The passage is famous itself: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
That is from Luke 2:4-7, Douay-Rheims Bible, containing the powerful image of the Son of God coming into the world in utter simplicity and humility, born in a manger, in a barn, with St. Joseph and Mother Mary looking on, surrounded by meek and peaceful sheep and cows, shepherds peeking from without for good measure.
The popular imagery it evoked is seen in countless movies, postcards, and belens; encouraging us to turn away from the callousness of the innkeeper and instead to welcome Christ, in our hearts and in our lives.
Yet, is the understanding of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth by popular culture correct? Note that this is not a commentary on the biblical passage but rather our interpretation of it.
For a start, a reading of the passage above — as it is — makes no mention of a barn. We merely assumed it. It just says Mother Mary laid Jesus “in a manger.”
We thought of “barn” because of the word “manger.”
But, as New Testament and Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth E. Bailey points out (Eternity News, 2011), we “assume animal feeding troughs are placed in structures that contain only animals and are separate from houses, as they are in our culture. But in Jesus’ culture, animals were not kept in barns, but rather in houses.” The “family brought their animals into this section of the house each night, where they were safe from theft and offered warmth in winter, then took them outside in the morning.”
Thus, “peasant houses normally had only two rooms, one was set aside for guests, while the other was used for the whole family’s activities including sleeping, cooking and eating.”
This is not difficult to picture as many old Filipino houses were structured this way: as protection from the elements, such as floods, the common family living spaces are usually on the second floor, while the animals and storage areas, as well as possible day and play spaces, are on the ground.
Another reason had to do with language. Some recent Bible versions proffer that the proper translation is not “inn” but rather “guest house.” The reason has to do with the precise words in the original language.
The clue is found in Luke 22:10-12: “He said to them, ‘Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, and tell the householder, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready.’”
The Greek word used here for guest room is “katalyma,” the same word used in the birth narrative above. On the other hand, when using the word “inn” in Luke 10:34, for example, the Greek term employed was pandocheion, literally “commercial inn.”
So, the picture that now emerges is different: there was no hardhearted innkeeper. But was there a hardhearted homeowner that did not offer the Holy Family the guest room and instead forced them to sleep with the animals?
Again, probably not. The reasons have to do with the Middle East’s generous standards of hospitality. The other is that Joseph would most definitely have sought lodging with a family member.
Remember that the reason Joseph went to Bethlehem was because Augustus Caesar’s census ordered Jews to return to their hometown. And Joseph was of the House of David. It would have been highly improbable (as it would be in the Philippines) for no relative to take Joseph and his family in.
What was likely was the census caused many families to all return to Bethlehem at the same time, crowding the houses with one’s relatives. And for privacy’s sake, as well as for other needs, like hot water, etc., the ground floor would have been a practical choice offered by a homeowner to a relative about to give birth.
Our Savior thus was born not in isolation but surrounded by his extended family. This, however, clearly does not change the message of humility, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.
But it does place greater emphasis as well on the importance of family, that the Son of God, indeed born helpless, came from the warmth of Mary’s womb to a childhood in the womb of His family.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all!
Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.