In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when[a] Quiriniuswas governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed,[b] who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The popular telling of the Christmas story has Joseph knocking on the door of every B&B in Bethlehem looking for a place to stay in time for the imminent arrival of Mary’s baby. What school Nativity play in complete without the obligatory innkeeper offering the desperate couple a stable to stay in? But the popular depictions of the story probably miss the mark.
Joseph was returning to his place of birth as a result of the Emperor’s census. It’s unthinkable that he wouldn’t have relatives still in the town who would take him and his betrothed in. Even without relatives in town, for any middle eastern town (in the 1st Century or today) to fail to accommodate travellers (especially one who is pregnant) would bring shame on the community.
Kenneth Bailey, an expert on the Middle East, argues that a more likely scenario is this…Joseph and Mary are given accommodation in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives. 1st Century peasant homes in Israel were comprised of 2 living areas, one for people and one for animals (bringing the family’s animals in at night provided warmth and safety). In all likelihood, Mary had to give birth in the section of the home usually occupied by animals because the family living space was full (given that the census had brought other relatives home). The Greek word used in Luke’s Gospel for “inn” is not the usual word for a guest house, but the main area of the home, which would have usually been used to accommodate guests.
While this interpretation of Luke’s Nativity story provides less material for the school play director to work with, the significance of the story is in no way lessened. Jesus, the promised King of Israel (and the nations) was not born into a palace, or in the private wing of a modern hospital, but into a normal peasant home in an insignificant town. His birth wouldn’t have made the 24-hour news channels. No royal announcement would have appeared in the grounds of Herod’s palace. Instead, Jesus’ birth was like that of any ordinary Jew born into a family with modest means. Whether He was born in a stable or a home is not worth arguing over, the point is that one used to the surroundings of Heaven was born on earth. As the famous carol puts it…
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.