By John W. Schoenheit
Where was Jesus born? Was it in a stable, cave, or a home?
A Tradition Develops
An old and familiar part of the Christmas story goes like this: Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in December, and arrived there on the very night Jesus was born. The night they arrived there were no rooms available in the local inn, so Joseph and Mary had to make a place for themselves in a local stable, where Mary gave birth to Jesus on that cold December night and laid the newborn baby in the stable manger, which was a feeding trough for the animals.
The picture painted by this part of the Christmas story is not a pretty one, but a cold and selfish depiction of the people of Bethlehem. Most people in every age and culture would go out of their way to help women in need, but somehow in the traditional version of the Christmas story, the people of Bethlehem closed their doors to this young woman about to give birth. Is that really what happened, and is that really the picture of the birth of Christ that the Word of God paints for us? We will see that the real Christmas story is a joyful and love-filled story, but it has been hidden from the eyes of many Christians. However, the real story has the true heart of Christmas: self-sacrifice and giving to others from a joyful heart.
The modern Christian understanding of the birth of Jesus comes largely from extra-biblical works and traditions imported into the Gospels, rather than what the Bible itself actually says. However, some of the tradition has been sustained by mistranslations in many of the English versions of the Bible, and also by people not carefully reading what the Bible actually says.
Much misinformation came from a document that was widely circulated in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is referred to by scholars as the Protevangelium of James and was likely written in the third century a.d. The Protevangelium is the first document scholars are aware of that refers to Jesus being born close to Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem, though it says Jesus was born in a cave before Joseph and Mary even reached Bethlehem. Sadly, in ancient times as well as today, people seem to pay more attention to what people say about the Bible than what the Bible itself says.
We do not know how large a part the Protevangelium played in developing the tradition that Mary gave birth to Jesus the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. However, we do know that the traditional belief became easier to sustain as the center of Christian culture moved to Europe, where day-to-day life was quite different from life in Palestine; for example, in Europe people had barns for animals, but in Palestine they did not use Western-type barns.
Arrival in Bethlehem
When we read the Bible carefully, even in most English versions, we see that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for an unspecified number of days before Mary gave birth.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.– Luke 2:6 (KJV)
It is clear from Luke 2:6 that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the night she gave birth, but days (likely weeks, perhaps even a couple months) earlier. Mary gave birth “while they were there,” that is, while Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem. Furthermore, Luke 2:6 uses the word “days,” which in the New Testament, always refers either to “days” literally, or to a period of time. “Days” (plural) is never used for just one day or a matter of hours. Had Joseph and Mary arrived the day Mary gave birth, the text would have used “day” or “hours,” not the plural “days.” R. C. H. Lenski writes that the day of Jesus’ birth “was not the day of Joseph’s and Mary’s arrival….” Nevertheless, as often happens, biblical scholars do not have enough influence to overturn tradition, with its well-entrenched stories, songs, and paintings, especially when most Christians do not read the Bible carefully for themselves.
Although the Bible does not tell us how long it was before Mary gave birth that she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, logic would tell us that it was likely at least several weeks, and may have even have been a couple of months. Although Mary could have made the normally three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem soon before giving birth, it is more likely that Joseph, who loved her and who knew her baby was the Promised Messiah, would not have put her through the ordeal of traveling in her last days of pregnancy, but would have traveled to Bethlehem before Mary was on the verge of giving birth.
The idea that Mary was on the verge of giving birth when she arrived in Bethlehem has been sustained by versions such as the King James Version, which was translated in 1611 and which says that Mary was “great with child” (Luke 2:5). But the Greek word the King James version translates as “great with child” is egkuos (Strong’s #1471 ἔγκυοςpronounced egg-koo-os), and it simply means “pregnant,” or “with child,” as modern Greek lexicons show. In fact, most modern English versions simply say “pregnant” or “with child” (cp. CJB; HCSB; ESV; NAB; NASB; NIV; NLT). For example, the ESV says that Joseph went to Bethlehem “to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”
It is likely that ancient translations such as the King James were influenced by the Christmas tradition itself. But today, thanks to the work of archaeologists and linguists, the Greek used at the time of Christ is much better understood than it was 400 years ago, and the modern English versions reflect that fact. The Greek text tells us that when Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem, she was pregnant, but the Bible does not tell us how far along she was, but we know the couple lived in Bethlehem for a while before Mary gave birth.
