As we start the Advent Season, let’s hear the words of the Gospel:
In Luke 2:7, we read…
“…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Much is left to our imagination about the exact details of this, the world’s most famous birth. Thus, over time, our image of what this “inn” was and where this “manger” was located has drifted toward what is familiar to us. The manger we imagine set in a European-looking barn, and the inn often comes off looking a lot like a modern Holiday Inn, with registration counter and innkeeper.
But the language of Luke does not demand that at all. In fact, here is where the words of Scripture and the discoveries of archeology can help to picture a more accurate scene.
There were inns in Jesus’ day; one is referred to in His famous parable of the Good Samaritan. But the word translated “inn” in Luke 2 is not the word used to describe the inn of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here in the Christmas story the word that is used (kataluma) is better translated “lodging place,” and, in fact, it shows up in Luke 22:11 as “guest room.” Here is where archeology comes in to help us understand.
First of all, we need to realize that it was very unlikely that a small town like Bethlehem would have an inn in the sense of a hotel. Secondly, we need to realize that this was a hospitality-rich culture. We see grand efforts at hospitality all through the Bible. Thus, it would be very unlikely that a pregnant woman and husband would be turned out into the street to fend for themselves, settling in a barn. Does this mean that I am questioning the Bible? Not at all! Here is what we have discovered about the homes of the day. Most of them were one room affairs with an attached area for animals. This is why in Matthew 5, when Jesus talks about lighting a lamp, he says it lights the “whole house.” That whole house was just one room.
The animal area was sometimes below the family’s living space, accessible by ladder and sometimes next to, but lower than, the living space, with stairs from the animal shelter leading up to the room where the family ate and slept. When this was the case, there was a small manger for the small animals in the lower animal area, and a larger manger for the larger animals, elevated and within the family room. (See the picture below)
Right away we can understand that these folks were a lot less concerned with animal smells than we are today. You may ask, “Why would they live like this?” The answer is simple. Animals were a source of wealth and a source of warmth. It is like locking your bank account in under your roof at night, plus they let off heat. You had to put up with the smell, but they thought it was a good trade off. Sometimes, in the home there was a second room, in Greek a “kataluma.” It was the lodging place for guests, or guest room. In times when there were no guests, it would have been used by the family, but when needed, it was the family’s way to show hospitality, which was a point of honor in this culture. (See the picture below.)
The guest room was the place that was full on that fateful night. Thus, instead of a heartless innkeeper who makes them sleep in the barn, we should imagine a family who, while they could not provide Mary privacy, did the best they could and brought her into their own living space, or at least into the animal space which was part of their home.
The manger in which Mary laid the baby Jesus was most likely the larger elevated one where the animals could be kept away.
I am not telling you this to burst any bubbles, change Christmas cards or re-structure Christmas pageants. I am simply saying that the more we research into Bible time’s customs and settings, the more the words of Scripture come alive.
This turns the story into one in which there is deep hospitality shown to the family and the baby Jesus. Thus, hospitality should be a part of our Christmas season as well. Hospitality toward neighbors, friends, family and, of course, the welcoming of our Savior into our lives.
Have a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas,