A New View on the Christmas Story
- or, perhaps, considering the original.
We all have a picture in our minds, one enacted in countless nativity plays each year, of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem only to find doors slammed in their face – no room for them in the inn, but a kindly innkeeper offers them the barn around the back. That, or something similar. We have the picture of the baby Jesus arriving in an unwelcoming world, unwelcoming until some shepherds get the angelic SMS text…
But how true is that image if we reread what is actually in our Bibles? Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Let’s look at some of the facts, and consider the situation around them at the time (put them into context).
Luke doesn’t mention any barn, nor even being turned away by an innkeeper.
We are told that Joseph was of royal lineage, able to trace his family tree right back to King David. Just a brief scan through the Bible and you can’t fail to notice how often a new character is introduced by his or her ancestry. There are whole chapters, especially in the OT, devoted to family trees. The modern craze of tracing back your family tree is nothing new – in fact, it’s just catching up with something the Jews were doing with precision and rigour over 2000 years ago. They didn’t have the interweb to help them, of course, but anyone who was somebody could recite his family tree back through centuries. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem for the census, is it likely that nobody there knew him. Sure, a lot of folk would have similar claims of royal lineage, but family connections were very strong in those days and Joseph would have had relatives in the town. Hospitality was crucial to good standing – is it likely he would have been turned away?
And if nobody in Bethlehem had room, what about Mary’s family? Just months earlier, Mary had gone to stay with Elizabeth for three months, not that far from Bethlehem. If there really had been no room, is it likely that Joseph wouldn’t have taken Mary across to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah?
Taken with v6 “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born” – Luke tells us they were already in Bethlehem when Mary’s labour started, so they must have had somewhere to stay.
So let’s turn to the manger. A manger is where you put hay for animals and you keep animals in a barn. Right? Wrong! In first century Palestine, and across most of the known world then, animals were kept in the house. Sheep may have been kept in folds in the hills, watched over by shepherds, but the more valuable animals like cows and donkeys were kept safely in the house. They helped provide warmth – additional body heat on cold nights. Where better to have the family cow when you want to milk it early morning?
Archaeologists excavating ruins of the time, working with historians, anthropologists and probably a lot of other “ologists” too, show the houses as having living and sleeping quarters upstairs and a daytime space downstairs where the animals could be kept safe overnight.
So the manger would have been downstairs in the house – warm and secure and not round the back in a draughty barn.
So far, so good, but we need to think about the last part of v7 “because there was no room for them in the inn”. How does no room at the inn fit in with this?
We need to look at some ancient Greek for a moment – don’t worry, though, just three words: kataluma, pandocheion and topos.
The first word, kataluma, is the word traditionally translated as “inn”. Luke uses it in one other place in his Gospel, in 22:11, in the preparations for the last supper, where our modern Bible has it translated as “upper room” (“large upper room” in some of the latest versions). When Luke relates the parable of the Good Samaritan, he has another word for “inn” – pandocheion. I’ve no idea why the original translators of the Bible chose “inn” for the nativity story but I reckon Luke, an educated doctor, would have been consistent in his vocabulary. I think he’s telling us that there was no privacy for Mary to give birth in the upstairs guest room. If Bethlehem was full, it’s unlikely Joseph and Mary were the only guests staying there.
I gave you three Greek words, I suppose I could check who’s paying attention and ask somebody to tell me what the third one was, but I won’t; after all, it’s Christmas. Topos can be translated as “room” or “place”, even “region” or “country” – the overall idea is that it is a place marked off or separate (once you get into the Greek you realise it’s not quite as simple as you may first have thought). As I said above, no privacy in the guest room.
So space was made for her downstairs, still in the house, still in a safe and secure place. Nor was Mary likely to have been alone for the birth, for childbirth was a community event then.
If this is right, and I confess these arguments aren’t all mine – the initial idea came from a Bible study magazine article last year – then the nativity story is not one of rejection and being born in a cold and bare stable. Rather, it could be quite the opposite, that God has His Son born into the world surrounded by family – not just His close family but the much wider one. It’s become a story of inclusion rather than exclusion, an example for all of us and the start of Jesus’ mission. Bring in the shepherds and wise men and we have a baby surrounded not just by His biological, albeit extended, family, but also by those related to Him spiritually and morally.
The grown up Jesus was the man who taught us how to truly live; He preached inclusion, acceptance of people for who they are, not judging people by their past but looking to their future.
Could one of the first and greatest lessons from Christmas be that God wants us all to be part of His family?