The traditional Christmas story as believed by most Christians goes something like this: Mary and Joseph were traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem shortly before the birth of Jesus, our promised messiah.
The night they arrived in Bethlehem there were no rooms available in the local inns, and so Joseph and Mary had to make a place for themselves in a local stable, where Mary gave birth to Jesus and then laid him in a manger with the livestock.
The Christmas story most people are familiar with is not a pretty one. It paints a cold and selfish picture of the people of Bethlehem.
Most people of every age and culture go out of their way to help women in need, but the people of Bethlehem turned away this young woman about to give birth. Is that really the picture of the birth of Christ that the Word of God is telling us?
We will see there is a joyful picture of giving in the Christmas story that is actually written in the scriptures and how it shows the true heart of Christmas: Giving to others from a joyful heart.
The modern Christian understanding of the birth of Jesus comes largely from non-biblical works and pagan traditions merged with the Gospels, rather than the biblical record itself. Sadly, in ancient times as well as today, people seem to pay more attention to what pagans and other non-Christians people say about the Bible rather than what the Bible itself says.
Joseph and Mary's Arrival in Bethlehem
When we read the Bible carefully, even in most English versions, we see that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for an unspecified number of days before Mary gave birth.
Luke 2:6 (KJV)
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
In Luke 2:6 we see that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the night she gave birth, but rather many days earlier. Mary gave birth “while they [she and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem],” and the verse specifically says “days.” When the word “days” is used in the plural in the New Testament, it always refers to “days” literally or a period of time. Had Joseph and Mary arrived the day Mary gave birth, the text would have used “day” or “hours,” not the plural “days.”
- If Joseph and Mary had been staying in Bethlehem before Jesus was born, how is it that they had not found adequate lodging?
- Why give birth in a stable and lay Jesus in a manger? Oops, the Bible never says the birth was in a stable - that is tradition.
- If for some reason Bethlehem was so totally filled with guests and visitors that no one would open their homes to Joseph and Mary, their relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth lived only a short distance away, in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39), and Joseph and Mary could have gone there with only a little effort. In fact, Mary had visited Elizabeth early in her pregnancy (Luke 1:40). So Joseph and Mary could have found adequate housing and care if they needed it.
Getting the Story Straight
The story of the night of Christ’s birth must be known as it is recorded in scripture, not only because the truth matters and what actually happened is important, but because it shows the love and sacrifice that people make to help each other, and the true joy of giving so that others may be blessed.
That is a much more loving rendition of the Christmas story than townspeople closing their hearts, shutting their doors and coldly tuning a way a young pregnant woman in need.
In order to better understand the fulness of the scriptures and see what really happened at the birth of Christ we will need to research facts from both the Greek text and the culture of the ancient Near East (which, by the way, existed in many parts there until quite recently).
Understanding Common Customs of Bible Times
Too often the Greek text alone has been used to try to reveal biblical truth. The Greek text by itself is not enough to deeply know the truth of the biblical events for a very simple reason: when something in a culture is the usual, well known, every day normal, or “standard operating procedure,” it is not written about in detail... the writer felt no need to eloborate on that which everyone already understands.
For example, if Im telling a friend about a family member I recently visited, I might say, “I drove to my cousin's house the other day.” I would never say: “I went to my cousin's house in my car, which is a mode of transportation that is a large metal and plastic machine on wheels, with a gasoline engine that starts when an ignition key is turned, and I made it move by pedals on the floor, (etc).” It would be ridiculous to say that. Why? Because everyone in today’s culture knows exactly what I mean when I say, “I drove to my cousin's house.”
Perhaps 2000 years from now, if culture has changed so much that only a few historians know what a car is, they might wish that we described our driving in more detail, but that is not necessary today. In the same way, things that were part of the everyday culture of the Bible times were not described in detail in their writings. We have to learn about the ordinary things of ancient life by piecing together details from other texts and writings, by using archaeology to study the material a culture long ago left behind and by studying any cultures that still live the same way.
As we examine the biblical record from both the Greek text and the culture of the times, we will see that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem a few days or so before she gave birth. That they were taken into the home of a local resident, likely a relative who was also of the family of David, in whose home Mary gave birth. Although most English versions have the phrase, “there was no room for them in the inn,” we will see that phrase has been both mistranslated and misinterpreted.
