It’s that holly-jolly time again. Time to pull out the decorations and the lights and, since we love Jesus, time to pull out the old Nativity set. There we will find Mary, on her knees, wearing blue and white --the official colors of the Virgin Mother. There will be Joseph, leaning in, bearded, and admiring his amazing Son.
Jesus will have his place, laying in a wooden manger, the hay thrusting out the sides of his blanket of swaddling clothes. His face looks a little older than a new born, but that’s okay. He is the Savior. His arms are out to welcome a world “in sin and error pining.” Nearby are the cow, she is at rest, and the sheep, there are a couple of them. There is no pig --this is a kosher stable, after all.
An angel hovers above the a-frame, three-sided barn that contains the holy family. Above the angel, the star shines brightly, sending its golden arms out in all directions. Just outside the walls of the barn are three fine camels. Two of them are standing, one is down on his haunches. There are three kings --one is black, one is white, and one is Asian. They are there with gifts in hand, a rainbow coalition of worshipers from afar.
Of course, the shepherds are there, a few of them. One of them holds a lamb, and a couple of lambs stand near by. There is also a gentle donkey. He is the beast of burden who had the privilege of carrying the mother of our Savior across the miles on the night of his birth. Joseph, alone with his wife, marching wearily, in hopes of finding a place to rest before the baby came.
The inn-keeper is not in my nativity set. He is helpless, after all. Faced with a poor man and his pregnant wife, he says, “I’m sorry, but we just haven’t got any room. But I have a clean stable out back.” I guess that’s better than nothing. Fortunately, we have no drummer boy (who wants a kid playing a drum in the nursery!). The scene is serene and peaceful. Somehow, nothing seems more fitting than the King of the Universe, who would die on the tree, to be born in a barn.
NOW, IT’S TIME TO RUIN THE SCENE. None of it is right. We have created an unlikely mythology regarding the birth of the Savior. Admittedly, I wasn’t there, so I can’t describe exactly what that first Christmas was like. But I do have my Bible and some learning regarding history of the day, and I am certain that the first Christmas is nothing like what our nativity sets present as reality.
For example: There was no Inn. There was no Inn Keeper. There is no evidence that Joseph and Mary traveled alone. There is no evidence of animals near by. The wise men definitely came a year or two later (most people know this, but many don’t). There is no reason to think that the birth was in a stable or a barn. There was no star up above, and the visible angel hovering outside is no more than poetic license. Before you think me a heretic or a hater, I assure that I am a fully-committed Bible guy!
Let me paint another picture, using the Scripture as my guide. Does the Bible say that there was an Inn or an Inn keeper? You might say, “It says there was “no room for them in the Inn.” That is correct. The Bible does say that. In English. In Greek it says there was no room for them in the “spare room.” Or in the upper room. Or the guest room. It says nothing about a place where people rent rooms for the night. Now, I understand if you doubt me. Ask a pastor near you --have him look it up in Greek too-- he might not have been asked before.
The gospel of Luke, which is where you find the story of the Birth, has a different Greek word it uses for a place you would rent a room. That Greek word can be found in the story of the “Good Samaritan.” That “Inn” is not the same Greek word as the “inn” of the Birth story. If we translate that word, “spare room,” as we should, and not “Inn” as in “Holiday Inn,” then the story changes quite a bit, doesn’t it? First of all, the Inn-keeper disappears. He is not in the Bible anyway. So does the night time journey with a woman who is about to give birth.
Speaking of that journey, what does the Bible say, really? The Bible says “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” Note what is not said. There is no talk of late night journeys in the end of the third trimester. “Why they were there, the time came...” sounds like they had been in Bethlehem for at least a few days before the baby came.
“Wait,” you might be saying, “this can’t be? Where did the whole story come from about the inn, the inn-keeper, the donkey, and all the rest?” Believe it or not, the entire story was concocted over time from this one verse: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
At this point, you might object, “But there it is! There is the manger, the inn, the whole deal! There must have been a stable and an inn-keeper and all the rest!” Not so fast, my friend.
