I have been a pastor for over 20 years, which means I have preached on the birth narrative of Jesus in Luke 2 nearly 20 times. It is amazing how one can study and preach the same passage over and over without examining one's assumptions.
Recently, my friend Nabeel Jabbour gave me Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I can't endorse the whole book, yet, because I have not read it all. However, his first chapter on "The Story of Jesus' Birth" has already challenged some of my assumptions.
The traditional telling of the birth story goes something like this: Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The city is over run with guests. They try to check in to the local inn, but there are no rooms. So, they sleep outside in the stable. Mary and Joseph are all alone as Mary gives birth. There is no one there to help. There only guests are a group of smelly shepherds. The shepherds come, see the homeless people, then leave them there in the stable without any assistance. However, is this an accurate reading of Luke 2?
Bailey brings in some archeological data to challenge this traditional telling. Besides the archeological data, there are problems with this traditional understanding that are right in the verses of Luke 2. The first problem is the translation of the world "inn" in verse 7. The second problem is with the word "all" in verse 18.
The first issue one must confront is the word "inn" in Luke 2:7. Nearly every English translation says something like "there was no room for them in the inn." Most of us, when we think of inn, think of something like a small hotel, or B and B. We think of a commercial lodging. There is a Greek word for this sort of inn, but that is not the word used here. In fact, this word is only used two other places in the New Testament--Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11. In both cases, it is translated as "guest room" and refers to the Upper Room where Jesus and His disciples celebrated the Last Supper. The word is used several times in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) and no place in the Septuagint does it refer to any thing like an inn, at least not in my reading of those verses.
So, rather than reading "there was no place for them in the inn," Luke 2:7 should read, "there was no place for them in the guest room."
Still, you might ask, "Doesn't it say that Mary wrapped Jesus and put him in a manger? Isn't a manger an animal feeding trough?" Yes, that is all true. However, we must remember that common people did not have large houses and barns in the old days. The people of Bethlehem would have had homes much more akin to those in Third World countries than our 2000-4000 square foot homes in America. Most homes were one room houses. Some would have had a guest room attached, or an "upper room" for guest. In this time, the house would have had a main floor. Then, a few steps below would have been an area where the animals were brought in for the night. Dug out of the floor of the main level, right where the cows could reach it, would have been mangers for the cows. For sheep, there would have been wooden mangers that sat up on the floor. However, these were inside the house, not outside in a separate stable.
For most of us, the idea of bringing your animals into your house for the night sounds rather strange, but this is what they did in the ancient world. Also, it happens still today in some Third World countries. I remember being in Mexico in a rural village. It was not uncommon to be in the bathroom and have a pig wander in. Poorer people did not have the money or land for barns and stables. They kept their animals in their courtyards in the day and in the house at night, just as is the case in rural villages of undeveloped areas today.
The next interesting bit of information directly in the text is found in verse 18. The shepherds come to visit Joseph and Mary. They tell of their encounter with the angelic hosts. When they tell this account, Luke 2:18 says "all who heard it were amazed." The traditional understanding of this verse is this: the shepherds see homeless Joseph, Mary and Jesus. They leave them there, sleeping in the town stable, then go through town telling people about the things that they have seen and, "all" who hear them are amazed. The NIV lends itself to this misunderstanding by saying that the shepherds "spread the word" concerning what had been told to them. "Spread the word" implies that they went all over town telling everyone what happened. That is misleading. The shepherds haven't left the house, yet. When the shepherds speak, all are amazed and Mary Mary is pondering these things. Then, after these things, the shepherds leave. So, I think the ESV gets it better when it says "they made known" rather than the NIV's "spread the word."
The sequences of events as Luke records them is this: 1) The angels appear to the shepherds, 2) the shepherds visit Jesus, 3) the shepherds make known to all what has been told to them, 4) the shepherds return to their fields praising God.
Following the order of events as Luke describe them, that means that the "all" who were amazed at the shepherd's story are those who are gathered around the stable. Luke wouldn't say "all" if he were only talking about Mary and Joseph. It seems that there is a crowd of people gathered there around the manger. That is the plain reading of the verse. Mary and Joseph are not alone, terrified in a barn. They are surrounded by people who are showing them real hospitality.
If this is the case, then it seems that this is what happened: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. Someone invites them to their house (probably a relative). The guest room is already full of people. So, the relatives offer Mary and Joseph the lower level connected to the main room of the house. Mary gives birth to Jesus. They clean out the manger and put down fresh straw and put Jesus in it. Later that night, the shepherds arrive. They enter the house and find Mary, Joseph and "all" gathered around. The whole house is up--the owner and family, the guests who are in the guests room--all are their celebrating the birth of Mary's baby. The shepherds arrive. They tell everyone gathered in the house about their encounter with the angels. All are amazed at what they say. Mary, however, ponders these things. Then, the shepherds leave praising God.
I'm not saying we need to get rid of our creche's with the cute little stables, but that may not be an accurate picture of the birth of Jesus. Still, if you have a manger scene in your house, at least put the wise men across the room.... but that is the subject of a different (and shorter) post.