If Joseph and Mary had been staying in Bethlehem before Jesus was born, how was it that they had not found adequate lodging? Why give birth in a stable and lay Jesus in a manger? Actually, the Bible never says the birth was in a stable—that is tradition. If for some reason Bethlehem was so totally filled with guests and visitors that no one would open their homes to Joseph and Mary, their relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth lived only a short distance away, in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39, NASB), and Joseph and Mary could have gone there with only a little effort. In fact, Mary had visited Elizabeth early in her pregnancy (Luke 1:40). So, Joseph and Mary could have found adequate housing and care if they were in need of it.
Learning the Truth from the Text and Culture
The story of the night of Christ’s birth needs to be retaught and relearned in Christian circles, not only because truth matters and what actually happened is important, but because the true Christmas story shows the love and sacrifice that people make to help each other and the true joy of giving so that others can be blessed. That is a much more redemptive rendition of the Christmas story than the townspeople of Bethlehem closing their hearts and shutting their doors to a young pregnant woman in need.
In order to see what really happened around the season of the birth of Christ, we will need to glean facts from both the Greek text and from the culture of the ancient Middle East (which culture and customs, by the way, still existed in the Middle East in many villages and towns until quite recently). Too often the Greek text alone has been used to try to reveal biblical truth, but that is not enough to rebuild the truth of the biblical events for a very simple reason: when something in a culture is usual, well known, normal, or “standard operating procedure,” it is not written about in detail. The ancients did not write about those “normal” details back in their day, and we do not write about them now.
For example, if I write a letter to a friend about driving to work every day, I might say, “I drive about 15 miles to work every day.” I would never write: “I drive to work in my car, which is a large metal, plastic, and glass mobility device on rubber wheels, with a gasoline engine that starts when an ignition key is turned, and I make it move by pedals on the floor, (etc.).” Everyone in today’s culture knows exactly what I mean when I say, “I drive to work.” Perhaps 2000 years from now, if the culture has changed so much that only a few historians know what a car is, they might wish we described our driving in more detail, but that is not necessary today. In the same way, things that were part of the everyday culture of the Bible times were not described in detail in their writings. We have to learn about the ordinary things of ancient life by piecing together details from many texts and writings, by using archaeology to study the material culture left to us, and by studying any cultures that still live the same basic way people lived in biblical times.
What we will see as we examine the biblical record from both the Greek text and the culture of the times is that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem sometime before she gave birth—weeks and perhaps even months before—and were taken into the home of a local resident, most likely a relative who was also of the family of David, in whose home Mary gave birth. Although most English versions have the phrase, “there was no room for them in the inn,” we will see that this phrase has been both mistranslated and misinterpreted, but before we examine that subject, we should see reasons why Mary and Joseph would have been welcomed into a private home in Bethlehem.
Welcomed into a Private Home
There are many reasons Joseph and Mary would have found a place to stay in a private home in Bethlehem. First, Joseph was returning to his town of origin. Historical memories are long in the Middle East, and family support is very strong. For example, Paul knew he was a descendant of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5), even though Benjamin lived more than 1500 years before Paul. Given the long family memories in Hebrew culture, once Joseph told people that both he and Mary were descendants of families from Bethlehem, many homes would have been open to them. In fact, it is extremely likely that Joseph and Mary already knew relatives in Bethlehem and would have gone to those homes first to find lodging. As we see the true story of Christ’s birth develop, that is a very strong possibility.
Second, both Joseph and Mary were “royals,” because they were each from the royal line of David, who was so famous in Bethlehem that Bethlehem was called, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4 KJV). Being from that famous family would have meant that most homes would have opened their doors to them, if only for that fact alone. Being able to host a couple who were direct descendants of David would have been an honor and privilege.
Third, in every culture, women who are about to give birth are given special help, and the village of Bethlehem would have been no different, and Bethlehem at the time of Christ was a small village. Very few archaeological remains have even been found, and the prophet Micah wrote, “you are small among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5: 2 NIV). The New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who has spent his life living in the East and teaching in Universities in Egypt and Lebanon, properly understands the heart of village life in Palestine and points out that Joseph and Mary would never have been turned away in their hour of need. Bailey writes: “Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the city of David would be an unspeakable shame to the entire village.”
