It’s almost Christmas. Even if you’re not involved in a church you can’t escape this season without coming across the nativity. Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus. They’re surrounded by adorable farm creatures. Sweet, right?
How’s the story go? You know, Joseph waits until Mary is just about to give birth before deciding they should set out on their journey to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus wanted to count the people, after all, so go they must. Joseph is walking, very pregnant Mary is riding the donkey and they travel the long lonely miles completely alone to Bethlehem.
Once they get there they go straight to the local hotel and try to check in. Silly Joseph, of course they don’t have room, the whole town is full of people! Should have booked ahead, buddy. Joseph pleads with the innkeeper that his wife is about to give birth, isn’t there some place he can put her? Greedy innkeeper barely looks up from counting his profits to grunt at them that theres a barn out back, they are welcome to bed down with the animals.
He looks at Mary in desperation and she meekly nods, as she is such a gentle soul who never gets ruffled, and off they go to the barn. Joseph then assists Mary in birthing the baby amid the sheep and cows and they lay him in the feed trough. Again, remember that they’re alone in all this.
What a shame, we say, that the innkeeper didn’t know Who was being born, in his stable! So close to the truth, yet he missed it. How sad that the entire town was so wrapped up in itself that they missed the special baby right in their midst.
Almost none of that is true.
This might ruin your Christmas, but let’s dive right in. That story I just told is how things would go down in a western culture in the 21st century, definitely not ancient middle eastern culture. This is little better than a child’s telling of the birth of Jesus that is based on very little fact. We’ve created this beautiful scene where Jesus is surrounded by animals and shepherds and wise men.
Let’s go back through and look at it piece by piece, taking into account culture and context. I’ve included a few sources at the bottom. But first, here’s the passage in the Bible that tells us the story.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:1-7
That’s it. That’s the entirety of the birth story. There’s not a whole lot of detail there, so we have to build the context around what life was like in that time. Let’s start at the beginning.
Joseph and Mary did not travel alone, and definitely not while her birth was imminent. Joseph knew she was pregnant and also knew the registration was coming. They would not have been surprised by either one and would have traveled well in advance of both. It would have been very dangerous to travel alone in those times, and not only that, but notice that Luke says “all the world should be registered.” Everyone else was being counted as well so there would have been plenty of people traveling every which way and most likely they would have been with a whole caravan of people.
There were no Holiday Inns in the first century. They didn’t go to the local bed and breakfast and ask for a room. There was no such thing. Hospitality was and is a major part of middle eastern culture. Joseph was from the house of David, belonging to Bethlehem, he would have been welcome in just about any home in the city the minute he revealed his lineage.
If someone knocked on my door and introduced themselves as a distant cousin and asked for a place to stay I would probably do no more than point them in the direction of the nearest hotel. This would have been shameful conduct then, and Joseph and Mary, or any other traveler, would have been welcomed with open arms and given a place to stay.
The confusion comes from the word that is translated as “inn” in our English Bibles. This word is usually translated to mean “guest room” in a private residence. Remember, Joseph and Mary were not the only people traveling. This relative’s home may have been full to the brim with people, the guest room (most likely the roof) was full, so instead they were in the main room of the house (most houses in this context were one room) with the local family.
Why was the baby Jesus laid in a manger? Again, looking at culture and context, most people would have brought their livestock indoors at night, for safekeeping and warmth. A manger or trough of some sort was there for the animals to feed. A perfect place to lay the baby out of the way of the crowds of people and animals present.
So let’s review. Joseph and Mary travel with a caravan of people to Bethlehem and are welcomed in by relatives. While there, Mary’s time comes. All the men are shooed out of the house (men aren’t present for such things) and Mary gives birth, most likely surrounded by female relatives and perhaps a midwife or two? She wraps the baby in cloths and lays him in a manger where he can be safe and warm. This is a typical birth story that would not have differed much from any other Jewish boy in the first century. And that’s exactly the point. Jesus came with no fanfare to a normal family in a small town. His birth was not special in any way. Our western way of thinking has taken his “simpleness” too far in the other direction. He’s become a maverick of sorts. Not only did our Americanized Jesus give away his throne and royal welcome, but he was rejected and lonely before he was even born. That’s unbiblical and nonsense.
I don’t have room to write about the shepherds visiting, but it does give the story a little more drama doesn’t it, to think about the dirty shepherds coming into a stranger’s house to look at a baby? Interesting. And oh my. The wise men. They weren’t there. They came years later, most likely. But that’s all for another day.
One more thing. I’ve brought this subject up a few times in the last few years as I’ve researched it and a few people have countered that Joseph and Mary would have been shunned by their families because she was pregnant out of wedlock, thereby explaining why they were alone and why she gave birth in a barn. There’s a few problems with this idea when you examine the culture and context of the story in Luke and the world at that time. First, it would have brought shame upon the entire town of Bethlehem to turn away a pregnant woman. That would have been unspeakable.
Second, Remember Joseph and Mary were betrothed, their wedding was not far off, when she comes up pregnant. Oops. She tells him it’s fine, it’s from God. He’s understandably upset, because c’mon Mary, that’s insane. However, after a visit from an angel in a dream, Joseph believes the child is from God and instead of having Mary stoned, which was his in his rights, he takes her as his betrothed, essentially telling the community that the child is his. Surely people thought they just anticipated their wedding night too soon. They would not have been the only couple to have ever done so, it would not have been that out of the question. So no, none of this would have brought on a shunning that would have left them in a barn. Again, that’s more of an Americanized story.
So. Why does this matter? Why have I ruined your pretty Christmas visuals? It matters for the same reason that you cannot illustrate Jesus to look like a white man, or a black man. We don’t get to decide what “our” Jesus looks like. Why not? Because he is an actual person. He was born into a middle eastern family and unless you have brown skin he looked very different from you or me. We don’t make God in our own image, we don’t change who Jesus was.
The Christmas pageants we witness at our white suburban churches are cute, but can we accept the fact that they’re based on tradition and not much fact? I wonder what the real story would look like acted out on stage. I’m there for that. Have you ever seen that portrayed?
This is a true story about real events, it matters that we don’t make up facts. Am I going to make a scene and walk out of the next Christmas program I see where the children crowd into a stable with the animals or act as the surly innkeeper turning away the Savior of the world? Absolutely not. But I will read the story in Luke to my children, and we will talk about ancient cultures. and people and times different from our own. We will sing Christmas carols, and talk about the lyrics. My hope is that the realness of the story of Jesus’ birth will bring wonder and joy to my children as we celebrate the most important part of all this: Jesus came. God in the flesh. Immanuel. He’s here. He will come again. Joy to the world.
Also, this book by Kenneth E. Bailey