“firstborn son.” The word “firstborn” (prōtotokos, #4416 πρωτότοκος) here foreshadows the birth of Mary’s other children. She had at least six besides Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, Judas, and at least two daughters (Matt. 13:55-56). Jesus was God’s “only begotten” son, but Mary’s “firstborn” son. Mary and her sons, Jesus’ brothers, are mentioned in Luke 8:19.
“no space for them in the guestroom.” The Greek is: διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι. [διότι (because) οὐκ (not) ἦν (there was) αὐτοῖς (for them) τόπος (a place) ἐν (in) τῷ (the) καταλύματι (guestroom)]. Young’s Literal Translation (1862), which is similar to the REV, reads, “there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” Some more modern versions are similar: the CEB (Common English Bible, 2011) reads, “there was no place for them in the guestroom” while the NIV2011 reads, “there was no guest room available for them.”
The traditional story of the birth of Christ has Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem late in the day or perhaps even at night, desperately seeking lodging because Mary is in, or about to be in, labor, only to find there are no vacancies in the inn. Upon receiving no help from the people of Bethlehem, they retire to a stable (some traditions say the stable is in a cave), where Mary gives birth and Jesus is placed in the manger from which the animals eat. However, this understanding of the nativity stems largely from extra-biblical works and tradition imported into the gospels, rather than study of the biblical record itself. The actual story of the birth of Christ was that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem some time before Jesus was born, were taken into a home there, most likely that of a relative, and Jesus was born in the home in the normal way of village birth. This will all be explained below.
Much misinformation about the birth of Christ came from a document that was widely circulated in Christian circles in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is referred to by scholars as the Protevangelium of James, and it is likely from the third century AD, although it is possible, but not likely, that it dates as early as 150 AD (see Wilhelm Schneemelcher, editor, New Testament Apocrypha, “The Protevangelium of James,” pp. 370-388). This is the first document scholars are aware of that refers to Jesus being born close to Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem, although in the Protevangelium, Jesus is born in a cave before Joseph and Mary even reach Bethlehem. Other traditions started because the way people lived in Israel at the time of Christ was not known in the West as the traditions formed. So, for example, in the West, mangers are in stables, so the tradition started that Jesus was born in a stable even though the Bible never says that. Many homes at the time of Christ had mangers in the house.
In order to see what really happened when Christ was born, we will need to glean facts from both the Greek text and the culture of the ancient Near East (which, by the way, existed in many parts there until quite recently). Too often the Greek text alone has been used to try to reveal biblical truth. The Greek text alone is not enough to rebuild the truth of the biblical events for a very simple reason: when something in a culture is usual, well known, normal, or “standard operating procedure,” it is not written about in detail. For example, if I write a letter to a friend about visiting my mother at Christmas, I might say, “I drove to her house.” I would never write: “I went to Mom’s house in my car, which is a large metal and plastic mobility device on wheels, with a gasoline engine that starts when an ignition key is turned and I made it move by pedals on the floor, (etc.).” It would be ridiculous to write that because everyone in today’s culture knows what I mean when I say, “I drove to Mom’s house.” Perhaps 2000 years from now, if culture has changed so much that only a few historians know what a car is, they might wish we described our driving in more detail, but that is not necessary today. In the same way, things that were part of the everyday culture of the Bible times were not described in detail in their writings. We have to learn about the ordinary things of ancient life by piecing together details from many texts and writings, by using archaeology to study the material a culture left to us, and by studying any cultures that still live the same way they lived in biblical times.
The Bible makes it clear that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for some number of days before Mary gave birth. In fact, they could have been there for weeks. It seems logical that Joseph would not wait until Mary was uncomfortable in her pregnancy to take her to Bethlehem. The impression that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem very close to Mary’s time to give birth comes from Luke 2:5 in the King James Version, which says Mary was “great with child,” but that is a mistranslation of the Greek text influenced by the traditional Christmas story. The Greek text says only that Mary was pregnant and does not indicate how far into her pregnancy she was. Luke 2:6 (KJV) then says: “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” R. C. H. Lenski writes: “This was not the day of Joseph’s and Mary’s arrival…” (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, p. 126). Many good commentaries make the point that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the night Mary gave birth, but, scholarship does not often have the power to overturn tradition, with its well-entrenched stories, songs, and paintings. But if Mary and Joseph arrived some time before she gave birth, why was it that “there was no room for them in the inn”? Surely Mary and Joseph could have found a suitable place to give birth to the Messiah in their days in Bethlehem—and they did.
