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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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MANGER.—The Authorized Version and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 translation of φάτνη in Luke 2:7; Luke 2:12; Luke 2:16. In Luke 13:15, the only other place where φάτνη occurs in NT, Authorized Version and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 both render it ‘stall,’ though (Revised Version margin) gives ‘manger.’ The precise meaning of φάτνη is somewhat uncertain, opinions differing as to whether it denotes a stall or a manger within a stall.

Tristram (Land of Israel, p. 73) supposes that Mary and Joseph, who could not find room in the κατάλυμα, were obliged to go to some poor house hard by, where there was ‘an upper platform’ for people and ‘a lower platform’ for cattle, and that ‘in the lower portion allotted to the cattle the Infant when born was naturally laid at once in the long earthen trough which serves for a manger, and into which the fodder is pushed from the floor.’ If the κατάλυμα was like a modern Eastern khan, and if the φάτνη belonged to it (see below), Mary and Joseph went to one of the stalls for cattle and beasts of burden within the outside wall, and there the babe was born. Meyer (on Luke 2:7) favours the view that φάτνη means a feeding-trough placed in a stable. In any case, φάτνη, as its derivation implies, designates a feeding-place for animals.

Opinions further differ as to whether the φάτνη in question was a cave or grotto in the limestone rock of the neighbourhood used as a stable, or an enclosure fenced in.

The former view, which has the weight of persistent tradition, is due to Justin Martyr, who tells us that Christ was born ‘in a certain cave near the village,’ which cave, he says, had been pointed out by Isaiah as ‘a sign.’ For this latter circumstance he founds upon Isaiah 33:16 LXX Septuagint , ‘He shall dwell in the lofty cave of the strong rock’ (Trypho, 70 and 78). A similar statement is made by Origen, who affirms that in his day there was shown at Bethlehem ‘the cave where Jesus was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling bands’ (c. Cels. i. 51).

There is, of course, nothing improbable in this traditional view that the place where Mary sought shelter was a cave, for throughout Palestine such caves or grottoes were and are commonly used as stables. The other view, that the φάτνη was an enclosure, is favoured by many. According to Schleusner, it was the open courtyard attached to the inn and enclosed by a rough fence, into which the cattle would be shut at night, and where poorer travellers might lodge, when from want of room in the inn, or want of means to pay for room, they could find no other place. This view is supported by the Vulgate (prœsepium) and the Peshitta. It is, moreover, significant that the earliest Christian artists represent the Nativity as in an open courtyard.

Stanley, who opposes the view that the φάτνη was a cave, does so partly on the ground of Matthew 2:11 and partly on the ground of the superstitious tendency to associate sacred events with caves. He says (SP [Note: P Sinai and Palestine.] p. 440): ‘As soon as the religion of Palestine fell into the hands of Europeans, it is hardly too much to say that it became “a religion of caves.” ’ He further notes that when the Convent of the Nativity was dismantled during the invasion of Ibrahim Pasha, it was found that the traditional cave had been, in pre-Christian times, a place of sepulture, and was therefore not at all likely ever to have been used by Jews as a manger.

It has been commonly but too readily assumed that the precise meaning of φάτνη in St. Luke’s account must be determined by our interpretation of κατάλυμα. This appears to be a groundless assumption. It is not said by St. Luke that the φάτνη was connected with the inn. In Luke 2:7; Luke 2:12 the definite article is not used; for, though it appears in the Textus Receptus and a few Manuscripts of minor importance, in which it was probably inserted to designate the well-known φάτνη, preponderating evidence is altogether against it. It occurs, as the best Manuscripts show, in Luke 2:16, but there it clearly refers to the φάτνη spoken of in Luke 2:7; Luke 2:12. It is at least possible that the φάτνη did not belong to the κατάλυμα at all, and it is worth noting as subordinate evidence for this that the Protevangel of James and the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy do not connect ‘the cave’ of which they both speak with the inn.

Our conclusion, then, seems clear that, whether the φάτνη was a cave or an enclosure, it was certainly a place where cattle were housed or fed. It cannot be maintained that there is anything improbable or unreasonable in the continuous Christian tradition which goes back to the first decade of the second century. Nor is the pious sentiment groundless which has pictured the birth of the world’s Redeemer in circumstances so humble, and has lingered in loving and grateful meditation over His manger cradle. See also artt. Bethlehem and Cave.

Literature.—Schleusner, Lex. s.v. φάτνη; Meyer-Weiss on Luke 2:7; Keim, Jesus of Nazara (English translation ii. 80); Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus, i. 185; Stanley, SP [Note: P Sinai and Palestine.] , and Tristram, Land of Israel, as quoted; Hepworth Dixon, Holy Land, i. ch. 13.

J. Cromarty Smith.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Manger'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​m/manger.html. 1906-1918.