By Terry Rhoads
Nativity scenes can still be seen in residences and other places, where they have not been publicly banned. There is much rich tradition behind these displays, however, not all of it is biblically or culturally accurate. It might be helpful to explore in more detail some of these events to give us a more complete picture of what the gospel writers tell us about this very sacred time, when God chose to enter this world as a baby.
Luke tells us that Joseph had to return to his home village of Bethlehem in order to register to pay taxes as decreed by the Roman Emperor, Ceasar Augustus. Because Joseph had extended family there, it would have been no problem for him to find suitable housing. It would have been unthinkable for he and Mary to be out in a cave or a stable.
Where did Joseph and Mary stay and what about the reference to the “manger” and the “inn?” When we think of a manger we often think of a stable or a barn, but that is because we don’t understand the culture of the times. Village homes in Palestine often had only two rooms. One was for guests. The room was either added to the end of the house or on the roof (1Kings 17:19). The main room was where the family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door was either a few feet lower than the rest of the house or blocked off with timbers. Each night the family animals would be led into this area and each morning taken out and tied up in the courtyard area. The animals were placed in the house to provide extra warmth in the winter and to keep them from being stolen. The animals could feed during the night from “mangers” cut out of the floor or made from wood. Simple, one-room village homes have been documented by several modern scholars.
What about the “inn?” The Greek word in Luke 2:7 is commonly translated “inn.” However, that is not the ordinary word for a commercial inn. For example, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan took the wounded man to a commercial inn, and in that passage Luke used a different Greek word. If Luke wanted his readers to think Joseph was turned away from a commercial inn, he would have used this Greek word. The word Luke used in Luke 2:7 is the same word he used to describe the room Jesus told the disciples to prepare so they could eat the Passover meal (Luke 22:10-12). It seems likely, then, that Joseph relied on the hospitality of someone in his extended family, whose “guest-room” was already occupied when he and Mary arrived.
Luke’s account fits quite well with the typical peasant home in those times. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into a private home. The child was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood. The guest- room was already occupied, so the host family welcomed them into the main living area of their house. The village mid-wife and/or other women would have assisted at the birth.
When the shepherds were told by the angel to go and see the Messiah, that would have caused them concern. Shepherds were very low on the social scale of their society. How could they be convinced they would be welcome? The angel told the shepherds they would find the baby wrapped (which is what the shepherd families did with their babies) and that the baby would be lying in a manger. That meant they would find the baby in an ordinary peasant home like theirs. That was really good news. The shepherds went to Bethlehem, reported the story and everyone was amazed.
Hopefully, some of this cultural background will help enhance your reading and understanding of this very familiar account of Jesus’ birth.
For further reading: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh.