As a little girl one of my favorite things to do in preparation of Christmas was to take out the Manger scene and put the baby Jesus and animals and wisemen and shepherds on display. And I would hum the Christmas carols about baby Jesus and I would remember the flannel boards I saw in Sunday School.
This post is my attempt to help clear away some of the myths I wrestled with in the past and hopefully inspire people to "dig" for answers they're seeking too. The further you go into your research the more alive the Bible becomes. Its really cool!
I began with the issue of a pregnant woman traveling to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Upon doing some research I learned that traveling from Galilee to Judea back in the day was quite a distance. No vehicles. No nicely paved streets. No air conditioning or heat. Just donkey power... maybe.
Just a side note here: Jews disliked Samaritans and considered them "low-class" because they married non-Jews and did not live according to the strict Jewish laws. Later in his life Jesus would stand against this prejudice with parables (Luke 10:25-37) and a beautiful demonstration of love and concern for the Samaritan people via the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). He even rebuked his own disciples for their prejudice and judgmental attitudes towards the Samaritans (Luke 10: 51-56).
Anyhow, Joseph and Mary would not have been alone on their travels to Bethlehem because of the threat of attack by ruffians and the like. During those days most travelers joined others on the roads to create impromptu caravans. Safety in numbers and all that. But it was also possible that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem with family and friends, being that Joseph and his family all came from ancestors who were from the City of David.
Luke tells us that the reason for Joseph and Mary's trek was due to a Roman census which required all Jews to return to the city or town of their ancestors, which would be considered their taxation district. (Luke 2:2-4)
|The streets of Bethlehem are very narrow.|
In Luke 1:39-41 the Bible tells us that Mary's relative, Elizabeth, lived in the hill country of Judea. This area would not have been too far away from Bethlehem so Joseph and Mary could have visited her relatives if they had no place to stay. But it is most likely Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem who welcomed them.
A widely accepted misconception is that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem during her final days of pregnancy. There is no proof to solidly back that up. It is more likely, given that cultural historians know their stuff, that what is stated in Luke 2:6 which begins: " While they were there,..." implies that there was a significant passing of time. This could have been several weeks before her due date. Mary could have been in her final trimester but certainly would have taken care not to do anything to endanger the life of baby Jesus in her womb.
The belief that Mary and Joseph arrived only hours before her imminent birth and that they presumably arrived at night have become popular today because of paintings, songs, and people taking artistic license for greater emotional impact. Traveling at night was generally avoided except for the most dire of circumstances. A prime example is found in Matthew 2:13-14 when the angel warned Joseph that Herod the king was sending soldiers to kill Jesus and instructed him to flee to Egypt during the cover of night.
It has also been widely believed that Mary and Joseph did not have a place to stay when they arrived at Bethlehem. I already stated earlier that this situation is unlikely given the evidence presented by multiple historical culture experts. But the belief has also stemmed from a misunderstanding in translation over what the word "inn" really means in the Greek word Kataluma. The translators in this case did not understand the cultural context behind the word's meaning.
The early Christians who were translating from the original Hebrew texts into Latin, Coptic and the like never once translated the greek word Kataluma to mean "inn." If that had been the case then the Greek word Pandocheion would have been used. Kataluma's meanings are: living accommodations, guest room, or even dining room depending on context.
To better understand how Kataluma did not mean an "inn" as we think of a motel or hotel today, we must go back and study the cultural context Luke was assuming all readers would know. You see, back in Luke's day most homes in Bethlehem had two main levels. An upper level where everyone resided and a lower level.
|A guest room in ancient Jewish homes. Sometimes these were built on the roofs.|
Once a birth took place it was traditional for newborns to be cleansed in a mixture of olive oil and salts and then wrapped or "swaddled" in strips of cloth to give the baby a sense of security and to keep him warm. Laying a baby in a manger padded down with clean hay would have been ideal and very comfortable too.
I like the idea that Jesus was born in a peaceful setting, surrounded by family, pets, and the humble atmosphere of those who have what they need. He wasn't born in a royal setting but He also wasn't born in abject poverty or rejection either. God set Jesus in a family that loved Him and I think that is so beautiful and powerful.
Hopefully something here has tickled your curiosity and encouraged you to seek out answers you may have on this or other events in the Bible.
However the events surrounding Jesus birth really took place it is the incredible gift God gave humanity that remains the most important fact of all. And I am happy to say that the Bible has lots and lots to say in reassuring us that God's love is very real and has not changed since the beginning of time.
I hope that all you readers have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Below is a sampling of places I have visited in the past. Feel free to check them out.
childbirth in the ancient world
Life in Ancient Bethlehem and Nazareth
Biblical Archeology: The Manger and the Inn
There Wasn't Any Inn