The Birth of Jesus, Part 2
Oct 14, 2013
After Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus was born there just as the prophet Micah had foretold. Luke 2:6 and 7 says,
6 And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Matthew devotes only one verse to Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:25), not even telling us that He was born in Bethlehem. Mark’s gospel begins with the ministry of John thirty years later, and John likewise says nothing of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. It appears that Luke alone sought out those who witnessed Jesus’ birth and got the story during Paul’s two-year confinement at Caesarea.
Many years later a Greek Christian novelist wrote an imaginative account of Jesus’ birth and early life. The book is called The Protoevangelion, written, scholars believe, around the year 200 A.D. It says in 12:5 that Joseph and Mary were traveling alone and that she gave birth in a cave about three miles from Bethlehem. Joseph went to town to find a midwife (13:1), and Mary gave birth before he returned.
In 12:11 it also has Joseph describing that location as “a desert,” when it in fact was rich farmland. The author was obviously unfamiliar with the geography of Palestine. Neither did the author take into account the historical circumstance, for surely many others had to go to Bethlehem to register in the census. In fact, Luke says that the town was crowded with people from out of town, all there to ratify the document honoring Caesar as “Father of the Country.”
Luke says that Mary laid Jesus “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The traditional Christmas stories were written later by those who did not understand the hospitality culture of the day, nor the layout of the simple homes that the people built for themselves, and this has influenced many of the translations including the KJV and the NASB.
There may have been a commercial inn in Bethlehem. No one can say for sure. But Luke did not mean to imply that a commercial inn was full. The A.V. says that the “guest-room” of the house was already occupied, and for this reason, Jesus was laid in the manger. This is more accurate, because the Greek term katalyma (“inn”) was, in fact, the guest-room of a simple house.
The usual Greek word for a commercial inn was pandocheion. The prefix pan means “all,” and the rest of the word means “to receive.” A pandocheion, then, means “to receive all,” and refers to a commercial inn. In fact, this Greek word was adopted into other languages such as Armenian, Coptic, Arabic, and Turkish, all using the word to mean a commercial inn.
On the other hand, Luke says Mary gave birth to Jesus in a katalyma, “a place to stay.” This was not a commercial inn but a guest room in a house. We see this later, in Luke 22:10-12, when the disciples had to follow a man with a water pot on his head and ask, “Where is the guest room [katalyma] in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?” The owner of the house had an “upper room” for them which had been built on the roof to house his guests.
Wealthy people in those days had separate quarters for their animals, but the average poor residence housed the animals with them at one end of the house near the door. There are thousands of such houses in Palestine even today. Kenneth E. Bailey describes such houses, saying,
“People of great wealth would naturally have had separate quarters for animals. But simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a ‘prophet’s chamber’ on the roof, as in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 17:19). The main room was a ‘family room’ where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day….
“The door on the lower level serves as an entrance for people and animals. The farmer wants the animals in the house each night because they provide heat in winter and are safe from theft.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 29).
The fact that the animals lived in the house is seen in 1 Samuel 28:24, when King Saul was housed in the guest room of the witch of Endor. It says, “the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly slaughtered it” to feed her guest. She did not need to find the calf out in the field or even outside the house.
In another story Jephthah made his rash vow to sacrifice the first thing that “comes out of the doors of my house to meet me” (Judges 11:31). He expected an animal to be released in the early morning as usual, but tragically, his daughter came out first (vs. 34).
The mangers for the animals were often hollowed out stones at the far end of the main room of the house, within reach of the animals in the stable. Because the guest-room was already occupied, the householders offered Joseph and Mary that end of the room. There Mary gave birth, and she was able to place Jesus in a straw-filled manger that was cozy and just the right size for a baby.
We are told nothing about the family that provided hospitality to Joseph and Mary, but they were witnesses of this simple birth that fulfilled the hopes and dreams of prophecy. Such hospitality toward travelers was customary, and it would have been a shame to the community to deny lodging to a traveler in need, especially a pregnant woman. Keep in mind too that this was like an extended family reunion, because all the people who had come to Bethlehem on that occasion were of the house of David. So this family offered what they had—the far end of the house near the stable.
The women of the house were there to assist in Jesus’ birth. Naturally, the men would have left the room, and perhaps a local midwife may have been called. Though Luke gives us the most detailed account, the story is brief. It is perhaps significant also that it took a doctor to pass on these details to us.
This is part 2 of a mini-series titled "The Birth of Jesus." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part 6 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.