For a lot of us it’s not uncommon to hear someone mention interesting tidbits about the Christmas holiday that highlight the inaccuracies of our most cherished traditions, such as the absence of an innkeeper or donkey/camel in the biblical account, and even the likelihood that Christ was born in the spring rather than the winter, which would mean that there was never a “cold winter’s night that was so deep”. Perhaps the latter aberration was the result of Church authorities placing the Christmas celebration in proximity to the feast of Saturnalia, though such a popular story has seriously come into question among scholars, and the notion that many western, early Christians truly believed December to be the month of Jesus’ birth has gained a good amount of acceptance. Nevertheless, one of my favorite factoids that will ruin just about every nativity scene you encounter this winter is the very real possibility that Jesus was born in a house, not a stable.
I know; it kind of sounds crazy at first, but a couple points work in favor of this theory and make it more plausible than any other at this point. First to note, the Greek word καταὺματι can just as easily mean “guest room” as it does “inn”, which in itself doesn’t fully establish my point, though does start us off, especially since it’s the same word used for the upper room of the Last Supper later on in the story. In other words, Luke is not saying that there was no room in the inn, but rather that there was no space in the guest room. But what guest room? Probably the guest room in a house owned by one of Joseph’s relatives in the area, which leads us to the second point.
When we consider that that Joseph almost certainly had family in Bethlehem (it was his hometown after all), it would almost be inconceivable that he couldn’t find someone to take them in for the short time they would be in town. And even if he had no family in the area, ancient, Middle Eastern codes of hospitality would have never allowed for a pregnant woman to take shelter in an outdoor stable, at least not if there were any other options. But what of the manger? Surely he was laid where animals were fed, correct? Well yes, that’s true; but the poor would often keep their animals in the house, and it’s no stretch to believe that Joseph’s family were more lower class than upper, hence being among those who kept their livestock indoors.
So then, what we have is Joseph, Mary, and whoever else might have been in attendance, constructing a sort of make-shift crib out of a manger in a house that could have easily been a bit overcrowded as it was, due to the census and the resultant travelers. Don’t worry. This doesn’t detract from the biblical story. The point ultimately remains the same: the savior of the world – the God of the universe – became like us and was born into conditions completely unfit for a king.