Wise Men HeaderNativity.

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 1996. This Version, 2012.

3: Where was that Manger?
Luke does not give any description of the conditions at Bethlehem when they arrived. It is supposed that it is crowded with people all wanting to come into the village to register. This, however is cited because of the belief that the couple could not find anywhere to stay. Let us remain open minded about all this nativity play baggage and see what the Bible actually says.
Luke 2:6 says that while they were there, Mary's time of pregnancy came to an end. This is what is implied by the actual words; that it was while they were at Bethlehem that the baby was due. It says nothing about them unable to find a place to stay and we do not know how long they were there before the baby arrived. We are then told that the baby was born, and in accordance with tradition, the child was bound straight, with stripes of cloth. The unusual part came next; that she laid him in a manger, or feeding trough, because there was no place for them in the Kataluma.
The Kataluma Problem. I am sorry at this stage to introduce the original Greek word found here, but no strict English translation is possible. Kataluma, means literally 'to loose down'. It is used to describe a place that travellers could use when travelling or visiting away from home. The 17th century 'authorised' version translates it as 'an Inn' as does the Good News Bible, the New International version, the Jerusalem Bible & the Living Bible. The New English Bible, however, translates it as 'house.' It has to be said that the NEB is sometimes a little too clever for its own good but in this instance it has taken a tricky bull by the horns. The word Kataluma, does not have a specific meaning. What kind of 'sleeping place for travellers' it is describing depends entirely upon the context in which the word is used. Luke uses the word Kataluma again in Lk 22:11 just before the Last Supper. Here the question is asked, 'Where is the Kataluma?' The questioner is then shown to an upper room or guest chamber above a house, but this is only one of many possible interpretations. Jewish culture demanded that each household should keep to one side an area or room in the house for potential visitors. In the example of Lk 22:11, the house had a room built on top of the flat roof and this was used as the Kataluma. In a smaller, poorer house the Kataluma might simply be a space in the corner for a traveller lie down on. In a larger house there might be several rooms set aside for travellers. It is possible that in areas that frequently sees visitors, a special building might be built for the purpose of housing travellers. When travelling, it is not always possible to reach a village for the evening, in which case you might pitch your tent at an oasis or watering place. That could also be described as a Kataluma. We must now ask the question, 'What kind of Kataluma could not provide a place for a young family and so force them to place the child in a feeding trough?' Let's go through the possibilities.
The small house
This would consist of one room divided into 2 levels. A lower level would house the animals with straw on the floor and feeding troughs located for use by the animals. The upper level would house the human residents. Living, working and sleeping would all take place in the one area; space would be very scarce. The Kataluma would be no more than a small area set aside for guests; just sufficient space to lie down on. If Joseph was born in Bethlehem as we have speculated, then this house could belong to one of his relatives or even his parents. After the child was born all available floor space was used up. The obvious thing would be to walk a few paces and place the child in a redundant manger situated in the lower level. No travelling about, rejection or ending up in a separate stable is require for this scenario.
The larger house
This would consist of several rooms including a partitioned area for guests or, if the house was big enough, even a separate room. The animals would also be housed separately in an adjacent room or floor. The guest room might even be a room built upon the flat roof as in the example in Lk 22:11. We must assume here that the Kataluma was housing several guests other than Mary and Joseph hence there being 'no room.' It is certain that the other guests would have left the Kataluma during the birth but that afterwards they would want to return to their lodgings. It was at this point that Mary and Joseph decided it would be better for everyone if they moved to a more private venue. The only room available was the stabling room and it was there that they placed the child in a manger. The main objection to this theory is the unthinkable idea that the Jewish owners of the house would not have given priority to a women who had just given birth. It is also difficult to believe that the other guests would have been happy to pack a new-born child and her mother off to the stables while they settled down in the guest room. Having said this, we do not know the circumstance that led them to place the child in a manger. It could be that Mary and Joseph did not want to cause a fuss and realising that there was no place for them in the Guest Room, they went to the stables on their own account.
The purpose built Kataluma.
We have no evidence that a lodging house or Hospitality Inn ever existed in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was not a big place nor was it a centre for trade. Neither was it a strategic place to use as a stop over between cities. Jerusalem was only a few miles away, so why would large numbers want to stop at Bethlehem? Bethlehem was a welcome place for travellers coming from the eastern wilderness but was it the sort of place where people would stop before moving on? However, if we assume for a moment that a Hospitality Inn did exist it might be full of traders and others who had come to register. It would consist of a large room or rooms where people could lay down for the night and where food could be cooked and distributed. When it came time for the child to be born Mary and Joseph would want to seek a quieter, more private place. It would be impossible to ask large numbers of people to vacate the large room while the child was being born. No doubt the wardens of such an establishment would be sympathetic but it would be very difficult to find a private place in such a public building. However, such a building would require stabling for donkeys, camels and horses belonging to the traders. It would be here that the child was born and placed in a manger.
