This is the second in a series looking into the aspects of the nativity story that modern retellings miss. Part I can be found here.
Jesus was not born in a stable. Despite every version, depiction, or retelling of the nativity story saying otherwise, Jesus was not born in a draughty outhouse amongst the oxen and the donkeys. In the second part of this series on the Nativity through fresh eyes, we’ll delve into the reasons to undercut the traditional understanding of the nativity and how this shift brings more colour and significance to the birth of Jesus.
The first reason to think Jesus was not born in a stable comes from the study of the New Testament in its original language, Koine Greek. All renditions of the nativity in school plays typically involve Mary and Joseph traipsing around Bethlehem being met with ‘no vacancies’ signs at every Bed & Breakfast they came to. However, one kindly innkeeper cleared out some room in his stable and let the couple stay there ‘because there was no place for them in the inn.’ The word ‘inn’ in Koine Greek is kataluma which can mean inn but is more often used to refer to a spare room or guestroom in a private home. Luke uses the same word to refer to the upper room where Jesus and his disciples share the last supper. Luke clearly uses kataluma to refer to a reception room in a home.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan found later in Luke’s Gospel, the Samaritan pays for the wounded man to stay in an inn. Interestingly, Luke uses a different Greek word to refer to this inn – pandocheion, clearly a place where anyone could stay providing they had the financial means to do so. From studying the Greek, we can see that Mary and Joseph didn’t arrive in Bethlehem and find themselves turned away from successive inns but were told there was no room in the guestroom of the house they visited.
The second reason to think Jesus was not born in a stable is socio-historical and corroborates the study of the Greek. In first-century Palestine (and indeed in many non-Western cultures to this very day) it would have been unthinkable that Joseph, on arriving to the place where his ancestors come from, would not have been welcomed in by family members. Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar with four decades of teaching experience in the Middle East notes:
‘Even if he has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?” If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honor-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.
Even if they could find no family to stay with, it is even less imaginable to picture situation where a young woman, about to give birth, arrives in a village and receives no help or assistance from the local women she finds there. Bailey again:
‘The idea that a woman about to give birth cannot find shelter and assistance from the village women in a Middle Eastern village, even if she is a total stranger, staggers the imagination.’
This understanding of the cultural background behind the nativity story supports the idea that Mary and Joseph did not seek lodging in an inn but the guestroom of a private home. Famously, however, this guestroom was full, probably with relatives who had arrived earlier. Where would the couple stay then? The design of Palestinian homes happily fills in the blanks.
Most families would have lived in a single-roomed house with a lowered compartment for their animals; the living area containing small depressions filled with hay from which the animals could be fed (i.e. mangers). Bailey helps us with a diagram:
Mary and Joseph would have stayed with the family in the main room of the house, the hay-filled depressions being the most natural place to lay the baby Jesus. To think that Jesus born in a wooden barn, away from others, alone and outcast makes no sense of the linguistic or cultural data.
The message of Christmas is that, in Jesus, God became one of us. He came to be what we are. Being born alone in a stable adds distance between Jesus and us. Looking again at the nativity story, we do not see a particularly unique birth, but find a baby born in a normal (if crowded) home. God arrives in the middle of busy family life. He cannot be ignored; his very arrival demands our attention.