There’s a lot that the bible doesn’t say and there’s a reason for that. A biblical author doesn’t say to himself “Oh I better explain this idea in depth to my audience”. He doesn’t need to because he’s so confident that his audience are simply going to be so familiar with his idea already that he doesn’t need to explain it to them. After all his audience are living in the same culture, have the same worldview as him so they’ll understand exactly what’s being said.
But thousands of years later when we read the same passage through our western worldview, we have no idea, because there isn’t a clear explanation in the passage. We read those same verses and we miss things as we were not living back in those days. We just don’t grasp what the author really wanted to put across and instead we make up what we think the passage actually means.
The Christmas story is a great example of this.
We’ve all been to school nativity plays and watched our kids act out parts as Mary, Joseph, a shepherd or a wise man and accepted the ‘traditional’ interpretation of the biblical narrative. But what if I told you that the traditional story is not even the truth. What if I told you that to question the ‘traditional’ interpretation even ended up as a trial at the Spanish inquisition!
We read that story every year. We are just so familiar with it … but has the familiarity of the traditional story actually hidden the truth?
They Arrive In Plenty of Time Before the Birth
Tradition tells us that Mary gave birth the night she arrived in Bethlehem – but that’s not what Luke tells us.
Luke 2: 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son;
Luke tells us that Mary had plenty of time to prepare as she had been staying in Bethlehem for some time prior to the birth.
There Was No Room At The Inn
There is no public inn and no inn keeper in Bethlehem and you’ll never find them mentioned in the bible narrative!
When we think of the word inn we think of something very different to what Luke was thinking of. With our western mindset, when we see the word inn used in a text we automatically think of a public inn or motel. Then we give that poor heartless innkeeper a hard time in our nativity plays and sermons for turning them away.
If Luke wanted to show that Joseph had been looking for accommodation at a public commercial inn he would have used the same Greek word he uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke knows exactly what a public commercial inn is, as he uses the Greek word – pandokheion in that parable, as that inn is a place of shelter for strangers.
“on his own animal, brought him to an inn (pandokheion – public inn), and took care of him.”
But Luke didn’t use the word that means a public inn for strangers when he tells us about Joseph and Mary. He uses the Greek word Kataluma which means something very different indeed. The Greek word he used means ‘a place to loosen’, ‘a place to rest’, ‘untie sandals’, ‘wind down’, ‘relax’. It described a separate guest room, usually on the roof of a middle eastern house i.e an upper room where family relatives and guests would rest from their journey.
“And she brought forth her son—the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber .” ~ Youngs Literal version
Luke hasn’t made a mistake as he uses that word again later in chapter 22:11 when he records details about the Last Supper in the upper room …
“Then you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “ ‘Where is the guest room /upper room (kataluma) where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?
Luke didn’t need to explain things in much detail because his original audience knew exactly what he meant.
Middle Eastern Hospitality
The birth of Jesus is not about an innkeeper and the inhabitants of Bethlehem having no room for Jesus. Bethlehem was also known as the City of David as David came from Bethlehem. It would have been simply unthinkable for anyone in Bethlehem to refuse to give accommodation to a descendant of King David, as Joseph was a direct descendant through Solomon.
Joseph and Mary would have been received with open arms and their arrival would have been celebrated as was customary in the middle east. As guests they would have been anointed with oil and they would have had their feet washed and officially welcomed. But even if the unthinkable happened and they had found no where to stay, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth lived about 5 miles from Bethlehem in Ein Kerem. She knew when Mary was due to give birth as Mary had spent lots of time with her earlier in her pregnancy. Elizabeth would have made sure that when they arrived at Bethlehem they would have had somewhere to stay. Or they could have stayed at her house with Zechariah and their own baby, John the Baptist.
Hospitality was so important in that culture.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares ~ Heb 13:2
Use hospitality one to another without grudging. ~ 1Peter 4:9
For Joseph to decide not to stay with his relatives would have been a great insult to them. Quite simply the narrative reveals that when Joseph and Mary arrived at his relatives home he found that there was just no room in the guest quarter/upper room. His relatives wouldn’t have asked their other guests to leave the guest quarter, so they brought Mary and Joseph into their own living quarters on the ground floor instead.
This ground floor living area was one large room, but built on two separate levels. The family lived and slept on the raised level. The lower level was where the family kept their treasured oxen, mule, donkey, goats, tied up at night to keep them safe.
Animals were very valuable and they wouldn’t have been left outdoors during the night. Having the animals indoors at night time kept the whole ground floor warm. Then in the morning the animals would be untied and brought outdoors, while the lower area was cleaned. Any animal droppings would be collected and moulded into ‘cakes’ with added straw, then left to dry in the sun so that they could be used as fuel to heat their oven.
In Judges 11 we read about Jephthah. He made a vow to sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever came out of the door of his house to greet him. He expected it to be one of his animals but alas it was his only daughter and he was horrified.
The Manger was in the living room
The manger was a feeding trough that could be found in all middle eastern ground floor living areas. It was built into the edge of the upper level of the ground floor so that when the animals stood up they could reach up and feed from the manger. Simple homes like this can still be seen today in the Middle East.
It Wasn’t a Silent Night
It was not a silent night when Jesus was born. In fact in that culture the men waited outside the house as the women assisted with the birth indoors. Then as soon as one of the women announced that a son was born, even more so a first born son, the celebrations with music and drums would begin outside with extended family.
When the Shepherds arrived they found Jesus lying in the manger in the family living area with the animals on the lower level of the same room. If those shepherds had thought that a baby had been born in a lonely, draughty stable outside of the village they’d have taken the new family to one of their own homes such was the hospitality and culture in biblical times.
So how did we get our skewed traditional version of the nativity?
The traditional story we all know and love so well has been with us for centuries thanks to the very popular story written in the Protevangelium of James which was written around 145AD. You can read it here.
This is a prime example of where tradition has usurped the biblical truth.
Trial at the Spanish Inquisition
In 1584 Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas was reported to the Spanish Inquisition for criticising the traditional story of the nativity. He had complained about a painting of the stable scene to his students and one of them reported it to the authorities. Brozas said that Jesus was not born in a stable, that Joseph and Mary had not been refused accommodation by an inn keeper but that she gave birth in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives. He didn’t receive the death penalty but was reprimanded for daring to go ‘against tradition’ and the details of the trial are held on record to this day.
Truth Versus Tradition
I personally think that religious piety encouraged the traditional story of having Jesus born somewhere secluded, away from all human eyes and the so called miraculous way in which the virgin Mary gave birth by herself. It was a mystery, something too holy and sacred for others to witness or to even think about for too long.
They just couldn’t accept that Mary gave birth the same way other women gave birth. Giving birth was not a taboo in those days and the village midwife would have been there with all the women of the household giving help, encouragement and support as there would have been no such thing as pain relief. There would have been a great family celebration after the birth and the shepherds would have been part of that.
When we read the story of Jesus’s birth through the cultural middle eastern lens it is revealed in all its beauty. We don’t see a baby that has been rejected by an inn keeper and a whole community and forced to be born in a draughty stable outside of the village. But we see God’s son welcomed into this world, surrounded and cared for by loved ones in a family home environment. Even if it wasn’t convenient for Joseph’s relatives, they still extended their hospitality to the betrothed couple, welcomed them with open arms and made them part of their own family. That’s the reality of the Christmas story and far removed from tradition!
It is so important that if we want to fully understand the scriptures we must read them through the same lens of those to whom it was originally written. This is possible today on a level that has been denied to those in the past. The internet has given us access to so much valuable information that was once was only available to academics and serious bible scholars.