A Christmas Story Update: Jesus Likely Born in a Basement, Not a Stable, Documentary Claims

A traditional religious Nativity scene in a crib is on display in front of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Vilnius on December 24, 2012. PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

"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."

Luke 2:7

What if Jesus wasn't born in a stable, as the biblical narrative goes, but was actually born in a basement? British actor Robert Powell, star of the four-part Smithsonian series, The Real Jesus of Nazareth, thinks it's a strong possibility.

"It makes such sense," Powell said in a recent episode according to the Daily Express.

Powell played Jesus 40 years ago in the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. In the current series, Powell, along with University of the Holy Land archaeologist Claire Pfann, said that the translation of Luke 2:7 from its original Greek shouldn't have used the word "inn," but possibly "a 'basement cave' where you can store things."

Though "basement cave" may be a stretch, the belief that the bible passage may have been misinterpreted is widely shared among experts on early Christianity.

Stephen Carlson, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University, wrote in a 2010 paper that the prevailing belief that baby Jesus was born in a barn comes from a fundamental mistranslation of the Gospel of Luke. The explanation "because there was no room at the inn" was never meant to be translated as the kind of "inn" we think of today. Rather, Carlson says the original word, κατάλυμα, referred to something more like "place to stay."

Contextual clues suggest that Joseph and Mary had planned to stay in Joseph's family home in Bethlehem, in what biblical scholar Brent Landau described to Newsweek as a "honeymoon suite"—an annex on the side of the house where the couple could theoretically 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 told Newsweek over email. "Thus, all those sermons about heartless innkeepers may well be based on a misunderstanding of what Luke is talking about."

This isn't the first time experts on Christianity have challenged the traditional stable narrative by calling out the mistranslation. Scholars have been pointing it out for years. The Guardian reported in 2014 that even if there had been an inn the way we picture an inn today, Mary and Joseph still wouldn't have planned to stay there. They'd traveled to Bethlehem to see Joseph's family, and per the traditions of 1st-century Palestine, would have stayed with his family and not with strangers.

"Very few biblical scholars believe that Luke is telling us something historically accurate about the circumstances of Jesus' birth," Landau, a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, told Newsweek. "The birth in Bethlehem seems to be a later legend, and the historical Jesus was almost certainly born in Nazareth."