We have three nativity scenes in our home during Christmas time. Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a shepherd, a sheep, a donkey, an angel, and perhaps even three wise men. These characters are often depicted in a stable of some kind. It’s a scene we all know and love – baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room for Him at the inn.
But how much of our story stems from the Biblical account and how much of it was birthed in tradition?
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When I read the story, I often insert my own imagination. I envision Joseph rushing into Bethlehem, knocking on doors while Mary is about to give birth at any moment, and meanwhile, every innkeeper is telling them there is no room for them. Eventually, they find one who is willing to allow them to stay in the stable outside (or perhaps a cave) where they kept their animals. Mary then gives birth alone with Joseph surrounded by livestock… at least until the shepherds arrived.
This is the story I remember as a child. Even Charlie Brown’s Christmas special depicts an innkeeper who is willing to shelter Mary and Joseph in his stable. But is this version of the Christmas story found in Scripture?
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. – Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)
These seven verses in the gospel of Luke are where we find the details surrounding Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. We really have little to go on here. Here’s what we do know for sure:
- Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in the census.
- Joseph was from the line of David (which fulfilled Old Testament prophecy).
- Mary was still pregnant while they traveled.
- While in Bethlehem, she had the baby.
- She wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger.
- There was no guest room available for them.
Here’s what we don’t find in this passage:
- The innkeeper. He’s nowhere to be found. The entire image of an innkeeper most likely stems from verse 7 where there is no room available for them. We assume that they asked around for shelter and were denied, but this simply isn’t mentioned in the story.
- The mad rush to find shelter. The image of Mary in active labor while Joseph is knocking on doors frantically is also missing from this passage in Luke. The passage actually says “while they were there” she gave birth. We have no idea how long she was in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. It could have been a day. Or it could have been several weeks. We simply do not know.
- The cave or stable outside. Some of our English translations of the Bible say that there was no room for them in the “inn.” Others translate it as “guest room” or “guest chambers.” The word up for debate is katalyma. It’s the same word used to describe the upper room where Jesus ate the Last Supper with His disciples. And more often than not, this word was actually used to describe the upper room or guest chambers in a person’s home. (Interestingly enough, Luke used a different word, pandocheion, to describe a public inn/hotel in Luke 10.) The houses in Israel at this time often had two main rooms, one upper room for guests and dining and another lower main area where animals were often brought in for warmth at night (which would explain the manger). Some historians and scholars believe that Mary and Joseph would have been staying with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem and that this verse is simply saying it was a full house. Keep in mind that his entire extended family would have had to travel to Bethlehem for the census as well because they were all from the line of David. If this theory is correct, there wasn’t enough room in the upper guest area so Mary and Joseph ended up downstairs with the animals. The only thing we know for certain based on Scripture is that Jesus was laid in a manger.
There is one thing I think we can all agree on. We don’t know much about the birth of Jesus. And because the Bible says very little, many of the things included in our vision of that first “silent night” may be based more on tradition rather than Scripture. But does any of this matter? Not really. The only thing that really matters when it comes to the birth of Christ is that He was born. And in His birth, He fulfilled every prophecy foretelling His birth. This is essentially what the Gospel stories focused on. They made a point to mention Bethlehem, the line of David, and His virgin birth because those are the very things prophesied about Him in the Old Testament.
The most important part of the nativity scene is the fact that our Messiah was born. Nothing else really matters.
Was Mary alone when she gave birth? Were they in a cave, stable, or in a relative’s home? Were they denied shelter even though Mary was visibly pregnant?
I guess we’ll have to wait and find out when we meet Jesus face to face. The most important thing is that He was born.
Our Messiah came into the world and saved us.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.