The story is universally known. A young couple, recently married, makes a long journey from their home country to a small town in the hills to be numbered in a government census. The road is dangerous, and the young wife is very pregnant, soon to give birth to her first child. Upon entering the town, the couple can find no place to stay; there is no room in the inn. The innkeeper, pitying the young mother-to-be, or perhaps looking to make some extra denarii, offers them lodging in his stable. Later that chilly night, amidst the braying of donkeys, bleating of sheep, and lowing of cattle, the young woman gives birth to the long-promised Messiah. This baby boy, destined to someday sacrifice His life for the sins of humankind, is wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. The stable is a very lively place that night as local shepherds, informed by a host of singing angels, come to worship the child, and three wise men from the east follow a star to the little town of Bethlehem, bearing gifts fit for a king. It was the night of the dear Savior’s birth, the first Christmas.
This story is so ingrained in our culture that we sing songs about the events and the participants. We stage plays and reenactments in our churches and even schools. On our mantles are models of the stable and the various players. The season never passes without some acknowledgment of the familiar elements.
But how much of this is true history?
Are our depictions of the nativity based on true historical data or are they founded on poorly contextualized tidbits from the text and supplemented with a healthy dose of imagination and interpretation?
I’m not suggesting that we should question the biblical account, I’m asking how many of the details come from tradition, assumptions, and cultural and linguistic misunderstandings.
With so many details, it would be a monumental undertaking to address each aspect of our current cultural understanding of the Christmas story. This is an endeavor best reserved for a tome dedicated to an understanding of the event based on a first-century Jewish cultural and historical context, supported by archaeology, epigraphy, religious, and historical study. A whole book on how archaeology ruins Christmas—sounds like a bestseller to me.
Over the years, I’ve read many articles on the origins of the wise men, the census of Quirinius, the shepherds of Bethlehem, and the nature of the star. Numerous scholars have weighed in on these important topics and it seems that each one has a different opinion and is absolutely sure of the veracity of his or her own interpretation of the particulars. I am not an astronomer, so my opinion on the star wouldn’t do anyone much good, and while I would enjoy digging deeply into the historical and cultural world of shepherds, Roman governors, and eastern Magi, I would instead like to examine an often-overlooked aspect of the Christmas story: the inn, the innkeeper, and the stable of Bethlehem.
The biblical texts which tell the Christmas story are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives the backstory, records the birth of Jesus, then tells of the Magi who visited from the East. He records the flight to Egypt and the return of Jesus and His parents to Nazareth after the death of Herod. Matthew is mainly concerned with noting how the birth of Jesus fulfilled the ancient Jewish prophecies of the Messiah’s lineage and birth. Luke, on the other hand, is interested in telling the story from the point of view of the participants, particularly that of Mary (note Luke 1:29 and 2:19 in which we catch a glimpse into Mary’s inner thoughts). It is in Luke’s account, specifically Luke 2:1-20, that we find the details of the story of the nativity of Christ. To save space here, I suggest you read this passage in your Bible or perhaps on your favorite app. Our key verse for this discussion is verse seven:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Notice that in the entire passage of Luke 2:1-20, there is one mention of the word “inn” and three mentions of the word “manger.” There is no reference to either an innkeeper or a stable, so how do we come up with the idea that there was an innkeeper who turned them away and then let them use his stable either because he felt sorry for them or wanted to make some extra money?
These details in our version of the Christmas story are based on inference and assumption. We assume that be-cause there was an inn, there must have been an innkeeper and because Jesus was laid in a manger, there must have been a stable either at the inn or somewhere nearby. While this makes sense to the modern English-speaking reader, there is much more going on in the Greek text and first-century Judean culture that might help us to understand the setting a bit more.
First, let’s take a look at the situation. Because of a Roman census, Joseph travels from Nazareth in the Galilee region to the town of Bethlehem outside of Jerusalem, the town of his ancestry. While a popular theory on the internet claims that Joseph may have gone to another Bethlehem closer to Galilee, both Matthew and Luke clarify that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. This is the same Bethlehem Ephrathah that was foretold by the prophet Micah (Micah 5:2) around the year 730 B.C. Bethlehem, by the way, comes from the Hebrew בֵּֽית לֶ֣חֶם (bayt leh-khem), meaning “House of Bread.”
Being the ancestral town of Joseph, he likely had relatives who lived in Bethlehem. It is probable that a number of Joseph’s brothers and cousins were also visiting the town with their families in order to register for the census.
So, why didn’t Joseph and Mary just stay with family members?
To answer this question, let’s look at the word “inn.” The English word with which we are familiar is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “an establishment for the lodging and entertaining of travelers; tavern.” This definition is the common understanding of the word and it is natural that this is how we would interpret it.
The original word in the Greek text is καταλύματι (kah-ta-lOO-maht-ee), the singular dative form of the noun κατάλυμα (kah-tAH-luma). This word occurs three times in the New Testament: Luke 2:7; 22:11; Mark 14:14. These last two references are from a later episode in the life of Christ. When Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the Last Supper, he asks his disciples to follow a man with a jug of water and to inquire about the κατάλυμα in which to eat the Passover. The only two times this word is used other than in the nativity story is in the context of the upper room, or guest room.
There is another word that is used by Luke, πανδοχεῖον (pahn-dokh-EH-on), in Luke 10:23 when he records the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, the Samaritan paid for a room and provisions for an injured man. Luke even mentions the innkeeper in the next verse, the πανδοχεῖ (pahn-dokh-EH).
Luke is very precise in his descriptions of events, carefully selecting his words. He’s known for it by Bible scholars. When Luke wanted to make reference to an establishment for lodging travelers, he used the proper word for it. When he was writing about an upper room, he used the proper word for that, as well.
So, what did Luke mean when he recorded that there was no room in the κατάλυμα? The simplest explanation that harmonizes the text and culture is that Joseph took Mary to stay in his ancestral home. Because of the arrival of other family members for the purpose of the census, the upper room was occupied. So, they didn’t let the pregnant lady stay in the guest room; they sent her to a stable?
Although this story is beginning to sound like a bad Christmas movie, complete with a chaotic house full of overbearing and unaccommodating relatives, there may be a more accurate explanation than a dysfunctional family gathering.
First-century Judean houses tended to be more like small compounds than single structure dwellings. Most homes had a place to bring a few animals in for the night to keep them safe from thieves and predators. This could be a room or even a small cave with a fenestrated (windowed) wall that was often near the food preparation area (talk about unsanitary).
There would be water, food and fire. Mangers were often rectangular-shaped stones about waist high with a basin carved into the top.
Let’s revisit our story. When Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, they make their way to Joseph’s ancestral home where other family members have gathered.
Finding that the upper room is full, Mary is perhaps relieved that she doesn’t have to climb a flight of stairs and sleep in a stuffy room full of her betrothed’s relatives who want to give her advice on pregnancy and child-bearing, not to mention child-rearing. Instead, the couple spread out their mats near the kitchen where they have access to fresh air, food, and water.
One thing that Hollywood has taught me is that you always need a pot of boiling water when someone gives birth.
When Jesus is born, He is wrapped tightly in a strip of cloth and placed in a nearby stone manger full of soft, warm fodder.
While Luke and Matthew presented the details of Jesus’ birth and their meanings, it is perhaps John, who did not record those events, who explains the reason for it…
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,
even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood,
nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.