There’s one Bible story that’s still well-known in our culture, regardless of whether one goes to church: The Nativity Story. It’s commemorated in many ways during the month of December. But through its many renderings in church pageants and the like—are we getting the real Nativity Story? I don’t think we are. Let’s take a few moments explore the birth of Christ in its historical context.
Within popular imagination, the nativity is frequently remembered as follows: Joseph and a comedically pregnant Mary wearily journeyed to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. When they arrived, Mary was moments away from delivery. Hospitals weren’t a first century luxury, so they tried to find a motel. But the “No Vacancy” sign (illuminated by candles, of course) was on at every inn. One motel manager was a bit kinder than the others and offered his back-building shed. This is where the animals who provided ‘milk-n-eggs’ for the breakfast buffet slept. Moments later Mary’s contractions reached their high point, and Jesus made his grand appearance shortly thereafter. He was welcomed into the world in a dirty hut, on a cold night, in a rather inhospitable Palestinian village. As the song goes, “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweat head.”
All this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
But just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it’s accurate. The popular understanding of Jesus’ birth is simply a script for our much-loved, though reliably inaccurate, Christmas pageants. Paying closer attention to Luke’s account, what actually transpired?
The popular understanding of Jesus’ birth is simply a script for our much-loved, though reliably inaccurate, Christmas pageants.
First off, in going to Bethlehem, Joseph was returning to his hometown. Even though he had not lived in Bethlehem for a while, he would not have been forgotten. In the Middle East, historical memory is long and the connections between families and their “place of origin” is very important. Also, Joseph wasn’t from just any Bethlehem family: he was from the “house and lineage of David” (v. 4). Meaning, there was royal blood in his veins. As such, Joseph would have been welcomed into nearly every home in Bethlehem. His ties to King David would have would have made him a man of moderate status.
It’s also helpful to know that in the Middle East—as with many other cultures—women on the brink of childbirth always receive special attention! To suggest that the people of Bethlehem didn’t extend the customary attention and hospitality to Mary is to assail the honour of the village. Many also assume that Jesus was born on the night that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. That’s not the case! Luke’s wording actually suggests that a bit of time elapsed between their arrival and the birth itself (Luke 2:6).
So if Mary and Joseph came to a village where Joseph was well-known and would have been invited into any home, why did Mary give birth in a barn?
The answer is that she didn’t.
The basic house design in a village like Bethlehem consisted of two rooms. One room was for the family (in which they lived and slept); the other for guests. The word for this “guest room” (katalyma) is somewhat misleadingly translated as “inn” in many English Bibles. It doesn’t actually refer to a motel-like establishment. There’s another word for that and it’s not used here.
To our minds, the word “manger” evokes the idea of a barn. But among Palestinian peasants, it had different connotations. You see, beyond the two rooms of the peasant home, there was a further space attached to the house. It served as a stable, with roof and walls, for the family’s livestock. Each night, the family cow would be herded into this area. Its body heat warmed the home and the stable protected it from being stolen. In the wall between the stable area and the main room, several holes were cut. The debris from the living area would be swept towards these holes, accumulating in a manger. The manger was a recess (an “in-set bowl”) in the floor. If a cow needed a mid-night snack, she could stick her head through the wall to munch on the debris in the manger.
With all these details in sight, a different interpretation of Jesus’ birth emerges. Joseph and Mary were undoubtedly welcomed into the home of a Bethlehem peasant family, perhaps Joseph’s kin. Their hosts probably wanted to offer them the guest room but it seemed to have been full. So Joseph and Mary bunked with the family. When Mary went into labor, she was supported in the birth by some of the village midwives. After Jesus was swaddled, he was placed in a safe, warm spot: the manger. It was ideal for a baby. In all of this, Mary was cared for by poor but generous and hospitable people, who allowed their modest home to be the creche for God’s son.
With this historical setting in mind, this yields quite a different impression of Jesus’ birth. But, why does all this matter? We look at that in Away In A Manger: The Real Nativity Story – Part 2