For the first time in years I haven’t seen a nativity play, but I presume they’ve been following the usual formula. Joseph arrives in Bethlehem from Nazareth with his weary and heavily-pregnant wife, knocks on the door of the local pub and asks for a room. The answer is a firm “No” (except on one occasion when the child playing the innkeeper decided to subvert the whole event by saying in a loud voice with a big smile: “Of course, come on in!”).
Almost certainly, it didn’t happen like that. Luke clearly implies that the birth didn’t happen immediately on their arrival in Bethlehem, but “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child”. And it probably wasn’t the local pub where they looked for a room. The word katalyma, traditionally translated “inn”, almost certainly means “guest room”. For example, when Jesus wants to celebrate the Passover, he sends Peter and John to meet someone in the city. He instructs them to say:
The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room [katalyma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished (Luke 22.11).
Luke knows the normal word for “inn” and uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan. All the reference works I’ve been able to consult are agreed that katalyma here means “guest room” not “inn”.
So what really happened in Bethlehem?
Kenneth Bailey spent forty years teaching theology in the Middle East. For ten years he lived on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes he reconstructs the nativity story in a rather different way to what we’re used to. This is his reconstruction:
Palestinian peasant families lived together in one room. They also had space for the animals, indoors, but usually on a lower level. This kept the animals safe at night from thieves and provided some central heating in the winter. There were no stables (apologies to the nativity plays). The family room would often have a manger or two at the end where the animals lived. The floor of the family room might slope a little in this direction to facilitate sweeping away rubbish. So the manger could – with some crushed hay in it – double up as a crib for a baby. Some families would also have a guest room (katalyma), either attached at the side of the house or on the roof.
Joseph and Mary have come to Bethlehem for the census because Joseph is of the house and lineage of King David. He is royalty, and this is his ancestral home. So he doesn’t try to sign on at the local pub; he goes to the family. The family are ordinary people but they do have a guest room. However – presumably because of the crush caused by the census – the guest room is already full. What does the family do? Send them away? Banish them to where the animals are? No!! The sacred duty of Eastern hospitality, the duty to family (specially the royal family) and Mary’s pregnancy make this unthinkable. The family and the village would never recover from the shame. So they take Joseph and Mary into the family room (at some inconvenience to themselves). And when the baby is born he sleeps in the manger at the end of the room – kept warm by the animals.
Does it matter? What real difference does it make exactly what happened in Bethlehem?
I like Bailey’s reconstruction of the story for three reasons: it fits with the linguistic evidence about the meaning of katalyma, it is based on his intimate knowledge of Palestinian peasant households, and it shows that Jesus is not rejected by the poor (as the traditional nativity story implies); he is welcomed by the poor. His identity is made known first to the poor. When he grows up he announces good news for the poor and pronounces a blessing on the poor: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. The poor are the natural heirs of the Kingdom. Not because poverty is in itself a good thing but because being poor tends to put people in a place of openness to God.
It matters because it explains why the sign of the manger is so important. The manger is important (mentioned three times by Luke) because it is the sign given by the angel to the shepherds to help them find the baby. Shepherds were despised by those in authority, regarded as pretty much the lowest of the low. How would they get the confidence to visit this child, who is “the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord”? Surely such a child would be born in a palace, or at least a home of the well-to-do? The angel’s message tells them that the child is in fact living in a peasant home, the kind of home where babies are cradled in a manger – just the kind of home they know about and feel comfortable in.
What about those who aren’t poor, in Luke’s sense of “poor”?
Jesus has a blessing for them/us too: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.3), or as the New English Bible puts it: “How blest are those who know their need of God…” How do we come to know our need of God? It might be a longing for truth, a hunger for forgiveness or love, a thirst for justice or meaning, a sudden or catastrophic loss, the search for identity or purpose, perhaps a realization of the majesty of God or the marvel of Jesus. We have to be brought low, to a place which can be called “poverty of spirit”, where we are ready, alongside the shepherds, to seek Jesus.
For me it was the experience of spending five months in an Austrian village looking after children and adults with severe physical and mental disabilities. There came a day when I sat down on a step in the middle of the morning, exhausted, realizing that I had come to the end of what I could give: I was surrounded by people whose greatest need was love, and my very small store of love was, like me, exhausted.
The pandemic is likely to bring many people low: to actual material poverty, or poverty of spirit, or both. I hope that tweaking our understanding of what really happened at Bethlehem underlines that Jesus is good news for the poor, even if the tweaking is not such good news for nativity plays.