The Christmas season is in full swing now. Lights shimmer, bells ring and shoppers rush home with their treasures. Churches display nativity scenes, complete with Mary and Joseph in a stable. The story of the birth of Jesus is retold each Christmas in pageants and pulpits, but sometimes even the most familiar stories need to be dusted off and re-examined. For example, we often forget that the birth of Jesus took place in the Middle East. Our Western mindset often blinds us from seeing what really happened on that night so long ago. So since it’s the season, lets take a closer look at this well-known story.
Here is the story of the birth of Christ in the words of Luke:
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. (This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-12 NASB)
Like any good autocratic ruler, Caesar Augustus wanted maximum revenues in his coffers so by taking a census, he could make sure how many people lived in his empire. This way, he could make sure that everyone paid their fare share. So the residents of Israel had to travel to their hometowns and register. Since Joseph was from Bethlehem, the “city of David,” he and Mary returned to that city.
One question worth asking is: why did Luke refer to Bethlehem as the “city of David”? True, it was David’s birthplace, but every other Biblical reference to the city of David refers to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem.
According to Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey, “the family of David was so famous in Bethlehem that local folk apparently called the town ‘the city of David.’” People were proud of Jesse’s son—Hometown Boy Becomes King. David’s success put Bethlehem on the map.
Fourteen generations later, Joseph is born. He is a direct descendant of King David. (Matthew 1:2-16) Joseph is royal through and through and as such, according to Bailey, he would be welcomed anywhere in Bethlehem.
Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important. In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem, and told people, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi and most homes in town would be open to him.”
This perspective challenges the notion that the townspeople turned Mary and Joseph away.
Secondly, a familiar version of the Christmas story has Mary giving birth to Jesus alone in a stable (attended by adoring cows and sheep). Is this what really happened? Again, according to Bailey, who lived in the Middle East for forty years:
In every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention. Simple rural communities the world over always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was an exception? Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the “City of David” would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village.
Because of Joseph’s royal connection to David as well as the Middle Eastern custom of hospitality, Joseph and Mary would have been invited into a family home, rather than sent out to a stable or cave somewhere. The local women would have assisted her during childbirth. Mary was not alone.
This leads to another question: if Mary delivered in a home, how does the manger fit into the story?
In the Middle East two thousand years ago, simple peasant homes were divided into two rooms. The main living area was the family room where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. A few steps down from this area was an area for the animals. Each night, the family’s animals, a cow, donkey, and a few sheep, would be brought into this area. In the morning, they would be taken out and tied up in the courtyard. The farmer wanted his animals in the house each night because they provided heat in the winter and were also kept safe from theft. (The fact the sheep were outside when the angels announced the birth of the Messiah should give you a pretty solid hint that Jesus wasn’t born in December.)
So a typical Middle Eastern home looked like this:
The lower level area, where the animals were housed at night, was referred to as the stable. On the upper level, an area was rounded out of the floor. This was where the family cow ate at night and was called a manger. The sheep ate out of a wood manger that was placed on the lower level. (See figure 1.1)
Now that we understand the architecture of a typical Middle Eastern home, let’s re-read Luke 2:7: “She [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger...” The manger was a convenient, safe place to lay a newborn, right within the family home. (Our modern day equivalent might be a drawer.)
Finally, what did Luke mean when he wrote “there was no room for them in the inn”? Doesn’t this imply that Mary and Joseph were turned away, as seen in somany pageants? Here is where looking at the original language is invaluable. The word translated as inn is the Greek word katalyma. This word is used only two other times in the New Testament and in both cases it was translated guest room, not inn.
Mk 14:14 NASB The Teacher says, “Where is My guest room (katalyma) in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’
Luke 22:11 NASB And you shall say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room (katalyma) in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”
In addition to the main room, many homes had a second room used exclusively for guests. That room would be attached to the end of the house or on the roof, as in the story of Elijah (I Kings 17:19). (See figure 1.3 below.)
The translators choice of the word inn instead of guest room has contributed to our misunderstanding Mary and Joseph’s accommodations. If Luke meant that there was no vacancy at the La Quinta, he would have used a different word, specifically the word pandocheion. Pandocheion is a place where all are received, namely a commercial inn. This is precisely the word Luke used in the parable of the Good Samaritan: the wounded man was taken to a commercial inn, a pandocheion (Luke 10:25-37).
However, in the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke is telling us that Jesus was placed in a manger, in the family home, because in that home the guest room, the katalyma, was already full—there was no room in the guest room. Given the amount of people who had to return to their ancestral towns, its easy to see why this might be so.
What difference do these cultural insights make? Its unlikely that anyone will redo their crèche or rewrite Christmas carols in order to be biblically accurate. Traditions die hard. However, putting the birth of Jesus in its correct context matters because context always matters. The true story about the birth of Jesus is that the people of Bethlehem didn’t turn Mary and Joseph away. Rather, they extended traditional Middle Eastern hospitality to the young family and invited them into their home. Mary gave birth to Jesus surrounded by the women of the village, not alone out in a cold and lonely stable. Jesus was laid in a manger nearby, a trough cut out from the floor, in close proximity to the family. Mary and Joseph were cared for in a warm and friendly home where even the lowly and unclean shepherds felt welcome. The story of the birth of Christ is one of extravagant hospitality by a community in Israel.
In this time of unrest, with terrorist attacks too close to home and refugees headed our way, maybe the true story of Christmas can inspire us to extend more hospitality to those around us during this season and all throughout the year.
 Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 25.
 Ibid, p. 26.
 Ibid, p. 27.
GENEVA CHINNOCK is a writer and author of Becoming His Beloved: Journey into the Father’s Affection. Geneva has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master in Business Administration. In her spare time, Geneva loves reading, eating bacon and attending live theater. She lives in Southern California with her husband and blogs about matters of faith at TreasuredbyGod.com.