I’m not saying that the story in the gospels is false – that’s a different conversation. I’m saying that the story as we learned it isn’t what the gospels, properly translated and understood, actually say and mean. Let me explain.
In 1611, 47 of the best Church of England scholar’s brought forth the King James Version of the Bible – the most influential work of English literature in . . . well, in English literature. Here’s Luke, chapter 2, verse 7, in the 1611 King James Version:
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”"No room for them in the inn" – that’s a very familiar part of the story, isn’t it? More than two and a half centuries went by, and then, in the 1880s, an authorized revision of the King James Version came out. It was called the Revised Version, and its purpose was to adapt the King James Version to the standards of Biblical scholarship of the late 19th-century.
Then, in 1901, the American Standard Version (ASV) appeared – a revision of the Revised Version with American English particularly in mind. The ASV also says, “...laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The ASV was further revised into the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which came out in 1952. The RSV was commissioned by the National Council of Churches, and the translation team dug deep into available scholarship to update the 1901 ASV. It was a major development in Bible studies. The 1952 RSV changed “no room” to “no place” for them in the inn.
The RSV was good for 37 years until, in 1989, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came out, also commissioned by the National Council of Churches, the most significant development in Bible studies in a generation and a half. When I started divinity school in 2000, the NRSV was only 11 years old, and there was still a little bit of buzz of excitement about it. The 1989 NRSV was the first one in this sequence to drop the term “swaddling clothes.” It says she, “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
And finally, just this year, the NRSV updated edition (NRSVue) came out – available digitally in time for Christmas last year, and in print in early 2022. In the NRSVue, Luke chapter 2, verse 7, is:
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.”Guest room? What? What happened to the inn?
Well, what happened is that new testament scholars like Kenneth Bailey have been saying for years that that the word that for so long has been translated as "inn" in reality means a guest room. And that scholarship is finally now reflected in a Bible translation.
Point one. None of the Gospels – not even Luke – say anything about a stable. That’s just readers inferring that if there was a manger there, they must have been out in a stable. Nope! No stable, no barn – as we shall see.
Point two. Keep in mind that we’re only looking at the Gospel of Luke, here. The only other gospel to have a nativity story is Matthew, and Matthew says nothing about a manger or either an inn or guest room.
Point three. The word “inn” appears twice in English versions of Luke – well, up until a year ago, and now it appears only once. The remaining place “inn” appears is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helps a man injured by the road. The Samaritan takes the man to an inn. But in the Samaritan story, the word used for inn is pandocheion. That’s the Greek for a commercial inn. But in the nativity story, the word Luke uses is kataluma. A kataluma is not a pandocheion.
Kataluma also appears in the Gospel of Mark, toward the end. When kataluma appears in Mark, even the King James Version renders it as "guestchamber" – which became “guest room” starting with the 1952 RSV. So what Luke, chapter 2, verse 7, is saying is that Jesus was born in a private home where the guest room was already full. So: why was there a manger there?
Point four: traditional middle-eastern peasant homes generally had two rooms: a side room for guests, and a main room. The main room, the family room, had a small space blocked off at one end for a few animals the family might have: a cow, a donkey, maybe a few sheep. The family would bring their animals into the main room at night, and during the day the animals were outside – either tied or in a pen. So if there was no room in the guest room, then Mary and Joseph would stay in the main room, where the animals were, blocked off at one end, and hence, where a manger would be.
Point five. Mary and Joseph, coming in from Nazareth, would have had relatives in Bethlehem. Every place in Israel would have had cousins, or second or third cousins of Mary or Joseph. If they had to go to Bethlehem, they would have sought out relatives to stay with.
Point six. No society known to us would fail to help a young woman about to give birth – especially a traditional farming community. Nowhere in the world would a farm family tell a young couple – especially not one they were related to – “There’s the barn. Use it if you like. We can’t be bothered with you.” That just wouldn’t have happened. If the shepherds had come and found a young mother with her first child in the middle of a stable, scared to death with no older women around to help her, the Shepherds would have said: “This is outrageous! You come home with us! Our women will take care of you!” But instead, the Gospel of Luke tells us that after showing honor to the child the shepherds walked out – meaning that they were comfortable with how the community was taking care of their guests from Galilee.
Point seven: The usual story has it that Jesus was born the very night Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the Gospel of Luke actually says that some days passed while they were in there – in Bethlehem – before Jesus was born.
So today we present to you a more historically realistic story. It still has some of the magic: angels appear before shepherds to tell them to look for a babe. But the magic happens within a more credible historical context.
Just one more bit of background before we get started. In the play, you’ll hear the characters musing about the strange story they heard about Mary from the mutual cousin Elizabeth. The strange story that they’re talking about appears earlier in the gospel of Luke. When Elizabeth was pregnant with the babe who would become John the Baptist, her relative Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah. Luke chapter 1, verses 41-45 tells us:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.'"The story of that encounter was spread among the cousins of Elizabeth and of Mary, and that’s the strange story you will hear our characters musing about, wondering if it might be true, what Elizabeth said, that cousin Mary would be the mother of a messiah.
So without further ado, here's Kenneth Bailey's Christmas play, "Open Hearts in Bethlehem."