As we saw in our last post, Joseph and Mary weren’t turned away from an inn when they arrived in Bethlehem. The town was probably too small to have an inn, anyway. Instead, Luke indicates that there was no room for them in the upper room, presumably in the house of one of Joseph’s relatives. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere. When she did, she laid the infant Jesus in a manger, which was a food trough for animals. So, poor Mary gave birth in a filthy stable surrounded by animals. Or did she?
The presence of the manger in the story has led some to conclude that Mary delivered Jesus in a stable or barn. An early Christian tradition states that Jesus was born in a cave near Bethlehem. However, we have to point out that the text does not demand this interpretation. It doesn’t mention a stable, barn, or cave—this is an assumption based on the inclusion of the manger and nothing more.
The typical blueprint for homes in ancient Palestine followed a simple pattern. A single-story house would be divided into living quarters for the family and another room that served as a guest room. This extra room could be on the first floor or built on top of the roof. At the end of the family room was another space where animals could be brought indoors (unless you were exceptionally wealthy, in which case you might have a detached area for animals). Mangers were straw-filled depressions in the floor accessible to the animals inside the home.
Here is our reconstruction of the picture as it might have happened: Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because of the census. They arrive in town at Joseph’s ancestral home, but with the influx of relatives coming to town, the guest room is already taken by those who arrived earlier. Mary has to give birth in the common room of the home where the rest of the family would be located, assisted by other women. After Jesus’ birth, Mary lays him in one of the mangers, where the other relatives probably welcomed the newborn into the family. Any animals present would have been in a separate area of the house.
How did the picture we see in Christmas pageants, children’s plays, and nativity scenes get it so wrong? Possibly because we tend to view the Bible through Western eyes. We don’t keep animals in the house, unlike someone living in first-century Palestine (or Old Testament times, for that matter; cf. Judges 11:30-31; 1 Samuel 28:24). There is also a certain romance behind the intrepid Joseph and Mary going at it alone, heroically defying everything and everyone to bring the Savior of mankind into the world. The real story is probably much more like what we would expect under normal circumstances. Jesus, like any other newborn, was likely welcomed with love and celebration. Although, we must admit, probably not as much as he deserved as the Son of God.
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