December 24, 2011

Our traditional view of the nativity is wrong

Photo by Kristen Stieffel.
Yeah, I put this up every year, despite the inaccuracies. 

Most of our nativity scenes, depicting the holy family in a wooden shed with some animals, a shepherd or two, and three kings, are—how can I put this gently—wrong. I wrote earlier about the visit of the unknown number of non-royal persons. But the whole picture, especially the lonely couple relegated to a lean-to, doesn’t match what scholars know of that time and place.

In teaching our advent study this year, based on Adam Hamilton’s excellent book and video The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, I added a new word to my Greek vocabulary: καταλυμα, or kataluma.

It appears here:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (NRSV)
The same word is used in Luke 22:11 to identify the upper room where Jesus observed Passover with his disciples.

A kataluma is a guest room. So why does almost every English translation have “inn” at 2:7 but “guest room” at 22:11? Much as I’d like to lay all the blame on King James’s translators, William Tyndale did the same thing.

Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey wrote, in the Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology, “the Arabic and Syriac versions have never, in 1900 years, translated kataluma with the word ‘inn.’ This translation is a product of our Western heritage.”

Bailey goes into great detail about first-century life in the holy land and Middle Eastern culture. It comes down to this: A room on the ground floor would be used by the family during the day, but the animals would be brought into it at night for safety. So it would have feeding troughs in it. The family and guests slept on an upper level.

Hamilton points out that since Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, they probably stayed with family. Instead of a wooden shed, Mary and Joseph were likely in what Bailey calls “the family room.”

So although some newer versions, like Today's New International Version, put “there was no guest room available for them,” many translators stuck with “no room in the inn” for no better reason than: That’s what we’re all used to. 

Mind you, it doesn't really matter whether it was a barn or a four-star resort. The apostle John reminds us of the important thing: God put on flesh to dwell with us. Praise be to God.


  1. It's also quite possible that the holy family was not in any kind of building at all. We've taken the mention of "manger" to mean a stable or lean-to, but it didn't have to be inside at all. With hundreds and hundreds of visitors in town because of the Roman registration, mangers would have been set outside all over the place to feed all the animals (horses, donkeys, whatever) people travelled on. Based on the fact that shepherds were in the fields, some scholars believe Jesus was born during lambing season, in the spring (not the middle of winter), so making "camp" out under the stars wouldn't have been unusual or even cruel. The "inns" of that day, if Bethlehem even had one, would have been segregated by gender and Joseph couldn't have stayed with Mary during labor. There was no room for them as "guests" anywhere, so they made-do with some other unspecified location and borrowed a manger to use as a cradle. It was just odd enough to act as a "sign" to the shepherds who wanted to find the newborn king in a city bursting with travellers who didn't have permanent residences.

  2. That's very true, Caprice. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. It is really possible that this story is made up. The author of Matthew tells us that the Magi visited the parents and child in a house. He mentions nothing of cattle troughs. In fact the greek word translated as manger, phatne, can also mean a baby's bed, a crib.
    Matthew also has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem prior to his birth. Probably because there wasn't anywhere called Nazareth for them to have come from in the early 1st century. Nazareth being a 4th century town that grew up around the church of a annunciation. AT the time Jesus' parents were supposed to be living there it was a graveyard for the town a Japhia.
    Really, if you believe this stuff you shouldn't pick at the hairs because the whole ball unravels very quickly.

    1. Anon, thanks for joining the discussion. Of course it's *possible* things were made up. But--as my students in Bible study like to point out whenever I spend too much time on trivial details like whether Joseph and Mary lived in the Nazareth in Galilee or the Nazareth in Judea--these things are secondary to what we *believe.* If we could prove it, it wouldn't be called "faith."