So most every Christmas pageant has the same scene: Joseph knocks on the door of the inn, the innkeeper answers the door, Joseph asks for a room, the innkeeper tells him there is no room, Joseph pleads for a room, and the innkeeper sends them to the stable.
I am not convinced it happened that way. The innkeeper gets a bad rap! Let’s look at what the Bible actually says:
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7 NKJV)
Read these verses carefully, and you will notice there is no mention of an actual innkeeper. That’s right, the whole Christmas pageant scene is what we imagine might have happened. But given the culture of hospitality in first century Palestine, it is not likely.
Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral city. This was his tribe. These were his people. He had family in Bethlehem, and they simply would never have turned him and Mary away when they arrived for the census ordered by Caesar. It was expected that one would take in strangers who needed lodging, let alone family. And because of this culture of hospitality, inns were actually rare at that time. The Romans had built inns along major traffic routes, which were largely a one-room structure with a dirt floor upon which to throw a mat and sleep. (Take that, Holiday Inn Express!) The Jews didn’t use them much, because of their high value on hospitality to strangers. Even at that, Bethlehem was not on a major trade route, so it was unlikely there was an inn at the remote village.
The NIV translation of verse 7 helps:
…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:7 NIV)
Most modest homes in first-century Palestine were one-room houses on two levels. Ground level had an area used to stable a cow or donkey at night for protection against theft, and to help keep the house warm in the winter with their body heat. A raised platform, about four feet higher, was the living space for the family, who slept on mats. Such a home might have a guest room in one corner, set apart for hospitality, or for temporary housing for a son who had just taken a wife. A manger (feeding trough) would be built in the floor of the platform at the edge closest to the lower level, or set in the lower level along the base of the raised family space, making it easy to feed the animals.
All this is holy imagination, but I believe it is more likely Joseph and Mary were taken in by family, and had been in Bethlehem for a time when Mary’s labor began. That would be indicated by verse 6: So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. (Emphasis mine – note that it doesn’t say “as they arrived…”) The home where Joseph and Mary were staying would certainly have been crowded because of the census. The family might not have had a guest room in their simple house, or the guest room was already taken by someone who had arrived earlier. Hospitality customs would have made it unthinkable to ask them to leave the guest room for a later-arriving guest. I can imagine that Jesus was born among family, with the other women assisting Mary in her labor, and then swaddled and laid in the safety of a manger just at the edge of the living space.
And here’s the thing: the big application we usually make about there being “no room in the inn” is that we have to make room for Jesus in our lives. That application is still true! Room had to be made in what must have been a crowded home for Mary and Joseph and Jesus. We do need to be sure we bring Jesus into our lives and do not allow Him to be crowded out of our lives.
And maybe there is another thing we can take from what might have happened historically that night long ago in Bethlehem. If Jesus was, in fact, born in the midst of family in a crowded, one-room home in Bethlehem, then it shows us we need to have Jesus at the center of our families and at the center of our lives. And since He said “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) it is also true that Jesus resides in the midst of loving families. We don’t have to beg Him to come be with us in our families, because as we love one another in His name, He is already there, in the middle of it all.
All that being said, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the scene in the Christmas pageant. It’s okay to see the point of making room for Jesus through the imagination of a grumpy, tired innkeeper turning Joseph and Mary away. We do need to be sure He is not crowded out of our lives by our busy schedules and the urgency of jobs and school and all the other things that clamor for our time and energy. I think the third verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” says it well:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous Gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in
Have a blessed Christmas!