The campsite.
This Kataluma could be a permanent arrangement for travellers to stay just outside the village near to a source of water and where there might be shelter for animals. It also could be a temporary measure to cope with an influx of people requiring to register. There could have been a large marquee or maybe just space to set up your own shelter or tent in an flat area specially cleared of rocks. A well or stream would provide water and a series of caves used as stabling do exist on the outskirts of Bethlehem, even today. On coming to the Kataluma, Mary and Joseph found that the site was full or that the Marquee was not a suitably private place to give birth in. They could then have been directed to the local stabling caves, where they might find the privacy they were looking for. It would have been here that Mary's son was born and then placed in a manger.
So here we have four main possibilities. Kataluma could be translated as 'living area', 'guest room', hostel', or 'tent' depending on which scenario is correct. Why then do most Bible translations use the English word, 'Inn?' Bible translators can be quite conservative when they have to be, and since everyone expects the word 'Inn' to be used at this point, the translators don't disappoint us. They do, after all, want people to buy their Bibles!
Earlier I praised the NEB for translating kataluma as 'house'; something other than 'Inn.' However the revised version of the NEB, the Revised English Bible (REB) has just recently come out. No doubt pressured by the confused looks during carol services they now also translate kataluma as 'Inn'.
However, all of this should not blind us to the fact that the 'Hospitality Inn scenario' is the least likely. As we have said, a 'hospitality Inn' is unlikely in such a small place like Bethlehem especially it being only a few miles from Jerusalem. What about the possibility of a 'fee-paying Inn'?
Unfortunately, such an idea was contrary to Jewish custom. The idea of making money out of giving someone a place to stay was unthinkable. Such Inns did exist however, but mostly they would be run by Gentiles. They would also be situated between towns to break up a long journey rather than in towns or villages themselves. In addition to this, the Greek word, Pandocheion was used for this kind of establishment, not Kataluma. The classic example of Pandocheion used in the Bible is the place where the Good Samaritan left the man who had been attacked. It is specifically mentioned here that the Samaritan gave the Innkeeper money. We must reject the idea that Mary and Joseph were denied access to a 'fee-paying inn'.
An apocryphal account
Second century tradition makes it clear, that at that time, they believed that the birth took place in a cave. The Protevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel, is definite that the birth took place in a cave just outside Bethlehem. The assumption of this book is that the birth took place so suddenly that they did not have time to get to the actual town of Bethlehem. Unable to travel the last few hundred yards, Mary was taken to a cave, the nearest shelter available and the birth took place there. Did the writer of this book know something that the gospel writers didn't, or did the writer, (or another source), discover the caves on a visit to Bethlehem and guessed that this is what happened. It has to be said that The Protevangelium of James is a pretty low-rated fictional account of the early years of Our Lord. The writer shows his ignorance of history, Jewish tradition and theology in virtually every sentence he writes. Some of it is unintentionally comical! The additional mention of the cave is there; perhaps that is all we can say.
Clues from the shepherds
Luke tells us that at the time of Christ's birth there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, guarding their sheep during the night. An angel came and delivered them a message that the long awaited Messiah had now been born in Bethlehem. They were given a description of the circumstances to be used as a sign. The sign was that they would find a child wrapped in clothes lying in a manger. The shepherds agreed to go into Bethlehem and see for themselves. How would they know where to go? As far as we know, the angel had not provided them with an address! The only description that they had been given was that they would 'find a child wrapped in clothes lying in a manger'. Bethlehem was only a village but I doubt whether the shepherds would have worked their way through the streets, knocking on each door in the middle of the night asking to see the owner's mangers! Neither is it likely that the shepherds systematically went secretly rummaging through people's private stabling rooms. It is more likely that the reference to the manger implied something more to them than 'any old manger. ' Perhaps they took it to mean their own mangers; the winter housing for their flocks. The caves around Bethlehem were used by the locals as winter shelters for their animals. The caves would not normally be lit but if they returned to them and looked they would find, lit by a lamp, a mother, father and newborn child; the child lying in a manger.

Another idea is that the Shepherds would have looked for the manger in the 'Migdal Eder' or 'watchtower of the flock'. Such towers did exist around Bethlehem and were used by the shepherds as a lookout and a place of refuge for their flocks in case of attack. It has also been pointed out that the prophecy of Micah 4:8 says:
As for you, O watchtower of the flock,(Migdal Eder) O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem.
Traditionally 'Migdal Eder' can refer to Bethlehem as a place. It is also true that the watchtower was the base of the temple flocks which were kept on the hills around Bethlehem. To what extent the 'watchtower' might be involved in the nativity depends on how much of this metaphore of Christ's coming was realised in actual events.

So either Joseph and Mary ended up at the campsite and had to go into a cave/Migdal Eder when the baby was born, or they stayed in a small house with built in stabling. Those are the 2 most likely scenarios.

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