Every child who has gone to Sunday school in December knows the traditional Christmas story: Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem just in time for Mary to give birth to the baby Jesus. A heartless innkeeper turns away the pregnant woman and her apparent husband, who are then forced to seek refuge in a stable or even a cave.
Luke 2:6, however, says, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” Another version says, “the days were completed.” They probably had been there for some time before the birth. It is highly unlikely they would attempt the 70-mile trip from Nazareth in the late stages of her pregnancy.
The Bible makes no mention whatsoever of an innkeeper who tells them there is no room in the inn. The confusion arises because most translators of English versions chose the word “inn” to translate the Greek word καταλυμα (kataluma). Jesus used this same Greek word in Luke 22:11 to refer to a “guest room” when he asked for to what we now call the Upper Room—the scene of the Last Supper. But Luke knew the proper term for inn. He used it when he told the story of the Good Samaritan, but he chose not to use it here. Why not?
The obvious and most likely answer is that Joseph and Mary did not stay at an inn. Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, because of the census. They would have sought lodging with his relatives, along with many others. The house would have been crowded, the guest room full. In a society that placed a high value on both family and hospitality, the homeowners would almost certainly not have turned away any pregnant woman, much less a pregnant relative.
I have studied the homes of ancient Israel extensively. From Joshua’s conquest all the way through the monarchy, Israelites occupied the same type of house.
Several complete first century homes from the Judean hill country have been excavated. They have two stories, and most daily activities, except for cooking, took place on the roof, or the upper level. The sleeping and guest chambers were there. The lower level was a combination of a stable and cooking area, with a fire. The stable area was cobbled, to make for easy cleaning, and was divided from the rest of the common space by a low wall onto which mangers were attached. Animals would be brought in at night to protect them from the cold and theft, as well as to help warm the house.
So if the upper level was full, the only room left for Mary and Joseph may have been downstairs, although she may have given birth upstairs with the women helping her. The men, including Joseph, would have happily (and lawfully) vacated the house during this time. A manger full of soft, clean hay would be a perfect place for a newborn.
Downstairs with the animals would also be the warmest and perhaps safest place for an infant since the upper level was not always enclosed. And I know if I had just given birth, I would take a quiet place alone over a noisy area full of relatives who hadn’t seen one another in who knows how long in a heartbeat!