JERUSALEM (AP) _ Traditional English versions of the Bible say Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn, but a new look at the old words suggests there probably wasn't even an inn at Bethlehem.

Biblical scholar Jim Fleming said Joseph and Mary more likely couldn't get the guest room at a family compound, crowded with other relatives home for a Roman-mandated census, and sought privacy in a nearby stable.

The stable, he adds, probably was not a cozy wooden structure but a shepherd's cave cut into limestone.

And the manger, or feeding trough, was not hewn from wood but built of stone, he says.

Fleming said at newsconference sponsored by Israel's Tourism Ministry that he is not challenging doctrine but interpretation.

''The message is to try to help Christians to understand the simplicity of Christ's birth,'' he said.

Fleming, director of the Biblical Resources Study Center near Bethlehem, believes the traditional image of the first Christmas stems from inaccurate translation of early Greek versions of the New Testament.

These Greek texts of the nativity in Luke use the word ''katalymati.''

''Inn,'' he says, ''may be traditional, but it is a bad translation. The word normally is translated as guest chamber.''

So what, nearly 2,000 years ago, was a guest chamber? And why wasn't it available to Mary and Joseph?

''Most houses from the time of Jesus were ... many roomed apartment compounds for multiple families,'' Fleming said. ''In such clusters, one room was reserved for relatives or friends of any of the families living in the compound.''

Fleming notes that Joseph and Mary, like thousands of other families, were required to return to their home town for a census.

''If the katalymati, the guest chamber, was already taken, they would go elsewhere, seeking privacy for the birth,'' he said.

And what better place, he said, than a stable cut into limestone. Such stable-caves still dot the surrounding landscape.

''Animals were kept in caves because they maintained a constant temperature, not too cold in winter and not too hot in summer,'' Fleming said.

In the Holy Land, most feeding and watering mangers for animals still are built from stone. One lined with fresh hay ''would be a comfortable place for a newborn infant,'' Fleming said.

The cave scenario is reflected in the Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem, he said. The site revered as Christ's birthplace is in a cave-like grotto below the church's main altar.

Fleming, 46, a native of Los Angeles, earned a doctor's degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and did post- graduate studies in historical geography and archaeology at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where he is a lecturer.