29 December 2012

Was Jesus really born in a stable?

by Dr Philip Church

The traditional Christmas story, played out in numerous nativity pageants around the world every year has Joseph and a highly pregnant Mary knocking on doors in Bethlehem, being turned away from every place, and ending up in a stable where Jesus is born. When I looked at the text again this year that picture did not seem quite right. Luke 2:4-7 explains,

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The text explains how Joseph, a descendant of David took his pregnant fiancée Mary to his ancestral town to be enrolled in a census. It seems to me that a member of such a significant family would surely have found a place to stay in the home of a relative rather than looking for an inn, especially if Middle Eastern hospitality then was the same as it is now. Today, to visit someone in their home is to honour them greatly. Surely Joseph would not snub his family and look for an inn! Then another look at v. 7 got me thinking. The lack of space for them in the “inn” explains why Jesus is placed in an animal feeding trough. It says nothing about where they were when Mary gave birth.

The word usually translated “inn” in Luke 2:7 is kataluma, a word Luke uses one other time, in 22:11. Certainly the sense is of a temporary dwelling place, but “inn” is not appropriate in Luke 22:11, where Jesus is looking for a “guest room” to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. Perhaps “guest room” in a relative’s house is more appropriate in Luke 2:7.

Luke has another inn in his Gospel, the one where the so-called Good Samaritan left the man he had rescued. And there he uses an entirely different word for inn, a pandocheian. This is where a traveller could find a temporary dwelling, the ancient equivalent of a motel. It seems to me more likely that Joseph and Mary were staying with a family member, and were settled in the guest area when Mary gave birth.

But what about the manger? Maybe the guest area was small, with no space for a bassinet. Maybe the family had no bassinet at all. But a bit of Palestinian ingenuity came to the rescue. What about the feeding trough in the animal shelter? According to John Nolland in his commentary on Luke we are perhaps supposed to think of

an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living-quarters only by the raised platform floor of the latter). The manger could be free-standing in the stall or attached to the wall … [the] kataluma will, then, refer to the living quarters provided by a single-roomed Palestinian home in which hospitality has been extended to Mary and Joseph (pp. 105-6).

It is unlikely that Joseph and Mary were turned away from the inn because there was no room, and it is unlikely Jesus was born in a stable where “cattle were lowing.” It is more likely that he was born in the “guest area” of a Palestinian home, and then placed in the feeding trough in the area where the domesticated animals would have been sheltered in the winter months. Since other shepherds were watching their flocks at the time, it was probably not mid-winter, and the animal shelter would probably have been empty, making a suitable space for Mary to care for her son.

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