Luke 2:1-7 - The Christmas Story Revisited

Luke 2:1–7 (ESV) — 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

This Diving Deeper lesson outline is influenced almost entirely by Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
• Taking his advice, we take a fresh look at The Christmas Story and strip away some of the peeling layers of old paint that have covered up the original.
• And in doing so, we are confronted once again with profound questions about tradition and Scripture and how we should teach our children the Bible.


The traditional story goes something like this:
• Joseph and Mary showed up in Bethlehem in the middle of the night.
• Presumably, Joseph had not planned ahead and made arrangements so their only option for lodgings was a room in the local commercial inn.
• When they got to the local inn, it was booked solid; the no vacancy sign was on.
• Dejected, and Mary about to give birth at any moment, Joseph was left with the only choice of finding a cave/stable in which to stay.
• Mary then gave birth that night.
• And the shepherds and wise men came to visit her.

Unfortunately, there are at least (2) main problems with this version of events.
• (1) The translation of the Greek word for “inn”
• (2) A failure to account for the way A.N.E. culture would have influenced the events


What is the inn (Luke 2:7)?
•  In our text, Luke uses the Greek word katályma.
Katályma is the commonly used word for “guest chamber”.
• Strong’s said this “guest chamber” was typically “a dining room where the guests loosened their sandals before they sat down to eat” – Strongs.

In fact, this Greek word is used only two other times in the NT and each is translated as “guest room”.
• Mark 14:14 (ESV) — 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’
• Luke 22:11 (ESV) — 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’
    o Luke obviously knew what the word meant when he used it.

Interestingly, Young’s Literal Translation of Luke 2:7 is worded as follows:
• Luke 2:7 (YLT) — 7 and she brought forth her son—the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.

The Good Samaritan story can also shed some light on the “inn vs. guest room” concept for us.
• Luke 10:34-35 (ESV) — 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
• Significantly, Luke uses a word for “inn” here which is entirely different from our Christmas Story text.
• The Greek word is pandocheíon.
    o It literally means a “place that receives all” – JTME.
    o This was the word for a commercial inn that was “the most widely known across the Middle East” – JTME.
• What is even more telling is that the word for “innkeeper” used here is derived not from katályma, but from pandocheíon – and it is pandocheús.

But we are not done yet, because we also have a problem with the word “room”.
• Notice something else in the YLT version - Luke 2:7 (YLT) — 7 and she brought forth her son—the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.
• Where many translations (NIV, ASV, NKJV, NAS) say “room” the ESV and YLT say “place”.
o The Greek word here is topos.
o The word has to do with “having space” not a literal “room” in the way that is thought of when seen as “room in the inn”.

So what are we saying?
• “If Luke expected his readers to think Joseph was turned away from an “inn” he would have used the word pandocheíon, which clearly meant a commercial inn” – Kenneth Bailey, JTME.

So where was the guest-room?
• See picture handout of typical Palestinian home with an attached katályma.
• The katályma is a “guest room in a private home” – JTME.
• This use of the word fits squarely with the usage of the word elsewhere by Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14.

So where was Jesus born; where was the manger?
• In peasant homes of the time, mangers were located in the main part of the house.
• As Kenneth Bailey points out, “Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day”. The animals are put in the house because, “they provide heat in winter and are safe from theft”.

The Bible even reveals this practice of keeping animals in the house:
• 1 Samuel 28:24 (ESV) — 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it,
• Judges 11:31 (ESV) — 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
    o Jephthah assumed it would be one of his animals not his daughter.
• Luke 13:15 (ESV) — 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?
    o As stated earlier, the animals are taken out of the house (untied) every morning and led out of the house – even on the Sabbath.
    o Interestingly, the phrase used by Luke 13:12, “you are freed” literally means “untied”.
    o And the earliest Arabic version of the NT from the 9th century translates Luke 13:15 as, “does not every one of you untie his ox or his donkey from the manger in the house and take it outside and water it?

So what we are suggesting is that it is likely that Jesus was born in a typical peasant home of the day at the invitation and hospitality of a family related to Joseph.
• The guest room of the house was full and so they were invited to stay in the main part of the house.

But, as stated earlier, we have one more consideration to make that further supports this suggestion.


Cultural considerations that support this view:

(1) The shepherds.
• “If, on arrival, they had found a smelly stable, a frightened young mother and a desperate Joseph, they would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’ Within five minutes the shepherds would have moved the little family to their own homes. The honor of the entire village would rest on their shoulders and they would have sensed their responsibility to do their duty. The fact that they walked out, without moving the family, means that the shepherds felt they could not offer better hospitality than what had already been extended to them” – Bailey, JTME.
• Luke 2:16–20 (ESV) — 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
    o Luke demonstrates not only that the shepherds were satisfied with “all they had heard and seen”, but that they found at Jesus’ birthplace an “all” to whom they made known the angels’ declarations.

(2) Joseph.
• “In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important. In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem, and told people, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi’ and most homes in town would be open to him” – JTME.
• Further, Joseph also had royal blood in the line of King David, and being called the “City of David”, inhabitants of the town would have had further reason to welcome him and Mary.

(3) Birthing
• Out of a sense of honor and to avoid shame, any A.N.E. town, such as Bethlehem, would have “sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed” – JTME.
• “To turn away a descendent of David in the “City of David” would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village” – JTME.
• And even if none of this were true, Mary had relatives a few miles away in the hills of Judea – Elizabeth and Zachariah – to which Joseph could have gone.

• It is most likely that, “The manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable” – JTME.
• Joseph was not a bumbling idiot and Mary was not alone – though the men would have left during the birth.
• This is the understanding that is “most authentic to the geography and history of the Holy Land” – JTME.
• Tradition must be evaluated against Scripture!
• Do you think it matters?