The traditional reading of Luke includes Mary and Joseph traveling away from home, to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s ancestors lived, to be registered in a census for Roman taxation. When they arrive they find that the inn there is full, and are forced to take refuge in the stable outside. Jesus is born in the stable, surrounded by animals, laid in a manger for his crib. He is then visited by shepherds from the fields who have been alerted of his birth by a host of angels.
If one reads the gospel carefully, however, one will note problems with this reading. Why would Rome require people to travel away from home to be registered for taxation purposes? If you are going to tax people, you want their home addresses! Knowing where their ancestors were from is not particularly helpful. There are also no animals mentioned in the text. The tradition of their presence is probably developed out of a reading of Isaiah 1:3 (“The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”) as talking about Jesus.
But, for some time, Biblical scholars have had further reservations about the text. The word “kataluo,” usually translated as “inn” (Luke 1:7) is actually more general in reference, often meaning “place or room.” See, for instance Luke 22:11 where the disciples ask about a “guest room” in which to hold their dinner (the last supper). The word for “room” there is the same as the word that has traditionally been translated as “inn” in Luke. And, it is possible to translate the definite article “the” in “the inn” as a possessive. So the correct translation might be “there was no space in THEIR ROOM.”
So what would it mean if this is the correct translation. Well, it may entirely change the way the story goes. It has been suggested that, if Bethlehem was an ancestral home for Joseph, his relatives there would have provided him shelter there. Some other interpreters have gone even further, suggesting that Joseph might not have been living in Nazereth, but may only have gone there to pick up his Mary, to whom he was betrothed. So traveling to Bethlehem would have been coming back home. In which case he would definitely have had some established family place of residence.
Now, in that society there was a tradition, when a new generation was establishing a family, to build a new room onto the family house to hold them. So, it is possible that Joseph and Mary came into Bethlehem and took shelter in either a guest room, or a “marriage room” added onto a bigger house. In either case, if Luke is claiming that “there was no space in THEIR ROOM” the Gospel is not suggesting that they were rejected from an inn.
Further, houses in that area and time were often constructed so that animals had access to a common room in the house. And that room may have had food troughs available for the animals: mangers. So, it seems likely that instead of going outside to a stable, Mary and Joseph have only moved into the common area of the house, where there is more room for giving birth than in the small room that they have been given.
In the light of similar arguments to the above, Ian Thomas suggests:
In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention. This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.
I appreciate Thomas’ careful attention to the text, and he has articulated some of the reasons he finds this reading of the nativity salutary. I don’t want to challenge the potential usefulness of this reading. But I disagree with his conclusion that this is the best way to read Luke.
Why? Because I think it misses Luke’s theological point. Reading Luke’s narrative as suggesting a birth surrounded by supportive family is no more suggested by the text than the idea that Jesus is born surrounded by animals. If Luke had wanted us to imagine a broader familial context for the birth, he certainly could have explicitly noted it, and he does not.
The emphasis on the shape of Palestinian housing itself is fascinating. But one cannot show that Luke meant one thing rather than another by looking at the way homes were actually laid out. It is not like Luke was concerned primarily with accurately representing local architecture. In fact, at several points in Luke’s gospel he seems unclear on the exact geography of Palestine. So, to support the claim that Luke’s story must reflect an accurate picture of houses from the area would at least require showing that he knew about what the houses were like.*
This reflects a larger problem with Thomas’ exegesis, as he seems to think that by interpreting Luke correctly he is going to find “the Christmas story.” There is no one Christmas story. Matthew tells one Christmas story that focuses on revealing Jesus as the King of Kings and the new and improved Moses. Luke tells a different story that has, as I shall note below, a focus on Jesus coming to the poor. There is, in early extra-canonical literature, yet another Christmas story which tells of Jesus being born in a cave, which was extremely influential in early Christianity, and doubtless inspired the current location of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Each of these stories plays an important part in the Christian tradition, and it would be reductive to focus on one of them as “the” story of the nativity rather than looking to each one for the distinctive element it contributes to our knowledge of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Further, Thomas uses the fact that animals are mentioned in Isaiah as a way of suggesting that the presence of animals has simply been read into the text by tradition. But that seems to me to underestimate the tradition of interpretation. Luke often refers to Old Testament passages elliptically. And Isaiah was a text with which early Christians were intimately familiar. It seems extremely likely that in referring to a manger, and using the specific word here, Luke is intentionally echoing Isaiah 1:3. So the connection is not a mistake, but provides the proper context for reading Luke’s claims.
In fact, the idea that Luke is suggesting a link to Isiah’s claim fits perfectly with Luke’s theology. The claim that “Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3) is a perfect parallel for Jesus’ claim in Luke that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.” (Luke 4:24).
In fact, read in the context of Luke’s gospel, the warm and cozy reading of the nativity suggested by Thomas seems distinctly out of place. Luke constantly emphasizes that Jesus comes “to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18, notably echoing Isaiah). Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, which has Jesus visited by wise men bearing gifts for a King, Luke focuses on the visitation by shepherds of the field. It is not the rich of the world that attend to Jesus birth, but the lowly.
This is, of course, not an argument against the possibility that Luke’s gospel may mean to place Jesus birth in more of a domestic setting than the traditional reading suggests. The argument has certainly raised significant questions about how to translate Luke.
But in terms of Luke’s theological point, it is entirely fitting to see the story as one of a couple who is exists without power, forced to travel a long distance, to find no room at the end of their travels. It fits in Luke’s Gospel to think of Jesus as impoverished in his lack of an appropriate crib. Jesus is, in Luke’s gospel, the King who has come to those who are poor, and who is unafraid to dwell with them making their poverty his own. And, if reading the word “kataluo” differently leads us to forget that and attempt to provide a more “family friendly” and less alienating version of the story, better that we leave the traditional reading alone.
So, this Christmas, set up your nativity with a stable. Surround your baby Jesus with smelly, dirty animals, and the poor shepherds. And celebrate Jesus who refuses to accept an easy birth in order to come to the poor and oppressed. That, I have no doubt, would be fine with the author of Luke.
*Thomas does cite Luke 13:15 to support the idea that this kind of house is mentioned in Luke’s gospel. Perhaps he is right. But the passage seems to me more ambiguous about the exact location it is referencing than Thomas suggests.