Tonight, people will gather in churches around the world to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Many will reenact, by way of Christmas play with children, or some modern mega-church iteration of Christmas drama, the lonely holy family, gathered in a stable attended only by cows and sheep, visited by shepherds later in the evening.
The scene fits a certain narrative, created by years of tradition: heartless innkeepers putting out “No Vacancy” signs, eventually one relenting enough to offer a dirty stable floor to a woman who’s going into labor on the back of donkey.
Too bad it’s not actually what the Bible says.
The traditional translation of Luke 2: 6-7 says, “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (NKJV)
The word translated “inn” in the King James Version is kataluma, which Luke uses only one other time, where it is used to describe the room where Jesus and his disciples had the last supper: a guest room for meals or entertaining. There are better and more accurate Greek words for a public inn, Luke uses them when appropriate (in the story of the Good Samaritan, for example). So the word “inn” (with the idea of the local Motel 6) is, more and more scholars say, inaccurate. (An excellent article on this topic is here, another is here.)
A more accurate rendering of the word is found in the NIV and other more recent translations:
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room (kataluma) available for them.” (Luke 2:6-7, NIV)
Also, the idea “while they were there” conveys that Mary did not go into labor during the trip to Bethlehem, but she and Joseph had probably been there for a longer time, and eventually, while they were there, the time came for Jesus to be born.
So the picture of Mary and Joseph wandering the streets of Bethlehem seeking shelter as she’s about to give birth is simply not accurate. Nor is the idea of Joseph delivering a baby in a barn.
In Bethlehem at that time (and other towns nearby) most people lived in a small house with one room for the family (where they ate, slept, and lived), and a second room for guests. Most houses also had an area where the animals were kept at night. (See this related article)
There were no hotels or even B&B’s as we know them. Inns were often places of ill repute. Culturally, it was normal to offer hospitality to strangers and certainly to family. So Joseph, whose family was from Bethlehem, showed up at the door of his relatives. And they welcomed him in—but he and Mary would need to stay in the family room because the guest room was already occupied. And as was common in that culture, the family animals were brought into an adjacent room for the night, keeping them safe and also adding warmth to the house. Their manager, a stone feeding trough, typically stood between the area for the animals and family‘s one-room living quarters. (For illustrations and more detailed explanation, see this excellent article by Ian Paul.)
Mary, a first-time mom who was likely a teenager, gives birth not alone in a barn, but surrounded by the family she’s recently married into, in their home. Women who’d likely delivered plenty of other babies were there to hold her hand and wipe her brow. Jesus was born in a house, his birth attended by female aunts and cousins. He probably came into our world in a warm, welcoming, if somewhat crowded extended family home—not a drafty stable. The “manger” was not a rickety wooden crib we see in “nativity scenes” but a stone trough that would be a safe and protective place to put a baby who was swaddled.
The story of Jesus’ birth, like much of our reading of Scripture, has been colored by our assumptions, by traditions, by art (think medieval paintings of the Nativity that include doe-eyed cows gazing calmly at the Christ child.)Our reading of Luke, and many other passages, feel like it’s influenced by a shame narrative, that tells us Mary and Joseph were embarrassed by the circumstances of his birth, that they were outcast, not welcomed.
But we put that on the text, when it’s not there. More likely, Joseph’s family were God-fearing people who knew their moral and religious obligation to offer hospitality, no matter what. The cows may have been nearby, but Jesus first cry was likely heard by an overjoyed group of Jewish family members who delighted to see a healthy newborn boy, the sign of God’s blessing.
This year, perhaps your house is crowded, and offering hospitality is inconvenient, messy, even difficult.
At Christmas, we, like Jesus’ extended family, are called to offer hospitality even when our guest room is full. Maybe you’re the one staying at a home other than your own. Like Jesus, you’re on the pull-out sofa in the family room. Even if you’re not hosting Christmas, you can choose to welcome all who gather around the table or the living room with you.
The idea of Jesus in a house instead of a stable is new to me—and the picture captures my imagination. I’m seeing the story fresh and different: Jesus is not out in the back shed, he’s in the house. He’s in the middle of a messy family who may have a variety of opinions about his being there, but who set those aside to welcome him to the world. His birth is attended not just by Joseph, but by a group of women, reassuring and helping Mary.
How often do I compartmentalize my faith, putting it out in the shed, separate from my real life? Jesus came into the midst of a family, into a crowded home full of relatives.
Tonight, as you gather with a crowd of relatives, or even a small group of friends, welcome them as you would Jesus. As Jesus’ earthly family welcomed him.
Another couple of excellent articles on this topic: http://www.reformedtheology.ca/luke2a.htm