Born in a manger?

Many Christians feel that the Christmas season has arrived when they hear traditional songs—such as ‘Away in a manger’. There are songs in hundreds of languages that mention the manger—as in the words of a well-known Hindi song, ‘Charni mein tune janam liya, Yeshu’ (Jesus, you were born in a manger). You can also find a ton of English songs which boldly declare that Jesus was born in a manger. But, wait! Is that right?

What is a manger? A manger is not a cattle-shed, as is often mistakenly held. The manger refers to a feeding box for animals. So, Jesus was NOT born in a manger! [Wouldn’t that be pretty uncomfortable?] Luke chapter 2 clearly says that on the day of his birth, the baby Jesus was laid in a manger.

So, where was Jesus born?

Without going into the many hoary legends that cloud our thinking, I believe it is better to stick to Luke’s brief but sufficiently clear narrative. A careful reading of Luke 2:1-20 will provide us with a good idea of what probably happened. But, be ready for surprises!

The first five verses introduce the story. Joseph travelled from Nazareth to his hometown Bethlehem, the town of David. Why? Because, as per the imperial Roman decree he and Mary (who was pregnant) needed to register there.

Luke records: ‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born’ (2:6). For some reason, either we have not noticed this verse or we somehow seem to assume—thanks to popular dramatic representations of the Christmas story, replete with a greedy inn-keeper and his kind wife—that Mary gives birth almost as soon as the tired couple reach Bethlehem. Not so! Joseph and Mary had earlier reached their hometown.

[Why would Joseph have Mary travel just around the time she was to give birth?] On their arrival in their hometown, they would surely have found glad welcome in their parents’ or a relative’s home. They did not have to hunt for a room in an inn; not to mention that a small village like Bethlehem would not have need of an inn. So, while they were staying in Bethlehem (for a few weeks/months?), it was now time for Jesus’ birth.

So where was Jesus born? In a relative’s house, of course!

What about the inn?

Let’s now look at the three parts of verse 7. First: ‘And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.’ No mention of the place of birth; the reader must assume it is in a relative’s house, where Mary has been staying after coming from Nazareth. A suitable room would have been prepared by the midwives and women in attendance. Second: ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger . . .

A simple detail that is repeated twice more in the narrative, especially as a sign to the shepherds. Now comes the tricky third part; tricky, because of the different translations of a Greek word and years of traditional thinking. Luke writes: ‘. . . because there was no room in the kataluma available to them.’

You notice that I did not translate the Greek word used by Luke. So, what is a kataluma? We are fortunate that Luke uses the same word once more in his Gospel, in 22:11. Here, in preparation for the Last Supper, Jesus instructs his disciples to ask a certain man in Jerusalem to show them the kataluma they were to use; not an inn, clearly, but a guest room (just as the NIV 2011 translates here as also in 2:7). [The only other occurrence of kataluma in the New Testament is in Mark 14:14, referring to the same incident.]

Furthermore, we are fortunate that the word ‘inn’ is found in Luke’s Gospel, in the well-known (though little understood) parable of the Samaritan who takes a wounded Jew to recover in a pandocheion (the word used for an inn) on the Jerusalem – Jericho main road (10:34). This is the only reference to an inn in the whole New Testament. 

All the Gospel of Luke says is that, on the day of his birth, Jesus was snugly wrapped in comfortable clothing and laid in a manger (for a few hours?); so the shepherds could be given this specific sign by the angels (2:12, 16). The guest room in the house was full, probably with families who had returned for the imperial registry. So baby Jesus was laid, for some time, in a (probably movable) manger.  That was all!

Sorry if that messes up our elaborate Christmas dramas, not to speak of songs that assume that there was ‘no room in Bethlehem’s inn’. A straightforward reading of the passage leaves no room (pun intended!) for this traditional interpretation.

Any significance to a manger?

This is a difficult question to answer, since Luke does not provide an explicit answer. However, there might be an allusion to an interesting verse in Isaiah. Remember that just as we read the Bible in a translation, most Jews outside of Palestine read their Bibles (our Old Testament) not in Hebrew but in a Greek translation called the Septuagint (LXX).

The Greek version of Isaiah 1:3 reads: ‘The ox knows its master, the donkey the manger of its lord; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ The Greek word (phatnē) is used for the manger here, as also in Luke 2:7, 12, 16; and the word kurios is used of the lord (owner) as for the Lord in Luke 2:9, 11, 15. Isaiah expresses God’s anguish: While animals recognize their owners, Israel fails to do so!

In those days, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar was called ‘the lord’, ‘the saviour of the world’ and ‘the son of the divine.’ But God uses his heavenly media to announce to some simple shepherds in a small nation under this great empire: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. To you is born in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’

This is the good news! The poor, mostly disrespected, shepherds get to behold the Good Shepherd, the Messiah and Lord! But why were the Jerusalem bigwigs not invited to the birthday of Israel’s Messiah? Sadly, Israel is mostly blind. [See the way Luke ends his two-volume work, in Acts 28:24-28, highlighting the blindness of the Jewish people.]

This baby Jesus, lying in a manger in Bethlehem, is Lord—not Caesar at Rome! For us who believe today, we have seen the glory of God in the humble birth of his Son, and even more in the humiliating death on the cross– for the whole world! And there is much more! Those who have eyes, let them see!


Image by Jeff Jacobs on Pixabay

Rev Dr Jacob Cherian serves on the Faculty of Southern Asia Bible College, Bangalore.