disciples ate their Last Supper.
Paul also notes that in The Gospel of Luke, the writer later refers to an “inn,” but uses an entirely different Greek word: pandocheion.
What Luke actually says, according to Paul, is that the parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, stopped at the home of family relatives, as would be the custom, on their journey to Jerusalem for a census.
But the guest rooms of the house were already full, so the couple stayed instead in the main family room — which would also be customary. No family in the ancient Israel of that era would force relatives to sleep in a stable with farm animals, Paul says.
“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,” Paul wrote.
The result, according to Paul, is that Jesus was not born in a stable, but in the main family room of a relative’s home, with family and friends looking on.