I have made up only two jokes in my lifetime. One is about Christmas. It goes:
Q. Why didn’t Jesus cry when He was born?
A. He was a “stable” baby.
Actually, if we think Jesus really WAS born in a stable–the joke is on US!
There are traditions about Christmas that have no basis in fact. These traditions, however, have become as unmovable as granite. People swear by them.
Take the idea that Jesus was born in a stable. (Whether it be a barn or a grotto, the purpose of the structure is the same: to stable the householder’s animals.)
Where do we get this idea?
It’s from the Bible, isn’t it?
Actually–no. That is, the idea that Jesus was born OUTDOORS. That idea is not found in the Bible.
If we go by what IS written in the Scriptures, we would have to conclude: Jesus was born INDOORS.
The event of Jesus’ birth is mentioned ONLY in the Gospel of Luke. The only other Gospel that mentions the birth, Matthew, never gets into the actual event of the birth itself. Matthew merely says:
“But he [Joseph] had no union with her [Mary] until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (Mt. 1:25, New International Version)
Only the Gospel of Luke gives details on the event of the birth. We read that Jesus was born in an “inn.”
But Bible scholars have noticed there are TWO types of “inn” in the Gospel of Luke.
One type of “inn” is what today we call a “caravansary.” This is a square-shaped inn surrounding an open courtyard, where the camels and donkeys would rest. In the open courtyard–THAT is where there would be mangers (feed boxes for the animals).
This type of inn is written about in the Gospel of Luke in the story of the Good Samaritan. The mugging victim is taken to an “inn” of this type (a caravansary). In the Greek that the New Testament is written in, the word is: pandokheion.
That’s Chapter 10 (verse 34 mentions the “inn”).
Chapter 2 addresses the Birth. And in that story, the Gospel of Luke specifies that the type of inn is different from a caravansary. Rather, this type of inn is called (in Greek) kataluma. It is not a commercial structure–like a square-shaped motel surrounding an open courtyard. Rather, the type of inn in Chapter 2–kataluma–is a HOUSE. It’s a house–with a bed & breakfast. There’s a room in the back of the house for travelers.
In this kind of “inn”–a house with a bed & breakfast–the mangers would be INDOORS. The donkeys or camels or whatever other domestic animals there are, are brought INDOORS at night. The feed boxes are set up indoors, so that the animals can eat during the night.
This is still a common practice in Third World cultures–that domestic animals are brought indoors at night–to keep them safe from the weather or from being stolen. When I lived in Tanzania in East Africa, I would visit a neighbor, and a goat would walk out of the house.
So–if we go by what is written in the Scriptures–Jesus was born not outdoors, but indoors–in a house with a guest room. But the guest room was already occupied. ‘…there was no room for them in the inn.” So a place was made for Mary and Joseph elsewhere in the house–near where the animals were kept–next to the feed box. She gave birth and “placed him in a manger.”
I first became aware of these two different types of “inn” in the Gospel of Luke by reading an article by a Presbyterian minister who spent 40 years living in the biblical lands–the Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey, who today is retired and residing in the little college town of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. He was able to explain the difference between the type of inn written about in the parable of the Good Samaritan (a commercial inn) vs. the type of inn from the Birth story (a house).
I don’t post this article in order to spoil anybody’s Christmas. Ken Bailey himself wrote the article about the two types of inns not to spoil anybody’s Christmas. He’s a conservative theologian out of the United Presbyterian Church tradition.
Rather, I write this to show the growth that we are to enjoy as believers. The early versions of the Christmas story that we are told as kids–about the Holy Family needing to travel to Bethlehem because of a Roman census (which census never occurred), and the Wise Men being led by a Star to the site of the Nativity, and an angel telling shepherds where to find the Child–this is all the grand, colorful language of mythology.
The famed mythologist Joseph Campbell has written that the purpose of myth is: to explain complex truths to a child, or to people of child-like thinking (like pre-scientific peoples of ancient times or the Middle Ages). And even in our modern, scientific age, the myth serves a purpose. It holds somebody’s attention–UNTIL they become adults. As adults, we have greater powers of critical thinking–and come around to questioning the details of the story.
But by this time, as an adult, we have been so engaged emotionally by the myth itself, we can not retreat from belief. Rather, as adults, we merely adjust our belief. We can jettison all of the trappings of the story–the manger, the shepherds, the Wise Men, the Virgin Birth…with no harm to our belief in Jesus.
As people of science, we may let go of the unbelievable details and still believe.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Cor. 13:11)
People say all the time, “He is the reason for the season.” But they will defend to the death the fictional trappings of the birth story: the Star, the Wise Men, the Shepherds, the Virgin Birth…as though belief in Jesus depends on all of the details about the Birth story being factual.
The mythological aspects of the Nativity simply serve the purpose of engaging our emotions so completely that even in a later age when we find we can not believe the details of the story, we find also that we can not retreat from belief in the Child. THAT conviction has settled into our hearts. Myth has done its job.
I said all of this in a sermon one time at my first church–near Madison, Wisconsin. One of the elderly women in the congregation became upset. She came up to me after the Christmas Eve service and said, “But Christmas IS the stable and the Wise Men and the shepherds…”
I said, “No–Christmas is our relationship with the Child.”