Mary & Joseph Welcomed into a Private Home of Family or Friends
Before we look at the mistranslations of “room” and “inn,” however, let us look at how Joseph and Mary found a good place to stay.
First, Joseph was returning to his home town. Historical memories are long in the Middle East, and family support is very strong.
For example, Paul knew he was a descendant of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5), even though Benjamin lived more than 1500 years earlier than he did. Given the long family memories in Hebrew culture, once Joseph told people that both he and Mary were descendants of families from Bethlehem, many homes would be open to them.
In fact, it is likely that Joseph and Mary already knew of relatives in Bethlehem and may well have gone to those homes first to find lodging. As we see the true story of Christ’s birth develop, that seems like a very strong possibility.
Second, not just one, but both Joseph and Mary were of royal descent, because they were both from the house of David. David is so famous in Bethlehem that it is called, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4 - KJV). Being from that famous family would have meant that most homes would be open to them if only for that one fact alone. Being able to host a couple that was direct descendants of David would have been an honor and privilege.
Third, in Hebrew culture is was common for women about to give birth to be given special help, and the village of Bethlehem would be no different. The New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who has spent his life living in the East and teaching in Universities in Egypt and Lebanon, understands the heart of village life in Palestine and points out that Joseph and Mary would never have been turned away in their hour of need. He says:
“Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the city of David would be an unspeakable shame to the entire village.”
Fourth, the shepherds who came to see Jesus shortly after his birth knew that he was the promised Messiah and their Savior. The angel that appeared to them had made that fact very clear. When they found Joseph, Mary, and their Savior, if they in any way felt that he was not being treated right, they would have been outraged, and immediately taken them home to one of their own houses to care for them in a proper manner. The fact that they did no such thing, but left the new family where they were and went to tell the good news to the whole area, shows they felt Joseph, Mary, and the baby messiah were being well cared for.
It is important that we properly understand the record of the birth of Christ. The night that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem they were not rejected by a local hotel that had its “No Vacancy” sign turned on. Instead, they were taken into the private home of a caring family, who let them stay in the family living quarters. This type of giving and joy of service demonstrates the true meaning of Christmas.
There was No Room in the Inn (No Space in the Guestroom)
Let’s read, properly translate, and correctly understand what happened when Jesus was born.
Luke 2:7 "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." (KJV)
The phrase “no room in the inn” is a mistranslation that continues to support the misunderstanding about the birth of Jesus Christ. Two words we must understand to properly interpret the biblical account are topos, which most versions translate as “room,” and kataluma, which most versions translate as “inn.”
The word topos occurs more than ninety times in the New Testament. It does not refer to “a room,” like we think of a hotel room, or a bedroom, but simply to a place, or a space in a given area. The text is not saying there was no “room” for Joseph and Mary as in the sense of a hotel room, but rather that there was no “space” for them. Space where? Not in the “inn,” but in the kataluma. What is a kataluma? In the Gospel record it is a “lodging place” or “guest room,” not a commercial lodge, or inn. There was no space for Joseph and Mary in the guest room because it was already full.
The normal Greek word for “inn” is pandocheion, and it refers to a public house for the reception of strangers (caravansary, khan, inn; we would say hotel or motel). The word pandocheion was used not only by the Greeks, but also as a loan-word for “inn” or a commercial lodging place in Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and Turkish. Luke uses the word pandocheion in the parable of the Good Samaritan when the Samaritan took the man who was mugged to a public inn (Luke 10:34).
In contrast to the public inn (pandocheion), both Mark and Luke use kataluma in their Gospels as a “guest room” in someone’s house (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). When finding a place to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them to say to the owner of the house, “…The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guest chamber [kataluma], where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11 KJV). So in both Mark and Luke, the kataluma is a guest room in a house, not an inn or hotel.
The gospel of Luke also uses the verb form of kataluma, which is kataluo, “to find rest or lodging.” When Zacchaeus the tax collector brings Jesus home for a meal, the Bible says that Jesus goes “to be the guest” [kataluo] at Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:7). So Luke uses both the noun kataluma and the verb kataluo to refer to a room in someone’s house.
The fact that pandocheion is a better word for “inn” than kataluma, along with the fact that Luke used pandocheion for an “inn” and kataluma for a guest room, is very solid evidence that Luke is telling us the family who took in Joseph and Mary had “no space” in their “guest room.” Thus the Bible should not be translated to say there was no room for them in the inn, but rather there was “no space for them in the guest room.”
