Please read the short Introduction first.
While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger [phatnē], because there was no guest room [kataluma] available for them. Luke 2:6-7 (NIV 2011)
Of all the scripture verses about the birth of Jesus, possibly no verse has been elaborated on as much as Luke 2:7. Numerous nativity plays feature a fictitious innkeeper turning Mary and Joseph away from his door, but kindly offering them a space in a barn or stable full of farm animals instead. N.B. There is no innkeeper in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth.
For several years now there has been some discussion among Greek scholars about the Greek word kataluma, traditionally translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7. The etymology of kataluma suggests a place where a traveller can relax and unwind. The 2011 edition of the New International Version justly translates this word as “guest room”.
In a culture that prided itself on hospitality, inns were rare in Israel. Instead of inns, travellers were usually welcomed into private homes, whether large or small. Larger homes often had guest quarters. (For example, the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8-37 had a guest room built especially for Elisha the prophet to use when he was visiting the town.)
It is reasonable to assume that Joseph had family in Bethlehem and that he was expecting to stay in their guest quarters. What we learn from verse 7 is that Mary and Joseph did not use the usual guest accommodation because “there was no place for them”.
Many homes had a downstairs area to house livestock overnight. Perhaps Jesus was born in this downstairs area of the house. This is plausible considering that Mary used either an animal’s feeding trough or an animal stall as a place to lay her newborn son. The Greek word phatnē used in Luke 2, which has traditionally been translated as “manger”, has both meanings.
Jewish people are generally fastidious about cleanliness and have numerous laws which cover hygiene. If Mary did give birth to a baby in a place where animals were normally kept, it would have been clean and the animals housed elsewhere. It is highly unlikely that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus stayed in either a stall, stable, barn or cave surrounded by cows and sheep, as is typically illustrated on Christmas cards.
The manger (feeding trough or stall) is mentioned three times by Luke in his account of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7, 12 & 16). When something is mentioned three times in the Scriptures it is usually done to highlight its significance. The shepherds, as directed by the angel, were looking for the baby in a manger (Luke 2:8ff). In fact, the angel had stated that a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger was a sign to the shepherds; there was something significant about the manger (Luke 2:11).
Did the shepherds go house to house looking for the baby in a manger, or did they go straight to the watchtower of the flock – the Migdal Eder? The watchtower was used as a refuge and a lookout when flocks of sheep were under attack. Here was a manger that all the shepherds were familiar with.
Interestingly, the Bethlehem Migdal Eder was the base from which the temple flocks pastured on the Bethlehem hills. The lambs used in the Temple sacrifices were taken from these flocks. Ewes were taken to the Migdal Eder when they were delivering their special lambs and the stalls were kept very clean for this purpose. Was this where Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was born? (Micah 4:8 cf John 1:29.)
Wherever he was born, it does appear from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus Christ – the promised Messiah, the Saviour of the world, the King of Israel, the second person of the Godhead – was born on earth in a place where animals were normally kept.
. . . Approximately 33 years later Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday, at the same time that the sacrificial Passover lambs were being taken from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in anticipation for the Feast of Passover.
 Kataluma is also used in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 and is usually translated here as “guest room”. Luke used the more specific word for “inn” (pandocheion) in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:34.
 Were Mary and Joseph shunned because of Mary’s seemingly scandalous pregnancy? The Bible tells us that Joseph was a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16-17; Luke 1:27; 2:4ff). Bethlehem, also known as the city of David, was Joseph’s ancestral town. Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1a).
 The Greek word for manger/stall (phatnē) is also used in Luke 13:15 where it is usually translated as “stall”. BDAG gives these possible meanings for phatnē: manger; crib [as in a stall or pen for cattle, or a rack or manger for fodder used in a stable or house for cattle]; stable; even a feeding place under the open sky (in contrast to a kataluma.)
 It is possible that Jesus was born in a cave. Origen, in Against Celsus, Volume 1, chapter 51, writes that: “. . . in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding his birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he was born, and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.” Perhaps the tower of the Migdal Eder was built upon this cave.
Justin Martyr in Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 78, also states that Jesus was born in a cave. The Infancy Gospel of James relates that Mary and Joseph stayed in one of the many caves in Bethlehem used to shelter flocks of sheep over the winter.
 More about where Jesus was born and the Migdal Eder here and here.
Also: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, From the manger in Bethlehem to the baptism in Jordan, The nativity of Jesus the Messiah, Book 2, Chapter VI, Hendrickson Publishers:1993.
© 10th of December, 2010; Margaret Mowczko
Update (3.11.13): Ian Paul has written an excellent post entitled “Jesus Wasn’t Born in a Stable” that covers some of the same ground as this post here.
Christmas Cardology Series: