I often talk about the importance of understanding the Hebrew culture in order to properly understand Scripture. If we study that culture in light of the birth of Christ, we will see quite a different picture from that which tradition paints. If we study the biblical text, the archaeological evidence and the first century cultural context, the details surrounding Yeshua's birth may be quite different than we have traditionally thought.
Most modern versions of the story of Yeshua's birth go something like this: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem late in the night on December 25. Mary is in labor about to give birth. The local inn has its "no vacancy" sign clearly displayed. The tired couple seeks alternatives and finds none. With no other option, wearied from their journey and desperate for any shelter because of the imminent delivery, they spend the night in a stable where the child is born. Then some shepherds and three Kings show up and worship Him. Is this what Scripture teaches? It sounds like what Luke records. So let's examine the text and see what we discover:
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. Luke 2:1 NASB
A regional census leads Joseph and his betrothed, Mary, to the city of David, better known as Bethlehem. "All the inhabited earth" means all territory ruled by Rome. The decree comes from Caesar Augustus. Caesar was a title used for Roman emperors much as we use the title "President" today. This Caesar was called Augustus, but his actual name was Gaius Octavius. He ruled alone from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke 2:2 NASB
The administrator of the census was Quirinius ("Tacitus Annals" 2.30; 3.22, 33, 48; Strabo Geography 12.6.5). This census probably sought to produce a registration list for taxes. A journey to the ancestral home would have fit Jewish practice, so that the custom was done in a culturally inoffensive manner. This was important, since the tax itself would have been a painful reminder of Israel's position before Rome:
And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, Luke 2:3-4 NASB
Let's look at verse 4 in the Complete Jewish Bible to get the Hebraic flavor:
So Yosef, because he was a descendant of David, went up from the town of Natzeret in the Galil to the town of David, called Beit-Lechem, in Y'hudah, Luke 2:4 CJB
Yeshua's parents weren't Joseph and Mary, they were Yosef and Miryam. The meaning of Yosef is: "Yahweh shall add or enlarge." Miryam means: "bitter or strong waters or waters of strength."
Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a ninety mile trip, assuming that Samaria was bypassed. Such a journey would have taken around three days. This was a significant distance for an expectant mother to have traveled in those days. No donkey is mentioned, they may have walked. At the time of Yeshua, Bethlehem was a little town of 300-1,000 inhabitants. The word "Bethlehem" comes from two words: Beit, meaning: "house"; and Lechem, meaning: "bread." Yeshua was born in the "house of bread." What do we call a house of bread? A bakery! This is interesting in light of the fact that Yeshua said:
Yeshua said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. John 6:35 NASB
The Bread of life was born in a bakery. Yeshua, the "Bread of life," offers spiritual food that will completely satisfy our hunger. This may sound a little silly to you, but this is Hebraic, they see things pictorially.
That Bethlehem is the town of David indicates Yeshua's birth connection to the promise made in the Tanakh:
"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity." Micah 5:2 NASB
But not just Bethlehem, but Bethlehem Ephrathah. Why Ephrathah? Because there were two Bethlehems. One Bethlehem was in Galilee and the other one was in Judea. Just so there was no confusion, this prophecy dealt with the birth of this One who was going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny little town south of Jerusalem. It was no big deal other than the fact that King David was born there.
Yeshua, the Son of David, is born in Bethlehem the city of David just as Micah prophesied:
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 NASB
We've grown up hearing the account that the "inn" in Bethlehem was full, with no "room" available, so Joseph and Mary ended up in a stable, with Yeshua born and laid in a manger there. This image has been used to promote the typical Christmas nativity scene for generations. Yet a careful analysis of the biblical text reveals quite a different story!
The Greek word translated "inn" here is kataluma. It means: "a place of rest, usually a guest room." In fact, the same writer, Luke, uses this very word later where it clearly refers to a guest room and not an inn:
"And you shall say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' Luke 22:11 NASB
Same author, same Greek word, but totally different translation? This word is only used one other time in the New Testament and that is in Mark:
and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher says, "Where is My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' Mark 14:14 NASB
In Mark it is also translated as "guest room," so why translate it "inn" in the story of Christ's birth?
