The nativity story is responsible from some of Christianity’s most indelible images. The setting of Jesus’ birth has become especially ingrained. Baby Jesus is tucked in a manger as there is no room for him in the inn (Luke 2:7). Most representations tend to sanitize the story into a picturesque pastoral scene: After being rejected by a heartless innkeeper, Jesus is neatly placed into a makeshift crib in a tidy stable where he is adored by animals. Unfortunately, in the biblical account there is no inn (in the modern sense of the term) much less an innkeeper, no stable and no animals.
Though only mentioned in Luke’s gospel, there is, however, a manger (Luke 2:7, 12, 16).
And she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 NASB)Though traditionally translations speak of an “inn” in Luke 2:7 (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), a modern day hotel is likely not intended. This reality is reflected in some translations: “guest room” (NIV), “hostel” (MSG), “lodging” (HCSB, NLT).
Joel B. Green (b. 1956) explains:
Peculiar is Luke’s reference to the cause for laying the newborn child in a manger: “because there was no place for them in the guest room.” The narrator apparently pictures Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem and staying for some time before the delivery of Mary’s baby (cf. Luke 2:6: “while they were there”), not their inability to locate lodging on the night of their arrival resulting in the birth of the child in the stable. The term Luke employs here for “guest room” is often translated in English as “inn.” However, the same term appears in Luke 22:11 with the meaning “guest room,” and the verbal form occurs in Luke 9:12 and Luke 19:7 with the sense of “find lodging” or “be a guest.” Moreover, in Luke 10:34, where a commercial inn is clearly demanded by the text, Luke draws on different vocabulary. It is doubtful whether a commercial inn actually existed in Bethlehem, which stood on no major roads. It may be that Luke has in mind a “khan or caravansary where large groups of travelers found shelter under one roof,” but this does not help our understanding of Mary’s placing the child in a manger. That “guest room” is the more plausible meaning here is urged by the realization that in peasant homes in the ancient Near East family and animals slept in one enclosed space, with the animals located on a lower level. Mary and Joseph, then, would have been the guests of family or friends, but their home would have been so overcrowded that the baby was placed in a feeding trough. (Green, (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 128-29)The combination of the guest room and manger likely depicts a typical room in first century Bethlehem. Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) describes:
Homes in small towns like Bethlehem, as well as in the city proper, would have consisted of one room to accommodate the family who lived there. Separating the living quarters from any animals’ stalls would have been a manger area, where food and farm implements were stored, and where births often took place a bit apart from the ongoing life of the family. Over the manger area would have been the “upper room,” where visiting relatives or acquaintances, or persons linked to the family by political or economic ties, could be given hospitality. Joseph, having returned with his pregnant wife to his ancestral village, would have anticipated such accommodation. The fact that none was available meant that others from a higher rung on the social ladder and in the hierarchy of obligations and honor that characterized Palestinian society had already claimed the space. Not even Mary’s obvious need could dislodge such a firmly implanted order of rights and privileges. Instead of having a guest room, then, Mary, Joseph, and the baby are left to spend their nights in Bethlehem in the manger area where the birth has taken place. (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 42)In regards to the building in which Jesus was born, there is room for interpretation (pun intended). Leon Morris (1914-2006) analyzes:
That he was laid in a manger has traditionally been taken to mean that Jesus was born in a stable. He may have been. But it is also possible that the birth took place in a very poor home where the animals shared the same roof as the family. A tradition going back to Justin [Martyr, 100-165] says it occurred in a cave (Dialogue with Trypho 78) and this could be right. Some have thought that the birth took place in the open air (possibly the courtyard of the inn), that being where the manger would likely be. We do not know. We know only that everything points to poverty, obscurity and even rejection. (Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 92-93)As Morris alludes, there is a longstanding tradition that Jesus was born in a cave (Protoevangelium of James 18:1). Rainer Riesner (b. 1950) documents:
A somewhat independent reference to Jesus’ origin in the city of David is the early Christian geographical tradition, not derivable from the Gospels, placing Jesus’ birth in a cave in Bethlehem...The present Church of the Nativity, lying at the west edge of the hill that marked the old city, was erected over a large rock cave, some 12 × 3 meters in size. This cavern is one of several that were located near houses and served as stalls or for the storage of supplies (cf. Luke 11:33) in the first century. Already at the beginning of the second century, the local tradition was so well established that Hadrian [76-138] (in c. AD 135) made the cave into a sanctuary to Adonis in order to eliminate veneration of it by Jewish Christians...According to Jerome [347-420] the “manger” (phatné) of Luke 2:7 was still visible in his time and consisted of a rock groove with plain city walls...in a side cave some 3 × 3 meters in size...Due to the marble paneling and rebuilding, today it is very difficult to envision the original appearance of this grotto. (Joel B. Green [b. 1956], Scot McKnight [b. 1953] and I. Howard Marshall [b. 1934], Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, 34)Whatever his accommodations, the newborn Jesus is placed in a manger (Greek: phatne). This word is found only in Luke in the New Testament (Luke 2:7, 12, 16, 13:15) and three of the four occurrences relate to the nativity. The word is typically rendered “manger” (ASV, ESV, MSG, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) with few exceptions (“bed of hay” [CEV], “feeding trough” [HCSB, NCV]).
