That will strike many as a self-evident question (kind of like asking whether Martin Luther was ‘Lutheran’) since there are few ‘facts’ about the nativity story that are more firmly established in the popular mind. But, not so fast! A careful reading of the nativity story will reveal that a stable is never mentioned. Rather, that’s what’s been inferred from this key passage:
“And [Mary] 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.” (Luke 2:7)
Scholars have long recognized that though the Greek word katalyma translated ‘inn’ in this verse can mean a lodging place for travelers, it can also mean ‘guest room.’ This word appears only three times in the Bible and the other two times (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11) it’s used in the second way. On the other hand, when Luke wants to refer to an ‘inn’ in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he uses a different Greek word (Luke 10:34).
The sketch shows a typical village house layout in ancient Palestine (and still sometimes seen today). Farm animals were kept in a depressed area on one end of the family living area. A separate attached room served as the ‘guest room’ for visitors. The mangers were hollows in the floor.
With this information we are now provided with a different way to understand Luke 2:7 – rather than being turned away from the local inn and taking refuge in a cattle shed, we can postulate that Mary and Joseph stayed in the house of local kinfolk (remember that this was Joseph’s ancestral hometown), but because the guest room was already occupied, the birth took place in the common room. The mangers would have been a convenient place in the crowded quarters to lay the newborn Jesus.
Not only is that a plausible scenario, but it seems to explain some otherwise puzzling things. First of all in Matthew 2:11 we’re told that the wise men visited the baby Jesus in a house. Then there’s the matter of legendary Middle Eastern hospitality to strangers: it’s hard to believe the Bethlehem villagers wouldn’t have taken in a pregnant ‘homeless’ couple. And what kind of husband takes his pregnant wife on a 100 mile hike over rough roads when she’s about to deliver?
Under this alternative version, Mary and Joseph would have traveled to Bethlehem weeks or months earlier to stay with relatives in their humble and crowded, but cozy village house. When Mary delivered, she would have been surrounded by family to assist her and help care for the baby. So when the shepherds visited, it now seems quite reasonable that they left “glorifying and praising God” rather than being filled with concern about the ‘sketchy’ circumstances this very special baby was born into.
What’s lost in this alternate version of course is all the pathos of Mary and Joseph arriving friendless and homeless in Bethlehem, being turned away at the inn, and forced to deliver their baby in the lonely isolation of a livestock shed. Some may find the loss of those sentimental details to be an unacceptable change to a cherished story – and you needn’t dispose of your nativity set! But in whichever version you choose to visualize His birth, the truly important truth is not the hardship of the lonely stable, but the incredible love shown to us by Almighty God, who humbled Himself to be born into our human condition for our salvation.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)