I’ve been doing some extra thinking about the birth of Jesus lately–every night during Advent, we rehearse the details and discuss the significance of Christmas with Toby and Savannah. Most nativity stories paint a picture of Joseph and Mary in a barn outside the village of Bethlehem, surrounded by animals.
The actual event probably looked a bit different. If you’re interested, read on! (Just beware, I will discuss two Greek terms.)
The setting of the nativity is largely influenced by how we interpret Luke 2:7, which reads: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (NASB)
I’m not going to unpack everything going on here, but want to focus on just two key terms that dominate our interpretation: “manger” and “inn”.
Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth, and only are in Bethlehem to participate in a Roman-decreed, mandatory census. The word “inn” helps us to imagine a modern-day inn with a neon sign in front that reads “No Vacancy”. The Greek word translated as “inn” is κατάλυμα (kataluma). This term is used only two other times in the New Testament: in Luke’s and Mark’s accounts of the Last Supper.
Luke 22:11 reads: “And you shall say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room [kataluma] in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”” (NASB; see also Mark 14:14).
Jesus and his disciples eat their Passover meal in the guest room of a private home. This indicates that the kataluma which was full in Luke 2:7 is not the local Best Western, but the guest room in a private home (probably owned by Joseph’s relatives). Someone was already occupying this room when Joseph and Mary arrived.
EXCURSUS: Why didn’t the occupants of the kataluma make room for a young, pregnant woman about to give birth? I can think of two reasons: 1) the room was inhabited by elders, who had priority, or 2) there was a measure of scandal surrounding Mary’s pregnancy. These are, of course, speculative. The text does not address that question.
The term “manger” refers to the feed-trough used for animals. However, the home owners did not send the young couple off to a barn. Houses in the first-century often accommodated a small number of the flock in a ground-floor room (the kataluma would have been an upper-room). The manger was kept inside the house.
The Greek word translated as “manger” is φάτνη (phatne). The meaning of this term is fairly clear: it is a hollowed-out rock used for feeding livestock. Aside from Luke 2, the only other place the term is used in the New Testament is Luke 13:15 where it appears to be a suitable object to use for securing livestock. (The picture in the first comment is an actual manger that archaeologists have excavated from Megiddo in ancient Israel.)
The basic sense of this term is a carved-out rock (leading some to suppose that it might be referring to a cave hewn from rock). You can see in the picture that feeding troughs were carved from rocks. In some ancient texts, the term is appropriately translated as “socket” (even used to describe a tooth socket). In Luke 2, the term is referring to a feeding trough that would be found in the ground-level room where livestock were kept at night.
When you imagine the nativity in your mind’s eye, do not think of smelly barns, cold and outside of town. Instead, imagine Joseph and Mary in the house of relatives, staying in the only available room in a crowded house. The livestock had to give up their regular sleeping quarters to make room for family from out of town.
Are you still reading? If I haven’t lost you yet, I’d like to share just a little more.
Jesus was born on the ground-level where animals were kept, inside a private home. There was no room in that kataluma. Just before his death, He would have an opportunity to occupy the kataluma during the Passover meal.
When He was born, He was placed inside a hewn-rock (phatne) as a crib. Just after He observed Passover in the kataluma, He was crucified and once again placed into a hewn-rock. This time, His lifeless body was placed in a tomb.
In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, he foreshadows Jesus’ death and burial. This puts a somber note on the Christmas story. Then again, we would do well to remember that the cross was planned before the event of the incarnation. In the words of one Christmas hymn: “Come, Thou long expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free.”