The Truth About Christmas
by Bob Burridge ©2010
This article continues a series of studies about the events surrounding the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. The series begins with, Called To Bethlehem. There is also a complete index for all the articles telling The Truth About Christmas.
Part 8 The Birth of Our Savior
The birth of Jesus was an amazing turning point in the history of the world. It’s easy to let a few traditional pictures get in the way of the point of this story as God tells it in his word. While we love the tender images we see in children’s books and skits about the birth of Christ, it is never good to let them change the actual account given to us in Scripture by the inspiration of the Holy spirit.
The account of his actual birth is found in a very short passage in Luke’s Gospel 2:6-7. “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 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.”
In that fore-ordained town the plan of God was about to be fulfilled. But were they there frantically searching for a room in an inn only to be repeatedly turned away by a thoughtless innkeeper? Were they there all alone as two young Jews from the far away province of Nazareth? And where was that manger the baby Jesus slept in on that first night of his birth?
It is popularly believed that Jesus was born on the first night they arrived. The expression, “while they were there” doesn’t fit with that idea. It means that sometime during the days they were in Bethlehem, Mary’s child was born.
There’s no frantic knocking on doors the very night they arrived to find a room. There’s no panic that Mary was in labor and they were still out on the streets. There’s no mention of an innkeeper who callously turned them away. In fact there’s no actual inn if we take God’s word as is speaks for itself.
The word translated as “inn” is the Greek word kataluma (καταλuμα). In the original Koine Greek the word has a wide variety of uses which make it difficult to know for sure what kind of place it was that had no room for Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Many people picture it in very modern terms as a boarding house or an old English tavern with rooms upstairs. Of course such ideas are totally out of place in Israel at the time of Christ’s birth.
One common view is that the “inn” was what the Hebrews called a milon or a khan. The oriental khan is a large open court surrounded by vaulted chambers. Along the walls are stone mangers for the animals to feed from. Some times the Khan had a grotto or cave for a stable near the large communal area where the people stayed. The type of Khan that would have existed in such a town as Bethlehem would not likely have had an innkeeper. Those who hold to this view generally say that the communal area would not have been large enough to afford much privacy to a woman giving birth to a child. Therefore, since there was not enough room in the khan they slept in the grotto or stable where Christ was born.
This view sounds attractive, and it does explain many of the statements of the narrative. Yet it is not the only explanation possible. It’s probably not the best explanation.
The word “kataluma” is not only found here in the New Testament. It is also used in 2 other places. Luke himself uses this word in his gospel in chapter 22 verse 11. Here Jesus sends out Peter and John to find a kataluma where they could celebrate the passover. This feast was the famous “last supper” of our Lord. In this context the word kataluma is translated as “guest chamber” or “guest room”. Mark also uses this same word in his account of the last supper. Therefore another more consistent way we could translate the Luke 2:7 passage would be… “She laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the guest room.”
It’s interesting to note also that in Luke 10:34 where Luke does refer to an oriental khan he does not use this Greek word kataluma. Instead he uses another Greek word pandokeion. With this information a whole new picture begins to emerge.
The accommodations for guests in eastern homes at that time would of course vary from house to house. One general layout was quite common in old Israel. Many homes were built of heavy stones and divided into 2 rooms. On the outside of the house was often a stone shed which was entered only from the outside. When guests came one of the 2 rooms in the house became the guest room or kataluma. This room could also be rented out for use to visiting groups or families. This might have been the case with the room used for the last supper. If when Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem the guest room was already in use by other visiting relatives, the best privacy for a woman about to give birth to a child would be available in the stone shed on the side of the house. The shed was normally used as a storage place and might well have contained the manger in which our Lord was laid. The text explains that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the kataluma.
Mangers make good cradles and are still used for this purpose in many eastern countries today. Donkeys were sometimes kept in the side room. Perhaps this manger was one that had been used to hold feed for those donkeys.
This raises the question of animals. Was Jesus surrounded by animals as he laid in the manger? When reading the Bible record note that no animals are mentioned. Later shepherds are said to have come. But it is pure speculation to project various animals into the story. If this was a khan there may have been horses, camels or donkeys. But if this is a side room of a humble home in Bethlehem few if any animals would actually be present.
As we mentioned earlier in this series of studies, Mary and Joseph would have arrived in Bethlehem to be reunited with their relatives for the taxation. Likely they had traveled with some relatives from Nazareth. It would be strange that if all the others decided to make that long and dangerous trip separately.
Did Mary and Joseph know anyone there in Bethlehem? Of course they did. It was their family’s home town. Aside from this, their parents, grandparents, and all their other relatives had to be there with them too. If they hadn’t come they would have been in defiance of the decree of Rome. Eastern hospitality would required that relatives living there would open their homes to guests whenever possible. Also remember that Mary and Joseph were not strangers to this place. Mary just six months before spent three months living with her cousin Elisabeth near Jerusalem which is only about 5 miles away.
What we have here is a far more beautiful picture than our traditional manger scenes show us. The story preserves the special sanctity of family. The covenant bond of parents and children is integral in the story, and in God’s plan. This isn’t a story about a lone couple on their own in a strange country without family to support them or friends to be near them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
It was there, with the most extended family gathered around them by God’s providence, that our Redeemer was born.
Next Study: Startled Shepherds