“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2: 10-12, ESV)
No matter how many times I read the story of Jesus’ birth or hear it read, I never see or hear the word “stable”. Ever. Sure, that’s how we always depict the scene, right? Joseph and Mary forced to camp out in a stable because there are no vacancies in any of the “inns” in town. What a place to birth a child. This,we say, reminds us of the lowliness of Jesus’ birth and contrasts nicely with who He really is. Like we used to say in seminary, “That’ll preach!” The only problem with this wonderful picture, is that it’s not what Scripture actually says. Like I said, there’s no mention of a stable anywhere.
The sign that the angel tells the shepherds to look for is a baby lying in a manger. I think it’s a cultural bias of translators to assume that if he’s in a manger, then he must be in a stable. Mangers are found in stables, after all. Makes sense. But mangers were also commonly found in the lower levels of homes from that era in Bethlehem. Often, these lower levels were converted to shelters for the family’s most valuable animals during the night. The family would sleep in the upper rooms of the home.
This, of course, brings us to the second issue in this famous story. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why popular translators insist on using the word “inn”. That’s not exactly true. I think that they keep “inn” in because it’s such a famous verse and they can refer to most old commentaries to back up the practice. I took a look at a number of these old commentaries, though and those who insist on “inn” fall into two primary camps: one that makes an extra Biblical assumption, and the other just says, basically, “because”. In other words, there is no real good reason to say, “inn” other than that’s what everyone has always done.
The Greek word that is translated “inn” is used in two other verses in the Bible. In Luke 22:11 and in Mark 14:14, it is rendered “guest room”, however. I checked. It’s the same word except for its case. (Objects in the Koine Greek of the New Testament alter their spelling according to whether they are being used as direct objects or indirect objects, etc . . .). In all three verses it’s the same word. No one would expect the other two examples to be rendered “inn” so there’s no reason to render the Luke 2 example “inn”.
The reason that “inn” is used is that the assumption is made that Joseph and Mary were travelers and so must have been staying in a sort of caravan area/ “inn”. Couple that with the use of “manger” before archaeologists were around to unearth old homes from that place and time and it’s a reasonable assumption to make. The idea of Joseph and Mary caravanning is consistent with the next story in Luke in which they go to Jerusalem and inadvertently leave Jesus behind, but though related to this one, it is, nonetheless, another story. All the Gospel says is that the new family went to Bethlehem to be counted with Joseph’s extended family for the census. Since Joseph was of the House of David, it is possible (likely?) he had relatives Bethlehem?
So what do we end up with? We have a crowded home in which a baby is born. In the absence of a cradle, a manger is an excellent place to lay the baby. The hay in the manger is surely clean and will make great bedding for Him. Not only that, but there are fewer people on the lower level of the home, especially at night, so He can rest more easily and so can everyone else. (Even perfect babies get hungry during the night and let everyone know about it!)
Jesus was surrounded by family at His birth, but no one “got it” except for, maybe, Mary who pondered everything in her heart. That’s why everyone in the home was so surprised by the shepherds’ exclamations and declarations. The wise men came to the house too and worshiped Him which further demonstrated the lack of understanding Jesus’ immediate family had for Him. All that being said, however, I have to think that laying Jesus in that manger was an act of kindness and love toward that most precious of babies. In a crowded house like that He must have had plenty of “aunts” and “grandmas” to dote on Him. What a loving environment that must have been.
I admit, this depiction of the beginning of Jesus’ life may sound foreign but it is entirely in keeping with the text of the Bible. It also makes complete sense in light of the consistent Biblical theme of relationship. From beginning to end, God desires an intimate relationship with humanity. (That’s you and me!) Family is a reflection of that desire. God is our Father. Jesus is His Son. Jesus invites us to be His brothers and sisters. A husband and wife are called to reflect Christ and the Church. The Church is a family. It’s all about relationship. And the faith of the shepherds and the wise men demonstrate how that true relationship with Christ Jesus began in a manger.
That’s what Christmas is all about.