This material was originally put together for a church housegroup and I’ve lightly revised it for the blog. The study booklet provided based most of its questions on the traditional version of the nativity story – which unfortunately is wrong. The biblical account is right, of course; but there has been a later misunderstanding. Here follows the explanation ….
Not just ‘no room’, actually NO INN!
“What different events came together to bring Mary and Joseph to this place at this time?” asked our discussion booklet. Well, the text is straightforward;
In those days an order went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole (Roman) world. This registration first occurred when Cyrenius (Latin ‘Quirinius’) was governor of Syria.
They all went to be registered, each to his own city, and Joseph too went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be registered with Mary his betrothed wife whose pregnancy was advanced. While they were there, her days were completed to give birth, and she bore her first-born Son, whom she wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest-chamber.
That’s right – ‘guest-chamber’; that’s what the Greek word actually means, as it also does in its only other biblical use, when it describes the ‘upper room’ of the Last Supper. And it’s surprising what a difference that makes. When Luke means ‘inn’ he uses a completely different word (Luke 10; 34).
In the standard story – the ‘inn-version’ – we get a rather upside-down (‘inn-verted’!) world in which people go to be registered for tax not where they now live, or where they have current connections and property, but where their ancestors once lived centuries earlier. Consequently Joseph and Mary are forced to make a trip from their Nazareth home while Mary is heavily pregnant to spend a short time at an inn in Bethlehem. Now I know bureaucrats can be pretty stupid – but not that stupid! So what’s really going on?
Read it with the ‘guest-chamber’ instead of the ‘inn’, and a significantly different story emerges. Joseph isn’t going to Bethlehem because his ancestors lived there long ago – he is going back there because Bethlehem is home. This brings us to another slight misunderstanding of the original – Joseph isn’t a ‘village carpenter’ as we generally imagine it, he is a ‘tekton’, a builder; the word is from the same ‘root’ as ‘architect’. At that time there was a lot of building going on in Palestine; mostly initiated by the Herod family, but of course other noblemen, merchants, etc. needed their mansions and so forth in the Herodian new cities, and the Romans were building as part of their alliance with Herod. Joseph is working in this environment; he’s a kind of “have Transit – will travel” builder, except that his Transit comes with four legs and long ears! Why up in Galilee? Certainly Galilee was a major area of such building, particularly in the city of Sepphoris (later destroyed in the uprising over the AD6 census). It was also where Mary lived; and another reason might be because, with Herod becoming increasingly paranoid in his last years, a member of a junior branch of David’s family might find it safer to be away from Judea and less likely to attract Herod’s attention.
However, for registration purposes Joseph does have to return to Bethlehem. In Galilee he isn’t a legal resident for tax purposes, he’s more like an immigrant worker. Bureaucrats then, much as now, don’t want to mess around registering a guy who lodges here and there following the work around the area. They want him registered at his primary family home where they can send the bailiffs in! Of course if he can’t produce evidence of registration when he’s working in Nazareth they’ll make life difficult for him …. So Joseph has to go home.
Archaeology tells us that at the time Bethlehem wasn’t quite the prosperous town it had been. Joseph’s family weren’t totally poor, but they weren’t exactly living in a mansion either. The typical house was rather like the longhouses or ‘bastel-houses’ that were built in Britain by Saxons and Vikings (and for the housegroup I was able to show an illustration of an Israelite version in an archaeological book ). Downstairs were daytime living accommodation and stalls for animals – in this case mainly the afore-mentioned ‘four legged Transit’. Upstairs were bedrooms and the ‘guest-room’. As the gospel tells us, while Mary and Joseph were there, it came time for the birth. For some reason the guest-room wasn’t free, so they cleared out the animal stall and used the manger as a cradle. (Some of the houses were even sort of caves; but the layout was similar in principle, with ‘upstairs’ as a ledge or a higher level inner cave rather than a second floor. I believe tradition identifies one of those cave dwellings as the nativity site)
So the story which emerges is Joseph taking Mary back to his home – with an advanced pregnancy but not so advanced as to make it really risky – probably during a slack season for building, and therefore in the winter months, though not necessarily December, nor was the birth necessarily on the 25th. We shouldn’t exaggerate the difficulty of the journey; the Holy Land is only about the size of Wales, and Mary had already made a similar journey earlier in the pregnancy when she visited Elizabeth. They were probably in Bethlehem for some time before the birth. This is advantageous to them in fudging the awkward discrepancy between the conception of Jesus and the actual marriage. Mary leaves Nazareth in mid pregnancy, arrives in Bethlehem likewise – nobody realises it’s been a short nine months ….
Following the birth they stayed a while; at least the week for the ritual period of purification (v22). Again, this fact speaks against them going to the expense of staying in an inn! Then as Luke says they went back to Nazareth at least briefly. But it seems that Joseph, as you would expect, established Mary and Jesus in his home – Bethlehem – while he travelled for his work. (When Matthew refers to Joseph ‘taking Mary as his wife’ he may be referring to Mary’s journey to Joseph’s home as the formal settling of the marriage) Then, possibly nearly two years later (see Matt. 2; 16) the arrival of the ‘wise men’ drew Herod’s attention to the new born ‘king of the Jews’. This forced Joseph and Mary first to flee with Jesus to Egypt and then to relocate to Nazareth…. The restoration of the translation ‘guest chamber’ not only makes better sense of Luke’s words; it also makes it easier to relate it to Matthew’s version. As tradition has it, Luke probably had his account from Mary or her family, so tells the story from a ‘Nazareth is home’ perspective; Matthew got his version from the other side of the family, or perhaps from Jesus himself and his brothers, so tells it as ‘Bethlehem is home’. The translation as ‘inn’ makes anomalies for both accounts; the restored ‘guest-chamber’ version resolves those anomalies in many ways.
(A possible reason for the ‘inn’ is that early Latin translations may have used ‘mansio’ – a staying-place – as the equivalent of the Greek ‘kataluma’. Later the word ‘mansio’ came to mean the way-stations of the Roman ‘pony express’, which operated as inns to reduce the expenses.)