At this time of year, every year, we hear the Christmas story again. The familiar elements—the full inn, the stable, the manger, the animals (not mentioned in the Gospels, by the way), swaddling clothes, angels and shepherds—all provide comfort by their very familiarity. They connect us to tradition and to great art and music, providing an anchor for the rituals and rhythms at the end of the year.
We also hear regular discussions about the “true meaning of Christmas.” This is frequently associated with peace on earth and good will toward men, generosity, and related ideas—but rarely about the Incarnation. Perhaps the story has become so familiar that we no longer possess the wonder we should have about the Christmas event so long ago.
So let’s look again at some familiar elements of the story in light of recent scholarship. I expect this will give us a fresh view of the nativity.
No Room at the Inn
In the traditional translation, Jesus is laid in a manger because there is no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7). In some retellings, the innkeeper has compassion on the wayfarers and sends them to his stable; in others, he sees an opportunity for more cash; in still others, Joseph and Mary retreat to a cave as a last resort.
All of which is probably wrong.
The Greek word katalyma can mean inn, but that is not how it is used in the New Testament. In Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14, it is translated as “guest room,” referring to the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. When Luke wants to designate an inn with an innkeeper, he uses an entirely different word (pandocheion).
The idea that Mary and Joseph were turned away from an inn is not supported by the text.
So what did happen?
To understand the text, we need to know something about how houses were constructed in the Middle East during this period. Houses typically had only one story. The family would stay on the ground floor. If the family were poor and had only a few animals, the flock would be penned in at night in a section of the main floor with the family.
The roof, meanwhile, could be used for work space, storage, sleeping on warm nights, and so on. Sometimes a guest room would be built there, either as a permanent part of the house or as a temporary shelter, like those used in the Feast of Booths. Some scholars believe that the room on the roof could also have been used as a bridal chamber for newlyweds, in which case it would have been the logical place for Joseph and Mary.
Joseph, who was from King David’s line, probably had planned to stay with relatives in Bethlehem, or at least had made prior arrangements. He and Mary probably expected to stay in the guest room/bridal chamber. But when they arrived, they found it occupied. What happened? Perhaps it was bad planning, or an unexpected marriage in Bethlehem, or the social stigma attached to Mary’s pregnancy.
You would expect that Mary going into labor would have made their sheltering in the guest room a priority, but no–which suggests that Mary’s pregnancy was seen as scandalous. Maybe they stayed on the main floor with the family and animals, but in light of the scandal and subsequent events, it seems more likely that tradition is correct and they were sent to a nearby cave.
While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night
To understand why Joseph and Mary would be sent there, we need to know something about sheep and shepherds in the area.
Bethlehem was just a few miles from Jerusalem. Most of its sheep were destined for sacrifice, especially as Passover lambs. The flocks mostly stayed out in the fields; they were not brought into the caves at night. Rather, the shepherds, who were mostly Levites or even from priestly families, brought the ewes into the caves to give birth. The caves thus had to be kept ritually clean. So they were not an unlikely place to send Mary in her condition.
Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes
Luke in the King James tells us that Jesus was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” (literally, “was bandaged”).
After Jewish babies were born, they were washed in salt water and rubbed with salt, then wrapped up tight, with their arms against their sides and their legs extended, looking rather like mummies. This treatment was believed to be good for the baby, but it was also an act with spiritual significance.
In Ezekiel 16:3-4, God is berating Israel for its apostasy. He says that Israel was not washed, rubbed with salt, or swaddled. Because of this, following the ritual of washing, salting, and swaddling was seen as a sign of faithfulness, while failing to do so was seen as a mark of apostasy.
Where did the bandages for swaddling come from? There are two possibilities.
When a Jew died, the Law said that he was to be buried immediately. When traveling long distances with all the accompanying dangers, faithful Jews in Jesus’ day would wrap bandages around their waists for use as a burial shroud should they die or be killed along the way. Joseph may thus have used cloth prepared as a burial shroud to swaddle Jesus.
The other possibility has to do with the lambs that were born in the cave. In order to be fit for sacrifice, the lambs had to be without spot or blemish. As a result, according to the Mishnah, newborn lambs were inspected and, if without blemish, were then swaddled to keep them from injuring themselves as they thrashed around. Thus, the bandages for swaddling could have been in the cave when Mary and Joseph arrived.
In either case, the swaddling clothes carried with them a powerful message: Jesus was to be faithful to the Covenant, and he came to die, the Passover lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world.
Thus the angel told the shepherds that the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was a sign for them. As Levitical shepherds, this was a sign they could not possibly have misunderstood.
And so the shepherds went to the obvious place to find the unusual sight of a swaddled baby in a manger: the birthing caves. They found the family, telling them and anyone who would listen about the angels and the baby. Mary kept these things in her heart, and decades later, related them to Luke.
Hidden in the details of the Christmas story are profound theological insights into Jesus and His work. Beyond it is the much larger and deeper significance of the Incarnation itself—God becoming human, taking on a human nature that He will have in Himself for all eternity. This is a wonder beyond words.
In the midst of all of our busyness during this season, may we take time to ponder these insights in order to appreciate more deeply the incomparable Christmas story.
Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.