Added details to Christ’s birth story?
Published: 26 December 2020 (GMT+10)
Antonio F., Australia, asks:
Hello CMI, One pastor I’ve been talking to has claimed that the birth of Jesus occurred in the lower room of an inn using the term katalyma depicting this. Other references suggest that this could also be an internal enclosure like that of a stable. Could you please shed some light on this topic? I understand that a manger, ‘feeding trough’, is used for feeding/watering animals and that some have suggested that this was kept outside of inns and sometimes brought inside. Is there any other Scriptural/historical reference, like prophecies/Josephus, that can pinpoint the type of room that Jesus was born in? The pastor has suggested that the nativity scene is a false claim and that it shouldn’t be used. I know that the wise men weren’t there at Jesus’ birth with the shepherds but showed up some time later. I just assumed that shepherds coming in from pasture into Bethlehem would’ve implied the room was referring to a room in a stable. Thank you.
Lita Sanders, CMI–US, responds:
Thanks for writing in. There are lots of legendary accretions that people add to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. However, we must start with what Scripture itself has to say about Jesus’ birth. There are two terms in Luke 2 that we need to examine.
The first one is phatnē, translated ‘manger’. It’s the common word for a feeding trough. It suggests that Jesus was born somewhere that housed animals, though no animals are mentioned in the biblical account. Well, where were animals housed in the ancient world? Sometimes they were housed in caves. An early tradition says that Jesus was born in such a cave, and an early Christian shrine was built out of a cave that was said to be the location of Jesus’ birth, and one of the pseudepigraphal infancy gospels cemented this in the imagination of the early Christians. But again, the Bible doesn’t say a cave, though it doesn’t exclude a cave either.
The other word we have to look at is kataluma, which is translated ‘inn’. But we know it probably wasn’t an inn like we think of today, complete with a mean innkeeper who made poor Mary give birth in a barn. For one thing, there’s a better word for a formal inn, pandocheion, which Luke used in 10:34. Second, nothing we know about first-century Bethlehem would lead us to believe there was an inn in the city. So what was the kataluma? Well, that same word is translated “guest room” in 22:11, and in that case it referred to a large upper room that could fit Jesus and His disciples for Passover. The word is related to the verb kataluō, which can mean “find lodgings” (Luke 9:12).
So a possible scenario is: Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and lodge as guests in a house, possibly a relative of Joseph’s, but there are lots of people in town for the census and they’re not the only guests. There’s no room for Mary to give birth in the crowded upper room, so she gave birth on the first floor, where animals would be brought in for the night—but they may or may not have been there at the time. When Jesus was born, Mary swaddled Him as was customary, and laid Him in the manger, which made a handy bed under the circumstances. It was also unusual enough to act as a sign to the shepherds.
As for whether the Nativity scenes are false, it’s only false if you expect art to depict reality as it actually happened. It is common for art to ‘telescope’ things and bring related things together that didn’t actually happen together. So the nativity scene including the shepherds from Luke and the wise men from Matthew to give a visual representation of two of the most famous groups of people in connection with the birth of Jesus isn’t exactly an error, but we have to interpret it as one would normally interpret art. Of course, we know that by the time the wise men got to Bethlehem, Jesus was around 2 years old, and the family was in a house, not a stable. CMI has no stance on the display of nativity scenes or any elements of Christmas celebration, but that is how nativity scenes should be understood if one chooses to have them.