What is interesting is that when Luke does speak of an Inn, he uses a different word in the parable of the Good Samaritan:
and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. Luke 10:34 NASB
Yeshua mentions that the injured man in the story was taken to an inn--and here Luke uses the Greek word pandokheion, the first part of this word means: "all." The second part, as a verb, means: "to receive." The pandocheion is the place that receives all, namely a commercial inn. This common Greek term for an inn was so widely known across the Middle East that over the centuries it was absorbed as a Greek loan word into Armenian, Coptic, Arabic, and Turkish with the same meaning--a commercial inn.
If Luke expected his readers to think Joseph was turned away from an "inn," he would have used the word pandocheion, which clearly meant a commercial inn. But in Luke 2:7 it is a katalyma that has no room.
Young's Literal Translation uses the term "guest-chamber" instead of an inn:
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. Luke 2:7 YLT
"No room in the inn"--has taken on the meaning of: "the inn had a number of rooms and all were occupied." The "no vacancy sign" was already "switched on" when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the Greek word "room" does not refer to "a room in an inn" but rather to "space"; it is the Greek word "topos" as in: "There is no space on my desk for my new computer." What Luke is telling us is that there was not enough space for them in the guest room.
The linguistic evidence shows that Luke used the term kataluma to mean not an inn, but the guest room--the definite article is used: "the" guest room of a particular house.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, after pointing out that the word kataluma is used elsewhere in the Gospels for the guest chamber of a private home, comments:
"Was the 'inn' at Bethlehem, where Joseph and Mary sought a night's lodging, an upper guest room in a private home or some kind of public place for travelers? The question cannot be answered with certainty. It is thought by some that it may have been a guest chamber provided by the community. We know that visitors to the annual feasts in Jerusalem were entertained in the guest rooms of private homes" (1982, Vol. 2, "Inn," p. 826).
I think that by understanding the culture the "question can be answered with certainty." Another factor that powerfully argues against this term meaning an inn is that these places were not appropriate for giving birth to a child. Inns at that time were far from anything like typical motels or hotels we might think of today. Generally speaking, inns had a bad reputation. The poor conditions of public inns, together with the Semitic spirit of hospitality, led the Jews and the early Christians to recommend the keeping of an open house for the benefit of strangers.
Besides this, for commercial reasons, inns were usually found along the major roads. Yet Bethlehem was a small town in the upper mountains of Judea, and no major Roman road is known to have passed through it. Since it seems to have been an insignificant village at the time, it's doubtful that an inn even existed there then.
This gives us reason to realize that what Luke really wrote is that there was no room for them in the guest chamber. Certainly, due to the Roman census being taken at the time and the huge number of people traveling to their birthplaces, available space in the guest quarters was scarce.
So the question then becomes: Does that mean Joseph and Mary aimed to stay in someone's home, but since the guest room was full, were turned out into the night to a stable? When Mary was in labor? That might seem worse than being turned away from an inn. Both scenarios seem downright inhospitable, which is far out of line from the way things were at that time.
In Christ's day, hospitality to visitors among the Jews was essential, based on biblical example and law. Hospitality was a huge deal in this culture. The Jews had a list of six things to commend a man in the life to come. Does anybody know what was the first thing on that list? It was hospitality! We don't usually think of hospitality as one of the top ten commands, but the Jews saw it as number one. Where did the Jew get the idea that hospitality was so important? They got this idea from the Bible:
'When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 'The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 NASB
Israel was told to love strangers as they loved themselves. The word "strangers" doesn't necessarily mean that they are strange, it normally applied to travelers and aliens, people we don't know. If they were to love strangers, they certainly were to love each other.
Denial of hospitality was shown throughout Scripture to be an outrage. Hospitality toward visitors is still important throughout the Middle East.
Since Bethlehem was Joseph's ancestral home, he probably had relatives there. And being a descendant of King David, whose hometown this was, he would have been highly respected upon his arrival. Think of a descendant of George Washington coming to his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia after a long lapse of time. The townspeople would've shown him respect.
