Why History Matters
I once heard a well-meaning Christian say something like, “Why study all this history stuff? The Bible says it. I believe, it. That’s the end of it!” But what about this? Reading what “the Bible says” is one thing. Getting “what the Bible means” is another. Case in point:
Most people summarize the Christmas story like this: “Joseph & Mary went to Bethlehem and needed to stay in the inn. Since there was no room in the inn, Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a manger.” Not too far off from how the old 1984 NIV translated Luke 2:7:
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.
But here’s what we miss by skipping out on studying the context of Jesus’ birth:
There was probably no “inn”
The Greek word, kataluma, means “lodging place” and it’s usually translated “upper room” not “inn” (1). It can refer to a room of a house where out of town guests could spend the night or even just a dining room. For example, in Mark 14:14, Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples in an “upper room” (same word used here). This is why the 2010 NIV translates Luke 2:7 like this:
and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
In Luke 10:34, Luke uses another word, “pandocheion,” when he’s talking about a public inn. The thing is, Bethlehem was a tiny little place with just a few hundred people living there. Which is one reason why there was probably no inn.
Bethlehem was tiny
Joseph went to a little town called Bethlehem—his ancestral home—for the census because that’s where his family was from. We hear so much about this place around Christmastime that it’s hard to imagine that Bethlehem didn’t even show up on most ancient maps.
In the 21st century, when we hear “inn,” we think of a hotel, like the Holiday Inn. But the word just means a lodging space or living area. The idea of an “upper room” makes sense because the town was really, really small.
Think of a small town that doesn’t have a hotel because no one goes there; They just pass through. Magalia, California would be a place like that. It’s a town above Paradise, California. At least in Paradise there’s actually a Comfort Inn and grocery stores and stuff. But Magalia’s in the hills, in the middle of nowhere.
Hospitality was huge
Joseph wouldn’t have been turned away from the ancestral home even if there was no room, especially since Mary was pregnant. This would be a big no-no in Jewish culture. If there wasn’t any space in the upper room, Mary probably gave birth in the “garage area,” where people kept their animals.
Also, a manger isn’t a barn. It’s a feeding trough that was sometimes built into the floor. Since there were no Graco Pack N Plays back then, a manger could have functioned as a make-shift crib. Jesus’ manger might have been located in a cave stable under the main part of the house.
See what I mean
I created a floorplan graphic of a typical Palestinian peasant home to show you what I mean. But that’s just one possible layout. I also found a simple illustration via Logos Bible Software and an example of an actual stone manger (discovered in Megiddo) from page 1074 of the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary you might find helpful.
Click on the thumbnail images below and take a closer look.
Outside the Bible, tradition suggests that Jesus was born in a stable or inside a cave. It’s possible that this could have been part of the lower portion of the house.
The Reason for the Season
It might seem like there’s nothing special about a stable, a cave, or whatever the lower part of a house looked like. But that’s an interesting point in all this: Luke and the other gospel writers resisted the temptation to make the physical location of Jesus’ birth better than it really was.
It seems totally unexpected to see the Jewish Messiah born in the dirt and grime of lowly, everyday life. This seems to suggest that Luke’s report was probably not made up by him or invented by the church.
Turns out, studying “all this historical stuff” actually helps us better understand “what the Bible means.” But even if the whole innkeeper shouting “No vacancy!” part of the traditional Christmas story is wrong, we can still confidently celebrate the meaning of Jesus’ birth during this season: The second person of the Trinity, took on a human nature and came to save sinners.