The Stable Fable
Caveat emptor: don't buy-bull the cave
Of "all" the sources of Christianity, only two gospels give us an account of the birth of the god Joshua the Anointed, aka Jesus the Christ. Those two gospels, called 'according to Matthew' and 'according to Luke' contradict each other on multiple aspects surrounding this birth. The most obvious of those contradictions is the time this alleged event took place. Yet another contradiction is raised by the centuries old and now worldwide Christian celebration of Joshua's birth during the so called Christ mass time. Every year, millions of people depict the nativity scene of their deity displaying a couple with their new born child in a stable or cave. This is peculiar because neither 'Matthew' nor 'Luke' mention a stable or cave in their stories. So where is this globally accepted but "misinformed" tradition coming from?
This relief on a 4th century Roman sarcophagus is one of the earliest depictions of a nativity scene mixing "Christian ideas" with millennia old "pagan" symbolism.
At the end of the 4th century CE, emperor Theodosius declared Christianity state religion and worshipping the gods of your parents or grandparents became illegal. By that time, the celebration of the Saturnalia, (re)birth of Helios or Mithra on the third day after the winter solstice had already been replaced by the celebration of Jesus’ birth in many urban centers across the empire. None the less, some ancient traditions would continue to live on in the minds of people, no matter how vehemently, if not brutally, the Roman administration enforced the new religion on the people.
Much of the confusion leading up to the traditional view of Jesus’ birthplace is derived from the gospel according to Luke, that has Jesus placed in a manger (crib, feeding trough) following his delivery, “διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι” – because there was no place for them in the inn. If ever there is the slightest historicity to be accredited to either of the nativity stories, it certainly would not be Luke’s account. The entire premise of Joseph having to travel from his residence in Galilee to register for taxes at the birth place of an ancestor thousand years earlier is utterly ridiculous. It is like making a 21st century American citizen travel to Italy or Germany to file their tax returns, providing they can even trace where their 11th century patrilineal ancestor lived in those days. We could have given Luke a lot more credit if it were not for his own statement in Luke 4:2, because there is another Bethlehem in Galilee. This Galilean Bethlehem is only 11 kilometers west-northwest of Nazareth (6.84 miles), which would make Luke’s portrayal of a 9 month pregnant woman riding a donkey to her husband’s ancestral home much more feasible. But halas, in spite of the critique in the referenced article that Matthew switched the birthplace to Judea for the sake of the connection to and royal lineage from king David, so does Luke, saying: “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”
Allowing for this preposterous idea however still does not explain why the “katalima” of Luke should be translated as an inn. True, with a lot of tolerance the meaning of this word could be stretched to include terms such as ‘abode, shelter, or house’ but inn would be the least likely possibility. Luke himself uses the word ‘katalima’ strictly in the sense of ‘guest room' in his chapter 22 verse 11. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the term used for an inn is “pandocheio”. “[…] επιβιβασας δε αυτον επι το ιδιον κτηνος ηγαγεν αυτον εις πανδοχειον και επεμεληθη αυτου” – Luke 10:34 (then he put him on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him).
Not only would the translation of ‘inn’ in Luke’s second chapter be wrong, most of the circumstances described by Luke are pure fabrication. Admittedly, some of the most recent bible translations no longer translate ‘katalima’ with inn. We could get a lot deeper in the details, but the matter is quite simply settled by looking at the gospel of Matthew. “και ελθοντες εις την οικιαν ευρον το παιδιον μετα μαριας της μητρος αυτου” – Matthew 2:11 (and arriving at the house they found the child with Mary, his mother).
The idea that Jesus would have been born in a stable or cave based on the mention that he was placed in a manger, is an example of how modern people look back at history with their modern glasses on. For centuries, even up to the late 19th century in Europe (or later than that depending on the region), people shared their house with their livestock. Whether separated by walls or not, animals and humans often lived under one roof. This was just as much the case in 1st century Palestine, where the body heat of sheep or goats would be the cheapest way of heating your home during the cold and wet winter months. A manger thus served as an obvious and convenient temporary cradle for a newborn.