Fourth, and very importantly, the shepherds who came to see the baby Jesus shortly after his birth knew from the angel who appeared to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah and their Savior. So when they found Mary, Joseph, and their Savior, if they in any way felt that he was not being treated well, they would have been scandalized and outraged, and immediately taken them home to their own houses to properly care for them. The fact that they did no such thing, but left the new family where they were and went to tell the good news to the whole area, indicates they felt Mary, Joseph, and the baby were being well cared for.
It is important that we properly understand the record of the birth of Christ. Joseph arrived in Bethlehem likely at least a few weeks before Mary gave birth. When they arrived they were not shut out by the local villagers and also rejected by a local hotel that had its “No Vacancy” sign turned on. Instead, the day they arrived in Bethlehem—and they would have arrived during the day, people did not generally travel at night because it was not safe—they were taken into the private home of a caring family, who let them stay in the family living quarters. This type of giving and joy of service demonstrates the true meaning of Christmas—God so loved that He gave His Son; Joseph and Mary so loved they gave of themselves and risked much to be the parents of the Messiah; and the people of Bethlehem so loved others that they opened their doors to this couple in need.
There was No Space in the Guestroom
In order to properly translate and correctly understand what happened when Jesus was born, it will help to first read a more traditional translation:
and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.– Luke 2:7 (NIV84)
The phrase “no room in the inn” is a mistranslation that continues to support the misunderstanding about the birth of Christ. Two Greek words we must understand to properly interpret Luke 2:7 are topos (Strong’s #5117 τόπος), which most versions translate as “room,” and kataluma (#2646 κατάλυμα), which most versions translate as “inn.”
The Greek word topos occurs more than ninety times in the New Testament and refers to a place or a space. It does not refer to “a room,” like we think of a hotel room or a bedroom, but simply to a space in a given area. The text is not saying there was no “room” for Joseph and Mary as in the sense of a hotel room, but rather that there was no “space” for them in the kataluma. In the Gospel record, a kataluma is a “guestroom” or “lodging place,” not a commercial lodge or inn. There was no “space” for Joseph and Mary in the “guestroom” of the house in which they were staying because it was already full. It is noteworthy that the well-respected Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon notes that if Luke 2:7 had meant to say “inn” in the sense of a hotel, there is a better Greek word that is used elsewhere in Luke.
The normal Greek word for “inn” is pandocheion, and it refers to a public house for the reception of strangers. It was generally called an “inn,” “caravansary,” or “khan.” Today we would call it a “hotel” or “motel.” The word pandocheionwas used not only by the Greeks, but also as a loan-word for “inn” or a commercial lodging place in Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and Turkish. Luke uses the word pandocheion in the parable of the Good Samaritan when the Samaritan took the man who was mugged to a public inn (Luke 10:34).
In contrast to the public inn (pandocheion), both Mark and Luke use kataluma in their Gospels as a “guest room” in someone’s house (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). When finding a place to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them to say to the owner of the house, “…The Teacher asks: Where is the guestroom (kataluma), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples” (Luke 22:11). So, in both Mark and Luke, the kataluma is a guestroom in a house, not an inn or hotel.
The fact that pandocheion is a better word for “inn” than kataluma, along with the fact that Luke used pandocheionfor an “inn” and kataluma for a guestroom, is very good evidence that Luke is telling us the family who took in Joseph and Mary had “no space” in their “guestroom.” Thus the Bible should not be translated to say there was no room for them in the inn, but rather there was “no space for them in the guestroom.” It is noteworthy that Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, by Robert Young, the same man who produced Young’s Concordance to the Bible, translates Luke 2:7 as follows: “…there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” The Revised English Version reads: “there was no space for them in the guestroom.”
When the NIV translation was first published in 1984, Luke 2:7, quoted above, read, “there was no room for them in the inn,” but when the NIV was edited and republished in 2011, Luke 2:7 was changed to more correctly read, “because there was no guest room available for them.” So by 2011, the NIV translators recognized that “inn” should have been translated as “guestroom.” The NIV apparently left the Greek word topos untranslated, or it might have read, “there was no space in the guestroom for them.”
