Twas the night before Christmas. . . . The Christmas tree is lit, there's a fire glowing warm, and prominently displayed on the mantle is a nativity scene with Jesus in the manger surrounded by cows, sheep, goats, and other animals. Oh yeah, his mother and father are there too. But there he is, Jesus the Christ, born in a barn.
That's what I'd always thought until I read an article by H.W. Roberts about the birthplace of Jesus. It seems we in the Western world have made some presumptions about Middle Eastern agribusiness of the first century that aren't particularly apropos. Let's look at the birth narrative in Luke and see what's really there.
"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7). Many a Christmas pageant has seen Mary and Joseph knocking on the door of the inn only to be told there was no room. But wait, why would Mary and Joseph be staying at an inn? After all, Joseph certainly had relatives there in Bethlehem surely a distant cousin or someone would have taken pity on their plight. But when we look at the word "inn" in Greek we discover something interesting. There we find the word kataluma, but kataluma doesn't actually mean inn it means guestroom. In the story of the Good Samaritan the wounded man in taken to an inn a pandokheion, a public inn. If Luke had meant Mary and Joseph had stayed at a public inn he probably would have used pandokheion in the birth narrative passage as well. Instead he chose to use kataluma a guestroom. And just where is a guestroom?
That's where an understanding of first century Middle Eastern agribusiness comes in handy (see diagram). In a Middle Eastern home the family slept in bedrooms off of the living quarters a large living room which doubled as a guest room, the kataluma when visitors were present. Adjacent to the kataluma, but on a slightly lower level, was what we would call a stable a place where the family's animals would come in for the night for protection against the elements, against predators, and against thievery. The manger was built into the floor of the kataluma so the animals could reach the feed, but could not step into it.
According to what Luke seems to actually be saying, it is likely this is a more natural and authentic story line: Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem for the census. They arrive at their kinfolk's home, but because there are already so many crowding into Bethlehem, and even into this home, there is no room in the guestroom. However, hospitality in Israel is always expected (and required), so Mary and Joseph make their beds in the lower area with the animals. But when Jesus is born, it isn't into a cold, harsh world with only animals to herald the birth. Instead, Jesus is born into the family, laid into the manger in the kataluma for all to behold cousins, aunts, and uncles all cherishing and cooing at the newborn king.
May your holiday be as warm.