It is noteworthy that Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, done by Robert Young, the same man who produced Young’s Concordance to the Bible, translates Luke 2:7 as follows: “…there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.”
One thing that is left out of the biblical record is why the guest room was full. Although we will never know for sure, there are a couple of possibilities. First, if Jesus was born when we at God's Word First International think he was, the first day of Tishri, it is possible that Jerusalem and the surrounding region was already experiencing a large influx of people for the season of the year, because it had the largest number of sacred days and feasts.
The month of Tishri (usually around our September) had the Feast of Trumpets (Tishri 1), the Day of Atonement (Tishri 10), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Tishri 15-22), and anyone who was traveling a very long distance to be at Jerusalem for any of them might have wanted to be there for the entire festival season. Also, Luke tells us the reason that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem was due to the Caesar’s tax registration (Luke 2:1-4), and it is possible that other family members besides Joseph had decided to travel to Bethlehem at that time, when they could both register for the tax and be part of the celebrations in Jerusalem.
Common Features of an Eastern Life
In order to understand the birth of Jesus, there are a few things that we must know about ordinary life in first century Palestine. One is that it was very common for houses in the Middle East to have a guest room where guests, and even strangers, could stay. Showing hospitality to strangers has always been a huge part of Eastern life, and is written about in the Bible and in many books on the customs of the Bible.
Several biblical records show strangers being given hospitality, including the record of Lot (Gen. 19:1-4), the man in Gibeah (Judg. 19:19-21), and the Shunamite woman, who showed hospitality to Elisha by building a guest room just for him (2 Kings 4:10). Giving hospitality is a command for Christian leaders as well (1 Tim. 3:2).
Even poor people had guestrooms. People did not generally sleep on beds, but traveled with their own blankets that they slept on at night, so sleeping arrangements were no problem. Tables and chairs were not used in the common homes of first century Palestinians, and the bathroom was a pot, or a place outside.
So the average guest room was simply a small, empty room, offering shelter and a place of safety. The guest room provided privacy for the guests as well as the family, because one-room homes were common. Our modern houses with many rooms were simply not the norm in a village of the first century. Most often a family lived in a one-room house, in which all family activities occurred. They pulled their bedrolls out at night and slept on the floor, and simply rolled them up again in the morning.
Of course, the Bible does not specify that Joseph and Mary were taken into a one-room house, but even if it were a larger, two-room house Jesus would still have been born in the family room of the house. Single room dwellings were so common, however, that when Jesus taught that a lighted oil lamp (sometimes mistranslated as “candle”) was lit and put on a stand, it would give light “to everyone in the house” (Matt. 5:15).
Another thing we must understand about houses in the East is that it was common for people to bring their animals, such as the family donkey, a couple of milk goats, or a cow or two, into the home at night. Such animals were very valuable, and the people brought them in at night to keep them from being stolen and to protect them from harm. Also, the animals added heat to the house, which would be very welcome on chilly nights.
The woman in Endor who King Saul visited at night had her calf in the house with her: “And the woman had a fat calf in the house” (1 Sam. 28:24, KJV). Of course, if the family were shepherds or herdsmen, they would not bring the whole flock or herd into the house, but would have a family member or hired guard watch them in the field, just as the shepherds were in the field on the night Jesus was born.
It was a common practice to raise the floor of the part of the house where the family lived, and keep the animals in an area that was a little lower. Knowing this helps us understand Luke 2:6 and also where that idea that Jesus was born in a stable came from. Jesus was laid in a manger, which is an open trough, box, or bin, where the animal food was placed so the animals could feed easily.
In Western society, mangers are in barns or stables, so if Jesus was laid in a manger it made sense he was born in a stable. However, in Eastern society, where the animals grazed outside during the day and were brought into the house at night, the manger was in the house. Having the manger in the house kept the animals calm and contented in the tighter quarters of the house, just as many modern farm animals have a feeding trough in their stall stay calm and content.
Everyone knew the manger was in the house, so when the Bible says that Jesus was laid in a manger “because” there was no space in the guest room, any Easterner would understand perfectly that the guest room was full so Jesus was born in the main part of the house where the family and animals stayed.
