Nativity scenes dotting the coffee tables of most Christian homes or the brightly lit lawns of churches display the holy family gathered in a stable beside a lowly ox and a few sheep. Most people probably assume this stems from Luke 2:7, which reads: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
However, in Luke 2:7, the Greek word καταλύματι translated inn in English is not the Greek word for commercial inn πανδοχεῖον (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:34). Rather, it is the same word used in Luke 22:11 where Jesus sends his disciples into town to find a place where he can celebrate the Last Supper: “And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber (καταλύματι), where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?” In this passage, καταλύματι is translated more accurately as guest chamber.
Thus Mary laid Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them in the guest chamber. Guest chambers were normally built on to the back of the home, or if the owner had means, a second story room, also called an upper room. Whether due to the census, or to one of the three Jewish holidays that required Jews from all over the Roman Empire to come to Jerusalem, the guest rooms in the village of Bethlehem were evidently already occupied.
In the movie The Nativity, Jesus is born in a cave designed to hold animals. However, the notion of a cave stems from a Christian novel written circa 145 AD called The Protoevangelium of James. In the novel, Mary goes into labor and gives birth in a cave BEFORE she reaches Bethlehem. But this contradicts Luke 2:6 which reads, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” So according to the Bible, while they were in Bethlehem, she came to term and gave birth.
It is quite natural for one to assume a manger is in a stable or a cave; however, in a typical Israelite house, the manger was in the main living area of a house. Homes such as these are still standing in Israel today. When you first walk through the door, you enter a dirt floor area known as the animal stall. Adjacent to the main entry way are a few steps that lead to the main living quarters. But this slightly lower level by the door housed the family’s animals at night, which kept them safe from thieves, and provided heat for the family.
Kenneth E. Bailey, Th.D., emeritus research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, states: “The ‘family living room’ has a slight slope in the direction of the animal stall and mangers are dug out of the lower end of the living room…. If the family cow is hungry during the night, she can stand up and eat from mangers cut out of the floor of the living room.”
Taking into consideration the hospitality ethic of Middle Eastern culture, it is easy to see that even though the guest room was already occupied, Mary and Joseph were not only not turned away by the home owner, but invited to stay with him and his family in their main living area. Thus, Mary laid the baby in the manger cut into the living floor, because the guest chamber was already occupied by another family.
For more information on the layout of homes with mangers cut into the family room (which still exist in both Galilee and Bethlehem), see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Kenneth E Bailey. Chapter I: The Story of Jesus’ Birth. InterVarsity Press. 2008.