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The Birth of Jesus — a Fresh, Historical Look

Traditionally, the account of Christ's birth is well known; but when looked at through the eyes of history, culture, and Scripture, there may be more to this story!

Marc Turnage, the executive director of the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies, provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical insights, and archaeological records. In this article, he examines the traditional account of the birth of Christ. 

Christmas is a time of year filled with traditions, family traditions, and Church traditions. It’s a time of year that remembers a miraculous event that occurred in the most natural way — the birth of a baby. Yet, the way we relate the story of the birth of Jesus often reflects our tradition instead of the historical reality. Placing Jesus’ birth within the cultural and archaeological framework of His first century world, presents a common, yet no less wonderful, event of the birth of a baby.

An Inn in Bethlehem?

Luke does not explicitly mention where Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem, yet most modern translations depict Joseph and Mary having “no place in the inn.” The Greek text of the Gospels is more ambiguous, and archaeology from the land of Israel supports this ambiguity: “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because they did not have space in their accommodations” (Luke 2:7). 

The Greek word usually translated, “inn” is kataluma. It means, “lodging, place to stay, accommodations” or “guest room, dinning room.” Luke used the word kataluma twice in his Gospel (2:7; 22:11; cf. Mark 14:14). His use of the word in 22:11 refers to the “upper room/accommodations” where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples. If Luke had intended that Joseph and Mary found no room in an inn, he would have used the preferable Greek word pandoxeion “inn,” (see Luke 10:34). Luke used the word kataluma in a generic sense of a “place to stay” or “accommodations.” 

In addition to Luke never mentioning an inn, an innkeeper never appears in his narrative. He also does not depict Joseph and Mary arriving in the final days and hours of her pregnancy, unable to find lodging: “It happened that while they were there, the days for her to give birth were fulfilled” (2:6). Joseph and Mary had been in Bethlehem for an undisclosed period of time prior to the birth of Jesus, and had a place to stay. Their accommodations prior to Jesus’ birth, however, proved unsuitable for the birth and neonatal care of Jesus and His mother, and simply could not accommodate Jesus’ birth.

Bethlehem the Town of Joseph

A Roman census required people to register in the place where they owned land; a person registered for taxation purposes in the place where he lived or in the principal town of his taxation district. Joseph’s compliance with the census and registering in Bethlehem indicates that Bethlehem was Joseph’s “own city” (Luke 2:3), and not merely his ancestral home. Joseph likely owned property there. At the very least, Joseph had family in Bethlehem, so they did not need to stay in an “inn.” 

Luke describes two separate events taking place in the lives of Joseph and Mary simultaneously: 1) Joseph’s compliance with the census in Bethlehem, and 2) Joseph’s gathering of his betrothed (2:5) Mary into his home.

The Gospels reflect the Jewish cultural world of the first century. Luke’s description of Joseph and Mary carefully portrays the process of marriage in first century Jewish homes. According to ancient Jewish marriage customs, marriage included two phases. The initial phase was the “betrothal,” which took place at the home of the bride’s father, where she remained following the ceremony (m. Pesahim 3.7; m. Ketubot 5.2). The groom gave his bride money or something of value, which communicated to her that she was betrothed to him “according to the law of Moses and Israel” (m. Ketubot 4.9). When the bride and groom felt ready for marriage, the marriage celebration was held, which culminated in the “home-taking” of the bride into the home of the groom. 

The married couple typically began married life in the home of the groom’s parents. The groom’s father set aside a room in the house for the newlywed couple or built an upper-room, a marital house on the roof.

Luke described Mary as Joseph’s “betrothed” when he took her from Nazareth to Bethlehem. By the time of Jesus’ birth, they were living together (Matt. 1:24-25) as husband and wife, meaning that a wedding took place in Bethlehem (2:7).

Joseph brought Mary from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem into his home, or more likely the home of his parents. The most critical moment of the pregnancy in antiquity was the moment of childbirth. The small marital chamber for the newlywed couple could not accommodate the relatives and midwives needed to assist with Jesus’ birth.

Ancient homes excavated throughout the land of Israel demonstrate that residents kept animals within their homes. Within the hill areas around Bethlehem and Nazareth, homes used natural caves as the back of the house, often keeping animals in the caves. The living space of the family was separated from where the animals were kept by stone mangers to feed the animals. These homes could also have a small room on the roof or the side of the house to accommodate family members and guests.    

When we read Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth within the cultural and archaeological world of the first century, his story looks something like this: Joseph, who lived in Bethlehem, brought Mary his betrothed from Nazareth to Bethlehem where they were married. While they were living there in the small marital chamber, “their accommodations” could not handle those helping Mary with the birth of Jesus. Mary gave birth to Jesus in the front, living room of the house and laid him in a manger, which served the animals within the house.

It looks quite a bit different than our Christmas pageants and nativity crèches, but it fits the first century world of Jesus and Luke’s Gospel account. In this way, it reminds us as modern readers that we must engage the Bible in its world in order to properly understand it and its message.