BETHLEHEM -- A Roman Catholic researcher doubts the New Testament account that Christ was born in a stable on a cold winter's night because there was no room in the inn at Bethlehem.

The legend has little to do with what actually happened 2,000 years ago, said the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a prominent Bible scholar.

For one thing, he said on a recent walking tour of Bethlehem, that he doubts St. Luke's account that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth and moved to Bethlehem, Joseph's hometown, during the final stages of Mary's pregnancy in order to be counted in a census.

Luke had to reconcile two conflicting facts -- that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but that the family home was in Nazareth, said Murphy-O'Connor, originally of Ireland and now a professor at the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem.

Luke came up with the idea of the census, he added, but it is not a logical explanation because population counts conducted at the time asked people to stay put. "I think the child was born in Bethlehem because that's where they {Mary and Joseph} lived."

He described the couple's home as a one-room house "where you had the mattresses rolled up during the day . . . where you had the extended family and favorite animals."

When the time came for Mary to give birth, he said, the couple moved to an adjacent cave which served as a stable and storage space.

"There was no space for a birth {in the house}," he said. "Mary was a young woman, 15 at most, and to move . . . into a quiet area like a stable for a first birth was a very normal thing."

Luke wrote of the event: "And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn."

Murphy-O'Connor said the translation should read, "There was no space for them in the room."

The site long venerated as the place of Jesus' birth is a grotto underneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem residents have venerated the cave area since Jesus' birth, but pilgrims did not begin to arrive in larger numbers until after the Byzantine Queen Helena had the basilica built in 339 A.D.

Many elements of the old Christmas celebration have remained the same until this day.

"The patriarch of Jerusalem, just like today, would come in a procession {from Jerusalem}," Murphy-O'Connor said. "He would be received here the night before, officiate at the midnight liturgy and go back the next day."

But tourism, which increased to a massive scale after Israel captured Bethlehem and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, has left its mark on the festivities, which have become more and more westernized, including a 30-foot decorated and lighted spruce tree next to television cameras recording the midnight mass.