No Room in the Inn? Not so fast.
The Nativity Story is legendary. Most USAmericans have heard it, or variations of it. Unfortunately, too often our recollection doesn’t come from Scripture but traditional carols. We Three Kings of Orient Are. Silent Night. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Away in a Manger. In general, like the legend of Santa Claus, many speculative and even erroneous ideas have sprouted.
One of the interesting (and wrong) legends about Jesus’ birth is there was “no room in the inn.” It’s not true, largely due to a terrible mistranslation of the original Greek. The word Luke employs for “inn” (kataluma) is the SAME word he uses to describe the “upper” or “guest” room where his disciples enjoyed their “last supper” together (Luke 2:7; 22:11). Luke clearly uses a different Greek word for “inn” (pandeion) in the “Good Samaritan” parable (Luke 10:34).
But there’s more that we have missed or gotten wrong.
Like the fact Mary and Joseph weren’t two lone kids desperately seeking shelter so the virgin could give birth. The facts state otherwise. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census law by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). Joseph was in the lineage of David and probably had numerous relatives, perhaps brothers and sisters, still living in this town of less than a thousand people. So the couple had plenty of lodging options.
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they soon learned space was limited in the normal “guest” rooms. First century homes were small and most were single level. A guest room suggested a larger house. In most homes, the entire family slept in the same room and guests would’ve joined them if room was available. A guest room was a bonus room. The Nativity story states when Mary and Joseph arrived, there was no longer any room in the “kataluma” or guest room (Luke 2:7). The couple were surprise visitors, though definitely welcomed. In the first century, informing relatives of a pending stay was impossible. You just showed up and took whatever available floor space remained.
So where did Mary and Joseph find sleeping quarters (and eventually birth their baby boy)? The Scriptures reference a “manger” (Luke 2:7) and that means they bunked in the barn with the animals. If a house was large enough to have a “guest” (kataluma) room then they also had a barn for their livestock (sheep, chickens, cattle). A manger was used to feed the livestock. Some Bible scholars suggest Jesus was born in a cave but that’s unlikely since most caves would’ve been outside the walls of Bethlehem. The city gates and walls were critical to protect the citizens. Bethlehem was large enough to have a gated wall. Consequently, the only ones outside the walls were outlaws, thieves and shepherds (basically akin to today’s migrant farm worker). Caves were not exactly the safest places either. We know from Luke’s account the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the Christ child so Jesus was born inside, not outside, the city (Luke 2:15).
The barn was a lot like our garages today. Livestock were for transportation and work. They needed protection (from theft) and provision. Some barns were separate structures but in many first century houses they were connected. Remember the reference to the “upper room” where Jesus communed with his disciples (Luke 22:12)? An “upper” room suggests a “lower” room, and families wealthy enough to own a two-level house basically lived above their livestock. In other words, the “lower” room was likely the barn as it was safer and more convenient. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus slept in the garage or the lower room with the family livestock. Such accommodations aren’t unusual, even by today’s standards. Barns have often been great places to sleep for the weary traveler.
Luke 2:6 also suggests that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem already when the Messiah was born. They came for the census but her pregnancy made them stay. Evidently, the guest room was still occupied (perhaps by another new mother), so Mary and Joseph billeted in the garage (or barn). The Scriptures don’t say Mary gave birth alone or in the barn though. It’s just where the baby Jesus was staying the night the shepherds visited. Mary probably gave birth in the house, aided by female relatives and midwives, and then moved newborn Jesus to a plush manger crib for the night.
Later the magi (wisemen) will visit Jesus, most likely still staying at the same relative’s house, except now sleeping in the “guest” room (Matthew 2:11). Why didn’t Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth? After all, Herod’s edict to kill all boys under two years of age suggest the young couple stayed in Bethlehem longer than just a few weeks or months (Matthew 2:16). They perhaps were in Bethlehem for the duration, but left for Egypt under duress thanks to a “warning” dream. Nevertheless, they went to Egypt and not Nazareth. The reasons? The rumor mill was still hot in Mary’s hometown. Joseph was married to a pregnant Mary (not carrying his son)–a crime worthy of death. Egypt was on a different continent and nobody would know them there. It was the perfect place for this troubled couple to hide out.
Consequently, Jesus was born in a barn but raised on the run.
Here’s what we know for sure:
- Baby Jesus wasn’t born alone (no doubt many other relatives witnessed the event, besides those Bethlehem shepherds).
- Neither did his parents travel door to door, desperately seeking shelter on that first Christmas Eve. Actually inhospitality was a grievous social “sin” in first century Palestine.
- The manger was in a barn connected to the house and probably inside it. It was a secure, warm and comfortable location.
- Mary and Joseph had family, room and time in Bethlehem. They stayed in the little town for months, perhaps nearly two years before escaping for Egypt (a trip financed by the magi’s gold). Joseph was probably working his carpenter trade at the time. Only after years in exile would they return to Nazareth, no doubt with an extra baby brother or sister in tow.
Puts a new spin on an old story, doesn’t it?