Find the innkeeper!
Let’s look at the Christmas story -- Luke 2:6-16. As you read it, see if you can find the scripture that says that an innkeeper let the Holy Family stay in his stable.
"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."
Angels and shepherds
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Artwork: Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds by Govert Teunisz Flinck
Mary, Joseph and the Baby
"And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
"And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."
Artwork: Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst
What about the barn?
Did you notice there’s not a single word about Jesus being born in a stable? However, the text does say three different times that He was laid in a manger.
Verse 7: "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."
Verse 12: "And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And verse 16: "And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."
Artwork: Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt van Rijn
And what about the inn?
Did they really get turned away from the inn? No innkeeper is mentioned. There is nothing about him feeling bad and showing them the barn – suggesting they camp out there.
In fact, there’s considerable doubt as to whether they really went to an inn. The Greek word kataluma is translated in this passage as "inn," but the only other time kataluma appears in the Bible, it is translated as "upper room," the place where the Last Supper took place.
Artwork: Mary and Joseph Travel to the Census by William Hole
So it is entirely possible that all of the Christmas plays with apologetic innkeepers saying "No room" may have been pure fantasy. And there is no mention of any stressed-out hotel clerk in the Bible. We do know for certain that Joseph came from Bethlehem. So, members of his extended family may have still lived there. Family bonds were very important in that society, so it is entirely possible that Joseph and Mary planned to stay in the kataluma or "guest room" of a relative. But there’s no good English translation for the word kataluma. Literally it means "to loosen down." In slang, you might say it was a place for visitors to "hang loose." The translators of the King James Version of the Bible debated what the term meant and decided on "inn."
Artwork: Joseph Seeks Lodging in Bethlehem by Joseph Tissot
A feeding trough?
The scholars putting together the International Standard Version said she "laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no place for them in the guest quarters." The meaning of kataluma depends entirely upon the context in which the word is used, according to experts in ancient Greek.
A public campground?
Jewish culture demanded that each household should keep an area or room in the house for visitors. In a smaller house, such a kataluma might simply be a space in the corner for a traveler to lie down. In a larger house it might be several rooms. But a kataluma could also be a public campground near an oasis or public well and watering place. Such a permanent campsite would likely have had a manger for feeding the travelers’ animals, whereas a guestroom wouldn’t.
Too many relatives
Another possibility is that when Mary and Joseph arrived, the family guest rooms of his various relatives were already packed with cousins, aunts and uncles who also had traveled to Bethlehem because of the census.
So, is it possible that Mary and Joseph decided it would be better for everyone if they moved to a more private area for the arrival of their child? Maybe they chose an area adjacent to the house usually used by travelers’ animals? There they would have found a manger.
One problem with this is that Joseph’s relatives surely would not have been so inconsiderate to an expectant mother on the verge of giving birth. It is also difficult to imagine that in the middle of her labor pains, Joseph’s relatives would have packed her off to the stables so they could party in the guest room.
Artwork: The Adoration of the Shepherds by Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo
Imagine your own family reunions
If the new bride of one of your younger, distant cousins showed up in labor, she would be the center of attention! What group of women would not have kicked the men out – and enjoyed every moment of helping Mary have her baby?
So, could it be that Mary and Joseph did not want to cause a fuss? Realizing that there was no place for them in the guest rooms, they quietly went to the stables on their own? Maybe they were uncomfortable in the large room or rooms where all their relatives had spread out for the night.
Could it be that when her water broke and contractions began, Mary and Joseph slipped off to a quieter, more private place – without telling anybody?
Artwork: The Nativity by Robert Campin).
Or here’s a thought: is it possible that the relatives weren’t all that friendly since it was well known the baby had been conceived before Mary and Joseph were married? The Bible says nothing about her being shunned ... although that idea has surfaced in books and films over the years.
Artwork: The Nativity, a William Morris stained glass window at St. Martin’s Church, Birmingham, England
The cattle were lowing?
In the earliest icons of Christ’s birth, the painters show the holy family surrounded by cattle, sheep and donkeys. But the Bible is silent there as well. "The cattle were lowing" and "the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay" are poetic thoughts from a lovely Christmas carol, not the Gospels.
Artwork: Madonna della Paglia by Anthony Van Dyck Flemish
Around the second century, the notion was popular that the birth had taken place in a cave. An apocryphal gospel never included in the New Testament, the Protevangelium of James, states that Christ’s birthplace was a cave just outside Bethlehem.
That highly dubious account says the birth took place so suddenly that Mary and Joseph did not have time to get to a waiting relative’s house. Unable to travel the last few hundred yards, Mary was taken to a cave, which was the nearest shelter Joseph could find.
One enormous problem is that the Protevangelium of James is a low-regarded counterfeit account of the early years of our Lord. The writer pretended to be the Apostle James and showed significant ignorance of history, tradition and theology in virtually every sentence he wrote. So, this non-biblical account can’t be used to prove anything.
However, Bible’s account of the shepherds does offer a clue. We do know that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby. An angel of the Lord appeared to them
The glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
The shepherds rushed off to see this for themselves.
Artwork: Adoration_of_the_Shepherds by Robert Campin
So, where’s that Baby?
How did a bunch of sheepherders know where to go?
As far as we know, the angel did not provide them with an address! The only description they were given was that they would find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
It seems unlikely that the shepherds worked their way through the streets of Bethlehem, knocking on each door in the middle of the night, asking to see the owner’s mangers! Neither is it likely that the shepherds went prowling through people’s barns looking for newborns.
But is it possible the reference to a manger implied something more to them than "any old manger." Perhaps they took it to mean one of their own public mangers? The caves around Bethlehem were used by the locals as winter shelters for their animals. So, when the shepherds found one of the caves lit by a lamp, did they find a mother, father with a newborn child lying in a manger? The Bible does not say.
Artwork: The Birth of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch
Was it a wooden manger?
Did the great Renaissance artists and the icon-makers of the Middle Ages get that wrong, too?
Archeologists have found in the Bethlehem area several stone mangers in the lower floors of homes. It was the practice of the time to house the family’s animals underneath the house in the unfinished first floor. Today, many farmers throughout Europe still do the same thing. The practice was quite common in Poland and France. There, today, an older house may have a first story that was once used to house animals, but which has been converted for human use. Could Mary and Joseph have stayed in some great-uncle’s guest room – where there was no baby bed, but a very convenient stone manger left over from before the house was remodeled?
Artwork: The Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans
By the watchtower?
Another tradition is that the Shepherds would have looked for the manger in Bethlehem’s Migdal Eder or "watchtower of the flock." Such towers existed around Bethlehem and were used by the shepherds as a lookout and a place of refuge for their flocks in case of attack.
Indeed, the prophecy of Micah 4:8 says: "As for you, O watchtower of the flock, O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem."
Bethlehem’s Migdal Eder was actually the watchtower used to guard the temple flocks – sheep raised for ceremonial sacrifice in Jerusalem’s Temple. Such flocks were kept on the hills around Bethlehem. How appropriate that the sacrificial Lamb who took away the sins of the world would be born where sacrificial sheep were born and raised! However, the Bible does not say.
Photo: The ruins of the Midgal Elder Tower near Bethlehem
For 2,000 years, mankind has just assumed His birthplace was a stable and that the cattle were mooing, the sheep were bleating and the donkeys were braying. The Bible is silent on the subject.
Artwork: The Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst
Mary pondered ...
We do know that when the shepherds had seen the baby, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child – that this was the long-awaited Messiah. All who heard it were amazed. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Artwork: Adoration of the Children by Gerrit van Honthorst