With the Christmas season almost upon us it is a good time to rethink the Christmas story. In the gospel of Luke, we have the story of the census under Quirinius, governor of Syria, that required every person to return to his own city to be enrolled. For Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary, that meant they would have to leave Nazareth, in Galilee, and travel down to Bethlehem.
There were two routes that they could take, one was through Samaria, but many Jews refused to enter the territory of the Samaritans for social and religious reasons. Also that route was fairly dangerous as robbers were known to ply the roads looking for travellers. The second route was to travel over to the Jordan, and travel down the east side of the valley, along a road called the King’s Highway, then go up out of the valley at Jericho and proceed to Bethlehem.
This arduous trip is not mentioned in Luke, yet it is fascinating when we understand the circumstances and time involved in the journey. Every Christmas Ruth and I receive at least one card that has a picture of Mary riding on a donkey while Joseph walks ahead leading the animal. They are usually surrounded by lush greenery with a few Palm trees thrown in for good measure. The reality of the trip was quite different from the Christmas card. The journey down the Kings Highway then up to Bethlehem probably took somewhere around a week and maybe a little more.
The trip would have been conducted in spring so the weather would have been fairly pleasant as they followed the Jordan Valley road, but there were still forests along the valley, at that time, that contained bears and lions. Also thieves haunted this road as they did the ones in Samaria. The last part of the journey up out of the valley and into the hill country would have been particularly difficult for Mary.
Mary, would have also walked most of the way as it would have been just too difficult for a pregnant woman to ride a donkey with the constant shaking the ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Now, we read something very interesting in Luke that is a bit different from the story as we usually understand it. “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.” Luke, says, “while they were there,” this insinuates that they were in the town for some time before the baby was due. Our usual rendition of the story is that Mary and Joseph arrive towards evening, and go from place to place seeking out a place to stay, but cannot find accommodations so they end up in a stable.
Bethlehem, would have been a very small town, at the time the story took place and most of the people would have known each other or been family. It may well have been the case that they ended up living with close relatives and were in the town for a number of weeks before the baby was due. After all they had just spent, at a minimum, a week on the road and would not have been anxious to turn right around and head back to Nazareth as soon as they registered for the census. The trip, for a very pregnant Mary, would have been too difficult.
The New Testament word translated “inn” is kataluma. It means place of rest and usually refers to the guest room. In Luke 22:11 Jesus sends some of the disciples out to secure the guest room for the Passover. “Then you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, where is the guest room where I may eat of the Passover with my disciples.’” The word used here for guest room (upper room) is kataluma. Further, Luke elsewhere in his gospel uses a different Greek word when speaking of an Inn. In the story of the good Samaritan, who takes the injured man to an Inn, the word is pandokheion. (Luke 10:34)
So, if they didn’t stay at an Inn where did they stay? The answer cannot be known for sure but it would be logical that they stayed with one of Joseph’s relatives. But if that is true why does Luke say they laid the baby, “in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn?” (Luke 2:7)
It is important for us to know that mangers were found in first-century homes. The typical home had a area near the door where the family’s animals were kept at night. This was so they wouldn’t be stolen or preyed upon by other animals and their body heat would help warm the house during cool nights. The family lived and slept in a raised part of the house set well back from the door. The area near the door would contain a manger for food and water for the animals.
Now, if we think a little more about the text, it does not say that Mary gave birth in the room where the manger was. It simply said, that she gave birth and then laid him in the manger because there was no room in the guest room. This would make sense. Mary gives birth, with the help of all the women staying at the house, in a more private area. This could have been on the roof of the house or a small room somewhere in the home. It would not have been appropriate to give birth in the guest room as there were other people staying there as well.
Once born the baby was placed in the manger by the door. The manger was scooped out as this is where the animals were fed. This scooped out section of the manger, when filled with straw, was perfect for a new baby as the child was perfectly safe and couldn’t fall out. The animals, probably donkeys and goats, would have been kept outside during this time. With the new baby it would not have been appropriate to try and find extra room in the guest room for Joseph’s expanded family so they probably moved to the manger area by the door.
The Christmas story as we know it was, written by Luke, to be a story of joy and great happiness for the Jews as it proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah. However, throughout the ages we have taken this event that was meant to celebrate Jesus birth and turned it into a simple story revolving around a lack of hospitality by an unknown Inn Keeper in Bethlehem. We are made to feel sorry for Mary surrounding the circumstances of her giving birth, but that was the furthest thing from Luke’s mind. He wanted us to rejoice with the Jews that a Savior had been born, Emmanuel. Now, that’s Christmas!