Although Christmas has passed, I’d like to return to a topic I preached on Christmas Eve. My message was titled “Away in a Manger,” but I said it could just as easily have been called “Pastor David Wrecks Christmas.” In it I took on one of the most beloved elements of traditional Christmas imagery–the stable behind the overcrowded inn, where Jesus was born. It is well-known among biblical scholars that the traditional image of baby Jesus in a wooden trough, in a European-style barn, outside a hotel with no vacancy, is a romantic construct that bears little resemblance to the actual biblical account of the birth of Jesus. In recent years, several brave souls have begun to publish critiques of the traditional story for lay readers. Adam Hamilton blogged about it in 2013. Christianity Today ran a brief article on it in 2017. But the recent public discussion about the discrepancy between the traditional version of the story and the actual biblical account, read in light of its historical and cultural background, started with Kenneth Bailey’s article in the 2007 issue of Bible and Spade. Bailey combines a careful reading of the Greek text of Luke 2 with insights from the archaeology of ancient Palestine, early church traditions, and study of Middle Eastern culture, and he concludes that Jesus was born in a house (which may have been a cave), that the manger was located inside the house (next to a lowered area in which animals were housed at night), and that the “inn” was actually a guest room in a private home.
I pretty much follow Bailey’s reading of Luke and his reconstruction of the birth of Jesus. I’d like to briefly summarize the lines of evidence that lead Bailey (and myself) to these conclusions.
1. Luke does not mention a stable.
In seminary I heard an expression that has stuck with me: “What you see depends on where you sit.” What this means is that our location–culturally, historically, socially, etc.–shapes how we read the Bible. The fact is that we are not blank slates, and we don’t just read the words on the page without external forces influencing how we understand them. Often these forces come from our own experiences and our culture. In the case of Luke’s nativity story, western culture leads us to assume a stable, when Luke does not actually mention one. Here is Luke 2:4-7.
Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped in snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom [other translations, “inn”–more on this later].Luke 2:4-7 (CEB)
Where does Luke actually mention a stable in this passage? He doesn’t. The closest he comes is mentioning that Jesus was laid in a manger. But we, because of our cultural background, assume that a manger would be located in a stable/barn. However, Bailey points out that in the standard one-room peasant homes of ancient Palestine, mangers were typically built into the floor, as small pits next to an area approximately 4 feet lower than the main floor, into which animals were brought at night. Both the manger and the area for the animals were inside the house. We could call this a “stable,” but it is not a stable in the sense of a barn out back, but rather a specific area for animals inside the house.
2. The “inn” was actually a guest room.
In most of our animated or dramatic presentations of the nativity story, there is a busy inn-keeper who greets Mary and Joseph at the door of the inn and apologetically informs them that there is no vacancy. Upon seeing that Mary is pregnant and about to give birth, he offers the stable out back as lodging–hey, it’s better than nothing. Having already pointed out that Luke does not actually mention a stable and that Palestinian peasant homes usually included a “stable” inside the house, what are we to make of the inn and the inn-keeper? As with the non-existent stable, it should be noted that Luke does not mention an inn-keeper. Once again, western imagination has filled in a gap with expectations from our culture and experience. But there was no inn-keeper. He appears nowhere in Luke’s account. But what about the inn?
It is indeed true that many translations of Luke 2:7, such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and NRSV, among others, all state that Jesus was placed in a manger because “there was no room in the inn.” The Greek word traditionally translated as “inn” in this passage is katalyma. Bailey distinguishes three possible meanings for this word in this context: 1) a commercial inn or hotel, 2) a house, or 3) a guest room. While katalyma can indeed refer to a commercial inn, this is not the word Luke uses elsewhere in his Gospel to refer to such establishments. In Luke 10:36 (the parable of the good Samaritan), he describes the inn as a pandocheian, and here he does mention an inn-keeper. Bailey also notes that Bethlehem’s small size and distance from major highways would have made it unlikely for the town to have a commercial inn. More importantly, in Middle Eastern culture it would be considered insulting for a person to seek shelter in an inn when he has family or friends close by. Joseph was a descendant of David, and Bethlehem was his ancestral home. Surely he would have had relatives living there! Even if his family had not lived there for many generations, the mere fact that it was his ancestral home–not to mention the fact that he was a descendant of the town’s most famous resident–suggests that all he would need to do is mention that he was a descendant of David, and someone would have taken him in. Hospitality was one of the highest values in the ancient Middle East (and still is today), and in the two biblical stories in which a traveler finds himself in a strange town and in need of lodging, a stranger takes him in and even defends him against attack. Those two stories are the angels in Sodom (Genesis 19) and the Levite and his concubine in Gibeah (Judges 19). And these two cities are depicted as exceedingly wicked. Are we to imagine Bethlehem as worse than Sodom?
Bailey finds “house” to be a better translation, but there are still problems with it. The statement that Jesus was placed in a manger because there was no room in the katalyma makes little sense if it is a house. As explained above, most houses had mangers inside the house, not outside. Unless the house in question was that of a very wealthy person, there would be no external barn with a manger. It would be inside, in the animal quarters of the main room.
