A closer look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth paints a somewhat different picture than the traditions that have grown up around it. To begin, let’s look at where Jesus was born and the accommodations Mary and Joseph were able to find. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem because Joseph was from the royal line of King David, and it was required that he return to his ancestral home for the census which was taking place. Bethlehem, a small village, most likely had numerous people visiting for the census, meaning that most of the accommodations were full.
The general understanding today is that Joseph and Mary went to the local commercial inn where travelers would lodge, and because it was full, they were turned away. The fact that the village of Bethlehem was not on one of the main roads makes it somewhat unlikely that it had a commercial inn. The Greek word that Luke uses, which is translated as inn, is katalyma, which is used three times in the New Testament. The two other times it’s translated as guest room.1 When Luke wrote about the good Samaritan who took the man who had been left for dead to the commercial inn, he used the Greek word pandocheion.2 Most likely he was saying that there was no space in the guest room rather than no room in the inn.
Peasant village homes in Palestine in the first century consisted of two rooms—the main room in which the family cooked, ate, and slept, and the separate guest room, which was a room either attached to the end of the house with a separate entrance or built on top of the main house.
The main room of the house also included a place for the animals, which was either a few steps lower than the floor of the main room or separated from the main floor by some heavy beams. People who lived in villages in those days sheltered the animals overnight within their houses both to avoid theft and to help warm the house. They would bring the livestock inside each evening, and first thing in the morning would take them outside.3
The first-century readers of Luke’s Gospel would most likely have understood that Joseph had to take his pregnant wife to Bethlehem as required because of the census. As someone from the lineage of David, Joseph and Mary would have been welcomed by those in the village. Joseph likely would have had relatives or friends there, but even if he didn’t, because he was of Davidic descent, he would have been shown whatever hospitality could be given, especially because Mary was pregnant. For the people of the city of David to turn away a descendant of David with a pregnant wife would have brought the village shame.
In normal circumstances they would have been given a guest room in someone’s home to stay in. However, due to the census, many others were required to be there as well, so there were no guest rooms available in the private homes in the village. In keeping with the hospitality of the village, which was customary for any Jewish village at that time, Joseph and Mary were brought in to someone’s main living space, probably that of a relative or friend, and while they were there, her pregnancy came to full term and Mary gave birth to Jesus.
After the birth, the baby was wrapped in strips of cloth, as was the way of the poor in that day, and laid in a manger—meaning either in the feeding trough dug into the floor of the main room near where the animals were kept, or in a wooden manger, the type used by smaller animals, which would have presumably been moved out of the stable area and into the main room of the house.
This understanding of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth is in alignment with the Jewish culture of the time. So, where did some of the traditional interpretations of the Christmas story come from? A number came from an early writing from around AD 200, called the Protoevangelium of St. James. Scholars have determined that the writer wasn’t the apostle James, wasn’t Jewish, and didn’t understand Palestinian geography or Jewish traditions. It tells the story of Mary’s birth and life, and carries on into the birth of Jesus.
It’s from this story that people got the idea that Mary started labor the night she got to Bethlehem, that Jesus was born in a cave, that Mary was alone in childbirth, that Joseph was an old man who already had sons, and that Mary was not only a virgin before Jesus was born but that she remained a virgin all her life. Some of these concepts have worked their way into the traditional stories in the Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox beliefs.
Of course, whether Jesus was born in a cave, an animal stall, or a village home isn’t crucial and certainly isn’t worth debating. What is crucial is that He was born, that He died for the sins of the world, and that everyone has the chance to hear about it. We know Jesus because at some point in our lives someone told us about Him. We’ve been so blessed because of it.
Jesus has asked us to share what we have received with others. That is His commission to us. He asks us to sow the seed in others’ lives, or to water it, or to reap the results, depending on the person. He asks us as His followers to show His love and tell others about Him, to introduce Him to those who haven’t yet met Him.
He will guide you as to what method to use, depending on those He’s leading you to, as each person is different and has different needs. But all people need Him. They need His love, peace, and salvation. We each have the means to bring Him and His love into the lives of others, so let’s do what we can, shall we?
For more writings by Peter Amsterdam, visit Directors Corner.