Sometime after his birth he was safely placed in the manger, which would have been filled with clean hay or straw and would have been the perfect size for him. This was not to demean him in any way, but to care for him. The protective walls of the manger kept him safely guarded and away from busy feet and a bustling household, as well as warm and protected from any drafts or cold air in the home.
Another thing that helps us understand the Christmas story is understanding Eastern hospitality. In the East, guests were given special treatment of all kinds, including behavior that seems very extreme to us. For example, in the record of Lot and the two strangers, Lot would have handed over his own daughters to the mob before surrendering his guests (Gen. 19:8). Similarly, the people with whom Joseph and Mary stayed would never displace their guests from the guest room, but instead would inconvenience themselves, graciously bringing the couple into their living space.
Another thing we need to know is that Mary and Joseph would not have been alone when Jesus was born. Actually, Joseph would not have been there at all, while the women of the household, along with the women of the family staying in the guest room, most likely the village midwife, and perhaps even wise and experienced women from the neighborhood, would have been present. They would have shooed Joseph and the rest of the men out of the house some time during Mary’s labor (actually, the men would have graciously left on their own, which was also standard procedure in that culture). This is all completely normal for birth in a village in Israel.
Someone with a modern Western mindset may say, “Well, the Bible does not say those women were there.” Of course not. We remind the reader that if something was normal for the culture, it was written about only rarely, if ever.
The details of a woman giving birth are never given in the Bible. Is someone going to insist that none of the women in the Bible who are mentioned giving birth (and there are dozens of them) had other women to help them just because those helpers are not specifically mentioned? That would be absurd. No details of the birth would be given in the Bible because births were a “normal” part of life, and no first-century reader in Palestine would expect anything different than what usually happens with a village birth. In fact, if the women of the household had not been there to help, that would have been so unusual (and seemingly coldhearted) that it would probably be written about in the Bible.
While Mary was in labor and giving birth in the house, the man who owned the house, along with his sons and Joseph, would have been outside or perhaps in the home of a neighbor, giving Mary the privacy she needed during the birth of Jesus. Once Jesus was born, a woman would announce that a baby boy had been born, and there would be shouting, music, and joyful partying. Of course the men would be allowed back in the house after there had been adequate time after the birth to get things back in proper order and make sure Jesus and Mary were comfortable. Thus baby Jesus would have been born in normal circumstances, with Mary being helped and cared for by the women around her while the men waited outside to hear the news of the birth.
The Real Christmas Story: Here's What Most Likely Happened
So we see that the way the birth of Jesus actually happened is considerably different than what is commonly taught. It is not that Bethlehem was full of cold-hearted townspeople who would not take special care of a young woman about to have her first child.
Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem at least a few days before Mary gave birth, and were taken in by one of the local homes, most likely that of a relative. The host family already had guests in the kataluma, the guest room, so there was no space (topos) for them there. Therefore, the homeowners graciously made room for Joseph and Mary in their own living quarters, treating them like family.
When Mary went into labor, the men left their own home to give her privacy, and the women of the household, likely along with the village midwife, came to Mary’s side for help and support. When Mary gave birth to Jesus in the early evening (a short time after sunset), Joseph and the men would have been told the news, and there would have been much jubilation and revelry, which was always a traditional part of the birth of a baby boy, particularly if it was a first child. Sometime later the men would have been called back into the house to see the new baby boy.
Not too long after Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, dedicated to God, and placed in a perfect spot, the manger in the family home, which would have been cleaned and made up with fresh hay or straw. No doubt the news soon spread around the village that a baby boy had been born (the music and shouting would have helped that happen), and that both the mother and baby were doing well, but this kind of news was common in village life.
However, soon there was news that was anything but common. Shepherds showed up from a nearby field to see the newborn child, and after seeing him, went out and told the village that a great light had shined around them, that they had seen an army of angels on the hillsides, and that an angel had told them that this baby was no ordinary baby, but the Messiah, the Savior. Their report caused great wonder all over the region, and resulted in glory and praise to God.
The story of the birth of Christ reveals what we today consider to be the true spirit of Christmas. Not people closing their hearts and homes to a couple in need, but rather people opening both their hearts and their homes, and joyfully giving to others in need and helping where they can. It is wonderful that the Christ, who gave so much to so many, was born in circumstances in which people were so giving to him.
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