That leaves “guest room.” Because of the very high emphasis on hospitality in Middle Eastern culture, most houses–even small peasant houses–had a guest room attached to the back of the house. These guest rooms were sometimes occupied by an adult son who was recently married and did not yet have his own house (cf. Jesus’ statement in John 14:2 that his Father’s house has many rooms, which makes use of the imagery of a husband leaving and then returning for his bride). If not occupied by such, it would be available for visiting family and travelers in need of lodging. When we read in Luke 2:7 that there was no place for them in the katalyma, the best way to understand it is that the katalyma was a guest room and that it was already occupied by someone else. But rather than turn the holy family away, this relative or stranger allowed Mary and Joseph to stay in the main room of the home, and the baby Jesus was laid in a manger built into the floor. Additional support for this reading comes from Luke 22:11, in which the same word, katalyma, is used to refer to the room in which Jesus and his disciples eat the Passover meal (the Last Supper). In this case, the katalyma is upstairs (Luke 22:12), which may suggest that this home was large and belonged to a wealthy person. Nevertheless, it was not a commercial inn, but a guest room in a private home, offered to strangers seeking lodging.
3. How do the magi fit into the story?
Bailey does not address the magi (or “wise men”) in his article. His focus is entirely on the Lukan account, and the magi appear only in Matthew 2. However, one glaring problem in nearly all modern imaginings of the nativity is the presence of the magi at the stable on the night Jesus was born. Even casual observers have long noted the problems in this reconstruction. According to Matthew 2:11, the magi find Mary and Jesus in a “house” (oikion) in Bethlehem. According to the traditional “stable” reading of Luke 2, the magi would not have been able to find them in a house on that night, because they were not in a house but a stable beside an inn. The problem is usually solved by noting that the magi did not visit Jesus immediately, but some time later. The most common chronology is that they arrived in Bethlehem 2 years after Jesus was born, based on Herod’s slaughter of all male children age 2 and under, “according to the time that he had learned from the magi” (Matthew 2:16). In Matthew 2:2, the magi tell Herod that they saw the new king’s star “in the east,” and in Matthew 2:9 they follow the star to the house where Jesus is staying. Taken together, these details suggest that the star appeared two years prior to the magi’s arrival, because Jesus was born two years before they arrived. Thus, there is no contradiction between Matthew and Luke. Jesus was born in a stable, but his family is living in a house when the magi arrive 2 years later.
The problem with this reconciliation of Matthew and Luke is that it is hard to understand why Joseph and Mary are still in Bethlehem 2 years after their journey for the census. Most biblical scholars simply determine that Matthew and Luke reflect entirely different traditions. Matthew does not mention anything about the family living in Nazareth before Jesus is born, nor about them traveling for a census, nor about Jesus being laid in a manger because the katalyma was full. In Matthew, the family only settles in Nazareth after they flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the children. As I tell my New Testament students, if all you had was Matthew’s Gospel, you would assume that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, and Jesus was born at home.
All of that is completely plausible and is, indeed, the most natural way to read the two accounts. They are just very different stories. Each seems to “know” details the other did not. As a scholar, I am totally comfortable saying that the two accounts give us two very different stories that cannot be reconciled. Was Jesus born at Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, or were they from Nazareth and only temporarily staying in Bethlehem? I don’t know. I don’t really care. It isn’t of central concern to me. But the average Christian doesn’t share my view that sometimes the Bible doesn’t have to get all of the historical details right in order for it to still be important and even divinely inspired. Most people just want to know what really happened, and the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke make it well-nigh impossible to see them both as getting everything exactly right. In fact, a member of my church came to me weeks ago asking about this very matter, because she was confused at how Luke 2:39 has Mary and Joseph returning to Nazareth shortly after Jesus’ birth, while Matthew has them going to Nazareth 2+ years later (after the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt). I’m not sure my response, “Well, they are just two different stories,” was quite what she was looking for.
While I can’t solve all of the tension between Matthew 2 and Luke 2, on at least one point reading the katalyma of Luke 2:7 as a guest room rather than an inn relieves one point of tension. Jesus was indeed born in a “house” in Bethlehem, as a natural reading of Matthew suggests. But why are they still in Bethlehem 2 years later? While perhaps the most natural way to read Matthew’s account is that the magi arrived 2 years later, it is not necessary to do so. It could be that the magi saw the “star” two years before Jesus was born and arrived very soon after the event. There has been intense speculation about what exactly this “star” was. Was it a comet? A supernova? A planetary alignment? Something having to do with constellations? Given the likelihood that the magi were Babylonian or Persian astrologers, any of the above is plausible. Something in the heavens happened, and they interpreted it as a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. But unless we really believe in astrology and other forms of divination, it is not necessary to see their reasoning as correct. It could be that God caused something to happen that would be interpreted by astrologers as a sign of the birth of the Jewish king, and if that is the case, God could just as easily have caused it to happen early enough for them to arrive close to the time when Jesus was actually born. Even Herod seems to have been uncertain exactly how much time had passed between the appearance of the star and the birth of the child, since he orders the death of all male children 2 years and under.
If the magi arrived within a few days or even weeks of Jesus’ birth, the family could easily have still been staying as guests at the home where he was born. This makes Luke’s implication that the family returned to Nazareth once they had fulfilled everything required by the Law for the birth of Jesus (circumcision, Mary’s purification, etc.) much less problematic for Matthew’s chronology. All Luke lacks is an awareness of the flight to Egypt, and all Matthew lacks is knowledge that the family actually already lived in Nazareth.
Granted, this reconstruction requires a lot of conjecture and filling in gaps. I am not all that convinced by it, but I offer it as a possibility. We are on firmer ground just acknowledging that Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts reflect separate traditions that diverge on most details. But are they completely irreconcilable, so that at least one of them must be considered largely historically inaccurate? No. A careful reading of both accounts, informed by study of the historical and cultural background of 1st century Palestine, brings the two accounts closer together, so that it is at least possible for them to be accurately describing a single event, while preserving different details and constructing starkly different narratives of the event.