Moreover, the tradition may very well stem from a conflation with the more widespread, older and deeply ingrained traditions among the people of 2nd and 3rd century Roman citizens, who would all have been raised with the stories of Zeus, Hermes, Mithra or Eileithyia (Elysia), who were all born in a cave. The iconography of these gods had been all around for centuries, in the form of statues, paintings, frescos or mosaics. One would be hard pressed to find any citizen in any Roman or Greek city who did not at least knew the core elements of the birth stories of their gods; just like most Christians are familiar with the core elements of the gospels and traditional nativity scenes. But few of them ever analyze their religious texts in spite of the never before seen global degree of literacy and accessibility of the sources. Most people up until very recently did not have this advantage. Not even 10 % of the Roman population could read or write and after the collapse of the western Roman empire it got even worse. Opposed to higher ranking and higher educated deacons and bishops, common priests were often illiterate as well and they too visualized the birth of their god in terms and images they were culturally familiar with.
While the Byzantines stuck to the cave version, the Latin Rite churches preferred depicting a stable, although some artists reconciled the two by depicting a wooden shed within a cave.
The "corruption" of the original narrative of the gospels is not so much a blindness to the text, as most people throughout the past 16 centuries would not have been able to read the texts. And the image of a cave or stable would have been so deeply engrained in every Christian raised child, that by the time they were adults, it was as natural and true as breathing. Raising their own children, they would repeat the same stories, perpetuating the three or four thousand year old traditions of gods and caves.
It is not much different than the popular perception of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. This story has been around for many centuries (in many regions even longer than Christianity). Few people however read this story to their children in their original form but rather follow the heavily redacted "Disney" version they themselves were taught. What parent would even make the effort to look up the earliest 14th and 17th century originals, with the current visual technology readily available for their children, and read them the gory details of the cannibalism, infanticide and rape the original versions described? But even in the clean Disney version, the undertones of procreative competition and infanticide are still present and carried over to the next generations.
The discussion of Jesus’ birthplace is an interesting exercise in interpretation and translation of ancient Greek texts by itself. A close reading quickly demonstrates that the tradition of the stable or cave birth cannot be traced to the gospels. So where does that idea come from? The fact is that the tradition of coupling the birth of gods to caves has been around for thousands of years, predating Christianity by at least three millennia. If we know one thing it is that some traditions die a very slow death. Even the imposition of Christianity from the 4th century onwards on the people surrounding the Mediterranean Sea did not change that. The authors of the gospels seemed to have wanted to distance themselves from this omnipresent cultural idea. But it seems that the Christian churches and authorities surrendered to the forces of popular culture with regards to this detail and rather than fight it, absorbed it in their new religion. It wouldn't have posed much of a problem anyway, as it doesn't touch on the theology of the emerging religion "kata holos" (> katholos, on the whole, general). It is very likely that both nativity stories in the New Testament are mere myth and like many contemporary Christians, the authors had no problem "bending the facts" to fit their view. After all, what mattered most was to convey their theology. And the truth... well, not necessarily so much.
David PHD, 20 February 2022
Notes, sources, references:
Bible citations from the 1550 Stephanus New Testament (TR1550), compared with the NIV and KJV.
“In Luke 2:7 is "kataluma" a "guestroom" in a house or at an "inn"?”, Stack Exchange, Biblical Hermeneutics, https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/749/in-luke-27-is-kataluma-a-guestroom-in-a-house-or-at-an-inn
Sheera Frenkel, “Dig Finds Evidence Of Another Bethlehem”, 25 December 2012, NPR > Middle East, https://www.npr.org/2012/12/25/168010065/dig-finds-evidence-of-pre-jesus-bethlehem
Jonathan Cook, “The search for the real Bethlehem”, 20 December 2004, Al Jazeera > News, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2004/12/20/the-search-for-the-real-bethlehem
4th-century sarcophagus, Milan; one of the earliest Nativity images Nativity scene. Detail from the side facing the apse of the so-called "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus"), an Ancient Roman christian sarcophagus dating from the 4th century. It is preserved beneath the pulpit of Sant'Ambrogio basilica in Milan, Italy. Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto, April 25 2007, public domain. Retrieved from: Wikipedia, “Nativity of Jesus in art”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_of_Jesus_in_art
“Adoration of the Magi”, by Pieter Brueghel de Oudere, 1564. Public domain. Image retrieved from Wikipedia, “Nativity of Jesus in art”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_of_Jesus_in_art
Byzantine 14th century fresco from Mistra, Greece By Meister der Peribleptos-Kirche in Mistra - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155155