The Christmas story is known and loved by many people who wouldn’t call themselves “christians”. The details are well known: angels, a stable with straw and animals, shepherds, 3 wise men with gifts, etc, and in the centre a glowing mother and a perfectly formed baby.
Historians are not so sure about all these details, but this week isn’t a time to be sceptical. Especially as I recently came across a historical analysis that makes more sense of some of the details in Luke’s account, and so gives us a much better insight into Jesus’ birth.
Four insights from the text
In 2010, Stephen Carlson’s paper The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 was published by Cambridge University Press. I hadn’t seen it until now, but it is fascinating reading and makes four basic points.
Joseph’s family likely lived in Bethlehem
Luke says that there was a census and “everyone went to their own town to register” (2:3). Although Luke also mentions that Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home because he came from the line of David (2:4), there is no record of Roman censuses requiring people to go to their ancestral home (the concept may not have meant much elsewhere). But Carlson says that “Roman censuses registered people by their residence and by where they own their fields”, which seems quite practical, as it would have allowed a correct evaluation of assets, income and ability to pay.
So it seems most likely that Joseph’s family, and Joseph himself, owned property in Bethlehem.
There was no inn
The Greek word Κατάλυμα that was once translated as inn, is better translated as simply “a place to stay”. The NIV calls it “guest room”, which is closer to the right idea.
Since Joseph apparently had family in Bethlehem, hospitality would not have allowed the couple to stay anywhere except in the home of family.
Ancient Jewish betrothal practices
Carlson says: “According to Jewish practices in antiquity, marriages were initiated by a betrothal and finalized by a ‘home-taking’ in which the bride is taken to her husband’s house. Both events were celebrated by a public feast, the former at the bride’s house and the latter at the groom’s house.”
It therefore seems likely that the census and the betrothal/marriage took place around the same time, and Joseph and Mary were betrothed in Nazareth and married soon after their arrival in Bethlehem. Only then would they have began to live together.
There was no stable
Houses at that time had few rooms, and extra rooms (attached, or on a second storey) were often added as required. So when children were married they often lived for a time in a small marital chamber in the groom’s family home. But this small room was designed for newly married couples without children, and wouldn’t have been large enough for the relatives and midwives who would have assisted with the birth, and so Mary had to deliver her child in another room.
Many houses of that time had a large room on two levels. The family (parents and children) would all sleep in the upper level while animals might be in the lower level – in winter this might be the best way to keep both stock and family warm. There would have been feeding troughs (“mangers”) between the two levels.
So rather than there being no room at the inn, it seems likely there was insufficient room in the marital chamber.
And so perhaps the story went like this ….
It was arranged that Joseph and Mary get married. Whether Joseph was living in Bethlehem at the time, or in Nazareth, we don’t know, nor do we know how the families knew each other. Even though Mary was now pregnant, Joseph would have surprised everyone by continuing with the betrothal.
To formalise the betrothal, Joseph attended ceremonies in Nazareth, Mary’s home town, then took her on the long journey to his home town of Bethlehem. There they were married, with much feasting, and then moved into a small room attached to Joseph’s family home.
But the room was small, so when labour began, Mary moved into the main room and, assisted by family and midwives, gave birth to Jesus. The baby was laid in a manger because there wasn’t a lot of spare room.
The couple stayed in Bethlehem for at least 40 days, the set time for purification after birth, and some time later moved back to Galilee, where Joseph worked as a builder or carpenter. Luke doesn’t mention wise men or a trip to Egypt, but they could be fitted in here.
The story comes alive
I don’t know about you, but Carlson’s reconstruction makes sense in the context of first century Judaism, and makes the story come alive to me.
I don’t understand why Joseph moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth, whether this was before the betrothal or after the wedding, but the rest of the story is easily pictured and understood.
Scholars have doubts about various aspects of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, but I have always felt Luke was the more reliable and accurate historian, and this understanding reinforces that.
So have a happy Christmas remembering the baby born in the main room of Joseph’s family house, and who was destined to “shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79).
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