Before we look at the mistranslations of “room” and “inn,” however, let us look at some reasons Joseph and Mary could have found a place to stay. (These reasons are also enumerated in Kenneth Bailey’s, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 25, 26) First, Joseph was returning to his town of origin. Historical memories are long in the Middle East, and family support is very strong. For example, Paul knew he was a descendant of Benjamin the son of Jacob, but Benjamin had lived more than 1500 years before Paul. Once Joseph announced that both he and Mary were descendants of families from Bethlehem, many homes would be open to them.
Second, both Joseph and Mary were “royals,” from the royal line of David. David is so famous in Bethlehem that it is called, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4). Being from that famous family would have meant that most homes would open their doors to him. Third, in every culture women about to give birth are given special help. As Kenneth Bailey puts it: “Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the city of David would be an unspeakable shame to the entire village” (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 26). If for some reason Bethlehem was so totally filled with guests and visitors that no one would open their homes to Joseph and Mary, their relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth lived only a short distance away, in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39 – NASB), and Joseph and Mary could have gone there with only a little effort. In fact, Mary had visited Elizabeth early in her pregnancy (Luke 1:40). So Joseph and Mary could have found adequate housing and care if they needed it.
Another reason we know Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were being well taken care of is that when the shepherds arrived, they saw the family and their new-born Messiah and then left. God’s people had waited thousands of years for this Messiah, and if the baby Messiah was not in good circumstances the shepherds would have immediately been confused and offended, and taken the whole family back to their own homes. The fact that they left the Joseph, Mary, and Jesus where they were shows they were satisfied that their Savior was being well taken care of.
Joseph and Mary were not rejected by a local hotel that had its “no vacancy” sign turned on. The phrase “no room in the inn” is a mistranslation that continues to support a very serious misunderstanding about the birth of Christ. Two Greek words we must understand to properly interpret the biblical account are topos (#5117 τόπος; usually translated “room”), and kataluma (#2646 κατάλυμα; usually translated “inn”). The word topos occurs more than ninety times in the New Testament, and does not refer to “a room,” but simply a place or space in a given area. In this case, there was no “space” available for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma. What is the kataluma? It does not refer to a commercial lodge, or inn, but simply means a “lodging place” or “guestroom.” Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon says of kataluma: “lodging place. The sense inn is possible in Luke 2:7, but in 10:34 Luke uses pandocheion, the more specific term for inn. Kataluma is therefore best understood here as lodging or guest-room.”
To properly understand the birth narrative of Jesus Christ, it is vital that we understand that the normal Greek word for “inn” is pandocheion (#3829 πανδοχεῖον), and it refers to a public house for the reception of strangers (caravansary, khan, inn). Pandocheion was not only used by the Greeks, but was used as a loan-word for “inn” or a commercial lodging place in Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and Turkish. Pandocheion is the word Luke uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan when he wanted to refer to a public inn (Luke 10:34).
In contrast to the public inn, the pandocheion, when Mark and Luke use kataluma in their Gospels, it means “guest room” (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). When finding a place to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them to say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room [kataluma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11). So in both Mark and Luke, the kataluma is a room in a man’s house. Luke also uses the verb form of kataluma, which is kataluō (#2647 καταλύω), and means “to find rest or lodging.” In the record of Jesus and Zacchaeus, Jesus goes “to be the guest” at Zacchaeus’ house, not at a public inn (Luke 19:7). So Luke also uses the verb such that “to stay in the kataluma” indicates lodging at someone’s house. So the text is telling us that at the birth of Jesus, there was no “space in the guestroom.”
To understand the birth of Christ there are also some features of common houses in the Middle East that we must understand. One custom was that it was very common for houses in the Middle East to have a guestroom where guests, and even strangers, could stay. Even poor people could have a guest room because it did not have to be furnished or have an adjoining bathroom and shower. People did not generally sleep on beds, but traveled with their own blankets that they slept on at night, so sleeping arrangements were no problem. Tables and chairs were not used in the common homes of first century Palestinians, and the bathroom was a pot, or a place outside. So the average guestroom was simply a small, empty room, offering shelter and a place of safety. The guestroom provided privacy for the guests as well as the family.
Showing hospitality to strangers has always been a huge part of Eastern life, and the Bible has quite a few records of people showing hospitality to strangers. For example, Lot housed two strangers (Gen. 19:1-4), and the man in Gibeah housed strangers (Judges 19:19-21). The Shunammite woman wanted to show hospitality to Elisha and had a guestroom built on her roof just for him (2 Kings 4:10). Giving hospitality was important enough that it became a command for Christian leaders (1 Tim. 3:2). The Eastern custom of giving hospitality continues in the modern Moslem culture, and thus one of the five pillars of the Moslem faith is to be quick to entertain strangers. The home Joseph and Mary stayed in had a guestroom, but it was being used by other guests.