We have already dealt with the term “inn.” The word is guest room or spare room. Look that up and see. As for the manger, that word means feeding bowl. Mangers have been found from antiquity that are made of stone. There might have been mangers made of wood and hay that have rotted away over time. However, Jesus’ manger might have been a large stone bowl made for feeding animals. At this point, someone could ask, “Well, if there is a bowl to feed animals, doesn’t that mean that it would be found in a barn?” Maybe. But I have a bowl to feed an animal in my house.
In those days, many families had animals that they would keep in the house, not simply as pets, but as cattle. They might not live in the house, but there might be times when the animals would be brought inside to sleep or eat or to protect from weather or theft. Homes have been found in digs in Israel that show that there was often an area of a home that was a step down from the rest of the home that served as a place for animals to come inside. In these homes, mangers have been found.
Now, let me throw out a little more data and then seek to reconstruct the story in a way that is more likely. The part of the story where Mary and Joseph arrive at night, very pregnant, having traveled alone, and strangers in town --none of this is likely. Mary and Joseph, as all people of their time, understand how babies come into being. They would not be so foolish as to travel when the baby was due within days. And if they did, the would never put the mom on a donkey --think about it, ladies. A donkey? 9 months pregnant? Joseph better get a wagon, at least!
Also, they had lots of family in the area. This was their home town. Mary had just been down in this area a few months previously to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who herself had a baby (John the Baptist). Joseph and Mary would be anything but strangers in their home town. There is no way, given ancient near-eastern family structure and culture, that they would have gone anywhere but to a family member’s home to have that baby and to stay.
Next, in those days, a young couple would not be likely to make the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem alone. A few chapters later, Luke tells of when the Holy Family was visiting Jerusalem when Jesus was a boy. They forgot Him behind, thinking Him to be in the group that was caravanning together. This was more the norm than lonely travels. When family has to return home, they travel together for safety and social reasons.
Ancient near-eastern common homes were small, often with only one or two rooms, plus perhaps a place for animals. If they had a spare room, it was sometimes built on the flat roof. The families were large. Unlike todays families in America, there was no thought of children having their own bedrooms. In fact, entire families often slept together (dad, mom, kids, everyone), in the common room, or in a spare room if there was one. Now, when a woman in the family is having a baby, she needs a place to put that baby. It could be that a house filled with family --remember, everyone had to return to their home town for the census-- might have had 7 or 8 people sleeping in the guest room. But the food bowl, padded lovingly with cloths, would make a fine place to place the new bundle of joy.
There is more evidence that the holy family isn’t traveling alone. When the shepherds came to visit by night, Luke reports of their visit with these words: “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
In the text above, who are “all who heard?” If no one was there except Joseph and Mary and some animals, then the animals would be the “all who heard.” This is not likely. More likely, “all who heard,” were the joyful, bustling family who were visiting together because of a census.
Allow me to construct a more likely nativity scene. We are in a house. There are women within, talking, laughing, arguing, enjoying each other, discussing family and plans for meals, and all the things they need to catch up on. The smell of the last meal or the next is in the air. There are children, perhaps running in and out, perhaps eating, perhaps laughing, perhaps playing games. There are men, pulling off by themselves to talk, as men do --they might be on the roof or outside, laughing and talking. And there is a new baby, and all the joy of of cuddling and feeding and burping, and all the rest. Shepherds surprise the group. They come with stories of angels and of the odd sign of a baby lying in a food bowl. They are received with food and tea, and sent on their way leaving reason for conversation. And there is Mary, young Mary, with her family and new husband and new baby. She is treasuring all this up in her heart.
You may not like my version, or you might. But I am certain that it is much closer to reality than the nativity set you will be pulling out for Christmas. My wife calls me a Scrooge for pointing this out to our church every year. Maybe I am. However, I find the thought that Jesus was born into a normal home, in the normal way, much more enchanting than the mythological strangeness of the story we have invented over time.
Don’t get me wrong. I still set up my nativity set. I’m not a complete humbug!