I was at church this morning and we talked about the great birth story of Jesus in Luke 2, just like thousands of other churches across our country probably did today. But is the story most of us believe and have been told true?
I would say no, it is not.
Often we hear a story so long we kind of just read it into the text and assume that is what it says when upon closer inspection and understanding of its cultural context it really does not. New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who has spent the majority of his life living and teaching the Bible in the Arab world has a wonderful chapter in his great new book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, that illuminates what Jesus’ birth actually did look like.
Here are a few points that Baily Makes.
1. Joseph was returning to the city where he grew up and had many family members. Joseph could have easily found a family member or close family friend to oblige for hospitality. In a culture in which one would invoke their family name and line to receive favor from others, it is unfathomable to think Joseph in his home town would need to seek commercial lodging.
2. Joseph was a “royal.” He was from the family of King David which would have been famous in the town of Bethlehem. Being from a famous family Joseph could have called on even a stranger for hospitality.
3. In every culture, (even our autonomous one) a woman about to give birth is given great priority and attention. While it makes for a good story to think of a desperate Joseph dragging laboring Mary all around town seeking lodging, this does not mesh at all with a culture of great hospitality and care where anyone who would turn away a pregnant woman would be greatly dishonored.
4. Mary’s relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth who she had visited while pregnant with Jesus were nearby. The house of Zechariah was in “the hill country of Judea” which is within short distance of Bethlehem. If Joseph and Mary were that desperate for lodging they could have easily went and stayed with their close family members Zechariah and Mary.
5. The Shepherds who were told by the angel of Jesus’ birth and came to visit celebrated and praised God for the birth of the Messiah. In this culture part of the celebrating meant that basic needs had been met. The shepherds would not have come and visited the baby Jesus and celebrated if they found Joseph and Mary in a cold barn. No. They would have insisted they come with them to their homes so their wives could care for Mary and the baby.
So what about the Luke 2:7 which tells us “there was no room at the inn?” Surely this proves that Joseph was on Expedia frantically trying to find a room for his wife and soon to be born baby. Not exactly. The Greek word for commercial inn is pandocheion, this is the term used in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the wounded man is taken to a commercial inn to be cared for. The word used in Luke 2:7 is actually katalyma which simply means “a place to stay.” If Luke had wanted his audience to believe that Joseph and Mary had tried to go to a commercial inn he would have used the word pandocheion. The word Katalyma here means “guest room” and is used in this very manner in Luke 22 in talk of the upper room that Jesus would gather in with his disciples for the last supper.
Are you still with me?
Last we need to understand the word manger, because when we hear it we think of a barn, stable. But in Jesus’ time most people lived in simple two room homes, and in one of those rooms was where your animals would live. It would be outrageous to think a typical Jewish family could afford both a barn and a home, they were one and the same. There were pragmatic reasons for this as well. 1. Animals provided heat to a home especially in cold winter months, basically they were like space heaters. 2. Keeping your animals in the home reduced the likelihood they would be stolen by thieves. All of this to say that when the passage says “manger” it is only saying that Jesus was born in the part of the house were the animals were, possibly because it was the warmest and the house also has other guests.
Why does all of this matter? Because the Bible is historical, and as Christians who live our lives in light of the Bible being true and historically reliable we should always strive to understand it as clearly as possible and live in light of its truths.
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