Let's start with this:
Mary didn't ride into town while having contractions, then deliver that night. She and Joseph were probably there for a few weeks.
And the young couple wasn't turned away from every local hotel.
Bethlehem wasn't even big enough to support a commercial "inn".
They were actually staying with Joseph's relatives.
Oh, and Mary didn't give birth in a barn, or under the stars.
And I'm afraid it wasn't winter. The shepherds came, but they weren't shivering shepherds.
You probably know, too, that the wise men weren't there the night Jesus was born, and that we don't know how many of them there were.
Ken Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes is likely my favorite book of the decade. The very first chapter (which is available as a free sample here) is what opened my eyes to a whole new nativity scene.
Fluent in Arabic, Bailey has spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He studies ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries and translations in Semitic languages— Syriac, Hebrew/Aramaic, and Hebrew. Drawing upon his expertise in Middle Eastern culture and his study of these eastern commentaries and traditions, he paints a truer picture of the birth of the Messiah.
"No room at the inn"
In Luke 2, the Greek word (katalyma or kataluma) translated as inn does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers. It refers to the guest room of a personal house (in Luke 22:10-12, it is translated as “upper room,” whereas in the parable of the good Samaritan the Greek word for a commercial inn is pandocheion). Most village homes in Bethlehem had two rooms - one for guests, one for the family. The family room also had an area, several feet lower, where the family animals could be brought in for the night.
When Mary and Joseph arrived at their relative's home, others were already using the guest room. So Mary and Joseph stayed in the lower part of the family room, where the animals also stayed through the night.
Why is Bailey so sure they were staying with family?
I've never found a Western nativity scene that included cousins or aunties. But Middle Eastern cultures have always valued family and hospitality. Mary and Joseph were traveling to Joseph's ancestral home. He would naturally have had relatives there, and they would have welcomed him. “To turn away a descendant of David in ‘the City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village,” Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Even if no one had room for them, they could have traveled just a little further to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah.
"While they were there, the time came..."
Mary wasn't in labor when they arrived in Bethlehem. In the Greek, Bailey explains, Luke's text indicates that Mary spent the last stages of her pregnancy in Bethlehem. A literal translation might read, "While they were there, her days (plural) were fulfilled."
Jesus wasn't born in a barren, windswept stable in an unfriendly town where Mary labored afraid and nearly alone.
Jesus also wasn't born under a halo of fluffy winged angels who sang as Mary painlessly delivered a child while clean baby animals gazed adoringly at the manger.
Mary and Joseph spent the last weeks of pregnancy with their relatives in Bethlehem. Probably because of the census, both of the rooms in the house were full, so they stayed in the lower part of the house, where the animals spent the night. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. God became man and was born into a family, a large, warm community of humble, broken people trying to care for each other. He cried and was washed, fed, and comforted, wrapped in a clean blanket and laid in a manger.
It's true. But isn't it also a better story? And one that will inform our family Christmas traditions, and even our decorating.
PS: Ken Bailey has also written a Christmas musical drama to reflect this more accurate telling of the Christmas story. If your church or family wants to check it out, it's available here.
(re-post from the archives)