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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.

Luke 2:7 King James Version

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The Birth of Jesus

The Gospel of Luke 2:1-21

The Birth of Jesus

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.)And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 

7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, (Baby Jesus was not born in a manger but was placed in a manger by Mother Mary.) because there was no guest room available for them.

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.

Luke 2:7 King James Version

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child,he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.



...too many people base their beliefs on traditions, legends, song lyrics, etc., rather than the Bible.

Many Christians have no more than a third grade level of understanding the bible.  For many the wooden nativity scenes that are sold every Christmas with a manger scene and the three wise-men is a very inaccurate portrayal of the birth of Jesus.

First of all we all know how it goes... Joseph  and Mary who was with child came to Bethlehem and there was no room for them at the inn!

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.

Luke 2:7 King James Version

But this is not actually what the bible tells us.  The King James Version of the bible translated the Greek incorrectly in Luke 2:7! (this is blasphemy for some Christians!) but the King James translation is a great translation; but it is still the work of imperfect men who did their absolute best to ensure accuracy. But simply as men do; we make mistakes! Men making mistakes on translation does not in any part take away one iota of the Word of God, but it may hamper our understanding of biblical truths!

Every good story needs a villain—even a Sunday-School Christmas pageant.  Of course, the original Christmas story from Matthew and Luke had a super-villain: King Herod.  But for a Sunday School production, it doesn't really work to have grade-school kids acting out the Slaughter of the Innocents, so there isn't room for a Herod.  In his place, therefore, a new villain must be found.  And so now the bad guy of every Christmas pageant is ... the innkeeper! That cruel, heartless, money-driven petty tyrant who couldn't find a space in his inn for a pregnant woman and her weary husband.  Because of his indifference, the holy family winds up—not in a room at the Bethlehem Motel Six—but in a barn, in a stable, amidst hay and cattle … and all that stuff that turns up when cattle and hay come together.  It is a picture of consummate inhospitality toward the infant Christ.

And it comes straight from the Gospel of Luke, right?  "And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."   But is this what the Gospel means in the original?  The problem is that ancient Greek had a word for "inn"—pandocheion. It is similar to the modern Greek word for hotel, xenodocheio. We find this word later in the Gospel of Luke in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan brings the wounded Jewish man to an inn, pandocheion, and pays the innkeeper to take care of him.  But the word in the Christmas story is not this word.  

In chapter 2 of Luke we find another word: katáluma.  Katáluma means a place to sleep, usually in the sense of a guest room, a spare room.  But not a guest room in an inn, but a guest room in a home.       The word katáluma comes up again in the Gospel of Luke in connection with the Last Supper, when Jesus instructs two disciples to ask about a room where he can eat the Passover with his disciples.  He tells them to ask for a katáluma.  

We think of the Last Supper as taking place in an upper room, a space on the second story of a house.  And that is generally an accurate picture of where the guest quarters would be in an ancient home in Judea.   The average person's house was nothing more than four walls enclosing a single room with a flat roof. Your bedroom was your living room, which was also your dining room and your den. If there were guests to be accommodated, often the guest room would be set up on the roof of the house.  This would be the katáluma.   Luke tells us that when the holy family got to Bethlehem, ouk een aftois topos en to katalúmati, "there was no space for them in the guest area."  

Whose guest area?  The innkeeper's?  Highly unlikely!  First of all, Bethlehem in the first century was a tiny, tiny village off the main roads.  It probably didn't have an inn of its own: there wouldn't have been enough business to keep it open.  If you were going to Bethlehem, it was because you knew someone there.  And Middle Eastern hospitality meant that you stayed at the home of the person you were visiting-a relative or a friend-in their special guest room, their katáluma.  We know that Joseph and Mary had relatives in Bethlehem: that's the whole reason they went there, so that Joseph could return to his familial hometown for the census.  It would have been normal and natural that they would stay in the home of a family member.  It would have been strange and unexpected for them not to stay with family: it would have been an insult, in fact, one way or the other.  

Can you imagine going back to Greece to visit the chorio and not staying with the family?  After I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to Europe for a few weeks to see the family’s ancestral homes in Holland and Denmark.  I didn't ask my relatives there for a list of local hotels, and they didn't offer me one.  I stayed in their homes, in their guest rooms.  And if that is the case for Westerners in the 20th century, how much more so for Middle Easterners in the first century?  

But, of course, Joseph and Mary were not the only relatives coming back to the old stomping grounds that Christmas.  All of Joseph's other relatives who had left Bethlehem would have been required to return.  And so it only makes sense that all of the family katalúmata, guest-rooms, would have been full.  The slowest to arrive would have found that there was no space in the katáluma for them.  And a man traveling from Nazareth way up north down to Bethlehem in the south, with a pregnant wife, would probably have been the last to arrive.  

