At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born.She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
Sometimes I think it is cute how warped our traditional story of Christmas is. I don’t know how often it happens in our era but it used to be a right of passage during my childhood for all the kids to get together and dress up with bathrobes and towels to share this age old (mis)story. Of all the traditional characters in that play, I think the innkeeper is probably the most misunderstood. For one thing, the guy probably didn’t exist. Read Luke two. Read it again. No innkeeper is mentioned. (I didn’t bother to check such fictionalized Bibles as the Message but in any real translation he won’t be there.)
Most likely there was no innkeeper. Bethlehem was a town that at most had a population of one thousand at the time of Christ’s birth (between 7-4 BC) The three hundred to five hundred range is probably a bit closer to the mark, but that is neither here nor there. This little town of Bethlehem was a place everyone wanted to be born in but nobody wanted to be raised in. I won’t get into the dynamics of geography and prophesy and social longing that make this so but it is fair to say that this census, if it took place as Luke describes would have probably swollen this city to about 3-4 thousand during the (likely) late summer or early fall in which Jesus was born in. Bethlehem would not have had any inns as we understand the word but being in close proximity to Jerusalem (about 6 miles) there were likely quite a few large homes which would have taken on guests during the festivals.
When Jesus has his last supper with the disciples Mark says they stay in a guest room. This is actually the same Greek word translated “inn” that we read in the traditional Luke story. This “inn” would have been a large open second floor of the house. Most likely Mary and Joseph had arrived many days, if not weeks before the birth of Christ. Read the story closely. No matter what the televised versions share and no matter what your children’s Christmas cantata taught you, there is no immediacy between the travelling and the birth. In fact, the opposite is implied. Since they were already there, they most likely were staying in one of these large open rooms. If this census took place shortly before the Feast of Tabernacles (as is very likely) most of those traveling to Bethlehem would have stayed through. So that large open room probably played host to multiple families. That is why Luke says there was “οὐκ αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι”. There was “negative [no/not] for them location in the lodging space”. This is traditionally translated “no room for them in the inn”. I would argue a better translation in context would be, “the space in that room was not a good place.”
Even if there was an innkeeper, getting a woman in labor our of an overcrowded open living space would have been an act of mercy. She needed space. She needed privacy. We often call the place Jesus was born either a barn or a cave. The barn is halfway right. Many homes would have had either a portion of the house or more likely an extension built as a lodging place for their animals. This place would have been cooler, quieter, and private. It would have been the only appropriate place in a vastly overcrowded tiny town for poor Mary to have given birth. The supposed innkeeper was offering the best available. Even the smells of this barn would probably have been not nearly as bad as a poorly ventilated barracks housing dozens of unwashed people. Beyond that, there is only mention of a manger, so it is quite possible that this happened actually happened outside. I tend to think not but I can’t really argue with those who hold that position. What we do not know is far more than what we wrongly think we do.
For most of our Christmas songs and stories, these fables and misconceptions we have built are really quite harmless. I love watching and listening to kids share the Christmas story. I am completely fine with celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25’th. By the way, those who try to say that Christmas was imposed over Saturnalia are simply trading one delusion of certainty for another. Sometimes the myths are more true than the truth. We live in a society where more and more everybody feels the need to be absolutely right about every single thing all the time. It is also a sad truth that we also live in a time where delusions proliferate. It is becoming ever easier for false information to rapidly disseminate.
So this Christmas season, if somebody is singing out something that you know to be wrong, let it slide. God loves us enough to die for us. He asks us to do the same for others. This Christmas let us hold tightly to these two truths and hold loosely to everything else we think we know. If someone says something we disagree with, let us have the grace to disagree rather than spend hours on social media trying to convince them of the error of their ways. Let us spend this season sharing with others God’s love rather than trying to beat His truth into them, especially since even we don’t often realize how wrong we are on what that truth is.