One thing that the Bible does not tell us—because it is not really important to the story of the birth of Christ—is why the guestroom was full. Although we will never know for sure, and there is no real value in much speculation, one possibility is that just as Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of Caesar’s tax registration (Luke 2:1-4), it is possible that other family members besides Joseph had decided to travel to Bethlehem at that time.
Common Features of an Eastern Life that Help us Understand the Christmas Story
There are a few things about ordinary houses and ordinary life in first century Palestine that that we must know in order to understand the birth of Jesus. One is that it was quite common for houses in the Middle East to have a guestroom where guests, and even strangers, could stay. Showing hospitality to strangers has always been a huge part of Eastern life and is written about in the Bible and in many books on the customs of the Bible. Several biblical records show strangers being given hospitality, including the record of Lot (Gen. 19:1-4), the man in Gibeah (Judg. 19:19-21), and the Shunamite woman, who showed hospitality to Elisha by building a guestroom just for him (2 Kings 4:10). Giving hospitality is a command for Christian leaders as well (1 Tim. 3:2).
Even poor people could have a guest room because it did not have to be furnished or have an adjoining bathroom and shower. Both before and during the time of Christ, people in the Middle East did not generally sleep on beds but traveled with their own blankets that they slept on at night, so sleeping arrangements were no problem. Also, tables and chairs were not used in the common homes of first century Palestinians, and the bathroom was a pot or a place outside. So the average guestroom was simply a small, empty room, offering shelter and a place of safety. The guestroom provided privacy for the guests and also for the family who owned the home because one-room homes were common. Thus a guestroom provided privacy for both parties.
Our modern houses with many rooms were simply not the norm in a first-century village home. Quite often a family lived in a one-room house in which all family activities occurred. They pulled their bedrolls out at night and slept on the floor, and simply rolled them up again in the morning. Of course, the Bible does not specify that Joseph and Mary were taken into a one-room house, but even if it were a two-room house, Jesus still would have been born in the family room of the house. Single room dwellings were so common, however, that Jesus rightly taught that when an oil lamp (sometimes mistranslated as “candle”) was lit and put on a stand, it would give light “to everyone in the house,” not just the people in that particular room (Matt. 5:15).
Another thing we must understand about houses in the East is that it was very common for people to bring their animals into the house at night. Farm animals were very expensive, and most families owned only a few, if any. So the family brought the animals, such as a donkey, a milk goat or two, or a cow or two into the home at night to keep them from being stolen and to protect them from harm. Also, the animals added heat to the house, which would be very welcome on chilly nights. The woman in Endor who King Saul visited at night had her calf in the house with her: “And the woman had a fat calf in the house” (1 Samuel 28:24, KJV). Of course, if the family were shepherds or herdsmen, they would not bring the whole flock or herd into the house but would have a family member or a hired guard watch them in the field—which was why the shepherds were in the field watching their flocks on the night Jesus was born.
It was a common practice to raise the floor of the part of the house where the family lived, and keep the animals in an area that was a little lower. Knowing this helps us understand Luke 2:6 and also where that idea that Jesus was born in a stable came from. Also, Jesus was laid in a manger, which is an open trough, box, or bin where the animal food was placed so the animals could feed easily. In Western society, mangers are in barns or stables, so since Jesus was laid in a manger, it made sense to Europeans that Jesus was born in a stable and so that became part of the traditional Christmas story. However, in biblical society in the Middle East, where the animals grazed outside during the day and were brought into the house at night, the manger was in the house. Having the manger in the house kept the animals calm and contented in the tighter quarters of the house, just as many modern farm animals have a feeding trough in their stall to help them stay calm and content. The manger would be in the main part of the house, never in the guestroom, which is why the text says that Jesus was placed in the manger “because there was no space for them in the guestroom” (Luke 2:7 REV).
