“And he was laid in a manger, because there was no place for him elsewhere.”
Ok, so the Bible is very clear that Jesus was placed in a manger. But where’s the part about searching for a hotel room late at night in the pouring rain? Where’s the part about the innkeeper refusing to give them a room for the night? Where’s the part of having to spend the night—and give birth—in a stable or a cave? Where are the ox and ass?
It’s not there; not any of it.
The story that has been told and retold, dramatized and cartoonized countless times throughout the centuries is very much unlike the account we read in the Scripture. So, today, just for the sake of being true to the text, I want to present an alternative story, based on the Biblical account. I’m not saying I know without doubt that this is how things really went down, but I think there is at least as much support for this version as there is for the traditional version, maybe more.
I think it’s highly likely that Joseph and Mary actually gave birth in the home of a relative of Joseph, or at least a sympathetic friend. My conclusion on this comes from personal study, investigation of the study of others, and my experience living in a culture that it in many ways similar (even now in the 21 century) to that of Mary and Joseph.
Here are my reasons for thinking this:
1. The word that is often translated “inn” in Luke 2:7—kataluma— is also the same word that is used for the “upper room” in which Jesus and the disciples ate their final meal together. The word literally means “guest room” which could be interpreted as an upper room for guests or a hotel type situation. In most translations (and I like the NLT because it takes a step in the right direction here) the word “inn” is used as is more a cultural interpretation than a statement of known fact.
2. Most homes during this time period not only had an upper room for guests, but the lower portion of the home was used for housing animals and livestock during night. As such, the lower area of the home had mangers (feeding troughs). It is absolutely conceivable that Mary and Joseph were staying in the home of a family member, but that the guest room was already occupied by another (probably older) member of the family.
3. In most non-Western places around the world, when one visits his/her place of origin, or a place where he/she still has family, staying in a hotel is unthinkable–it’s expensive and a dishonor to family members in the area. Since Joseph was from the area he likely would have had lots of family around. Being poor, he likely would not have sought out a hotel. The only caveat to this might have been that nobody wanted to give housing to the pregnant-out-of-wedlock Mary, but this seems an unlikely scenario.
4. Look at the wording of the text, the mention of the kataluma comes after the baby is born. There is no talk of them frantically searching for a place to stay. It’s more than likely that they had already been in Bethlehem for some time before the birth. The whole “born in stable” storyline comes only from the mention of a manger, which could have easily been a manger in the lower portion of a home–”Mary laid the baby in a manger, because there was no room for them in the better-suited guest room above,” or something like this.
5. Finally, the absence of more information should lead us to believe that what took place was nothing out of the ordinary; that things more or less followed the culturally appropriate patterns which, in this case, would mean staying with family and giving birth in the home surrounded by family…and not cows…or sheep…or whatever else.
Anyway, I actually find this version of the story more comforting and realistic.
It may not be a matter of essential faith, but it does give a good reminder to the power of interpretation, cultural background, and translation…we must be careful. We must be careful to take the Word of God for what it is and not add or subtract from it. In the Christmas story, at least, we have added much.
May our hope and joy this season come not in the story of Christmas…but in the Christ.