Rethinking the Nativity

I have always liked collecting Nativities. When we traveled, I would look for a nativity set that was special to the area. I have a nativity set carved in an aspen log I bought in Aspen, Colorado. I also have a three-piece nesting egg showing the Madonna and child—the closest thing to a nativity I could find in post-Soviet Russia. A tiny, three-dimensional nativity puzzle tree ornament found at the Christmas market in Cologne was a steal at 2 euros.

Clearly, manger scenes are important to me.

After some research about the original nativity scene, however, my picture of Christmas had to be changed.

Reading Scripture from a Western mindset, our understanding of nativity scenes make sense. The Bible clearly states, “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). After all, the word manger in Webster’s dictionary is a trough or open box in a stable designed to hold feed or fodder for livestock. So, according to Webster, this box must be in a stable.

But Webster, like most of us, approaches things from a Western worldview. This is not how things were in Jesus' time or culture.

Through Middle Eastern Eyes

Chapter One in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth E. Bailey, introduces the idea that Jesus was born in a house. Shocker, I know!

Kenneth Bailey was raised in the Middle East by missionary parents. He spent forty years teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He has some interesting thoughts based on his experiences living there.

His first point is to recognize our Western biases and the misunderstanding of a culture based on honor and shame. The Middle Eastern worldview is honor-based, so bringing shame on your family, clan, or village has severe social consequences. Those in the Middle East also value hospitality.

In this culture, there is no way that Joseph could enter Bethlehem and be denied hospitality, especially considering his heritage. Such a situation would have brought shame on the entire village. Joseph was the son of Jacob, the son of Matthan, the son of Eleazar—and eventually the son of David. He was a “royal.” Being of that lineage, Joseph would be welcome in any home in Bethlehem.

What About the Manger?

In our Western worldview, a manger would naturally be located in a barn or a stable. But the average family in the Middle East lived in a one-roomed house, and many village homes are still designed this way today.

In these instances, the one room is large and on two levels. A person enters on the lower level and goes up a couple of steps to the family living room. This is the area where the family lives, eats, and sleeps. The lower area is where the animals are kept overnight. A manger is placed on the lower level or carved into the edge of the upper level so the animals can access the food.

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And the Inn?

The third point addresses the question, “what was the inn?” Westerners understand an inn as a place to accommodate people, usually people who are visiting or passing through from out of town. The word used in Scripture for a commercial inn is pandocheion. This is where the Samaritan takes the wounded man in Luke 10:25-37. In Luke 2:7, however, the word katalyma is used.

Although katalyma is traditionally translated “inn” it generally refers to space like that in a room or on a table. Literally, katalyma is a space to stay. In Luke 22, Jesus tells his disciples to ask, “Where is the guest room (katalyma) where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?” The same word used in Luke 2. What we are told in Luke 2 is that the guest room is full or crowded.

So, Mary and Joseph likely stayed in the house with the family. When Jesus was born, they would have brought up a manger from the lower level or used the one carved in the floor of the upper level for His bed.  

Hospitality For All

Kenneth Bailey goes on to address the shepherds coming to see the baby. He wrote, “If, on arrival, they had found a smelly stable, a frightened young mother, and a desperate Joseph, they would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’” He draws us back to honor. The honor of the whole village would rest on their shoulders to provide for this family.  

I still have my manger scenes around the house and even a few on the tree. But I see a much richer story when I look at them now. It's a story of God Himself depending on the hospitality of those in the little town of Bethlehem.

If you would like to dig deeper into this story or better understand other stories like The Woman at the Well and The Syro-Phoenician Woman, and parables like the Good Samaritan, the Unjust Steward, or Lazarus and the Rich Man (just to name a few), read Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey.

Check it out here:

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Sally Hinzie is a Church Consultant who has worked at UBA for many years. Her primary areas of ministry focus include church planting, bible storying training, organic church, and ministry implementation.