Every year there is the nativity scene. I used to see it around shopping centres, but it seems to be more and more dominated by Santa now. But you know the scene: Jesus is at the centre, held in Mary’s arms. Joseph is looking over her shoulder as animals in the stable gather around the family. What’s wrong with this picture?
There is no stable.
Go back and read the accounts of Luke and Matthew and look for the word “stable”. You will not find it. Because Jesus was not born in a stable.
“…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7 NIV)
The assumption is that when Jesus is laid in the manger, the manger is in the stable as it is and was in European farms. But in the Middle East, in the C1st the manger was not in the stable, it was in the ‘kitchen’. The lower area of the house had a connecting section where food scraps were left for animals to eat in a ‘manger’. In fact, the animals were more inside rather than out in a seperate section of the estate. They lived next door to the food preparation area.
What about the inn?
Actually that is a mistranslation. Sorry to all the kids who played the role of ‘innkeeper’ in the nativity play, but the word inn (kataluma) is the same word for the “upper room” (Luke 22:11). It was the place where families would have guests over since it was important to be hospitable. Hospitality was an important part of Middle Eastern life. It was not outsourced to private enterprise like hotels or inns. We can assume that the relatives house that the family were staying in was over crowded due to the census and therefore Mary, Joseph and Jesus were forced into the lower, more humble section of the house.
Why does this matter?
Because I am a grinch and want to destroy all the romance of Christmas? No. Am I suggesting that we burn down all the nativity scenes we see in shipping centres because they are inaccurate? No. Does it reduce the humility of Jesus birth? No.
But the thing about Christmas is that it is celebrates an historical event but things are getting more and more shrouded in myth. Where we can we want to be historically accurate (and learn to read our Bibles more carefully).