Everyone in the biblical world knew the manger was in the house, so when the Bible says that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no space in the guestroom, any Easterner would have understood perfectly that the guestroom was full, so Jesus was born and kept in the main part of the house where the family and animals stayed. Sometime relatively soon after he was born, Jesus would have been safely placed in the manger, which would have been filled with clean hay or straw and would have been the perfect size for him. This was not to demean him in any way, but to care for him. The protective walls of the manger kept him safely guarded and away from busy feet and a bustling household, as well as warm and protected from any drafts or cold air in the home.
Another thing that helps us to understand the Christmas story is understanding Eastern hospitality. In the East, guests were given special treatment of all kinds, including behavior that seems very extreme to us. For example, in the record of Lot and the two strangers, Lot would have handed over his own daughters to the mob before surrendering his guests (Gen. 19:8). Similarly, the people with whom Joseph and Mary stayed would never have displaced their guests from the guestroom, but instead would have inconvenienced themselves by bringing Mary and Joseph into their family living space.
Something else we need to know is that Mary and Joseph would not have been alone when Jesus was born. Actually, Joseph would not have been there at all, while the women of the household, along with the women of the family staying in the guestroom, most likely the village midwife, and perhaps even some wise and experienced women from the neighborhood, would have been present. The men would have graciously left sometime during Mary’s labor, which was standard procedure in that culture.
Someone with a modern Western mindset may say, “Well, the Bible does not say those other women were there when Mary gave birth.” Of course not. We remind the reader that if something was normal for the culture, it was written about only rarely if ever. The sensitive details of a woman giving birth are never given in the Bible. The Bible just says, “and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son” (Luke 2:7 REV). No details of births are given in the Bible because they were a “normal” part of life, and no first-century reader in Palestine would have expected anything different than what usually happens in a village birth. In fact, if women of the household and village, and almost certainly the village midwife, had not been there to help Mary, then that fact would have been so unusual (and coldhearted) that it would probably have been part of the birth-record of Jesus Christ and written about in Matthew or Luke.
While Mary was in labor and giving birth in the house, the man who owned the house, along with his sons and Joseph, would have been outside or perhaps in the home of a neighbor, giving Mary the privacy she needed during the birth of Jesus. Once Jesus was born, a woman would announce that a baby boy had been born, and there would have been the standard shouting, music, and joyful celebrations that were part of the birth celebration of a baby boy. Of course, the men would have been allowed back in the house once there had been adequate time after the birth to get things back in proper order and make sure Jesus and Mary were comfortable. So baby Jesus would have been born in normal circumstances, with Mary being helped and cared for by the women around her while the men waited outside to hear the news of the birth.
The Christmas Story
So we see that the way the birth of Jesus actually happened is considerably different than what is commonly taught. It is not that Bethlehem was full of cold-hearted townspeople who would not take special care of a young woman from the House of David about to have her first child.
Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem some time before Mary gave birth and were taken in by one of the local families, probably into the home of a relative. The host family already had guests in the kataluma, the guestroom, so there was no space (topos) for the young couple there. Therefore, the homeowners graciously made room for Joseph and Mary in their own living quarters, treating them like family. When Mary went into labor, the men left their own home to give her privacy, and the women of the household, likely along with the village midwife, came to Mary’s side for help and support. When Mary gave birth to our Lord and Savior late in the evening (after sunset) or at night, Joseph and the men would have been told the news, and there would have been much jubilation and revelry, which was always a traditional part of the birth of a baby boy, particularly if it was a first child. Sometime later the men would have been called back into the house to see the new baby boy.
Not too long after Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, dedicated to God, and placed in a perfect spot: the manger in the family home, which would have been cleaned and made up with fresh hay or straw. No doubt the news would have quickly spread around the village that a baby boy in the line of King David had been born (the music and shouting would have helped that happen) and that both the mother and baby were doing well. News of a newborn baby was common in village life, but at this birth there soon came news that was anything but common. Shepherds showed up from a nearby field to see the newborn child, who they would have found quite easily in the village of Bethlehem because of the music and shouting, and after seeing him, and seeing that their newborn promised Messiah was being well taken care of, they went out and told the village that a great light had shined around them, that they had seen an army of angels on the hillsides, and that an angel had told them that this baby was no ordinary baby, but the Messiah, the Savior, the Redeemer they had been waiting for. Their report caused great wonder all over the region and resulted in glory and praise to God.
Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem
After Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem. After the 40 days of purification required by the Mosaic Law (Lev. 12:2-4; Luke 2:22), they went to the Temple and offered doves or pigeons as a post-birth offering to God. Contrary to the popular Christmas tradition, the Magi had not arrived yet, and so Joseph and Mary were not yet wealthy. That is why they were allowed to offer doves or pigeons at the Temple as a 40-day post-birth sacrifice, something they were only allowed to do because they were so poor they could not afford a lamb (Lev. 12:8; Luke 2:22-24). After the Magi came, Joseph and Mary would have had the money to buy a lamb, and the Mosaic Law would have forbidden them from offering the birds.
While Joseph and Mary were at the Temple with the infant Jesus, a righteous and devout man named Simeon blessed them and prophesied about them. Then the prophetess Anna thanked God for the baby and spoke to the people about him. At that point in the story, Luke has a break in the chronology, and the record of Jesus is picked up in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Magi Arrive
From studying Matthew, we learn that Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem after presenting Jesus in the Temple and were still in Bethlehem many months later; it was likely 18 months to two years later when the Magi arrived, as we see by the age of the babies that Herod killed (Matt. 2:16). The Magi were not present at the birth of Christ, and when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus was not a “baby” but a “child” (Matt. 2:11).
The Magi were a class of priests and astrologers, and contrary to popular tradition, they had not followed a star from Parthia to Bethlehem but had traveled from Parthia to Jerusalem to find out where the new king of the Jews was born (Matt. 2:1-2). The Magi of the biblical record were from Parthia, which was Persia at the time of Daniel, and they believed a savior would come and rid the world of evil. More than 500 years before the birth of Christ, Daniel had been made head over the Magi (Dan. 2:48; 5:11; sometimes the word “Magician” is used in Bible versions rather than Magi). Daniel had apparently told them about the savior from the tribe of Judah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that fit with their own beliefs that a savior would come, and they had been watching the sky for hundreds of years for signs for him.
Ancient astronomers looked at the stars in relation to the horizon line, which is why they told King Herod they had seen his star “when it rose” or “in its rising” (Matt. 2:2 ESV; NAB; NET; NJB; NRSV), which is often translated “in the east.” Of course, east is the direction of the horizon, which is the direction the Magi had been looking, but upon seeing the sign they had been looking for, they traveled west and south to Jerusalem. The Magi headed for Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea and primary residence of the king, logically thinking that if a savior had been born in Judea, then the king there would know about it (Matt. 2:1-2).
Although tradition says the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem, the Bible says no such thing. The Magi saw the sign they had been watching for and traveled to Jerusalem to see the king there and ask where the new king had been born. Mathew 2:1-2 (REV) says, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, Look!, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in its rising and have come to pay homage to him.’”
The number of Magi who traveled to Judea is never stated in the Bible, the traditional number of three comes from the three types of gifts they gave—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but the Bible never says how many Magi there were. Logically, to safely make the 6-month to year-long journey with gold and other valuables, there would have been a large number of them, not to mention the fact that many Magi would have wanted to see the savior for themselves. The journey of Magi would have taken many months across dangerous territory and into an enemy nation (the Roman Empire was unfriendly to Parthia at that time), and so it would have been standard procedure for them to travel as part of a large caravan, almost certainly with hundreds of camels, although there were likely not hundreds of Magi in the caravan. The large caravan explains why not only Herod, but “all Jerusalem” was disturbed when the magi arrived: “Now, when Herod the king heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him (Matt. 2:3 REV).
King Herod knew nothing about the birth of another king, the Messiah, so he called in the most knowledgeable Jews around and asked them where the Messiah was prophesied to be born (Matt. 2:4). The Jews told Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:5-6), so Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:8). The Magi were on their way to Bethlehem when they saw that the “star” they had seen many months before rising in the east was now rising in the southern sky and thus seemingly traveling ahead of them (Matt. 2:9). Bethlehem is 7 miles south of Jerusalem, so the Magi were traveling almost due south. It was common for camel caravans to start traveling while it was still dark because it avoided the heat of the desert day, so the Magi could see the “star” in the dark sky just before dawn. The “star” (actually a planet; planets were called “stars” in the ancient world) would have “risen” in the sky, seemingly going south, and then would have “stood” (stopped at its zenith) right over Bethlehem. We still use the astronomical terminology today that stars and planets “rise, stand, and fall” in their movement across the sky. The planet could not have pointed out any particular house in Bethlehem, but the Magi would not have had any trouble finding Jesus because everyone would have remembered what the shepherds had said, and even reports of what Simeon and Anna had said in the Temple would likely have gotten talked about in Bethlehem.
