Merry Christmas Everyone!
The Christmas Story, it’s one of those stories we all know. Even people who have never been to church know it, it’s acted out (albeit with some strange additions) up and down the country by millions of children in thousands of primary schools as we come up to Jesus’ birthday, the 25th December. And even if these nativities involve trains, or lobsters, or cap wearing rap artists (all of which I’ve seen) the core story stays the same, doesn’t it?
Mary is visited by an angel and told she will give birth to a son and call him Jesus. Mary and Joseph, because of a census, set off to travel hundred’s of miles to Bethlehem, riding on a donkey and arrive in a very full Bethlehem. Mary, about to give birth, is desperate for a place to stay and so they go and call on all the different inns, only to be told that there’s no room. Eventually one inn keeper takes pity on them and offers them a place in his stable round the back. As soon as they get there Mary goes into labour (admittedly this bit doesn’t make it into Nativity plays, but we assume it happens) and Jesus is born. Soon the shepherds, told by the angel, turn up and three kings come having followed the star. And little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
That’s the story, the story we remember today, on Jesus’ birthday, the story we read in the Bible.
Well … no! Not exactly, no! The story we all know so well, is not quite the story we find in the Bible.
The traditional story doesn’t start of too bad. Mary is indeed visited by an angel and told she’ll have a Son and she’s to call him Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). Joseph does have to go to Bethlehem because of the census (Luke 2:1-5) and Mary does go with him – there doesn’t appear to be any legal reason for this, so the best guess is that Mary went with Joseph for her safety (women who got pregnant out of wedlock weren’t treated very well, in that culture, at that time!). But regardless they do travel the 85 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now that’s not hundred’s of miles, but in the days before cars, or trains, or things like that, 85 miles is still quite a distance. Oh, and there’s no mention of a donkey either, and cart would have been the normal method in those days. But hey!, so far we’re not off track that much.
Unfortunately we then get to Bethlehem. The traditional interpretation of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus is that, because so many people had arrived to register for the census, the inn was full, and therefore Joseph and Mary had to make do with a stable at the rear. But … it’s almost certain there wasn’t an inn in Bethlehem!
After all, Bethlehem was only a small village and was not on any major road. So in a culture where hospitality was incredibly important, Bethlehem would not have had an inn. On major routes there were inns, in those days. So in the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus will talk about an inn, using the word πανδοχεῖον / pandocherion (Luke 10:34) – that’s the word for an inn, as in a hotel, πανδοχεῖον / pandocherion.
Luke 2:7 is where we get our traditional understanding, it’s traditionally translated, ‘And she gave birth to her first born son, she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.’
But the greek word in Luke 2:7 is not πανδοχεῖον / pandocherion, it’s καταλύματι / katalyma, which can mean inn, but normally means a ‘guest room’, or the ‘upper room of a house’, which is how some Bible now translate it (e.g. T.N.I.V.). You see the average house in rural places, like Bethlehem, were split into three sections. The biggest room, in the middle of the house, were the main living quarters – where people lived and slept and ate. At the edge of this would be the καταλύματι / katalyma, the guest room, where guests could stay (remember hospitality was an incredibly important custom in that culture). Then there was a down stairs section, for animals. Animals were often people’s most expensive possession, so you would bring them inside in the warm.
That changes everything, doesn’t it? Mary and Joseph weren’t staying in a lonely stable, but family home. If so, it may well be that it was not Mary and Joseph who were excluded from the ‘guest room’, but rather only the baby Jesus: that is, they laid Jesus in a manger, because there was no space for them all in the ‘guest room’. Furthermore, the manger in question was almost certainly not outside in some barn or shed, but – as was the case with the vast majority of ancient Near Eastern peasant homes – the manger was under the same roof. The manger was quite possibly free standing and them simply carried it in, or it might have been attached to the wall. Mary may well have given birth to her child in the family room, and then placed him in the adjacent manger.
Nor by the way, contrary to popular thinking does Luke imply that Mary was already ‘full-term’ when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. Indeed, Luke 2: 6 implies the opposite. It was ‘while they were there’ (not ‘upon their arrival’) that Mary went into labour. The familiar image of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and being unable to find a place to stay on the night of arrival probably has no basis in the text itself.
I could go on to tell you that there’s no indication that Jesus didn’t cry, just like any other new born infant. I could go on to tell you that there weren’t three kings – they were magi, or wise men (Matthew 2:1-12) and it doesn’t say how many there were (quite possibly there were a large number, maybe 40 or 50 wise men – we only know they brought three gifts and they turned up a lot later, maybe even a year or two later).
Or I could tell you that the fact that the shepherds were living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8) tells us, with certainty, that, whenever Jesus was born, it most certainly wasn’t on the 25th December! Sheep were not kept out in the fields in the depth of winter. Sheep were kept out between March and November. Nobody knows when Jesus was born. Interestingly, around AD200 there were two theories about the date: one was that Jesus was born on 20th May; the other, that he was born on either 20 or 21 April.
But let’s ignore those things and focus on the fact that, according to what the Bible actually says, Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable, with no one having room for him in an inn, but was instead born in a house, most probably surrounded by Joseph’s extended family. Where does this all leave the preacher? If Jesus was born in a home among friends and relatives – as distinct from being relegated to a stable because there was no room in the inn – many a good sermon disappears. In the past I have preached, or have heard preached, numerous great sermons on this idea. About the need to make room for Jesus in our hearts, Jesus who stands at the door and knocks, wanting to come in (see Rev. 3:20). Or about the need to make room for him in our Christmas celebrations – because we sadly can be so busy writing cards, buying presents, cooking food and entertaining the family, that we forget ‘the reason for the season’. Similarly, I have heard congregations challenged to make room for others in distress, whether they live in the developing world or are asylum seekers on our doorsteps – reminding them that Jesus is present in the hungry and the thirsty (‘‘just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ Matt 25:40). I have also reflected on the feelings of the inn-keeper who apparently turned Jesus away: ‘If only he had realised who Mary’s baby was to be! But he didn’t. He missed his chance to be host to God’s Son.’ But all these sermons lose their potency if, in fact, Mary and Joseph had been staying with friends and relatives.
But I don’t think that matters, because even when all the man made traditions are stripped away the eternal truths still remain. Whether Mary and Joseph travelled by donkey, or in a cart, God brought them safely to the birth place which was prophesied. Whether Jesus was born in a stable without making a sound, or in a family home in clear possession of a good pair of lungs, God still chose to join us in the mess of a manger. Whether Jesus was born on 25th December, or in the middle of Summer, we should still have a day to remember, in the words of John, that the word became flesh and dwelt among us (Luke 1:14). Whether there were 3 kings, or 40 wise men, God still called rich magi and poor shepherds to bear witness and testimony to the birth of Emmanuel, God with us. So whether your nativity scene looks like this
Or like this
The truth of Luke 2:11 still remains, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Merry Christmas everyone!