"There was no room for them in the inn," goes the Christmas gospel.

Now two leading Bible scholars say Mary likely gave birth to Jesus not in a cold, strange stable but in the basement storage area of Joseph's crowded but familiar clan home."So much Western tradition has been superimposed on the story," said Stephen Pfann of San Jose, Calif., who heads the Jerusalem-based Center for the Study of Early Christianity.

"What we have is a picture of protection within a family situation, as opposed to what often comes through as an austere, rather unwholesome environment for the birth of the Savior," he said.

Bethlehem was a typical Jewish village at the time of Jesus' birth, with a population of 2,000 to 3,000 people, according to Pfann and another Bible scholar, Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor.

People lived in clans, usually in large one- or two-room houses built around one of the many caves of Bethlehem's limestone hills. The caves were used for storage and to keep prized animals such as donkeys safe from the cold or thieves.

Such a setup existed at Joseph's clan home in Bethlehem, said Pfann. When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem from Nazareth for the census decreed by the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, Joseph went straight home with his young wife.

"The natural thing would have been that they would be in the guest room," said Pfann, who reads Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek and is one of the editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Pfann said the word "inn" used in the English translation of St. Luke's Gospel is misleading. In the original Greek, the word "kata-luma" can mean inn, guest room or large room.

"Because this was the time of the census, there were many people in the guest room," Pfann explained. "It would have been inappropriate for her to give birth there. The conclusion is that she had the baby downstairs in the storage area."

Murphy O'Connor, a senior researcher at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique where Dead Sea Scroll studies were based until recently, agrees that Jesus probably was born in a home setting.

However, he argues that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem at the time. "They weren't visiting in-laws," Murphy O'Connor said. "When labor set in, Mary likely moved to the cave for privacy. Whether she was attended to by Joseph or her mother-in-law, we know she had relatives in the vicinity."

Today, a Bethlehem grotto is revered as the site of Jesus' birth and is marked by the fourth century Church of the Nativity. Pfann and Murphy O'Connor say the site fits in well with their theory.

Excavations have shown that the cave adjacent to the grotto was in use in the first century, said Murphy O'Connor. The grotto sits at the edge of what was the oldest Bethlehem village, and the adjacent Manger Square is built over a little dip that separated the village from land to the west.

"A house at that point would have had very easy access to the cave," Murphy O'Connor explained.

The grotto, down 16 steps from the main basilica, is a magnet for pilgrims from around the world who light candles and kiss the slabs of the marble-covered manger.

Patches of the original limestone, blackened by candle smoke, are still visible between the icons and red velvet and brocade wall coverings.