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?
NOTE: Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable. But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a theologian to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought. In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.
The B-I-B-L-E …yes, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God…the B-I-B-L-E!
Yes, the Bible is the book for a lot of people and the most loved, generously quoted and best-selling book of all time. It’s translated into thousands of languages and paraphrased into countless contexts. I personally collect Bibles. I have an 1849 pocket KJV New Testament for a circuit-riding preacher. I have an interlinear Bible. I have a “parallel Bible” with four different translations. I have a Bible translated in Hawaiian pigeon called “Da Jesus Book,” and an African-American “Rappin’ With Jesus” Bible. I have the Greek New Testament, Bible on CD and often listen to the Word of God, digitally, via www.biblegateway.com.
I grew up reading, studying and memorizing the Bible. I participated in Bible Bowl, pitting my knowledge of Scripture texts against other high schoolers in a form of church-sanctioned righteous Christian combat (creating skills later used in Bible trivia games and arguments with whom I disagreed). I went to Bible studies, sang Bible songs, attended Bible movies and spent years in Bible college and seminary. I enjoy watching Bible documentaries, reading Bible commentaries and listening to biblical preaching. I just love the Bible!
I grew up in a church culture with a proud tradition as a “people of the Book.” The Bible was the centerpiece of our practices, teaching, preaching, ministries and programs. If you couldn’t defend it from Scripture, it wasn’t something to defend. One of our hallmark mantras was “if the Bible speaks, we speak; if it’s silent, we’re silent.” The Bible was the top and the bottom, the first and the last line for everything.
And then one day I discovered a terrible truth: the word “Bible” isn’t even in the Bible. Go ahead and search for it. I double dog dare you. It’s not there. Why? It’s because the Bible is actually a technology. The Bible (from the Greek word for book or biblos) is the product of renaissance Gutenberg print technology. The Bible is a book and a book is a form of print communication.
What we find in our printed book (or Holy Book/Bible) is a completely different vocabulary. For example, there’s the “Word of God” (Proverbs 30:5; Isaiah 40:8; John 10:35) or the “Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2; 2 Timothy 3:15) or just “Scriptures” (Daniel 9:2; Matthew 21:42; Luke 24:45; Acts 17:2; 18:28; I Corinthians 15:54) In fact, there are 20 occurrences for “Scriptures” and all refer to the collected books we now call the Old Testament.
In David’s infamous Psalm 119, he creates a living thesaurus for these “Scriptures” and refers to them as:
- “statutes” (vv. 2,14,22,24,31,36,46,59,79,88,95,99)
- “precepts” (vv. 4,15,27,40,45,56,63,69,78,87,93,94,100)
- “decrees” (vv. 5,8,12,16,23,26,33,48,54,64,68,71,80,83)
- “commands” (vv. 6,10,19,21,32,35,47,48,60,66,73,86,96,98)
- “law/laws”(vv. 1,7,13,18,20,29,30,34,39,43,44,55,61,62,70,72, 75,77,85,91,92,97),
- God’s “word/words” (vv. 9,11,16,17,25,28,37,42,49,51,52, 53,57,65,67,74,81,89)
- “word of truth” (v. 43)
And that’s just first 100 verses! David also cites “promises” in several verses. It’s no wonder the Scriptures are a “lamp” and “light” (Psalm 119:105).
Hebrews 4:12 states the “word of God” is living and active. Like any living thing, it’s constantly changing, not in its Message but in its applications, formats and interpretations. In a famous parable Jesus used a living “seed” as the metaphor for the Word of God (Luke 8:4-11). That’s why it’s short-sighted to profess being a “people of the Book.” The book is finite technology. The book can burn, rot, erode, fade and disappear but God’s Word does not. Jesus never reduced the Scriptures to scrolls and papyri, the written formats of His day. He simply referred to them as “the Scriptures.”
In a digital culture, the Word of God (Holy Scriptures) remains “living and active” but, let’s face facts, the print culture (of which the book or Bible operates) is dying. It’s had a great 500-year run but as digitization continues to reimagine how we read, transmit and learn, the book is on life support and death watch. Even if the book or the Bible survives, it will probably do so more as a relic or collectible (like vinyl records). Most people will read the Word from a screen, web page or live stream.
That’s why we must be careful in our desire to elevate God’s Word and His Message that we don’t venerate or idolize the format. The book (biblos or Bible) can go away but God’s Word lasts forever. In the Old Testament the “Word of God” came more from a voice than a book (I Chronicles 17:3; 2 Chronicles 11:2; 36:12; 36:16; Jeremiah 2:1; 19:3). In time the written “Word of God” became a cornerstone for generations (Jeremiah 30:2) and will remain so in a digital economy.
Jesus was the “Word” of God (John 1:14) and spoke the Word of God (Luke 5:1). In fact, he said blessing arose when those who “heard” the Word of God obeyed (Luke 11:28). In Acts, the “word of God” is the gospel according to Jesus (Acts 6:7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 46; 17:13; 18:11). This idea is echoed further in Paul’s epistles (1 Corinthians 14:36; 2 Corinthians 2:17).
One final New Testament phrase for the Holy Scriptures is “word of truth.” Paul encouraged Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).” Meanwhile James exhorts that we have been given new birth through the “word of truth” (James 1:18).
To summarize, you won’t find the word “Bible” in the Holy Scriptures. The reason is simple: it’s technology. And no technology is eternal. When we use words like “Bible” and “biblical” or phrases like “we’re a people of the Book,” we wed ourselves to fading technology. The Scriptures have been chiseled in stone, carved in wood, brushed on canvas, penned on papyrus, framed in stained glass and inked on paper. Today the emerging format just happens to be digital. Yes, the Bible is a good word, but it’s not THE word.
Maybe it’s time we rephrased the infamous B-I-B-L-E song we sang as kids:
The W-O-R-D…yes, that’s the Message for me. I stand alone on the Truth of God…the W-O-R-D!