The Magi gave the family expensive gifts and then left for their home back in Parthia (Matt. 2:11-12). Later that same night Joseph was instructed by an angel to leave Bethlehem with his family and flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). King Herod, who had informers all over his kingdom, had received news the Magi had left the country without reporting back to him about the new king, and being jealous of any potential new king, ordered that every male child in the area of Bethlehem who was two years old or younger be executed. This fulfilled the prophecy, “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18). Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt and stayed there until King Herod died, at which point they moved back to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up (Matt. 2:19-23; Luke 2:39).
When reading accounts of the same event in different places in the Bible, we have to be aware that details in one account may be added to, or missing from, another. So, for example, if we read Luke without Matthew, it seems like Mary and Joseph went from Jerusalem directly to Nazareth (Luke 2:39). But when we merge Matthew’s account with Luke’s account, we can see that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, then went back to the town of Bethlehem for at least a year and likely closer to two years, then fled to Egypt (which was foretold by prophets; Matt. 2:15) and then traveled back to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Matthew and Luke do not contradict; they give different details of the same event, which fit harmoniously together.
The real story of the birth of Christ shows what we today consider to be the true spirit of Christmas. Joseph, who loved Mary, did not wait until she was uncomfortable in her pregnancy to take her on the 3-day journey to Bethlehem but took her when she could still travel comfortably. Then, a loving family in Bethlehem opened their home to Joseph and Mary, bringing them into the family living quarters and treating them like immediate family. Mary gave birth like with any village birth, surrounded by knowledgeable and caring women who helped her while the men waited outside the house. After the birth of the firstborn son was announced, the men would have begun a noisy celebration in the street with music and shouting—all completely standard in a village for the birth of a boy. Very soon after, shepherds showed up and said they had seen a great light, an army of angels, and that this baby was the promised Savior. Forty days later, when Mary and Joseph made the seven-mile trip to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice that accompanied the birth of a boy, Simeon and Anna confirmed what the shepherds had said about Jesus being the Savior. Over a year after Jesus was born, Magi, who had traveled for many months from the country of Parthia, showed up at Joseph’s house and worshipped the child and gave expensive gifts to Joseph and Mary, and then left to return to Parthia. Very shortly after the Magi left, an angel told Joseph to take his family and go to Egypt, which he did, staying there until King Herod was dead. Then Joseph went back to Nazareth to raise his family (Scripture shows us that Mary had more children, at least seven including Jesus; Mark 6:3).
The true Christmas story is one of love and giving, and it is wonderful that our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave so much to so many—including making available the gift of everlasting life—was born in circumstances in which people were so loving and giving to him.
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1 We use “Christmas story” in this article because of its familiarly in our culture, but it is important to know that Jesus was likely born in the autumn of the year, perhaps September, and not in December.
2 Wilhelm Schneemelcher, editor, New Testament Apocrypha (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1963), “The Protevangelium of James,” pp. 370-388. It is possible, but not likely, that it dates as early as 150 a.d.
3 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN, 1946), p. 126.
4 Some versions, such as the NASB, say Judah, while some say “Judea.” The correct translation is Judah, and it refers to the ancient tribal area of Judah, not the Roman province of Judea, which would have meant Joseph and Mary might have had to travel a very long way. The Greek is iouda, which Luke uses for Judah, usually the name of a man and here the tribal area named after the man, Judah, the son of Jacob. If Luke had meant Roman Judea, he would have used ioudaia as he did 10 places in Luke and 12 in Acts. Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission.
5 These reasons are given in, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey, (IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 2008), pp. 25-37, and credit must go to him for enlightening us to the basic truth in this article; that Jesus was born in the home of a loving family in Bethlehem.
6 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 26.