The latter is likely most accurate. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) determines:
The manger was a feeding trough for animals. Moving to the manger might take only a few steps, if we assume a one-room farmhouse where the family quarters might be separated from the animal quarters only by being on a raised platform...Since the manger is mentioned three times (Luke 2:7, 12, 16), it must be important to the story. A baby in a manger in sufficiently unusual to serve as a “sign” to the shepherds...Finding the one who is Messiah and Lord in such impoverished circumstances is additional cause for amazement (Luke 2:18). (Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 65)
Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) concurs:
In all likelihood, the manger is an animal’s feeding trough, which means the family is in a stable or in a cave where animals are housed...The contrast between the birth’s commonness and the child’s greatness could not be greater. The promised one of God enters creation among the creation. The profane decree of a census has put the child in the promised city of messianic origin. God is quietly at work, and a stable is Messiah’s first throne room. (Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), 55)Though no animals are explicitly referenced, due to the presence of the trough it is highly likely that the Christ was born in an animal shelter. The most commonly pictured animals in nativities, the ox and donkey, allude to Isaiah 1:3 and are reflected in apocryphal infancy accounts.
The manger serves as a makeshift crib. Coincidentally, the English word “crib” can refer both to a “a child’s bed with enclosed sides” and “a stall or pen for cattle”.
The word manger is no longer in common use and might be forgotten outside of its connection to the nativity. This may be why we use it. David E. Garland (b. 1947) translates:
I translate the familiar “manger” (φάτνη) as “feeding trough.” The word could refer to a stall (Luke 13:15), but it makes more sense that Mary wrapped her baby and “laid” him in something that can function as a crib. The trough would be in a stall. The point is, “the child lies outside the human dwelling in an unusual place where there are only animals.” The “manger” has been sanctified and glorified over the many years of Christmas celebrations, and this stark translation deliberately diminishes that aura of dignity. No one sings “Away in a feeding trough,” which is just the point. The Savior who dies in a shameful cross was placed in a lowly trough for barn animals when he was born: “his head rests where cattle have fed.” (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 120)Though Jesus emerged from humble beginnings, Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) reminds:
Luke could have painted a sordid picture, had he so desired. Instead he uses the general word for a lodging place and states the simple fact that when Mary’s time came, the only available place for the little family was one usually occupied by animals...Even today in many places around the world farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters. The eating trough, or “manger,” was ideal for use as a crib. Luke does not seem to be portraying a dismal situation with an unfeeling innkeeper as villain. Rather, he is establishing a contrast between the proper rights of the Messiah in his own “town of David” (Luke 2:4) and the very ordinary and humble circumstances of his birth. Whatever the reason, even in his birth Jesus was excluded from the normal shelter others enjoyed (cf. Luke 9:58). This is consistent with Luke’s realistic presentation of Jesus’ humanity and servanthood. (Liefeld, Luke (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 50)It is still worth inquiring as to why the holy family is relegated to such meager lodgings. Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) speculates:
The guest room was apparently occupied and hence could offer no privacy, so Mary and Joseph had withdrawn to a stable at the back of or underneath the house, perhaps in a cave. A feeding trough served as a crib. How simple and bare it all seems. At John’s birth there was a miracle (speech restored to Zechariah [Luke 1:64]) and an inspired prophetic song. Not so here; Luke has kept the story clean of any decoration that would remove it from the lowly, the poor, and the marginal of the earth. In the history of the church there have been many so poor and abandoned as to be able to identify with this scene. (Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 35)The manger reminds the reader that Joseph and Mary are humble transients. Henry Wansbrough (b. 1934) denotes:
Luke goes out of his way to emphasize that Jesus was born in poor circumstances, with none of the advantages of position, despite being of the line of David. His parents were migrants, friendless in the town, and could find no place for the mother to give birth...We need to imagine a large open dwelling-room, in two levels. The humans are on one level, the animals at a slightly lower level. As the level for the humans is too crowded even for a precious new-born baby, Mary leans over to place her baby in the hay-filled feeding-trough of the cattle. (Wansbrough, Luke: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 30-31)R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) theologizes:
No child born into the world that day seemed to have lower prospects. The Son of God was born into the world not as a prince but as a pauper. We must never forget that this is where Christianity began, and where it always begins — with a sense of need, a graced sense of one’s insufficiency. Christ, himself setting the example, comes to the needy. He is born only in those who are “poor in spirit.” (Hughes, Luke (Volume One): That You May Know the Truth (Preaching the Word), 84)David L. Tiede (b. 1940) adds:
