Dec 13, 2017 by Alyssa Duvall
British actor Robert Powell recently suggested to the Daily Express that the account of Jesus’ birth in a stable or barn-like structure may be the result of a translation error. When we turn to Scripture for an account of Jesus’ advent, we find that in Luke 2:7 that Mary “laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” However, the star of the four-part Smithsonian series The Real Jesus of Nazareth believes instead that a “basement cave” may have been the actual site of the nativity.
“It makes such sense,” Powell told the Daily Express. In a new episode of The Real Jesus of Nazareth, Powell, along with University of the Holy Land archaeologist Claire Pfann, claimed that the translation of Luke 2:7 from its original Greek shouldn’t have used the word “inn,” but instead “a ‘basement cave’ where you can store things.”
Though “basement cave” may catch some traditionalists off guard, many textual critics share the belief that this bible passage may have been misinterpreted. Stephen Carlson, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University, wrote in a 2010 paper that the idea that Jesus was born in a barn comes from a translational error in the verse in Luke 2. Carlson explained that the explanation “because there was no room at the inn” was not intended to be translated as the kind of “inn” a modern person is familiar with. Carlson says the original word, κατÎ¬λυμα, actually referred to something more like “place to stay.”
Biblical scholar Brent Landau described to Newsweek that clues within the context of the passage suggest that Joseph and Mary had planned to stay at Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem in a sort of “honeymoon suite”—an annex on the side of the house where the couple have some privacy.
“So Luke would be saying that this room was so small that they couldn’t fit a baby in it, and so the baby slept in the same big open room that the rest of the family would have used—a room that they shared with their animals, hence the reference to a manger,” Landau continued. “Thus, all those sermons about heartless innkeepers may well be based on a misunderstanding of what Luke is talking about.”
This development isn’t the first time textual critics have challenged long-held notions about Christ’s birth. In 2014, the Guardian reported that even if there had been an inn as we know it, Mary and Joseph still would not be likely to stay there. They were traveling to Bethlehem to be with Joseph’s family, and per the traditions of 1st-century Jews, the couple would have stayed with his family and not with strangers.
Landau goes a step further to suggest that Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is legendary, rather than historical: “Very few biblical scholars believe that Luke is telling us something historically accurate about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The birth in Bethlehem seems to be a later legend, and the historical Jesus was almost certainly born in Nazareth.”