The school nativity plays are clear: Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem on a donkey late at night and anxiously search for somewhere to stay. A stubborn innkeeper points out the ‘No Vacancies’ sign, and a desperate Joseph reluctantly leads his pregnant wife to a stable where she gives birth to Jesus that very same night.
The Christmas cards and nativity scenes portray the stable as warm and cosy, and complete with oxen and donkeys and an ankle-deep layer of remarkably clean straw, given that a birth has just taken place. There are a few grizzled shepherds and three kings are clutching their gifts with their camels parked outside. Mary is there with Joseph, wearing blue. And they’re all sitting in a circle around a wooden manger, in which lies the baby Jesus who is glowing serenely.
We know it wasn’t really like that, of course. But what does the Bible actually say about that first Christmas?
No room at the inn
The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Mary travelled on a donkey, but it was more common to walk. And there’s no suggestion that Mary gave birth the moment she arrived in Bethlehem — the birth happened ‘while they were there’ (Luke 2:6), not necessarily as they arrived. And there’s absolutely no mention of either an innkeeper or a stable.
What Luke does say is that ‘there was no room for them at the katalymati’. English Bibles usually translate katalymati as ‘inn’, following the KJV. But katalymati just means ‘lodging-place’. The only other place it’s used in the Bible is for the location of the last supper (Luke 22:11), where almost every English version translates it as ‘guest room’. When Luke does want to refer to an inn, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, he uses a more precise Greek word, pandocheion (10:34).
Rather than being turned away from an inn, it’s therefore much more likely that there was no room for them in the guest-room of a house. (Matthew 2:11 says that the Magi visited the family in a ‘house’.) As Bethlehem was Joseph’s ‘own town’ (2:2), that house almost certainly belonged to a relative.
Mary laid him in a manger
What then of the stable? A stable isn’t mentioned in the Bible, only a manger. But where would a manger have been kept? A cave is certainly a possibility, but it’s most likely that the manger was inside the home where they had gone to stay.
We know from archaeological evidence that many first century Palestinian homes had three parts. The largest part was the living area, where the family would live, cook, eat and sleep. That’s why a single lamp on a stand will light the whole house (Matt. 5:15). There would then be a smaller room, separated by a physical wall or built on the roof, which would be the guest room. (The ‘guest-room’ where Jesus ate the last supper was ‘upstairs’, Luke 22:11–12. Other references to upstairs guest-rooms are 1 Kings 17:19, Acts 1:13, 9:37–39 and 20:8.) The third part of many peasant houses, partially separated from the living area, was a section for animals. Many peasants would own a donkey and a sheep or two, while some of the more well-off might have a pair of oxen. These were valuable creatures, and the family would want them safe inside the house at night.
The part of the house where animals lived was often at a lower level, to ensure that animals couldn’t trespass into the living quarters. With such an arrangement, food-troughs could be built into the floor of the higher level, providing easy access for the animals to eat from.
Two Old Testament stories testify to animals living in houses. When Jepthah returned home and threw open his front door (Judges 11:30, 34), he certainly expected one of his animals to come trotting out, as he had promised to sacrifice the first creature to emerge. And the witch of Endor also kept her fatted calf inside her home, according to 1 Samuel 28:24 (ESV, NKJV, KJV).
A great company of the heavenly host appeared
After Jesus was born, angels appeared to the shepherds. The Christmas card picture of the angels almost always has them hovering several feet above the ground, held aloft by their enormous wings. But nowhere does the Bible say that angels have wings (nor indeed halos made from silver tinsel!). There are winged spiritual creatures called seraphim and cherubim, but no mention of winged angels. In fact, the New Testament suggests that angels look like human beings — so alike that Hebrews suggests it’s possible to meet an angel and not even realise you’ve done so.
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
After the shepherds came the wise men. Matthew tells us the Magi came from the east, and they almost certainly didn’t arrive until long after the shepherds had gone back to their flocks (Luke 2:20). The most likely home of the Magi was Babylon, which was known as a centre of ancient astronomy (see Daniel 2:2f). Following the exile in 586BC, the city was also home to many Jews, which may have exposed the Magi to Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. One intriguing possibility is the messianic prophecy of Numbers 24:17 — ‘A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.’ The way that ‘star’ is paralleled with ‘sceptre’ suggests what the ancients sometimes called a ‘sword-shaped star’, or what we would call a comet. That happens to be the only astrological phenomenon which matches the description in Matthew’s gospel of a ‘star’ that rose, moved ahead for several weeks, and then apparently pointed out a particular house.
Putting this together
Putting all this together, Mary and Joseph were a young married couple, probably teenagers, several days’ journey from home. But rather than being banished to a stable by a recalcitrant innkeeper it seems that Joseph was unable to stay in the guest room of his extended family. Nonetheless, the family put them up inside their home, even if Jesus had to use a manger as a makeshift crib. The shepherds visited that same evening, and were apparently unconcerned about the arrangements. Surely if Mary and Joseph had been trying to look after a new-born Messiah all alone in a dirty stable, the shepherds would have rescued them and taken them back to their own homes. But the shepherds were content to leave Mary and Joseph in the care of the family that provided the manger, and several weeks’ later wise men, probably from Babylon, also came to that home, possibly inspired by Old Testament prophecy as much as by the star itself.
Does this retelling of the Christmas story change our theology? Not at all. But it is important that our picture of Jesus’ birth is based on the words of the Bible than to imaginative and sentimental Christmas cards.