We know the story of the birth of Christ: Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem after dark. She is riding a donkey and is just about ready to deliver, but they can’t find any lodging. A rude innkeeper turns them away and out of desperation, they resort to shelter in a stable filled with animals where Mary gives birth alone and unattended.
A few years ago, I posted a Christmas quiz that had helped me see that much of what I “knew” wasn’t supported by scripture. Here I go again:
Did they arrive after dark with little time to spare before the birth?
On a purely human level, what does that say about Joseph? What kind of husband was he, travelling such a long distance with his heavily pregnant wife? Remember that he was considerate enough to want to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19). Couldn’t that consideration for Mary’s welfare have extended to other areas as well?
Thankfully for Joseph’s reputation, Luke 2:6 informs us that “while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (KJV). Thus, they’d been in Bethlehem for a while when the time came for the baby Jesus to be born.
What about not finding accommodations?
Luke gives us some historical context: that a census was underway when Christ was born (Luke 2:1-3). Bethlehem was likely teeming with people who, like Joseph, lived elsewhere but had come to register. So that explains the crowds. But was Joseph incompetent at finding a place to stay? And were the people of Bethlehem so hard-hearted as to turn away a pregnant woman?
Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral town, so he must have had relatives—however distant—living there. In that family-oriented (not individualistic) culture he could simply turn up and recite his genealogy and be welcomed. Even if he were a total stranger, he would have found hospitality, if only for the sake of his pregnant wife.
Further, if Bethlehem proved so unfriendly, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived nearby “in the hill-country of Judea”—Joseph and Mary could have gone there, though admittedly that would mess up the prophecy of Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem.
So we can safely conclude that Joseph and Mary stayed with relatives, or other well-wishers. But wait, what’s all this about inns then?
What about there being “no room in the inn”?
The Greek word translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 (kataluma) is used in Luke 22:11 and its parallel in Mark 14:14 to describe the upper room where the Last Supper took place. Why is the word translated as ‘guest room’ at the end of Christ’s life and ‘inn’ at the beginning? Besides, Luke uses the common word for inn (pandocheion) in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34), so he could have chosen to use it earlier in his gospel.
Additionally, it is uncertain whether Bethlehem would have a commercial inn. Inns were normally found on major roads. No major Roman road passed through Bethlehem, and small villages on minor roads had no inns.
So that leaves us with Mary and Joseph finding the guest room occupied, likely by older people who would have had precedence. Which leads us to the manger.
Was the manger in a stable?
To answer this, we return to archaeology. Homes in that part of the world at the time featured two sections: near the door, a place where the family animal was tied up at night (Luke 13:15) and a raised section that was the main family living quarters. So it would seem that Mary and Joseph were staying in this main section, and because no crib was available, the manger was put into service as a cradle.
Luke also reports the visit of the shepherds. Had the family been in unsuitable housing, the shepherds in their peasant simplicity would have helped to make other arrangements (or at least their wives would have!).
Who was present at the birth?
There is no conclusive proof that oxen, donkeys, camels and the like were present, despite what one Christmas song I really like affirms. But what of other humans?
I once heard an American pastor tell a story of watching a nativity play while he was a missionary in Ethiopia. When the time came for Mary to deliver, the village women attended her, singing loudly all the while. The pastor at first thought it very odd as he’d never considered that she would have had help. I’m convinced that the Ethiopians with their strong traditional society had it right.
Hopefully your understanding and appreciation of the Christmas story has been heightened and not diminished. Christ, in whom the fullness of deity dwells, was born among the people of the city of David, surrounded by family and helping hands. Or, as the hymn puts it He was “pleased as man with men to dwell; Jesus our Immanuel”.
This post is based on Kenneth Bailey’s article The Manger and the Inn, which is totally worth the half hour it takes to read it.
If you prefer video, here’s close to 1 hour covering the same ground. Too long? Skip right to the Q&A.
See also The first Christmas: Myths and realities by Paul Copan.