Advent, Christmas and the Nativity Part IV: Jesus, Why Don’t Your Disciples Wash Their Hands? Were You Born in a Barn?

The popular version of the Christmas story has a full-term Mary riding into Bethlehem on a donkey. When Mary and Joseph arrive in town, they are told that the local inn is full and must settle for a nearby barn for shelter. That very night, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, Jesus. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.


In Part III, I addressed the problem that there is no “inn” in Luke’s narrative. The word that is translated inn is more accurately translated “guest room”. The idea of the inn likely comes from the British imagination which is also the likely source of the assumption that the manger must be located in a barn. In a way, it is a bit surprising that a Pub never worked its way into the popular narrative. And after Jesus was born, Joseph went to the local pub and handed out cigars. (The New Cockney Version) No, maybe not.

So, they placed the baby in the manger. Yes, a manger is an animal food trough. So, we get to keep that one. But where was it located?

A Cave, a Barn, or a House?

While the English imagination read a barn into the text, the author of Infancy Gospel of James from the 2nd century read a cave into the text. In this narrative, they are traveling through the desert when Mary goes into labor.

And [Joseph] found a cave there, and led [Mary] into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem. (18)

The way this Greek author goes on to describe this event, there may be a deliberate allusion to the cave in the mountainside where Moses and Elijah encounter the God of Israel. It may also reflect the rise of the eremetic (hermit) movement, the Desert Fathers and Mothers like St. Anthony.

 For many of us in the modern west, the mention of a manger or “feed trough” in Luke’s gospel naturally brings the image of a barn to mind. Where else would one keep a feed trough? For the most part, livestock are kept in a separate building apart from our homes.

Yet, archaeological excavation reveals that such was not the case in the first century Judea.

 For practical and economic purposes, livestock were in a room connected to the house. Apart from convenience, the presence of livestock generated heat. Furthermore, to have a separate building for livestock means having land and wealth. Although I am not an anthropologist, I suspect that there are many places in the world where such living arrangements are still in practice.

Now, when I read that the reason Mary placed Jesus in the manger was because there was no room in the guest room. Rather than the hotel was full, so they slept in shed. A better analogy is they slept on the couch because the guest room was occupied. So, the more likely scenario is that Joseph and Mary are in a house full of Joseph’s relatives. Many of whom travelled to Bethlehem for the same reason that the Holy Family made the journey.

In the next post, I will suggest an alternate image of the journey to and their stay in Bethlehem. Click here for Part V: Road Trip!


The archaeological pictures used in this post are from (last visite 12/16/15)


3 thoughts on “Advent, Christmas and the Nativity Part IV: Jesus, Why Don’t Your Disciples Wash Their Hands? Were You Born in a Barn?

    1. Yes, Diana. Thank you for asking. I have created a link to the next post at the bottom of this post. I forgot to update that post. Or you can find the whole series through the homepage. There is a link at the top of the page “Advent, Christmas, & Nativity (December 2015)”. Do you like these posts? I hope to do more like them in the future. Definitely planning another advent series. Thanks for taking the time to ask your question. — IWP


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