One of the biggest traps in reading the bible is to do so with the twin filters of our 21st century western mindset and the wrong interpretations we've inherited from history-and the story of the birth of Jesus is one of the biggest examples of such a trap.
We've all grown up with the story-Joseph with Mary, heavily pregnant and about to give birth, arriving in Bethlehem on a donkey, to be told that the inn was full and so she had to give birth in a stable, a birth that soon had visits from shepherds and wise men. No doubt many parents, and church members generally, will see this scene acted out this week. It's so familiar, but is it the story the bible teaches?
Before I go further, I must acknowledge the debt I owe to Kenneth Bailey's book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, which first highlighted to me a number of the points which follow.
Firstly a minor point, there is no mention of a donkey in any of the gospels. Mary and Joseph may or may not have travelled on a donkey. We just don't know.
The more important point is in what happened to Mary and Joseph when they arrived in Bethlehem, Our usual understanding is that there was no room at the inn. However, consider this:
1. Would people from the Middle East be likely to leave a heavily pregnant woman without anywhere to stay? Even today, the sense of community that still exists in much of the Middle East would mean it would be regarded as a matter of shame to leave such a woman without anywhere to sleep and for her to end up giving birth in a stable. Even in our western culture, a woman about to give birth would be a matter of concern for many people if she had nowhere to go, and many would offer to help.
2. Both Joseph and Mary had family connections in the area. Joseph was returning to the town where his family originated. It would have been regarded as a matter of duty to house even a distant relative if he turned up in a town. Mary too had relatives in the broad vicinity. We know that she had previously been to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. Bethlehem is in the centre of Judea. In an emergency, Elizabeth's home would have been somewhere to divert to.
3. Joseph and Mary are likely to have had time to make arrangements for the birth. The bible does not suggest that Mary arrived in Bethlehem already about to give birth. Luke 2:6 states that, whilst they were in Bethlehem, 'the time came for her to give birth'. This could have been several days or more after their arrival.
So what did it mean when the bible states there was no room at the inn? To understand this, we have to understand the housing of the time, including the housing of animals. Simple family homes often had only two rooms. One was effectively a guest room. The other, larger room was a family room where the family ate, slept and lived. Only rich people had separate stables to keep animals in at night. Most people had a part of their living room that was lower by several feet, and it was into here where animals were driven at night. At the edge of the raised section where the family lived, there would be several managers, at the right height for animals to be able to eat from at night.
The other aspect we need to understand is what is meant by 'inn'. The Greek word used in the story is katalyma. This is not the word used for a commercial inn. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the injured man is taken to a panndocheion, which is a commercial inn. Katalyma simply means 'a place to stay'. Luke 22 uses katalyma when, at the time of the Last Supper Jesus asked 'where is the guest room where I am to eat the passover?' If Luke used katalyma to mean 'guest room' in Luke 22, it seems reasonable to assume he also used it with this meaning in Luke 2:7, where we are told that Jesus was placed in a manger because the guest room was full.
What looks likely to have been the case was that, when Joseph and Mary arrived, the guest rooms in all houses were full because people were already staying in it (probably due to the census) and so a family, recognising their duty to care for both a relative and a heavily pregnant woman, invited Joseph and Mary to join them in the family room. When Jesus was born. Mary, away from anything she had prepared at her own home, used the manger to put the baby in as it was next to where she was.
Finally, consider the wise men, It is firstly interesting to note that Matthew tells us that, when they arrived, they entered the house where they saw Mary and the baby, underlying that Mary and Joseph had somewhere to stay, but the other key question is when did they arrive? We're told in Luke 2 that the shepherds arrived the same day as Jesus was born, but for the wise men no such date is given. What we do know in Luke 2:16 that Herod, when he realised that he had been tricked by the wise men, ordered that all of the boys aged under 2 were to be killed. If the wise men had arrived the night of the birth, even allowing a few weeks/months for Herod to realise that the wise men were not returning, why did he order boys under 2 to be killed? Why not boys under 1? The most likely explanation would seem to be that the wise men visited Jesus some months after his birth.
So, rather than a pregnant woman arriving on a donkey being left out in the cold by a heartless inn keeper and an equally heartless community, we instead have the community, very likely to be poor, and full of people visiting for the census, doing their best to do their duty, and a family placing their own small home under greater pressure by finding a place for the woman and her husband to stay and also where she could give birth.
An often overlooked message of the incarnation is how it reinforces that the church is to be a community, and one that especially cares for the poor, even when it is inconvenient.
Many churches care deeply about being biblically accurate, even when it involves putting to one side cherished traditions and misconceptions. It would be great to see that principle applied to how nativity stories are told and acted out.