During my travels in the Middle East, I experienced the legendary hospitality of people in that region. I was invited into many homes, served coffee, sweets and sumptuous meals. Even the poorest of the poor offered what they could; to fail to show hospitality to a stranger would be unthinkable, and a grave offence.
What’s true today was also true in the biblical world, where the arid desert climate and distance between towns and cities made hospitality even more important—access to food, shelter and water could mean the difference between life and death. To not extend hospitality was considered an insult, or even an act of hostility. Which is why the traditional interpretation of the birth of Jesus in a barn rings so false.
Do we have the nativity story all wrong?
We know the story by heart: Mary and Joseph return to his hometown of Bethlehem, only to learn there is nowhere to stay. They find shelter in a barn, and Jesus is born.
This cold and uncaring reception has become a metaphor for how the saviour was received by the world—or not received, to put it more bluntly. Unwelcome and unnoticed, except by the animals and a few poor shepherds.
But is the way it happened? Theologian and Middle East expert Ken Bailey says no—there’s no way it could be true.
In his article The Manger and the Inn, Bailey notes that what our Bibles translate as “inn” is, in the Greek, the word kataluma, which means literally “guest room” and not “hotel.”
In other words, Joseph and Mary did not go hunting for a room at the biblical equivalent of the Holiday Inn—they went to the home of a relative, where they naturally expected to be invited to stay.
But when they got there, they found that the house was full with other relatives who, like them, had returned to Bethlehem for the census.
It’s sort of like what might be happening at any house today at Christmas, when many relatives show up. People are sleeping everywhere—rec room, spare rooms, in the office, on the living room couch. Where would you put up a cousin and his preganant wife?
Not in a hotel, and certainly not in the garage or a tent in the backyard. And neither did Joseph and Mary’s relatives, says Bailey.
Back then, traditional Palestinian homes had two levels: The larger upper level was where the family ate, lived and slept; the smaller lower level was for the animals, which were brought into the house for safety at night.
The two levels were connected by a short set of stairs, and a manger—a feed trough—was built into the edge of the upper level so the animals could stand up and feed at night if they were hungry.
And it was on the edge of that upper level, says Bailey, where Joseph and Mary slept and Jesus was born—not in a smelly stable, but in the comfortable home of loving relatives.
If that’s the case, then there goes the annual Christmas pageant, with the adoring shepherds and angels gathered around the manger in a barn. But who needs the hassle of messing with centuries of tradition?
Bailey thinks it’s important for at least two reasons.
First, it takes terrible weight off that “mean old innkeeper” and all the cruel inhabitants of first-century Bethlehem.
“Is the entire village of Bethlehem so hard-hearted that no home is open to a pregnant woman about to give birth?” he asks.
Second, it makes the Incarnation “more authentic.”
Over time, he observes, the birth of Jesus has become so mythologized that it hardly seems real.
“The traditional inn-and-stable scene succeeds only in distancing Jesus,” he says. “It makes it all so far away and long ago, the make-believe world of Christmas cards and medieval carols. If he had been born in Caesar Augustus’ palace he could hardly be more remote from real life.”
The birth of Jesus, he concludes, took place “not in exceptional circumstances, but in a very ordinary setting. We may picture him surrounded by the laughter and bustle and family goodwill of a comfortable if not palatial home.
“Of course, there are the smells and noises of the animals--but that is part of normal village life, and no one would wish it otherwise . . . Jesus is born in a real, live, warm, loving, crowded home, just as any other Jewish boy might expect to have been.
"In other words, he is one of us.”