Kenneth Bailey, a Middle Eastern and New Testament scholar explains:
"[My] thirty-year experience with villagers in the Middle East is that the intensity of honor shown to the passing guest is still very much in force, especially when it is a returning son of the village who is seeking shelter. We have observed cases where a complete village has turned out in a great celebration to greet a young man who has suddenly arrived unannounced in the village, which his grandfather had left many years before" ("The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7," Bible and Spade, Fall 2007, p. 103).
It should also be pointed out that childbirth was a major event at that time. In a small village like Bethlehem, many neighboring women would have come to help in the birth. Bailey states: "In the case of a birth, the men will sit apart with the neighbors, but the room will be full of women assisting the midwife. A private home would have bedding, facilities for heating water, and all that is required for any peasant birth" (p. 102).
What this all means is that it would have been unthinkable and an unimaginable insult and affront to societal decency for Joseph, a returning village son, and his laboring wife to need to seek shelter in an inn to have a baby of Davidic descent--and then, even worse, to be sent out to have the birth in a stable. This simply cannot be what happened. Nor can it be that they were sent out into the night from a private home. So what actually happened? Regrettably, the birth of Christ is later overlaid with so much tradition and legend about Christmas that it's hard to let the biblical text speak for itself.
The common assumption is that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and, being hastened by her labor pains, rushed to an inn only to find it full with no vacancies, so they ended up in a stable where she gave birth. However, a careful reading of the text shows us they had already been in Bethlehem for some days when she went into labor. In Luke 2:4 we are told that Mary and Joseph "went up" to Bethlehem. The verse assumes their arrival. Then in verse six we are told:
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. Luke 2:6 NASB
This text affirms a time lapse between the arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Yeshua.
They must have already been lodging somewhere in Bethlehem when her birth pangs began--and this was surely not a stable for a period of days. Couldn't Joseph have found a more suitable lodging place for his pregnant wife in that amount of time? I sure hope so. In fact, we should realize that not far from here dwelt Mary's cousin Elizabeth, whom Mary had lived with for a while during her pregnancy (Luke 1:39-40). If they were seeking a place to stay for days, why didn't they go to Elizabeth's house? The answer is simple. They found a house in which to stay in Bethlehem--probably that of Joseph's relatives.
And being in these accommodations already, it makes no sense for them to suddenly be out seeking a room in an inn or anywhere else at the time of Mary's labor.
Yet we might still be asking: So why were they sent out to a stable? Why do we think Yeshua was born in a stable? The text doesn't say that::
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:7 NASB
How did we come up with a stable? It says he was "laid in a manger" and everyone knows that mangers are in stables, right? Wrong! The Archaeological Study Bible says this: "The 'manger' was the feeding trough of the animals. This is the only indication that Jesus was born in a stable. Very early tradition suggests that his birthplace was a cave, perhaps being used as a stable." Justin Martyr in the second century A.D. stated that Yeshua's birth took place in a cave close to the village. Over this traditional manger site the emperor Constantine (A.D. 330) and his mother, Helena, constructed the Church of the Nativity.
Note that it is only the manger, an animal food or water trough, that gives any indication of a stable. And indeed a manger might well have been found in a stable. But it's important to realize that they were also to be found within first-century homes!
A typical Judean house of that day consisted of an area near the door, often with a dirt floor, where the family's animals were kept at night--so they wouldn't be stolen or preyed upon and so their body heat could help warm the home on cool nights. The family lived and slept in a raised part of the same room set back from the door. There was also usually a guest room either upstairs on a second floor or adjoining the family common room on the lower floor. Typically, the lower area near the door had a manger for food and/or water for the animals.
Eric F.F. Bishop, an expert in Middle East culture, noted that the birth of Christ probably took place in "one of the Bethlehem houses with the lower section provided for the animals, with mangers 'hollowed in stone,' the dais [or raised area] being reserved for the family. Such a manger being immovable, filled with crushed straw, would do duty for a cradle. An infant might even be left in safety, especially if swaddled, when the mother was absent on temporary business" ( Yeshua of Palestine, 1955, p. 42).