This is more than historical reporting and more than the story of the humble origins of a person of future greatness. The Greco-Roman reader might have recalled Virgil [70-19 BCE]’s poetic stories about the ideal ruler as shepherd of the people, born among simple shepherds (see Aeneid 6.791ff. and his fourth Eclogue). But certainly the Jewish reader who knew the heritage of the psalms would recall the words concerning David: “He chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the ewes that had young he brought him to be the shepherd of Jacob his people, of Israel his inheritance” (Psalm 78:70-71). Even as he lay swaddled in cloths in a feed bin in a town away from home, this child Jesus was destined to be the fulfillment of God’s promises to David and all of Israel, indeed to all the world. (Tiede, Luke (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 68)The story likely occurred darker and dirtier than we typically imagine. But the scene is meant to be visualized. Luke is painting a theological picture. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) details:
From Origen [184-253], who may have been among the first to connect Isaiah 1:3 to the scene in the Bethlehem stable, through Cyril of Alexandria [376-444], Bede [672-735], Bonaventure [1221-1274], and others, commentary on such passages is lyrical and poetically textured precisely for the reason that the conceptual magnitude of the incarnation, the mystery of the birth of the Redeemer of the world, far exceeds the capacity of mere literal exposition alone to register it. Medieval painters love to show the manger scene with the ox and ass looking over the manger with the Christ child; their audience remembered, as perhaps we do not, that this was a gesture of visual theology, intended to help us see the nativity as long prepared for and beautifully heralded in many passages in Isaiah. This itself is a mystery. (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 37)How do you picture the nativity scene? Is this a sanitary place to give birth? What is the strangest place you have heard of a baby being born? What unconventional items can you name that have been substituted for a crib? How do you think that Joseph and Mary looked back upon the place where they spent the first Christmas? Why did God not place Jesus into a more affluent home?
The manger serves a larger narrative purpose. Wrapping a newborn in swaddling clothes was the standard operating procedure of the day. Being born in a manger was not.
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) instructs:
What do people know about Jesus’ birth? The manger – the Christmas crib. The most famous animal feeding-trough in all history. You see it on Christmas cards. Churches make elaborate ‘cribs’, and sometimes encourage people to say their prayers in front of them...To concentrate on the manger and to forget why it was mentioned in the first place is like the dog looking at the finger rather than the object. Why has Luke mentioned it three times in this story?...The answer is: because it was the feeding-trough, appropriately enough, which was the sign to the shepherds. It told them which baby they were looking for. And it showed them that the angel knew what he was talking about. To be sure, it’s another wonderful human touch in the story, to think of the young mother finding an animal’s feeding-trough ready to hand as a cot for her newborn son. No doubt there are many sermons waiting to be preached here about God coming down into the mess and muddle of real life. But the reason Luke has mentioned it is because it’s important in giving the shepherds their news and their instructions...Why is this significant? Because it was the shepherds who were told who this child was. This child is the saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. The manger isn’t important in itself. It’s a signpost, a pointing finger, to the identity and task of the baby boy who’s lying in it. (Wright, Luke For Everyone, 21-22)The savior of the world resting in a manger might have been viewed as a theological impossibility. Robert Redman (b. 1958) critiques:
Philosophers expressed it this way: the finite is not capable of the infinite (finitus non capax infiniti)...On this view, one “marginal Jew” living in the first century CE in a backwater province of the Roman Empire could not possibly be the full and complete revelation of God...The manger of Bethlehem is God’s counterargument. (David L. Bartlett [b. 1941] and Barbara Brown Taylor [b. 1951], Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, 118)The manger is a counterintuitive sign that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. John T. Carroll (b. 1954) relays:
The manger of Jesus would...suggest God’s identification with this child but also pose an unsettling question. Will God’s people come to know and regard the Lord who begins life in a manger?...The connection between “Messiah and manger” brings disorientation and forces Luke’s audience to rethink what it means to be Messiah, what sitting on David’s throne entails...This is not so surprising, though, if God is the God of status reversal praised earlier by the child’s mother (Luke 1:46-55). Samuel found David among the sheep and anointed him king (I Samuel 16:1-23); this child who is to sit on David’s throne also beings life in a place for animals and will find honor first among shepherds (Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 67)What sign would you have expected to accompany the birth of the Messiah? How big of an obstacle to belief would being born in a manger have been to the original audience? Was it easier for shepherds to believe in this miracle than kings? Do you believe that the Savior of the world was born in a manger?
“Great God, has thou sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?” - an old Jewish grave digger who hid a young pregnant Jewish woman in Wilna, Poland, during World War II, who later gave birth in the grave. Quoted by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), “Born in the Grave”, The Shaking of the Foundations, p.165