By the way, while we are playing Mythbusters today, we should probably also give up the Christmas pageant idea that Jesus was born just as Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem, and that everything happened super-fast before there was time to get decent accommodations.  The Gospel of Luke says clearly that Mary's labor began after they had arrived (Luke 2:6): "And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered."  No indication that they made it to town just at the last moment before her water broke—quite the opposite.  Even so, the houses in town would have been full to bursting already when they arrived.

But would they then have been pointed to the shed to sleep with the cows?  No—because there probably wasn't a separate shed for the animals.  Just like nowadays, most of us have garages attached to our houses that are on a level a few steps below the floor of the house; back then, the average home had an area—within the four walls of the one-room house!—for the animals to spend the night.  Archaeologists have found lots of these simple split-level homes with a dugout area in one end of the house where the animals would be brought in for the night, to keep them warm (and to use their body heat to help keep the whole house warm) and to keep them from being stolen.  And so the people slept in one part of the room and just a few feet away and a few steps down, the donkey, the ox, the sheep would have slept as well.  And just in case the animals needed a nosh in the middle of the night, oftentimes a feeding trough would be carved into the floor of the higher living area, so the animals could stand and eat hay.  This trough was the manger.

Why would you put a new mother and her child down by the animals?  Well, first of all, maybe there weren't any animals there at that time.  Maybe that part of the house could have been cleaned out for human occupation while the animals were housed overnight with a friend or relative nearby.  In that case, then the lower area with the mangers would have been a good place for the baby.  It would have had a little more privacy and quietude than the rest of the house.  It would have been close enough for help but far away enough for separation.  

And so, perhaps after all there is no villain on Christmas night.  Perhaps there are only average people doing the best they could to help under the circumstances.  It's not quite the superhero story of a lone mother and child braving rejection and the elements.  It is less dramatic than the last-minute birth scenario we have been accustomed to, but it is also more true to life and true to Luke’s Gospel.  The poor people of Bethlehem—and poor they were in that village at that time—they were not the villains of Christmas Eve.

But in a sense that's the point.  When Christ came to the poor and the powerless, they received Him.  They were not the ones who rejected him.  It was the rich and powerful, the high and mighty, the best and the brightest, the movers and shakers-these were the ones who would prefer to see Christ left out in the cold.  But the common people received him gladly, during His ministry and from the moment of his Incarnation.  And so it is still today.   Blessed are the poor—and the poor in spirit—for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is the message of Christ, and the message of the Christmas story.


*Fr. Mark Sietsema is the Presiding Priest at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lansing, MI

What is wrong with that picture? First, the 'inn' was not as we imagine – a place where you could rent a room for the night. Such hardly existed. Even more wrong is to assume that Joseph returning to the place of his ancestors would be treated thus by relatives, especially in a culture which prides itself for hospitality.

reminds us it was often an upper room in village homes reserved for visitors. When Luke wanted to make it clear that a building was really an Inn for travellers, he used a special Greek word as in the story of the Good Samaritan – (pandocheion) as in Luke 10. When he meant a guest room – as in Luke 22 – he used the same word as the place Mary and Joseph stayed, a guest room, as told in the Christmas story of Luke 2.

So what then was the stable? Village homes in Palestine consisted of two rooms: one the guest room or "inn" and the other the family room where family lived: worked, cooked, ate and slept. At the end of that room, there was another space, often at a lower level, designated for family animals: possibly a cow, a donkey and a few sheep. Animals brought in over night were for their protection from wild animals and thieves, then in the morning led into a courtyard and the room or stable cleaned.
When Mary and Joseph arrived, with the guest room in use – remember there was a census and many people travelled back to the region to register – there was only one place for them to stay which was the manger at the end of the house: While it was a place for animals, it was in the house of a relative.

Why does this matter? Because the world in which Jesus was born, while tough, primitive and hostile with an occupying Roman army, it was a world of family. Jesus was born into the lineage of David, a Hebrew Testament promise. He did not come unwanted, refused entry into an overcrowded inn. As son of a distinguished family, homes opened and his parents welcomed with the best they had to offer. It was no disgrace to nestle in the straw of a manager. Clean straw, in a loving home, protected by immediate and distant family marked the introduction of the Christ-child.

This welcoming makes a sharp break with King Herod who learns of Persian nobles looking for the "King of the Jews." When verified by Hebrew scholars, he sends his men to Bethlehem to kill an estimated twenty children under two, which eerily marks the collective experience and now memory of this Christmas.

The contrasting stories of a loving welcome and a vicious murder provide framing of the life of Jesus. Within these two opposites the Messiah foretold centuries earlier, now enters the human race, raised by loving parents in Nazareth, eventually overridden by the religious and political/military machines of his day.

What then do we do with this story? Its historic retelling provides a picture and occasion so we might also warmly welcome this king into our personal and collectives lives.