It is a most well known story: Joseph and Mary having to travel to Bethlehem for a Roman census, and this when Mary is in the last stages of her pregnancy. They arrive in the little town, only to find that there is no room for them in the inn, and so they are quickly relegated to the stable, to give at least minimal shelter to the young woman going into labor. The baby is born and, instead of a crib, he is laid in an animal manger. However, a closer look at the story, combined with historical sources and archaeological data, seems to yield evidence that the young family found a more caring reception.
The site commemorating the birth of Jesus is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This fourth century A.D. church is an exception in the Holy Land, in that it was not destroyed by the Persians in A.D. 614 or by the Muslims shortly thereafter. The focus of this church is a grotto, into which pilgrims descend to visit the place of Jesus’ birth and the manger in which he was put. A grotto—not some wooden barn resembling those that decorate the traditional manger scene! Indeed, from the extra-canonical Christian composition “the Proto-Gospel of James,” and from the church father Justin we read that it was known that the manger mentioned in the Gospels was indeed a grotto.
The traditional story carries another anomaly: imagine your newlywed son, nephew or brother arriving in your city after a long and difficult trip with his wife, nine months pregnant with their first child. Then imagine relegating them to the barn for the delivery because there was no room for them in any of the hotels in town. Whatever the case, it hardly seems likely that in Joseph’s hometown, where one would expect most of his family to still be living, that none of his relatives accommodated them under such special circumstances. This would be the worst indictment on a culture that holds hospitality as one of its most important and foundational values.
This version of the story is due in great part to the translation of one word from the Greek into English: the inn (Luke 2:7). In Greek, it is the “kataluma.” While a “kataluma” can be an inn, more accurately it is a dwelling or resting place. In the Old Testament it is used to describe the place where God resides (Ex. 15:13), where people spend the night (1 Sam. 1:18), and even a lions’ lair (Jer. 25:38). But more importantly, the word is used again in the Gospel of Luke to describe the place where the Jesus and his disciples hold the Last Supper (Luke 22:11).
Another church relating to the Christmas story may help us understand what the author meant when he used “kataluma”: the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Before this church was built in the 60’s, archaeological excavations were carried out to see what information could be gathered from Jesus’ childhood hometown. Among other finds, several dwellings from the early Roman period were found. Some of them were only grottos, others included a built structure across the opening of the grotto, thus enlarging the enclosed area. One is particularly well preserved, and it is possible to see how the front man-built structure was the domestic area, while the back, the grotto, was used as a stable.
It has been suggested that this illustrates a different and more plausible scenario for Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem to Joseph’s relatives. These were possibly already inundated with other relatives also there for the census, so that the living quarters of their home was full of people. Alternatively, the home was so small that most of the floor space was used up when the sleeping mats were laid down for the night. Whatever the case, no suitable area in the living or sleeping quarters, the “kataluma,” was left for Joseph or Mary, who was entering into labor. In a desire to provide better conditions for the young woman, the family cleared a space in the back part of the home, the grotto, where, even if amongst animals, there was warmth and a certain amount of privacy. If this scenario is correct, the shift to the grotto/stable was not out of neglect shown to the young couple, but out of a genuine concern to provide them with the best possible solution under the circumstances.
Brian Schultz is a member of the biblical and religious studies faculty at Fresno Pacific University. He has a doctorate is from Bar Ilan University (Israel). His studies have focused on the social-historical context of the Bible, and he has been involved in numerous archaeological digs in Israel.