Yet another authority on Middle Eastern life, Gustaf Dalmann, stated:
"In the East today the dwelling-place of man and beast is often in one and the same room. It is quite the usual thing among the peasants for the family to live, eat, and sleep on a kind of raised terrace . . . in the one room of the house, while the cattle, particularly donkeys and oxen, have their place below on the actual floor . . . near the door; this part sometimes is continued along under the terrace as a kind of low vault. On this floor the mangers are fixed, either to the floor, or to the wall, or at the edge of the terrace" (Sacred Sites and Ways, 1935, p. 41).
This scene of an ox or donkey in the house at night might go against our Western sensibilities. Yet, as Bailey comments: "It is we in the West who have decided that life with these great gentle beasts is culturally unacceptable. The raised terrace on which the family ate, slept and lived was unsoiled by the animals, which were taken out each day and during which time the lower level was cleaned. Their presence was in no way offensive" (p. 105). Of course, the animals could have been taken outside when the actual birth was occurring.
Understanding what we have said so far, consider what the text says about the witch of En Dor whom King Saul consulted:
The woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly slaughtered it; and she took flour, kneaded it and baked unleavened bread from it. 1 Samuel 28:24 NASB
Anything in this text jump out at you now? It says she, "had a fatted calf in the house," which she killed to prepare a meal for Saul and his men. Now do you understand why she had a calf in the house?
Another story in the Tanakh that this cultural understanding sheds some light on is:
Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." Judges 11:30-31 NASB
This man was counting on the fact that his animals would be the first thing coming out of his house when he returned home in the morning, and not his daughter.
It was more often the wealthy who had stables for their animals apart from the house. Thus, a more realistic view of what occurred with Christ's birth according to the customs of the time is that the manger was in a house and not in a stable. It should be stated that this could conceivably have involved a cave, but that's only because some houses were built over caves. Yet this was not the norm. And the cave imagery may come from the belief of some that Christ's birth had to have been in seclusion.
Some might object that Mary and Joseph being accommodated in the family common room of a house instead of the guest room is itself inhospitable. But as Bailey points out:
"No unkindness or lack of hospitality is implied when the Holy Family is taken into the main family room of the home in which they are entertained. The guest room is full. The host is not expected to ask prior guests . . . to leave. Such would be quite unthinkable and, in any case, unnecessary. The large family room is more appropriate in any case" (p. 104).
Considering all the women that would be going in and out of the room during the birth, having Mary stay in the main room would probably have seemed the wisest choice to everyone concerned. In fact, it's possible that Luke's mention of there being no room or space meant that this particular guest room was too small for all the birth activity.
This cultural information gives new understanding to the story of Yeshua's birth. Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full (or too small), and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger.
The Palestinian reader of Luke's account would have instinctively thought, 'Manger, oh, they are in the main family room. Why not the guest room?" The author instinctively replies, "Because there was no place for them in the guest room." The reader concludes, "Ah, I see, the family room is more appropriate anyway."
Another element of the story that reinforces the picture here is that of the shepherds who received the announcement of the birth of the Savior from an angel:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:8-11 NASB
Shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder and their profession was declared unclean by some of their rabbis. Think about that; shepherds unclean? Anyone have a problem with that?:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. Psalms 23:1 NASB
This shows you how far first century Judaism had departed from Yahweh.
As men of the lower ranks of society, they may not have felt they would be received well in visiting a king, but the angel told them that as a sign they would find the child lying in a manger:
"This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Luke 2:12 NASB
That is, they would find the Christ child in an ordinary peasant home such as theirs. He was not in a governor's mansion or a wealthy merchant's guest room, but in a simple two-room home like theirs. He was one of them.
William Thomson, a long-term Presbyterian missionary in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, wrote in 1857: "It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region."
