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Did You Know? - 'No Room at the Inn'

We all know the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn, so they were put in the stable with the animals and little baby Jesus had to use a manger as a bed.


But did you know that the actual birth may have been quite different than what’s become the cultural norm? The story of Jesus’ birth in the bible is quite lacking on many details. Only Luke writes about the birth at all, and this is all he has to say on it:

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born; and she gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the village inn.

       -Luke 2.5-7 (CEB)


It turns out Western cultural had a large hand in how we perceive this story. With the proper historical and cultural context and a look at the original Greek, it becomes clear what most likely happened.


Firstly, it is important to note that if Joseph was returning to his ancestral home, that meant he had relatives that lived there. Even if he didn’t know them and had never met them, they would have welcomed them in. Kenneth Bailey, a renowned historian of first century Palestinian culture, comments:


 Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?”


To add to this, the word that Luke uses in the original Greek is kataluma, which more accurately translates to spare room, or a guest room. We can even compare this to the word that Luke used in the good Samaritan story. There he uses the more general pandocheion for where the Samaritan took the man that had fallen to thieves. The usage of the two words implies that wherever didn’t have room for couple, it wasn’t what we think of as an ‘inn’.


In fact, Stephen Carlson makes the argument that instead of the phrase ‘no room’ it would be more accurate to translate it as ‘no space’. The difference being that there wasn’t space in the room (the kataluma) to give birth.


To better understand the situation, it’s important to know what Palestinian houses look like (as there are houses to this day like this!).


Animals were actually kept in the house, which is a completely foreign concept to Western cultures. But they lived in the city and needed a safe place to keep their animals when there wasn’t much space to spare. From the "stable", there were then steps that lead up to a slightly raised living space for the family. As you can see in this picture, this living space included mangers for easy access to feed the animals. These mangers wouldn’t have been more than indentations in the floor, but, in a crowded house with little options, would make for a makeshift crib, as Luke did specify that Jesus was in a manger – that manger just isn’t where we expect it.


From there, the house would have small rooms for storage and for the guest room (the kataluma). Sometimes this room would be on the first floor, as shown, or is could be a small upper room, as the roofs of these houses were often accessible and used often, since the weather was usually warm.


The idea that our perception of the nativity scene being incorrect is hardly a new idea. There are several scholars from the 19th century sharing this information, including in 1857, a Presbyterian missionary to the middle east, William Thomas, is quoted as saying:


It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.


There are various reasons why our perception of the birth changed and lingered to this day, but the evidence suggests that Mary and Joseph were let into a house and that Mary gave birth in the common area surrounded by family. Jesus was all about us, the people, so why wouldn’t his birth be in community as well.



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