So where was Jesus born? Some say a stable, some say a cave but what does the Bible actually say.
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:4-7
The first thing to notice is that it says ‘while they were there’ most Christmas plays or films tell the story that the couple arrive at Bethlehem the moment Mary’s waters have broken and that Joseph runs from Inn to Inn looking for a place for Mary to give birth. The text simply says while they were there, which to me implies that they had already arrived, it’s a very present statement. From what the text says we could even conclude that they had been there some time.
It would make sense that Mary and Joseph has been there a little time. Bethlehem was in fact Joseph’s family town, which would mean that he could well have had land there or even family. If Bethlehem was in fact Josephs family town then he would have had family there. The Roman rule of a census was that if someone were more than 2nd generation living away from there home then they wouldn’t have needed to go back to the family land. He goes back there because of the family tie which means he would have known someone living there without doubt.
So who was Mary and Joseph living with? Luke when writing this sparse section of text uses a Greek word ‘Kataluma’ which can mean ‘inn’, but can also be translated just as easily as guest room or back room which was the place within a home which you would put visitors. This isn’t the only time Luke uses this word, if we look at Luke 22:11 where Jesus sends his disciples to prep the room for the last supper. “say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” Here in Luke 22 the same word ‘Kataluma’ isn’t translated as Inn but guest room and in the King James Version it’s translated as ‘guestchamber’. This would to me imply that the pair were in fact staying with family and there guest room was already in use by some other family.
It is important to note that Luke does use another word for Inn in Luke 10:34 which is ‘pandocheion’. “And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” Here Luke makes it clear that the Samaritan took the half dead man to an Inn to be cared for. If Luke wanted to talk about an inn in the Christmas story why not use the same word for Inn, which he used in the Samaritan story? If Luke was indeed talking about a travel inn with an Inn keeper why did he not use ‘pandocheion’? Was it that he was being confused with his choice of word use or could it be that he wasn’t actually talking about this type of Inn.
So if Luke isn’t saying the travel Inn was full but that the guest room was full where were Mary and Joseph staying?
The answer is found in the line “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger” Luke 2:7. Most houses in the area of Bethlehem aren’t single story buildings but had two levels sometimes cut into the rock. As animals were expensive and produced much heat the animals were brought into the lower level of the home at night and the homeowner then lived on the upper level. With the animals beneath them the people were kept warm in winter by the heat produced. This isn’t just something done long ago this still happens in some poor Middle Eastern homes today.
The word used by Luke that we translate as manger is the word ‘phatne’. This isn’t a bad translated in fact its spot on; the question here is on what this exactly was. Feeding troughs in our modern sense were in ancient times unknown in the East. The Greek word here could well be speaking of a ledge or shelf at the end of the room used as a store on which the hay or other food for the animals was placed.
So could it be that there was no stable and no Inn and no mention of a donkey. And could it be that Jesus was born with animals surrounding him in the lower level of a Bethlehem home owned by a family member of Joseph? This doesn’t change the message of the story but does make it more real, more dirty and more fantastic that God made himself so real in such a real home.