When we read the Word of God or any other account of events in another time and place, it is very difficult for us to picture a world so extremely different from our own. We tend to use the words to paint a mental picture with a familiar setting. This is only natural. So, when the Western world reads 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.
. . . we naturally picture a stable or barn—because of the manger. After all, mangers are found in stables in our world; so, this seems very reasonable. We might even picture a cave if we stretch our imaginations a bit.
However, when the Creation Museum team, began to dig a little deeper into the text, the culture, and the archaeological research related to Christ’s birth, we found that our preconceived notions may have gotten the better of us in this case.
First let’s look at the “inn.” The Greek word that is sometimes translated inn is kataluma. The word can also mean “guest room.” In fact, Luke uses the same word when referring to the guest room where Jesus and His disciples shared the Passover. Keep this alternate translation in mind as we talk about the culture and archaeology surrounding these events.
In first century Palestine (in fact, even today in the Middle East), family heritage and hospitality were very highly valued. Joseph probably had relatives living there who would be deeply offended if he did not seek shelter in their homes. Even if he did not have friends or family in Bethlehem, Joseph would be welcomed as family because of his ancestors—being a descendant of David, he would be at home there. The family ties are enough to ensure that Joseph and Mary would have been taken in, but we can be even more certain because of Mary’s condition. The idea of any woman who is ready to give birth being left out in the elements—with no assistance—would have been unthinkable to the residents of Bethlehem at that time.
Archaeology will also help us better understand what actually took place that first Christmas. First-century homes in the Judean hill country have been excavated and studied. They were often in caves or built on caves, and many homes had levels or terraces. They often had an upper room that served as a guest chamber and a raised area in the lower level where the family lived and ate their meals. The lowest level of the home is where the animals would be brought in at night, perhaps four feet lower than the family room.
The idea of having farm animals sleep in the house may seem strange to us, but for a peasant family in first-century Bethlehem, it was perfectly natural. They did not think about it or try to make sense of it; they just did it. The animals would be led out first thing in the morning, and then the lower level would be cleaned.
Even as recently as the 20th century, many Eastern homes had built-in mangers for the animals that were brought in at night. To a person of this culture, the statement “laid him in a manger” would immediately bring to mind an image of the family room and the manger that is found there, often along the edge of the lowest level where the animals slept. A built-in, stone manger would serve quite well as a temporary crib.
As we consider all of this information, we are compelled to paint a new picture in our minds’ eyes of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary sought shelter, probably among relatives, but because the guest room was full because of the census, they may have slept in the family room, which was perfectly natural in that culture. In fact, many homes had only one room where everyone slept, and privacy was not valued like it is in our world.
Luke says, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6). So, at some time during their stay (not on the night of their arrival in Bethlehem), Jesus was born—probably in a humble peasant home—and laid in a manger in the home.
While not a stable, a peasant home is a far cry from Herod’s palace—visible from Bethlehem—which would be thought to be a more fitting place for the birth of a king. We may want to cling to long-held traditions like the stable scene, which is often depicted in nativities and Christmas plays, but if He actually was born in a peasant home, then that would mean that is how God Himself planned it. It shows His divine care for Mary and Joseph in how He provided adequate shelter and support from caring individuals during their time of need. It also shows the humility that Christ willingly took on, making it so that no one should feel beneath Him because of economic class or social status. His Story, or history, is beautiful just the way it was, and we should try to see it as accurately as possible so that we can understand the full meaning of God’s Word.
For more detailed information, see The Manger and the Inn by Kenneth Bailey, PhD.