Away with the Manger!

A rustic wooden manger complete with a wooden crib and an array of domestic animals is an essential part of Christmas for many people.

Here is ours for last year.  A lovely wooden log cabin-style edifice with the usual figures and then a duplicate lot of Nativity ducks thrown in for good measure. As you see grandchildren love assembling it – with a little supervision.DSCF1384

Often it is portrayed that Joseph and Mary were like refugees desperately seeking somewhere to stay giving loads of memes

In fact Joseph was comfortably off and was returning to his home town so did not have an accommodation problem as the rest of this blog points out.

The story of the holy family as refugees in Bethlehem is as far-fetched as donkeys and the rest of fairy-tale additions, though they did become refugees in Egypt, but there they would have found some of the numerous Jews to help them. Thus not refugees in the usual sense of homeless and nowhere to stay.

But what is the manger?

As Luke wrote, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son…..and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.” (Luke 2 vs7)

As we hear or read that we inevitably think of the lovely wooden building, cold, draughty but romantic.

Image result for manger scene

But what does Luke actually say? The word for manger in the Greek New Testament is phatnay, which according to the mini-dictionary at the back of my Greek New Testament  means manger, feeding trough or stable. and the massive Arndt-Gingrich lexicon says the same. When you take into account the situation of Bethlehem – and the lack of trees – it seemed more likely that the manger was an outhouse to the inn, possibly carved into the soft limestone of the hillside. This is borne out by the Church of the Nativity having their site for the birth  effectively as a bit of a cave. This fits in with an outhouse carved into the rock. (The main thing I remember of my visit there in 1971 was three armed Israeli soldiers coming charging in and kicking out the monks who were sweeping up ready for visitors. I arrived almost before opening time. That marked the end of my respect for Israel.)

And so, like many others but not tabloid journalists. I have long reckoned that Jesus was born in an outhouse of an inn,

Not so says a New Testament Scholar Stephen Carlson who argues that the word translated “inn” kataluma should be translated “marital chamber” added on to the top of the house – flat-roofed of course. And thus Jesus was born and placed in a manger in the main room of the house surrounded by everyone else.


Diagram of a typical house at that time

To me this is simply a minor improvement on our understanding of the details of the New Testament and I do not agree with Brice Jones’ comment that it is ground-breaking.

We still have the little baby who came “not to be served but to serve.”

Here is Ian Paul’s annual offering

Anyway here is Brice Jones’ blog article which illuminates another detail of the Gospel story.


Since Christmas is quickly approaching, I thought I would point my readers, as I do every year, to a fantastic article by Stephen Carlson published in NTS in 2010 titled, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7.” Carlson’s study turns the traditional interpretation of the “inn” as being a kind of ancient hotel on its head. He also denies the view that Jesus was born in a stable or barn. Through a detailed lexical and semantic analysis of κατάλυμα and Jewish patrilocal marital customs during the time of Jesus, Carlson demonstrates that the reference to κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 alludes to a marital chamber built on top, or onto the side of, the main room of a family village home. According to Carlson, the phrase διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι should be rendered “because they did not have room in their place to stay.” The reference to “their place” is the marital chamber attached to the family village home of Joseph where the married couple would have stayed for some time before finding their own place. Since there was no space in their room, Mary had to give birth in the larger main room of the house, where the rest of the family slept. Carlson also shows that it was common for a “manger” to be present in the main room of most Jewish homes and so this detail of the birth account is in keeping with Jewish living customs. I quote Carlson’s conclusion found on page 342 of the article:

“Luke’s infancy narrative therefore presupposes the following events. Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2.5). Bethlehem was his hometown (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12.2–8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family’s town (v. 39; cf. 1.26–27). To be sure, this scenario as presupposed in Luke’s infancy account diverges greatly from the conventional Christmas story. There is no inn, no innkeeper, and no stable. But it is grounded in a careful exegesis of the text.”

This is one of those articles that can be described as being truly groundbreaking. Carlson’s conclusions are so convincing that it would take considerable evidence to overturn them. Indeed, some may be uncomfortable with how this evidence changes the face of the traditional Christmas story, but it is, as Carlson admits, “grounded in a careful exegesis of the text.” This article needs to be circulated widely, not only among academics, but also pastors and lay people alike, because it has serious implications for how we should understand this story as told by Luke. Carlson has posted this article on his personal website and it can be found here. Happy reading and happy holidays to all!

1 thought on “Away with the Manger!

  1. Pingback: Away with the Manger! – Joachim's Jottings

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