Luke 1:1-7 gives us an account of what happened in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

As there are few explanatory notes that accompany this description, our image of this occurrence have been fuelled by the license and imagination of artists. Our understanding of the Nativity scene is in turn influenced by what we know of inns and stables.

When we examine evidence such as the written documentation found in the Bible, and archaeological evidence that was excavated, and as we begin to corroborate the authenticity of these different sources, we begin to have a fuller idea of how the Nativity scene may look.

First, the word “inn”, may not be so much a motel or hotel as we know it. The word is roughly translated from the Greek, καταλύματι (Romanised: katalýmati) which may mean several things according to context, such as a generic place to stay, a lodging, a guest room, a house for strangers, or living quarters (Carlson, 2010; Mickelson, 2015). As Joseph comes from the direct lineage of King David, it is highly likely that he would be lodging with relatives in Bethlehem. While a room might have previously been prepared for them, these guest lodgings were usually a small, side room which would have been adequate for just Joseph and Mary, but because Mary was on the verge of giving birth, the midwives would have been needed to be called in, and Joseph and Mary would have needed to be shifted to a larger holding space to accommodate the birth of the child as there “was no room” for them in the καταλύματι.

We must understand that it was not so much that the relatives were cruel and unkind and put them in a stable to stay the night and to birth a child, but that in 1st century Palestine, house spaces contained a fluidity that is not present today. Built in clusters along family lines and lineage, houses were simple rectangular structures that could be expanded or contracted to fit the needs of the community, and related households often added rooms, by blocking the doorways, or by cutting a hole into the wall of a neighbouring house. These dwellings could be single storeyed or double storeyed and the changeable and transformable nature of the rooms meant that at any one time, these rooms could be used to house sleeping members of the household, who slept on the floor, to house storage of grain, or jars, or crockery, to pen animals and keep them safe from thieves at night, or for food preparation and other domestic functions such as weaving. It was common practice to have the animals usually sleeping beside their owners to warm the dwellings with set spaces along the walls containing the manger or trough filled with fodder to feed the animals (Zorn, 2022; Holladay, 1992, 1997, 2009). Thus, the Holy Family would have been lodging in such a space.

However, whether the Holy Family, could not find room in a legitimate inn, as in hotel for travellers, or at their relatives is not so significant as to the theological meaning behind the humble and ordinary birth circumstances of Jesus.

Jesus as the “firstborn son” does not mean that Mary had any other sons or children, but that in legalese, or legal language, this meant that Jesus had the full rights and privileges of being the first-born. This is evidenced at the foot of the Cross. If Jesus had any other siblings, he would not have needed to present John to Mary and Mary to John. That he was to be wrapped in swaddling cloths, is a reference to another descendent of David – Solomon who though being of royal nature and who would turn out to be a great and sagacious king, had to be swaddled like any other infant (cf. Wisdom 7: 4-6 – “In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured”). While the previous swaddling was for an Earthly king, this swaddling would cradle the King of kings, and the King of the Universe.

The swaddling also foreshadows what would happen at the Resurrection (Kosloski, 2019). Clothed in the bands of His humanity at His birth, Christ would come forth triumphant and glorified from the tomb, leaving these same bands and linens that held Him at His death. Similar to how Lazarus, came forth from the tomb still wrapped in his grave linens, Christ would step forth again, alive, but with the exception of no longer being wrapped and constrained by these earthly linens.

That Jesus was to be placed in a manger, fulfils the words of Scripture found in Isaiah 1:3 “An ox knows its owner, and a donkey, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” There is some irony that even the lowliest of creatures would recognise their Maker, but Israel would not. This irony goes slightly further if Jesus were born at a relative’s house. His own people did not even realise the immensity of the treasure they held within their walls.

Finally, the birth of Jesus coincides with the reign of Caesar Augustus who ruled from 27 B.C. to A. D. 14. Caesar Augustus was regarded as the “saviour” and “god” of the known Roman world as he brought with him a reign of unification and peace. Jesus is a direct commentary to this king in his royal trappings. In Jesus is found the true Prince of Peace (cf. Luke 2:14) and the true Saviour (Luke 2:11) (USCCB, n.d.). Yet this royal birth is not found in the finery of palace walls, but in the most unexpected and humble of places.

Where are we looking for Jesus today? Perhaps we don’t realise how near He is to us.


By the Grace of God,

Brian Batholomew Tan



Carlson, S. (2010). The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7. New Testament Studies, 56(3), 326-342. doi:10.1017/S0028688509990282


Holladay, J. S. Jr. (1992). House, Israelite. ABD 3: 308–18.


Holladay, J. S. Jr.  (1997). Four-Room House. OEANE 2: 337–42.


Holladay, J. S. Jr. (2009). Home Economists 1407 and the Israelite Family and Their Neighbors: An Anthropological/Archaeological Exploration. Pp. 61–88 in The Family in Life and in Death: The Family in Ancient Israel: Sociological and Archaeological Perspectives. Patricia D-W (Ed.). New York: T&T Clark International.


Kosloski, P. The Symbolism of Swaddling Cloths at Jesus’ Birth. Aleteia. Retrieved December 17, 2023 from


Mickelson, A. (2015). An Improbable Inn: Texts and Tradition Surrounding Luke 2:7. Studia Antiqua 14, 1.


Pierce, G. A. (2021). The ‘Four-Room-House’ Complex at Tell Dothan, Area A: An Analysis of Function, Demography, and Cultural Identity. Pp. 249–65 in To Explore the Land of Canaan: Studies in Biblical Archaeology in Honor of Jeffrey R. Chadwick. Aren M. M. & George A. P. (Eds.) Berlin: de Gruyter.


Reich, R. (1992). Building Material and Architectural Elements in Ancient Israel. Pp. 1–16 in The Architecture of Ancient Israel from the Prehistoric to the Persian Period. Aharon K. & Ronny R. (Eds.) Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (n.d.) Biblical Commentary on Luke Chapter 2. USCCB. Retrieved from


Zorn, J. R. (2022, October 27). Domestic Architecture, the Household, and Daily Life in Iron Age Israel. The Ancient Israelite World. Routledge Retrieved December 17, 2023 from