With all the glitz surrounding Christmas it can be hard to disentangle the facts from the questionable add-ons. How many kings were there? Were they actually kings, anyway? How long after the baby’s birth did they come? Did they kneel in the stable?
We can at least hold on to the manger as the place where the new-born baby was placed, but what was the manger like? And what of the inn, the hard-hearted inn-keepers and the stable which provide the essential plot-line for so many nativity plays?
Recently reading Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey, I have had my mind opened up to an alternative Christmas scenario which seems very convincing and which makes me question some of the long-accepted backdrop to the world-shaking birth of the long-promised Messiah:
While they were there [in Bethlehem], 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 2:6-7 New International Version
Much of Bailey’s reasoning centres around the Greek word traditionally translated in most English versions as “inn”, katalyma. Significantly, this is not the word for a commercial inn, providing rooms for strangers in return for payment. That word is pandocheion, as used in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34-35). katalyma is a more general word for a lodging place, and is the word used for the room where Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:11). As there, it may apply to a room which is part of a larger structure and is kept available for guests. Bailey argues that it is unthinkable that Joseph, from the royal line of King David, would not have been taken in by relatives in the town of his family’s origins, especially when he arrived with a heavily pregnant wife. He would never have had to go searching for somewhere to stay among the commercial establishments of the town, and Luke would have used the appropriate Greek word if he had.
A second distraction is that the expression “no room at the inn” easily gets transformed into “no rooms available at the inn”. The Greek word topos means “room” in the sense of “space”, and so we may legitimately end up with the translation:
Mary placed the baby in a manger, because there was no space for them in the guest room.
This changes the picture entirely. Jospeh and Mary are taken in by relatives, but the guest room is already fully occupied by other relatives who have come to Bethlehem because of the census. So where is the manger? Quite probably in the family living room! A simple village home would have had one room where the family lived, ate and slept. A guest room with a separate entrance might be at one end of the building or constructed on the flat roof. At one end of the family room would be a section, often at a lower level, where the animals would be brought in at night. The manger might be a hollowed-out dip in the floor of the living room at the end where the animals were kept, such that they could lean across and eat from it. Whether like that, or a more conventionally imagined portable wooden structure, it would make a very suitable place, lined with hay, to put to bed a baby just born in the family room.
Since there is every indication that some time passed between the arrival in Bethlehem and Mary giving birth (when the time came for the baby to be born), it is even more unlikely that a makeshift arrangement which would have brought shame on the relatives could have taken place. Later, when the Magi came on their visit, led by the appearance of the star, Matthew says:
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
Matthew 2:11 New International Version
It was clearly a house, not a stable, that they came to. Of course, if they came a considerable time after the birth (as is quite possible), alternative arrangements would by then have been made to house the visiting family. We cannot however escape the consistent picture which emerges from a fresh reading of the Biblical account. Whether the birth of Jesus actually happened exactly as Kenneth Bailey portrays the event, or not, it is a good reminder to approach the Bible with an open mind and not to be blinkered by traditions, however long-held and well-established they may be.