What was the first Christmas really like? Many of us have been told something like this:
Since Mary was set to give birth any moment, her and Joseph had to travel quickly to Bethlehem. The only shelter they could find was a inn. However, the inn was booked and the innkeeper would not make provisions for the lonely couple. Fortunately they were able to find a stable behind the inn, where the animals were kept. This is where Mary gave birth to Jesus, wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger. The picture above illustrates this nicely. Lots of animals in a stable with Mary, Joseph and Jesus (who is glowing!). But is this all true? Sorta. Here is what Paul Copan says:
“Over the centuries, the Christmas story has been re-cast and romanticized into a kind of Christian “mythology.” But what do the Scriptures really tell us about Jesus’ birth?
1. There would have been no inns in a backwater town like Bethlehem. They would be found along main roads or in cities.
2. The word for inn (katalyma) is the same one as the “guest room (of a private home)” mentioned in Mk. 14:14 and Lk. 22:11—the room where the last supper was eaten.
Mark 14:13-15: “Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him; and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is My *guest room* (katalyma) in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; prepare for us there.”
Also, this word in Lk. 2:7 (“guest room”) is different from Lk. 10:34 (pandocheion = inn), where the beaten man was taken by the compassionate Samaritan. This inn had an innkeeper (pandocheus), and such inns would unquestionably located on a main thoroughfare between Jerusalem and Jericho. One commentary puts it this way, “The traditional picture of a surly innkeeper refusing admission to the needy couple is somewhat dubious.” (I. Howard Marshall, “Luke,” in *The New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition*, eds. R.T. France, D.A. Carson, et al. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994], 984).
3. Joseph, no doubt being a considerate husband (cp. Mt. 1:19), would have taken ample time to find Mary a place to give birth, which is what Luke 2:6 indicates: While they were there [in Bethlehem], the days were completed for her to give birth. Mary gave birth after she had “fulfilled her days”—a duration of time. Although people seem to miss this, the passage clearly indicates ample passage of time in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus.
4. In a culture that so valued hospitality, Joseph would have insulted his relatives by going to an inn. Rather, he would stay with his relations, who would readily have made room for his expectant wife—even if the guest room was crowded and the birth had to take place in the main living area. It would seem ludicrous, given the importance of hospitality in the Middle East, that Joseph would have no place to stay among his relatives—especially if he was “of the house and line of David” and if his wife was expecting. And if Joseph could not find a place for Mary after a few weeks or so, they could have gone back to Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who lived in the same region.
5. In Jesus’ day, animal sheds were typically attached to houses. In Palestine a manger was not normally found in a separate stable; rather, it was “in the main living room of a peasant house, where animals are brought in at night” (R.T. France, *The Evidence for Jesus* [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 159). New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (from whom I borrow heavily in this blog) notes that the manger Christ was laid in was “built into the floor of the raised terrace of the peasant home” (Kenneth Bailey, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7,” *Evangelical Review of Theology* 4 : 201-17). This stall-next-to-the-house arrangement is what Luke 13:15 presupposes: “. . . does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him?”
6. When the wise men show up in Bethlehem, they come to a house. Matthew 2:11 states: “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Paul Copan, The First Christmas: Myths and Realities)
So were Mary and Joseph in a hurry to get to Bethlehem? No (see Luke 2:6). Did they go to an inn? No, they went to a house which is where the Magi visited Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Was there an inn keeper present? No. Neither Luke nor Matthew mention one. So where was Jesus born? In Bethlehem, to be sure. In a house, but not in the main living quarters because they were full, but on the floor below or adjacent to the main living area where the animals were kept, hence the manger. Were animals present? The text never says, and they certainly would not have to be since they were often brought in at night.