7 The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, F. Danker, ed., (Chicago, 2000; often abbreviated as BDAG) says of kataluma: “lodging place. The sense inn is possible in Lk 2:7, but in 10:34 Luke uses pandocheion, the more specific term for inn. Kataluma is therefore best understood here as lodging or guest-room.” Thankfully, more and more modern sources are seeing that a kataluma is a guestroom, not an inn. For example, the Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (B. Beitzel editor, 2016, 2017, p. 3, has, “Most houses…had a guest-room or lodging place (katalyma)…This is the word that is usually, though incorrectly, translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7” (spelling is author’s).
8 The Gospel of Luke also uses the verb form of kataluma, which is kataluō, “to find rest or lodging.” When Zacchaeus the tax collector brought Jesus home for a meal, the Bible says that Jesus went “to be the guest” [kataluō] at Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:7). So Luke uses both the noun katalumaand the verb kataluō to refer to a room or being a guest in a room in someone’s house. In the New Testament, the only other use of the verb kataluō is also in Luke and occurs in Luke 9:12 in the record of the feeding of the 5,000. The disciples wanted Jesus to send away the multitude so they could “find lodging” and get something to eat. Although the disciples spoke in a general sense, in the culture of the East, where showing hospitality was an important part of family life, they would have had in mind that these 5000 would find lodging with other people, and not that they would find local hotels to stay in. Public inns have been around a long time, and much could be written about them. In the first place, there were not many of them. Certainly not enough for 5000 men and their families to stay. Beyond that, however, both those inns that were modeled after the inns of the Greco-Roman culture and those with roots in the Eastern culture were not wonderful places to stay, like the hotels we have today. They were loud and dirty places and often filled with riff-raff and ruffians. They were centers of prostitution and drunken parties (often the inn provided food for sale and prostitutes for rent), and the rooms were not rented privately, as in our modern hotels. Instead, guests rented a space on the floor to sleep (there were no beds), and it was anyone’s guess who might be in the room with you, renting the space on the floor next to you (and anyone’s guess if they would actually sleep or stay up all night engaged in activities with friends or prostitutes). In contrast to staying in a public inn, taking in travelers for the night was a long-established biblical custom, going back to Genesis (cp. Gen. 19:1-3), and that is what the disciples would have thought about when they knew Jesus’ audience needed to find a place to stay.
9 Caesar wanted everyone to be registered for taxation, so some versions read “enrolled,” some “registered,” some “taxed,” some refer to a “census,” etc.
 The translation “in the house” is correct, and is used in the more literal translations such as the KJV, ESV, NASB, etc.
11 Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (Moody Press, Chicago, 1953), p. 34; Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pp. 28-33. The New Testament scholar John Nolland also mentions the area for animals being somewhat lower than where the people ate and slept: “…it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters by the raised platform floor of the latter). John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson Reference and Electronic, Colombia, 1989), p. 105. The modern city of Taybeh in Israel (in the West Bank) has a very old house in typical eastern fashion that has been stocked and decorated with ancient things and thus gives a very good idea of what ancient village life would be like.
12 We know Jesus’ birth was in the evening after sunset, or later in the night, because the shepherds were in the fields at night when the angel appeared to them (Luke 2:8 – KJV), and told them the Christ was born “this day.” Since “this day” started at sunset, as all Jewish days do, then the Messiah was born after sunset.
 In the eastern culture at the time of the Bible, the birth of a boy was loudly celebrated, while the birth of a baby girl was not celebrated. The reason is simple: the boy brought strength and wealth into the family, while the girl did not. It was usual for a girl to be married by her mid-teens, and she would leave her parents’ house and live with her husband and his family and thus add to that family. If her husband lived in a different village than her parents, then she likely only saw her birth family rarely if ever. Any children she bore were part of the husband’s family and clan, not that of her birth parents. Furthermore, at her marriage, she brought a dowry with her, thus taking physical wealth from her house. So the baby girl would be loved, but her birth was not be a cause for family celebration.
14 We Westerners are used to thinking of Mary’s birth night as being silent and peaceful (note the song, “Silent Night”), but the birth of a boy—especially a first boy—is always the time for a loud party in village life. Our songs and pictures have so colored our understanding of the birth of Christ that we have to be truly careful about them.