‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn’ (Luke 2:1-7).
For many of us, these words evoke the isolation, harshness, and difficulty which Mary and Joseph must have faced at Jesus’ birth. Images of cold, windswept, winter hills in Bethlehem, overcrowded inns, and a futile attempt to find housing in a strange city paint a bleak picture of the first Christmas, one that fills our Western hearts with sympathy for the new mother and her babe.
And yet, the circumstances of the first Christmas may not have been as bleak as we sometimes think. Understanding that Jewish society at the time of Jesus’ birth was traditional and eastern, several questions arise when we read this passage, questions that receive a fresh answer in this context.
The Judean Connection
When Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary made the journey to Bethlehem, they were returning to his ancestral home, the place where his family originated and in which, undoubtedly, some relatives still lived. From the gospels and early church historians we see glimpses of the network of relatives that Joseph and Mary had living in Judea: Zachariah and Elizabeth lived near Jerusalem; John the Baptist ministered in the Judean wilderness; and Jesus’ brother James later became the head of the Jerusalem church and was well respected by all the Jews living in Jerusalem.
The Family Home
The family in traditional societies is made up of an extended group of people, with a patriarch at the head. Married children and their children usually lived with or near the father and mother. The authority and protection of the father extended to them and their respect and obedience was expected in return (cf. Luke 15). Relatives from other towns were welcomed by the patriarch and brought under his protection during their stay in his village.
The architecture of the family home both today and in antiquity made provision for the occasional guest. The most common dwelling was the courtyard home which was multi-levelled. A lower room or cellar was used as a storeroom. In the hilly areas like Bethlehem, a cave adjacent to the courtyard might often be adapted for this purpose. Here the family’s prized or more vulnerable animals could be fed and sheltered at night, protected from the cold, thieves and predators. The main living area, partitioned into several sections, was on an upper level. It had a work and kitchen area, where the children often slept, and a separate bedroom for the parents. In a wealthier home, a third room would be added for guests and for entertaining. In Luke 2:7 the Greek kataluma can be translated either ‘inn’ or ‘guest room’ and may have referred to this room in the family home. The latter translation is to be preferred in light of the cultural and societal backdrop of Jewish family life. (It is worthwhile to note that later in Luke, the word kataluma is translated ‘upper room’ or ‘guest room’ [Luke 22:11-12] whereas Luke uses the word pundakeion to mean ‘inn’ in the story of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:34.)
The Christmas Story
These facts may shed new light on the circumstances surrounding Jesus birth. The evangelist presents the picture of a census in Luke 2:1-7, in which all heads of household had to return to their cities of origin. For Joseph, it was Bethlehem. When they arrived, Joseph most likely went straight to his paternal home, seeking the help and protection of his relatives currently living there, and received it, for Mary was pregnant and Jewish custom would demand such a response. Some time passed, and ‘the time came for her to be delivered’.
Bethlehem—and this family’s guest room—were full of relatives and no private place existed for her to deliver her baby. No private place, that is, until someone had the bright and compassionate idea to suggest that she could have the baby down below, away from the crowded kataluma, in the warmth of the storeroom and animal’s cellar, and yet still be within the security of the family home. Jesus was safely born ‘in the city of David’ as the angels told the shepherds (2:11), and laid in a manger or feeding trough. That a child should be found lying in a manger was unique, and yet it may have reflected, not a situation of abandonment and isolation, but one of compassion and protection and of the order of family life in traditional Jewish society of the first century AD. It is interesting to note that the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is in the middle of the city, where the family homes would have stood in antiquity, and not in the surrounding countryside.
Just a closing word on the weather! It must not have been too cold that night, since the shepherds and their flocks were out in the fields, as we read in Luke 2:8. In really cold weather, the sheep are kept indoors at night and graze outside during the day. So Jesus was probably born in mild weather.
These facts combine to create a warmer picture of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph were not necessarily abandoned and alone in a strange city, but were likely incorporated into the larger, extended family of Joseph’s relatives where they found shelter, compassion, and protection on that special night when their precious baby was born.