Every year at Christmastime, we remember, reenact, and commemorate the birth of Jesus. It is such a familiar beloved story. We all know it by heart. Or do we? What if we’ve got it all wrong? What if the ideas about Christmas we hold dear turned out to be no more than myths?
I wrote a short post about how we should think differently about the innkeeper who had no room in his inn. I thought I was really thinking outside the usual box on this one, but I was so wrong. What I discovered about the birth of Jesus rocked my Christmas world.
First, I’ll share my initial post because even though I got the facts all wrong (as you’ll read next), I still think I make a good point.
When we tell the Christmas story, we have a tendency to cast the innkeeper as the bad guy. It’s easy to picture him as a grumpy, stingy old man who has no time to waste on poor guests, no pity in his heart for a woman about to give birth, and no room for the Savior in his inn.
But what if there’s more to the story? What if we’ve got it backwards?
In all honesty, it was a busy season in a tiny town overcrowded with folks from out of town. Little Bethlehem was overstuffed with people like a shopping mall in December. I have no doubt that this man’s little inn WAS out of room. He wasn’t running a Hilton. What was he supposed to do? Kick out the guests who were there first?
In reality, he gave all he had to give—a manger and a stable; shelter from the elements and a safe place to keep the baby. Even though all he had to offer was inadequate and unfit for a King, much less God Himself, he gave it anyway.
He gave out of his poverty and God accepted it.
God is all-sufficient and He ultimately owns all the resources that exist. If He had wanted to be born in a palace, He could have been. He does not need our riches. He wants our hearts.
God is an expert at making do with what we’ve got. We just have to be willing to give it to him.
Searching for the Real Christmas
While I was writing this, I decided to look up some historical information about inns and innkeepers in Jesus’ day. What I discovered altered my view of the Christmas story forever.
Rather than a lonely birth in a barn with only animals in attendance (thanks to a stingy innkeeper) as our Christmas traditions suggest, Scripture coupled with cultural and historical information seem to indicate that quite the opposite is the real Christmas story.
I already knew that Mary may not have ridden a donkey (none is ever mentioned) and that December 25th is not Jesus’ real birthday (shepherds would only be out in the fields from April to October), but this idea is new to me. It completely changes my understanding of how God entered our world.
Mary didn’t arrive in Bethlehem as she was giving birth in the dramatic fashion The Nativity Story depicts (see minute 8:50 here). They were already in Bethlehem for days before the birth. Luke 2:6 tells us, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. Did you catch that sublte difference? Grammatically speaking, “while they were there” is not the same as “as they were arriving”. The Aramaic Bible in Plain English makes the distinction even more clear. “And it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.”
It’s more like a pregnant mother visiting family in another town and giving birth a few days after arriving than it is being in labor during the car ride to granny’s house and pulling over to give birth beside the road because the hospital was full.
Welcomed Not Rejected
They were not turned away from a motel by a stranger. Mary and Joseph were probably welcomed into a home by their kin. As it turns out, no innkeeper is mentioned at all in the Scriptural account of Jesus’ birth and the word translated “inn” is actually the word for “guest room”, commonly called an “upper room” because it was on the 2nd story of the house. (You see now why I had to go a whole new direction with my post.)
Since Joseph was returning to his hometown for the census, it’s logical that he would have stayed with family. Some scholars debate if a town as small as Bethlehem even had an inn at all.
The idea of there being “no room” could mean the one guest room was already occupied or that the space upstairs was too small for all the hustle and bustle of busy women who would be attending Mary and her baby during the birth. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not left all alone to fend for themselves. They were surrounded by a family and community that mostly likely helped with the process and celebrated the of the birth of King David’s descendent.
Not Even a Stable?
He wasn’t born in a stable or a cave. Jesus was likely born in a home. We get the idea of a stable from the fact that Baby Jesus was placed in a manger. Caves were often used as a place to keep animals, so some have suggested it was actually a cave that served as the Christ Child’s first nursery. Actually, families commonly kept livestock on the first floor of the house at night, so it was not unusual for a manger to be part of the main room’s furnishings. They didn’t have Pack n’ Plays back then folks!
While traveling, I have often put my baby to sleep in a portable crib set up in a roomy closet. When you’re away from home, sometimes you just have to make do.
Though He was fully God, Jesus was also fully man. He was not born in some mystical, unique way. He entered the world just like all the other little boys did in His day. Back then, homebirth was not a novelty, it was the norm.
Yes, He Did Cry
Speaking of being fully God and fully human at the same time, I have long had a bone to pick with “Away in a Manger” and this seems as good a place as any to bring it up. “No crying he makes”? Seriously? This idealistic myth denies his humanity which is the whole point of Immanuel “God with us”. I just love this quote from Jason Boyett, who apparently agrees with me.
“It implies that the baby Jesus didn’t cry when the cows, apparently peeved at the unorthodox use of valuable manger space, woke him up with noisy moos. Yet a fairly important precept of Christianity is that Christ was fully human—and not some blissful, preternaturally calm superbaby. This means the little Lord Jesus acted like an infant. He spit up. He peed. He left a few, um, deposits in his swaddling clothes.
He cried like a baby.”
The Truth Behind Christmas Myths
I’ve only touched the surface here. I highly recommend you also read these other articles if you are interested in digging a little deeper.
I haven’t even mentioned all the myths surrounding the famous “Three Kings” (as we call them) or the fact that many of our beloved Christmas traditions originated in non-Christian celebrations of lengthening winter days and have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. I will have to save those for other posts.
Examine the Scriptures
When I set out to write a post about how we think about the innkeeper all wrong, I had no idea how wrong I was. Turns out, there is no innkeeper! How many times have I read the second chapter of Luke and not picked up on that fact? Where else have I allowed the habits and traditions of Christians around me to blind me to what God’s Word actually says?
So what can we learn from this? I believe it is imperative that we make sure we are passing on Truth above tradition, and not just with the Christmas story, but with all Scripture. It’s very easy to repeat what we’ve been told without checking it out for ourselves to see if it’s even accurate, but we are called to a higher standard than that.
We are called to be like these that Luke describes, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed.” (Acts 17:11-12b)
The Bereans didn’t just accept or reject the message they heard. The received it and examined it carefully, testing it to see if what Paul said was consistent with the Truth God had already revealed. The result of their research was faith in Jesus as their Messiah, and an assurance that Bethlehem’s baby really did come to set them free and rescue them from darkness.
Jesus at Home in Our Hearts
This whole idea of Jesus being born in a home surrounding by a loving and helpful family and community creates a big paradigm shift in my mental picture of that very first Christmas. How about you?
I like this “new” version better. It is consistent with Luke’s account as well as the whole of Scripture and what God says about who Jesus is. It also has historical, archeological, and cultural support.
I love the beautiful unity of the “upper room” being a significant aspect of Christmas as well as Easter. The upper room, a place where you welcome and invite your guests, is mentioned both at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
May we always make room for Jesus to be welcomed into every room of our hearts.
P.S. – I’m not advocating ditching your nativity set, throwing out the Christmas pageant script, or refusing to sing historically inaccurate Christmas carols. Let’s not get crazy in our quest for truth! Traditions can be an enjoyable part of any celebration as long as we remember not to elevate human tradition above divinely inspired revelation. In fact, even after I learned all these great new ideas about that first Christmas, this song and video still moved me to worship God.
It’s our heart’s response to Jesus that matters most. That’s where Christmas really happens. Everything else is just to help us point our hearts in the right direction.