The second thing we must understand is that it was common for people to bring their animals into their houses at night. They did this to keep them from being stolen and to protect them from harm. Usually, the floor of the family dwelling was raised up somewhat, and the animals were in an area that was a little lower (see Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, p. 34; Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 28-33). John Nolland writes: “…it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters by the raised platform floor of the latter)” (John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 105).
When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem they were taken into one of the local homes, most likely of a relative. However, there was no space available for them in the kataluma, the guest-chamber. Therefore, the family made room for Joseph and Mary in their own living quarters, and the baby Jesus was placed in a manger in the home, which would have been filled with clean hay or straw and would have been the perfect size for him.
The fact that the record says there was no room for them in the guestroom does not mean that Joseph and Mary had just arrived. Lots of people would be traveling to Jerusalem for the registration, and even more if this was around the time of Rosh Hashanah and the Feast of Tabernacles, which it likely was. Many scenarios are possible. One is that the guestroom had been occupied for weeks, which at that time of year would not have been out of the ordinary. Another is that when other people arrived for the registration or the feast, that Joseph and Mary moved from the guestroom into the main house because they were closer relatives or to better care for Mary. The Bible is simply letting us know that Jesus was placed in the manger in the house because the family guestroom was occupied.
Understanding the birth narrative in this way highlights another important aspect of Eastern hospitality. In the East, guests were given special treatment of all kinds, including behavior that seems very extreme to us. For example, in the record of Lot and the two strangers, Lot would have handed over his own daughters to the mob before surrendering his guests (Gen. 19:8). The people whom Joseph and Mary stayed with would not displace their guests from the guest room, but instead inconvenienced themselves, and gave the young couple space in their own living quarters.
Another thing we need to know is that Mary and Joseph would not have been alone when Jesus was born. Actually, Joseph would not have been there at all, while the women of the household, along with the women of the family staying in the guestroom, most likely the village midwife, and perhaps even wise and experienced women from the neighborhood, would have been present. Joseph and the other men of the household would have graciously left the house to the women while Mary gave birth, something that was completely normal for birth in a village in Israel. Someone with a modern Western mindset may say, “Well, the Bible does not say those other women were there.” Of course not. We remind the reader that if something was normal for the culture, it was not usually written about. The details of a woman giving birth are never given in the Bible. No serious Bible student should insist that the women in the Bible who are mentioned giving birth (and there are dozens of them) did not have other women present to help them just because those helpers are not specifically mentioned in the text. That would be absurd. No details of Jesus’ birth are given in the Bible because births were a “normal” part of life, and no first-century reader in Palestine would expect anything different than what usually happens with a village birth. In fact, if the women of the household had not been there to help Mary, that would have been so unusual and seemingly coldhearted that that fact probably would have been written in the Bible.
Thus, what actually happened at the birth of Jesus is considerably different than what is commonly taught in Christian tradition. It is not that Bethlehem was full of cold-hearted townspeople who refused to take special care of a family about to give birth. Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem some time before she gave birth. The guestroom of the people who gave them lodging was full, so the family opened their own home to them and took them into their living quarters. When Mary gave birth, in the late evening or the night some days later, the men left their own home to accommodate her and give her privacy, and no doubt baby Jesus was born in quite usual circumstances, most likely with the village midwife and no doubt helped by the women of the family. Shortly after, the new baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, dedicated to God, and placed in a perfect spot, the manger in the home. That same night the angels announced to shepherds in nearby fields that the Christ had been born, and they came and saw the baby, and announced his birth to the whole village and surrounding area. [For information on the Magi and the Christmas story, see commentary on Matthew 2:1. For more information about the shepherds, see commentary on Luke 2:16].
John Schoenheit of Spirit & Truth Fellowship International teaches on “An Overview of the Christmas Story.”
The birth of Christ is a very important subject, and the traditional Christmas story surrounding it not only contains a large amount of error, but it also presents a cold, hard, and lonely picture about the circumstances of Jesus’ arrival. In reality, his birth was an account of love, warmth, giving and sharing, and obeying God.
In this teaching on The Real Christmas Story, John Schoenheit explores this familiar record in a deeper, more accurate light—understanding the customs, time and place, and the not-often-known details that truly make the birth of Christ such an inspiring and wonderful account.