By Mark Hilditch
Many folks know the Christmas story too well. Yes, too well. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem and were turned away from the village inn by the innkeeper. They took refuge in a barn, where the baby Jesus was born and laid in a manger. Right? Well, the actual biblical story, found primarily in Luke chapter 2, does not refer to an inn, a cave, or even a barn, but rather a house.
The text of Luke 2 notes there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the “inn,” but Luke neither quotes nor mentions an innkeeper. The Greek term translated as inn (kataluma) had multiple meanings. The only other time it appears in the New Testament is to describe the place where Jesus observed the Last Supper with His disciples. Here, Luke gives additional information about the kataluma. He says it was a furnished, large upper story room within a private Jerusalem house. The kataluma of the last night of Jesus’s earthly ministry was the “upper room.”
The kataluma of Jesus’s first night was a similar room in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph came into town with Mary ready to deliver. Arriving at Joseph’s ancestral home, they found it already full of other family members who had arrived earlier. While the exact reason space was not made for a pregnant woman is unknown, it probably indicates the house was full of elder members of Joseph’s family, who had priority.
So that is when Mary and Joseph went to the barn, right? Not exactly. The biblical account mentions neither a barn nor a cave-like animal shelter. It is assumed because of the manger. Mangers are animal feeding troughs and barns are where one would expect to find them. But in the ancient world, as well as in primitive modern cultures, mangers are also found within the house itself. Animals are regularly kept in homes at night.
A small number of flock animals were housed, not in attached exterior sheds, but inside the house in one of the ground floor rooms. Here animals, tools, and agricultural produce were stored. Here, too, food was prepared and consumed. Family sleeping quarters were on the second floor. By being inside, the animals were protected from the elements and theft. In addition, their presence provided body heat for cool nights, access to milk for the daily meal, and dung as a critical fuel source. Excavations in Israel have uncovered numerous installations within domestic structures which likely were ancient mangers. Some are carved, but most are stone built. Wooden mangers, of course, have not survived in the archaeological record.
Joseph was a direct descendant of King David of Bethlehem. Jesus was born there as a consequence of the requirements of the Roman census, as noted in Luke’s Gospel. There is no reasonable way to surmise that Joseph and Mary would not have been welcomed into the home of one of his relatives upon their arrival from Nazareth, especially with Mary nearing her time of childbirth. Other family members had arrived earlier to be recorded in the census, and filled up the better places in the ancestral family home.
So, Joseph and Mary had to be accommodated downstairs in the interior stable, but they would most definitely still have been welcomed into Joseph’s family home. For his extended family to have done otherwise would have shamed the entire family throughout the village of Bethlehem. Consequently, they experienced this extraordinary birth event on the lower floor of the home, where the mangers were located. In there, Mary would have been attended to by the adult women of the entire extended family. A short time later, the family would be visited by some local shepherds in this ancient story.
Mark Hilditch is recently and happily retired after a 46-year work adventure which included seasons of learning opportunities in business promotion, graphic design, pastoral leadership, senior care management, website marketing, and hospice education and promotion. He serves on the board of directors of Feed Spokane, does community relations for Care to Stay Home (a local home care agency) and provides development consulting for Vino y Aceite International (a network of 75 new churches in northwest Mexico.) Hilditch and his wife, Sharon, are part of New Community Church in Spokane.