Christmas... A Different Perspective

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Here is the account of the birth of Christ found in Luke 2:1-7, followed by an unusual interpretation of this text – especially Luke 2:7. This interpretation appeared in my book, The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross, pages 156-157, and is based on Dr. Kenneth Bailey's book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Dr. Bailey spent forty years living and teaching the New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus, and has written many books in English and Arabic. Reading his book will transform how you see the Bible, especially the Gospels.

Luke 2:1  In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3  And everyone went to his own town to register. 4  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. 5  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,  7  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.

The following is from my book, The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross:

Though Joseph lived in Nazareth, he was originally from Bethlehem. Because of Caesar Augustus’ decree for a census, Joseph had to return to Bethlehem with his betrothed, Mary, who was pregnant. The distance was ninety miles over very hilly country and would have taken several days. Joseph and Mary were not the only ones traveling to Bethlehem; all the original inhabitants of that town had to go back to be registered in the census. It must have been a great reunion for all the Bethlehemites. Verse 7 says, “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 [kataluma].”

The Greek word, kataluma, means the upper room or guest room of a home, which is usually reserved for visitors. The word appears two more times in scripture – Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14 – both are in reference to Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples in the kataluma, the upper room or guestroom.

There is a second Greek word for inn, pandocheion. It appears in the gospel of Luke, in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn [pandocheion] and took care of him” (Luke 10:34).

In the passage about the birth of Christ, why do translators insist on translating kataluma as “inn” instead of “upper room” or “guest room”? Why did Luke use the word kataluma (guest room or upper room) when he could have used the word pandocheion (inn)? If we look at Luke 2:7 again and translate kataluma as upper room, does the verse still make sense? “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 upper room.” It actually makes sense when we realize the upper room or guest room was a room on the second floor of the house or annexed to the living room.

Through my Arab lens and what I learned from Dr. Bailey, it amazes me to think that Joseph returned to his hometown and did not find one relative who would offer him hospitality! The town was full of relatives because everyone had returned to Bethlehem. Mary was in a very delicate circumstance, ready to give birth, and yet not one person offered hospitality that they had to stay in a pandocheion (inn)? To put this in perspective, consider what Abraham did with the “three strangers” who visited him: “Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them” (Genesis 18:7-8).

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Could the translators of Luke 2:7 have been confused by the word manger and assumed that it meant a stable? Were they not familiar with the fact that at night families brought their livestock into the lower sections of the split-level living room area of their homes for safety and protection from the elements, and every morning the animals were taken out to the courtyard and the lower living room area was cleaned thoroughly? Could it be that they were not aware of the fact that mangers separated the lower-level area for the animals from the raised level of the living room? That the upper level of the living room was a bedroom at night and a living room during the day? (The diagram is taken from page 29 in Dr. Bailey's book).

I understand Luke 2:7 to mean that because there was no place in the guest room, Mary gave birth in the living room, and the baby Jesus was placed on clean sheets over clean straw in a manger since the animals were outside. I can imagine the room was packed with busy women who were close to the host family, possibly including a midwife. I can imagine the men waiting outside or in another room with Joseph, anticipating the birth of the expected baby. The guest room must have been occupied by other guests who were older in age.

In this Eastern context of hospitality, Luke 2:7 can have a completely new meaning and a new appreciation. God, in the person of Christ, came to earth and dwelt among us. He was not secluded from humanity in a stable; He was born in a room in a house full of people. Here are a couple of additional thoughts that were not addressed in my book.

We usually assume that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem when Mary was ready to deliver. The text does not support or negate that assumption. Luke 2:6 states "While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born." Joseph and Mary could have arrived in Bethlehem days if not weeks before the day of the delivery. We also do not know how old Joseph was when he originally left Bethlehem, but it is safe to assume that upon his return there must have been relatives and friends of the family who would remember him. How could he return to his hometown and not find anyone who would offer him hospitality. If people were not at all hospitable, Joseph could have taken Mary to the home of her relative Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, which was only a few miles away.

One final thought. According to Luke 2, the angel told the shepherds that the savior of the world was born in Bethlehem. It is safe to assume, from what I know about the Middle East, that those shepherds lived in Bethlehem and took their sheep to graze in areas surrounding their town. After their encounter with the angel, they hurried to the place and saw the baby Jesus along with Joseph and Mary. If Jesus had been born in a stable rather than a house, wouldn't these shepherds have insisted to take the family to one of their homes? It does not seem reasonable to think they would have left the savior of the world in a stable.

May you and yours have a blessed and meaningful Christmas season. Jesus is the reason for the season. 

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour