On the churchleaders.com website, writer Dale Chamberlain has written an article entitled, “Why I Don’t Think Jesus Was Born in a Stable (and Why It Matters)”. In part, below is what he wrote, ‘It’s no secret that we Christians treasure artistic imagery of Jesus that isn’t always historically accurate. After all, it’s not likely that Jesus had a Western European complexion and long, flowing hair. But what if our nativity scene isn’t exactly accurate to how Jesus’ birth actually happened? I don’t think Jesus was born in a stable. Or a cave for that matter.
When Luke describes the details of Jesus’ birth, he’s sending us an important message. Unfortunately, we don’t always pick up what he’s throwing down.
The whole issue boils down to what I believe to be an unfortunate translation of one word in the biblical nativity story: 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. (Luke 2:7) Note that there is no mention of a stable or cave. We infer it from the fact that there was no vacancy in the inn, which we conceive to be the first century equivalent of a Motel 6 or the Hilton.
It’s on this conception that we construct an entire narrative. Mary and Joseph run around the entire city, looking for lodging. They’re out in the cold. Mary’s water has just broken. There’s no room anywhere, so they hunker down in a nearby stable. Joseph single-handedly delivers the baby, and they spend the night among the farm animals. But that’s probably not the best way to understand that word. Or the story.
While kataluma (which is most often translated as “inn”) can be used to refer to a hotel-type lodging, it can also just refer to the upper room of a house. Most homes at the time had a main floor, with an upper guest room on the second story. In those same homes, there would be a lower level where the animals would be brought in at night for safe keeping. And yes, there were mangers there. That upper room is most likely what Luke is referring to here.
This is evidenced by the fact that Luke uses this same word (kataluma) in Luke 22:11, where Jesus’ disciples rent an “upper room” or “guest room” to hold their Passover meal. Conversely, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the hero of the story takes an injured stranger to what is undeniably a hotel-style inn, Luke uses the word pandocheion, not kataluma. So, while the range of meaning for kataluma may include referring to a hotel-style inn, Luke doesn’t appear to use it that way anywhere in his account.
It would also be pretty offensive for Mary and Joseph to go looking for a hotel to stay in. Why? Because they were in the city of their family origin, which means there was someone in the neighborhood who was related to them. In an eastern culture, it would be offensive to be in town and not stay with your family. Even if it were family that you hadn’t seen in years or had never even met at all. It would also be dishonorable to your family for them to refuse to host you, even if the house was packed to capacity. So instead of giving birth in a cold lonely stable, Mary and Joseph were most likely with their family. But since literally everyone and their mother was in town for the census, this poor family member’s home was packed to the rafters. So, the men were probably sent outside while the women stayed in the home to help Mary deliver the baby. And when the baby came, he was laid in a manger on the main level of the home, since there was no more space for anyone to lay down in the upper room (the kataluma). Thus, Jesus came into the world. Surrounded by family. Ordinary in every way. Jesus’ birth was not sensational – and that’s the point!
The message is this: Jesus didn’t just come for the rich and famous. He didn’t come only for the prestigious and the noble. He came for the nobodies. He came for the people that others would never give a second thought to. The ordinary. The unimpressive and unremarkable. The forgotten and overlooked. God is writing eternity into the ordinary. And so that means that maybe, just maybe, through Jesus, God can write an eternally spectacular story in the midst of your ordinary, bland, mundane, nobody life. Maybe the abundant life Jesus offers isn’t just for the rich, the talented, the well-adjusted, the presentable, the lovely people of the world. Maybe, just maybe, it’s for you too. That’s powerful. And that’s what Christmas is all about. Let’s lean into it even just a little more by remembering that Jesus, the King of Glory, came to us in the most inglorious and unspectacular fashion possible. This Christmas, may your heart be filled with the wonder that Jesus came for you, in the form of someone just like you.