The Nativity According to Luke
by Ben Witherington III
The Christmas portions of the gospel are, perhaps, the most beloved, and the most belabored, texts in the New Testament. Like works of art that have been lacquered with coat after coat of varnish, the original stories are hardly visible any more. Today, it is difficult to conceive the Nativity without an ox and ass, for example, although neither Matthew nor Luke mentions animals. (Rather, St. Francis, the great medieval lover of animals, is credited with building the first manger scene complete with live animals.) The three wise men are also permanent fixtures in our image of the Nativity, although they don’t arrive, according to Matthew 2, until several days after the birth of Jesus (the epiphany to the shepherds does, however, take place the same day).
Perhaps revisiting the story from a historian’s point of view may remove some of these mistaken impressions, these layers of lacquer, and let us see the masterpiece in its brilliant original colors.
Part of the problem today is that we tend to conflate Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts into one Nativity story. To counter this, in this column we will confine ourselves to a few verses from Luke.
At the time of the birth, Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, where the couple has traveled, according to Luke 2:1–5, to participate in a census.
As Luke 2:5 states clearly, Joseph and Mary are engaged, and Mary is pregnant. Engagement in early Judaism was as binding as modern marriage is today. It required formal dissolution to undo such a commitment. Jewish women were usually between 11 and 13 when betrothed, and the men were generally a bit older. Marriage in early Judaism involved a covenant between one man and one woman, and the commitment was intended to be a lifetime covenant, though men were allowed certain grounds for divorce. What is important to remember is that in an honor and shame culture such as early Judaism it was a scandal to get pregnant out of wedlock or before marriage. Brides were absolutely expected to be virgins when they got married.
If Bethlehem was the town where Joseph’s relatives lived, then it is natural to expect that Joseph and Mary would have first sought accommodations with family. This appears to be what they did. It is not the case that Mary and Joseph were forced to stop somewhere beside the road because Mary suddenly went into labor. Rather, Luke 2:6 tells us that “while they were there,” that is, in Bethlehem, “the time came for her to deliver her child.”
Where did they stay in Bethlehem? Luke tells us that after the birth, Mary put the baby in a “manger,” or corncrib, because there was “no room for them at the kataluma” (Luke 2:7)—a Greek term he uses elsewhere to mean “guest room” (see Luke 22:11). When Luke wants to speak about an inn, he calls it pandocheion (see Luke 10:34). Thus, Luke says nothing about the Holy couple being cast out of an inn and Mary having to bear the child in a barn. Historically, it is far more likely that Mary and Joseph had their child in the humble back portion of the ancestral home where the most valued animals were fed and, in the winter, housed, because the guest room in the family home was already occupied. In any case, Bethlehem was such a small village, on a minor road, that it is not even clear it would have had a wayside inn. Admittedly, Jesus’ beginnings were humble—but we don’t need to mythologize them into some story about a baby being cast out by the world.
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