Why your Advent nativity might be wrong
Rev. Alan Rudnick
December 19, 2018
If you have been to church at some point in your life during Advent or Christmas, you’ve most likely seen an adorable Christmas play or pageant. Poor Joseph and Mary, often in bathrobes, are portrayed by children who are turned away by an “innkeeper” who lacks compassion. “No room!” is the line. The problem is, when you read the Gospel of Luke or Matthew, there’s no innkeeper or an inn. Such things are a Christmas myth.
Putting aside the adorable nature of children’s Christmas plays, the account of Jesus’ birth must be placed into context of where the birth of Christ took place: Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, thought to contain around 1,000 people at the time, was David’s hometown. Since it was David’s hometown, there was sure to be family present because of Joseph, along with other family, had to return to be counted for the census. We read from the King James Version of Luke’s gospel:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)
From the passage, we learn two things. First, Mary gave birth while in Bethlehem. Apparently, Mary and Joseph were there for some length of time. Second, Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the “inn.” The trouble here is that the King James Version translates the Greek word katalumatias “inn,” but the translation of “guest room” is more accurate – as the New International Version renders the word. The interpretation of katalumati is more of a product of 16th and 17th-century European understandings of a guest room when the KJV was first published. Generally, “inns” in the time of Jesus were found in larger cities, not small towns, and inns were no place for a woman in childbirth.
We read later in Luke when Jesus eats his last supper the disciples gather in a katalumati – guest room, also translated, “upper room”:
As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, “Where is the katalumati where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:10-11 NIV)
In all reality, Jesus was most likely born in a house. Many assume that Jesus was born in some sort of stable, where animals were kept. However, in the time of Jesus, humble folks lived with their animals. Ancient Near East culture expert E.F.F. Bishop notes the arrangement of people and animals:
“One of the Bethlehem houses with the lower section provided for the animals, with manger ‘hollowed in stone,’ the dais [or raised area] being reserved for the family. Such a manger being immovable, filled with crushed straw, would do duty for a cradle. An infant might even be left in safety, especially if swaddled, when the mother was absent on temporary business” (“Jesus of Palestine”, p. 42)
When I visited Israel in 2012, I went to Bethlehem to a site that recreated, based on historical evidence and archaeology, a house that included a lower section for animals and an upper section for living quarters. At the lower portion of the house was a manger or feeding trough for the animals. After seeing such a home, the birth story of Jesus made sense – sans the inn and innkeeper.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for the myth of an “inn” in the Christmas story is that Luke uses another word for a rental inn. Luke used the Greek word, pandocheion, to describe a place one could stay for a price. In the story of the Good Samaritan, it says that, “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to a pandocheion (inn) and took care of him” (Luke 10:34). If there was truly no room in the “inn,” Luke would have used pandocheion in the Christmas story.
Imagine for a minute, every one of Joseph’s family is in town for the census, the house is full with guests and relatives, and Mary has to go through the very painful and messy delivery of a baby. With the guest room and main living areas full, Jesus was placed in a manger to sleep – as Luke describes. Ancient Jewish customs and cultural behaviors would not have allowed Mary to stay in an ancient version of a Motel 6. Mary was most likely cared for and surrounded by people in a time of great expectation of Jesus’ birth.
With this perspective, your Christmas nativity scene in your home or church is still accurate, but imagine it as a home, not a stable. It should give us comfort and relief knowing that after everything Mary and Joseph had been through, they were among family, and well cared for with all the extended family around to hold the newborn Christ child.
The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Want the latest from The Christian Citizen?
Subscribe to Christian Citizen Weekly