Christmyth #1: No Stable for Jesus
By Joel Greenwood
Christmas pageants and nativity scenes often leave us with a story of an inhospitable Bethlehem. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary are running around late at night to find a place to stay before Mary gives birth at any moment. They rush up to the door of Bethlehem’s only inn, and the inkeeper, much like an Airbnb host who has double-booked his high-demand guest room, turns them away with no place to stay. But that might not be the story at all.
In today’s Christmyth, we’ll discuss how Joseph and Mary actually stayed in a guest room, and baby Jesus was never kept in a stable.
There are three pieces of evidence found in the first 7 verses of Luke chapter 2 that help us to more clearly figure out what really happened the night Jesus was born.
1. “There was no room for them in the Κατάλυμα…” (Luke 2:7c)
Based on this study of the word Luke used to talk about the place Mary and Joseph stayed (pronounced “kataluma”), it probably isn’t accurate to describe the accommodations of Mary and Joseph as an inn or hotel, and it would be better to describe the place as a guest room.
2. “And everyone went to their own town to register.” (Luke 2:3)
In the census described by Luke 2, everyone had to go to their home towns to register. If Joseph and Mary were heading to the place Joseph grew up, it’s almost certain he had family in town. Ancient Jewish families were extremely large and close, and hospitality for family members was a staple of the culture. To add to it, the census didn’t take place in a particular day or week, which means that the small town of Bethlehem would’t necessarily have been bursting at the seams with people coming to register. The young couple would most likely have stayed in the guest room of a family member, and space would have been reasonable, but not enough for a woman giving birth.
3. “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger…” (Luke 2:7b)
Now, about not having room. A guest room is great for a couple staying for awhile, but it’s probably not where anyone wants to have a child, given that first-century births were a family affair. All the women and midwives would be helping to care for Mary during the riskiest part of an ancient pregnancy, and when she did give birth to Jesus, they didn’t take him out to the barn and place him in a feeding trough. Instead, as most first-century Jewish houses consisted of a main room with two levels, one for humans and one for animals, an extra manger would have been a common sight, and the perfect place in a crowded home to place the newborn Jesus.
It’s possible that the birth of our Savior took place in a very different setting than we imagine it. Does this mean we should correct everyone, or remove our nativity sets, or heckle any Christmas pageant with a stable? Only if you want a really awkward Christmas family dinner.
When we are able to see the birth of Christ in a more accurate light, it helps remind us that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were all humans with real relationships and emotions and backstories. They didn’t just exist for us to see them as ceramic figures we dust off and put on a shelf one month each year. When we see the people in the Christmas story as human, it reminds us that the mission of God is just that: to intervene and restore a very broken humanity to himself. And whether stable or guest room, the human-focus of Jesus’ birth is a reason for us to celebrate this year!