A Manger Misconception?

Does a manger refer to a whole stall or just a feeding trough? Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., explains.

After reading Tim Chaffey's article concerning if Jesus was born in a stable, I found his discussion to be without merit, a cause of confusion, and even deceptive in nature. The scope of his discussion has caused me to so question the true purpose of his article . . .

No matter how Chaffey tries to slice and dice the message of the scripture found in Luke Chapter 2, the intent of Luke implies that Jesus was simply born in a manger . . . a stall meant for the shelter of animals. In portraying otherwise, Chaffey has caused confusion in believing God's word. He refrained from discussing the central key word in Luke 2:7 which is "manger." The Greek translation and use of this noun implies an animal stall, its usage later confirmed by the author Luke in 13:15!

I ask AIG to retract the untruths found in Chaffey's article . . . .

– J.B., USA

Hi James,

Thank you for contacting us with your concerns.

I can assure you that the purpose of this article was not meant in any way to undermine, deceive, or confuse believers, or to “slice and dice” the Scriptures. The point of the article was in line with one of the major emphases of our ministry: to build our thinking on the Word of God. If you read any of the other articles on misconceptions about the birth of Christ, I’m sure you are aware that too many people base their beliefs on traditions, legends, song lyrics, etc., rather than the Bible.

Concerning the manger, it was discussed briefly, but let’s take a closer look at this term. Luke used the Greek word φατνη (phatnē) in Luke 2:7, 12, and 16. Translators of the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, and ESV have chosen the word “manger” in each of these cases because of the context. As you pointed out, Luke used the same word (φατνης, phatnēs, the genitive form of that noun) in Luke 13:15, which the same translators (except the ESV) have rendered as “stall” (ESV uses “manger” here, too).

Why did they use a different English word to translate the same Greek word? The context determines the meaning. Let’s take a look at each of these verses (from NKJV, emphasis and bracketed material added):

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [Greek: kataluma]. (Luke 2:7)

“And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

And they [shepherds] came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. (Luke 2:16)

The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?” (Luke 13:15)

Luke 2:7 states that Mary “laid Him in a manger” because there was no room for them in the kataluma, which is later translated as “guest room” in Luke 22:11. Jesus was not born in a manger, but Mary laid or placed Him in one after He was born and wrapped in swaddling cloths.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines manger as “a trough or open box in a stable designed to hold feed or fodder for livestock.” The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states, “It must be stated firmly that the meaning of φατνη (phatnē) here is ‘feeding-trough’; it cannot be translated as ‘stall.’”1 The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament states that phatnē is “a box or crib where animals feed—feed box, manger, crib (or possibly even an open feeding place under the sky).”2

As such, it makes sense in Luke 2 to translate the word as “manger” (rather than “stall”) because a manger is a feeding trough for the animals. This feeding trough was likely the proper size to place a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, much like we use a crib today.

The manger is not the entire stall, but is part of it. With that said, it may still be accurate to translate phatnēs as “stall” in Luke 13:15. Perhaps this is an example of synecdoche, where a limited term is used to represent the whole (e.g., in modern English “set of wheels” can mean four tires, or it can refer to the whole vehicle). Or perhaps “manger” is still a better translation of Luke 13:15, if animals were typically tied up to it in those days (in which case the manger could be in a field or along a street and not necessarily in a barn or stable).

I think you have raised a good point about including discussion of Luke 13:15. We have added a footnote to the article with some of this information.

It is extremely important for us to rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) but not “slice and dice” it. At times, we may disagree with fellow believers over the interpretation of a particular passage. In such cases (especially when the word, phrase, or passage is not a salvation issue and can rightly be interpreted in a different manner), we must learn to extend to our fellow believers some of the kindness that God has shown us rather than making accusations about one’s motives.

Thanks again for your concern about the article.

Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S.


  1. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, editors, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, electronic ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 53-54.
  2. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition, (New York: United Bible societies, 1996), 69.


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