Bashing Bethlehem?

The mythical innkeeper turning away a couple in need.

Christian recording artist Casting Crowns performs a Christmas song called “While You Were Sleeping.” In an attempt to highlight society’s unwillingness to recognize Jesus as God and Savior, songwriter John Mark Hall starts with the example of Bethlehem:

Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King

This is based on the very familiar passage from Luke 2:7 – “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (KJV) We have played this up in our Christmas pageants, too, adding an innkeeper who shoos the laboring Mary and a frantic Joseph away. (I have been the innkeeper in such a production.) Or, perhaps, the innkeeper does the best he can, offering up his stable. But we have gotten this all wrong!

Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, explains both the cultural misunderstanding and the poor translation that have caused our confusion. We do not understand first century housing and hospitality. We also do not think about the details that the Scriptures DO give us. Joseph, a member of David’s royal line, would have had family in Bethlehem who would have received him and his pregnant, betrothed wife. Despite some modern (and ancient) depictions, this was not a case of a last minute journey and labor gone wrong. In fact, Luke says, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” (2:6) There was plenty of time to find a place to stay and people to help with the birth. The culture of hospitality demanded it.

Where Was the Manger?
In western thought, we equate “manger” with a feeding trough in a stable or barn. However, in a typical middle eastern home of the time, animals stayed in the house, not in a separate structure (or cave as the eastern tradition says). They stayed in a lower section of the home and mangers were stone structures on a higher level – right at feeding height. Thus, the mangers were in the main living quarters used by the family. Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus were guests in a house, not outcasts in a stable.

Shameful Shepherds?
Shepherds were not the pillars of ancient middle eastern society. In fact, by the first century, they had an unsavory reputation. Yet, the Luke 2 shepherds were visited by angels and given the good news of Jesus’ birth. They rushed to see Him and went away praising God and telling everyone what they had seen. However, even shepherds would not risk the reputation of their village by refusing hospitality. If this couple and their newborn Child (whom they heard is Messiah!) were stuck in a stable, surely one of the shepherds would have offered his home for them. They certainly would not have walked around town telling everyone about it and rejoicing at the family’s meager shelter. The only reasonable explanation is that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had accommodations as good as or better than what they could offer. This also suggests that they were guests in a normal household.

What About the Inn?
This is where the poor translation comes in. The word translated “inn” is kataluma. It is not the word for a commercial inn. That word, which Luke uses later in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is pandocheion. Kataluma was a guest room built on above the main family room (see diagram below). In fact, this same word is used for the “upper room” that Jesus and His disciples used for the Passover on the night before His crucifixion. In the home where Jesus was born, there were other guests in the guest room. So, they stayed with the family in the main living quarters.

1st century Palestinian home

1st century Palestinian home

No Room?
John Mark Hall is correct when he accuses America of having no room for a Savior at Christmas. We are distracted with everything but Jesus – shopping, Elf on a Shelf, a secularized Saint Nicolas, celebrations of winter, and more. However, it is not accurate to bash Bethlehem for the same neglect. Jesus was born and sheltered by a modest family (probably related to Joseph) who demonstrated the expected hospitality of their culture. While that is less dramatic, it should help us focus on the real excitement: “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” May your family invite Him into your home this Christmas.

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5 thoughts on “Bashing Bethlehem?

  1. linneann says:

    Yes, Sean, I have heard this before. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about the Bible due to mistranslations and they will probably always be perpetuated. Your post is concise and clearly written. Well done because I know it’s not easy to tackle something like this and make it readable to the less scholared like myself.

    • Sean Durity says:

      Thank you for such an encouraging comment! Clarity is an important goal for me. I wouldn’t despair too much about the state of Bible interpretation. While there are commonly held “misbeliefs,” I think they are relatively few and usually not of critical importance. I do think that when properly understood, we have a richer picture of all that God has done and how His people have responded.

  2. Hey, even though I don’t chat much anymore, you are not forgotten and I wanted to say Merry Christmas to you and yours. This article was very interesting. I had not heard this before, so you have enlightened me, brother. Thank you.

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