Verse 8 of Luke chapter 2 tells us something else about the birth of Christ:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke 2:8 NASB
Notice here that Luke says, the "Shepherds staying out in the fields"--the Greek word here for "fields" is agrauleo, this is the only time it is used in the New Testament. Fields were small plots of land, and they were right next to the desert. In the desert there are the shepherds--they didn't want shepherds in the fields:
"What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? Luke 15:4 NASB
Notice here that Luke says that the sheep are in "the open pasture"---this word "pasture" is the Greek word eremos. This word is used 49 times in the New Testament and is translated as: "wilderness, desolate, secluded and desert." John 6:31 says, "Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness [eremos]..." So the shepherds keep their sheep in the eremos, not in the agrauleo.
As the harvest of the fields is complete, they pull the grain out of the field, and the shepherds show up. If any of the shepherd's flock steps in the field before the harvest is out, there would be war. The fields were the size of this room, and that is all they had to feed their family. The moment the harvest is gone, the shepherds move in. The sheep then turn the stubble into dirt. So, if the Shepherds were in the fields at the time of Yeshua's birth, it had to be after the time of the harvest and before planting. Harvest ends about July 1, spring planting begins the moment the first rains happen, about November 1. So Yeshua's birth could not have been between November 1 and July 1, which rules out December 25.
The biblical evidence seems to put Yeshua's birth in late September, which would have been the time when shepherds were in the fields. This is also the time when the Feast of Tabernacles takes place. Notice what John Eleazar said about Yeshua:
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 NASB
The Word became flesh. The Word "became" is the Greek word ginomai, which signifies entrance into a new condition. The Word "dwelt" is the Greek word skenoo, which means: "tent." Why did John use the language of Sukkot to describe the birth of Yeshua? I think it is because Yeshua was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths:
"Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the LORD. Leviticus 23:34 NASB
If Yeshua was born on Tishri 15, then His circumcision would have taken place on the eighth day of Sukkot. The Jews have a tradition associated with the eighth day called "Simchat Torah," and means: "Rejoicing in the Torah." Luke 2:21-38 says that on the eighth day they brought the baby Messiah up to the Temple to circumcise Him and to name Him, and when Simeon and Anna saw Israel's Savior, they rejoiced over Him. These two righteous people were rejoicing over the Living Torah of God. Every aspect of Messiah's birth, including the day of His circumcision, is a picture designed to teach us more about Him.
The Feast of Tabernacles is called "the season of our joy." With this in mind, listen to what the angels said:
And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; Luke 2:10 NASB
Here the birth of Christ is announced as a time of "great joy which shall be to all people." So, we can see from this that the terminology the angel used to announce the birth of Yeshua was themes and messages associated with the Feast of Sukkot.
There is a Sukkot liturgy recorded in Jewish writings that was written well before Yeshua's time that says, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill." The Angels said that to the Shepherds:
"Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." Luke 2:14 NASB
Why did the angels say the Sukkot liturgy the night of Yeshua's birth? I think it was because He was born on Sukkot.
Sukkot is the seventh feast on the seventh month, and it was to last for seven days. The number "seven" is the biblical number of completion. This is the grand finale in God's plan of redemption. What a perfect time for God's Savior to be born!
But you know it really doesn't matter when or where Yeshua was born or how we celebrate His birth. What matters is that we understand why He was born. The birth of Yeshua Christ is a miraculous event of great significance to mankind:
"And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Yeshua, for it is He who will save His people from their sins." Matthew 1:21 NASB
The Bible says Yeshua Christ came into the world to "save His people from their sins." That's the reason for His coming. He came to save His people. Is this restricted to only Israelites? No, but it is restricted to those who have trust in Christ.
In the birth of Yeshua Yahweh invaded human history in the form of a man. This Yeshua lived a sinless life and then died a substitutionary death at calvary. On that cross, Yeshua took upon Himself our sin and received the judgement of God that we deserved as sinners. Because He was an innocent infinite sufferer, He satisfied fully and completely the righteous demands of a holy God, and God was propitiated. Propitiation is the removal of wrath by the offering of a sacrifice. The birth of Yeshua, the incarnation, God becoming a man was God's gift of love to us.