Yes I’m talking about that cute and heart warming scene of nativity. The popular image goes like this:
Joseph and Mary travel a very long distance and they arrive at Bethlehem and right on that same night, Mary goes into labor. Joseph looks for a bed and breakfast, which is usually said to be the inn. But alas, there is no place in the inn and they get simply rejected. So the closest thing they were able to find was a barn looking place with a bunch of animals in it. And there the Savior of the world was born. A great picture, the lowliest starts for the highest being in the universe. But where do we get this picture from? From Matthew and Luke or from another source? I believe the answer is the latter.
The theory that Jesus was born on the night that Joseph and Mary arrived at Bethlehem comes from a pseudepigraphal document called the Protevangelium of James. It contains not only the birth of Jesus but also the birth of Mary and how Mary remained virgin even after the birth of Jesus. The content of the nativity scene according to this document can be found here:
This theory doesn’t hold much water for several reasons. First, a few months prior to the birth of Jesus Mary had visited her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea and Bethlehem is located in the center of Judea. So they were not all that far from the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. If Mary was very close to her labor, Joseph would certainly have thought of taking Mary to Elizabeth’s house. But they didn’t go there Why? Luke 2:4 says that while they were in Bethlehem the time came for her to give birth. This suggests that they had some time in Bethlehem before Jesus was born and they had enough time to visit their relatives and stay wit them until Mary gave birth.However, instead of doing so, they chose to stay with another host family. I think this theory sounds more likely to be true than the traditional picture which almost suggests that Joseph and Mary were not really reasonable parents. And another thing to consider is that if you know that you’re pregnant with the Son of God, you’re probably not going to wander around and happen to be giving birth in a barn. I believe that Joseph and Mary trusted in the sovereignty of God but I highly doubt that they were hyper-Calvinists.
Another point to make is that we are told that Joseph and Mary were on their way to Bethlehem to be registered. This means that Joseph was from Bethlehem and Bethlehem was known as the city of David and the Gospel writers tell us that Joseph was of the line of David. I don’t know about you but if you can trace your lineage back to King David, you could be the Ron Burgundy of the town and say, “I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal”. You’re not just a stranger looking for a bed and breakfast in that town before you hit the road for other outdoor activities. Kenneth Bailey suggests that it was enough for Joseph to simply say, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi” and most homes in town would be open to him.
So what about this laying little baby Jesus into the manger because there was no place for them in the inn? The picture above is there because we are not so familiar with the world in which the Bible was written. First, what’s a manger?
During Jesus’ time a villagers house consisted of three parts. The guest room, family living room and another section that is a few feet lower and blocked off with heavy timbers and in this section, the family would put their animals in at night and they would be taken out in the morning. They are taken inside at night because they provide heat during the night and that way they are not prey to thieves lurking around in the dark. The mangers are dug out of the lower end of the living room so if the family cow is hungry during the night, she can stand up and eat from mangers cut out of the floor of the living room. Unlike the traditional picture, a manger in a Middle Eastern house was not an animal barn.
What about this inn that refused service to Joseph and Marry. Has the inn-keeper lost all hopes of salvation because he didn’t have a place for Joseph and Marry?
Not quite. The word that Luke uses for inn is kataluma This word does not mean “inn” but a guest room. In Luke 22:11, the verse reads: The Teacher says to you, where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples. Here Luke uses the same Greek word for “the guest room”. If we believe that Jesus was denied entry in an hotel, then we would also have to say that he had the Last Supper with his disciples in a hotel room.
Luke did really know the difference between an inn in the traditional sense and a guest room and we find this usage (traditional inn picture) in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the Samaritan brings this wounded person to an inn and takes care of him and Luke here uses the Greek word pandocheion. As I discovered this, I also discovered where the Turkish word for inn came from. It’s Pansiyon which means a small hotel. If Luke intended us to understand this place of rejection as a proper inn he would have used pandocheion and not kataluma.
So what does all this mean? It means that Joseph and Mary were in a normal house but the guest room had already been occupied for them to use. As a result, Mary gave birth in the family living room and then placed Jesus in a manger.
A significant support for this theory comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 2, verse 11 Matthew reports that the Magi (wise men) entered the house, and they saw the child with Mary. Matthew does not suggest that the wise men entered into a stable or a barn looking place with bunch of lambs, oxen and other animals bowing down before the little baby.And again, our texts do not say anything about how many were the wise men nor they say anything about them being Kings. The word used for them basically means magician, wise man and priest, who was expert in astrology, interpretation of dreams and various other occult arts (BDAG)
Here’s my 5 year old skills in drawing the nativity scene. Please click on the picture if it’s too small.
In the end, does it matter at all? Not really. Thankfully our traditions about the nativity scene are not so far fetched but it should make us to think about not taking everything we know for granted as if they came directly from the Bible. Bailey’s remarks are worth quoting in full.
“A diamond ring is admired and worn with pride, but with the passing of time, it needs to be taken to a jeweler to be cleansed to restore its original brilliance. The more the ring is worn, the greater the need for occasional cleaning. The more familiar we are with the biblical story, the more difficult it is to view it outside of the way it has always been understood. And the longer imprecision in the tradition remains unchallenged, the deeper it becomes imbedded in Christian consciousness.”
The glory of incarnation is not taken away when we know this actual background to the birth of Jesus. If we find the glory of humility in a barn, we are looking at the wrong place. History is full of other birth narratives of important people who were born in conditions way worse than Jesus. It is not what makes him unique and glorious but something else and that is what I will be talking about in the next post.
Works : Kenneth Bailey, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7,” Theological Review 2- 33-44
Alfred Plummer, International Critical Commentary, Gospel According to Saint Luke
Kenneth Bailey : Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.