Sandra Dimas and Krista Bontrager
An interview with theologian Krista Bontrager provides a clearer picture of an amazing true story.
SD: Was Jesus born in a stable because the Bethlehem “Inn” ran out of rooms?
KB: That picture stems from many translators’ use of the word “inn” in Luke 2:7. From that word readers have extrapolated a host of images—the innkeeper, a “No Vacancy” sign, and more. The Greek word used in Luke 2 (kataluma) is better translated as “upper room” or “guest room.”
SD: Where was Jesus born, then, if not in a stable?
KB: Most likely in the lower floor of a house. Mary and Joseph were going to their ancestral home, which means they had extended family there. It’s almost inconceivable that their relatives would have failed to provide them shelter, considering the cultural norms of that time.
SD: Why, then, was Jesus placed in a food trough for animals?
KB: In those days, homes had an upper level where the family would sleep and a lower level where animals were kept at night for protection and warmth. It seems likely that Jesus was born in that lower level of a family member’s house and placed in a manger because it would have made an excellent cradle.
SD: Were three wise men present at Jesus’ birth?
KB: The Greek word (paidion) Matthew used to describe the “child” whom the Magi (possibly more than three) came to worship can refer to toddlers as well as to babies. King Herod’s command to kill all the Jewish boys aged two and under (Matthew 2) suggests Jesus may have been as much as two years old at the time of the Magi’s visit.
SD: What about the shepherds—were they part of the scene?
KB: Remarkably, they were. God sent an angel directly to this group of social outcasts to announce the Savior’s birth. And, although shepherds could not enter the temple area for worship without extensive ritual cleansing, they ran straight from the fields to gaze upon the face of the infant Christ. They were the first evangelists, too, spreading word of Christ’s birth to all who would listen. Here we see the beginning of the revolution—Jesus is now the temple, the sacrifice, and the Great High Priest, the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament system of worship had foreshadowed.
The nativity story, in its proper cultural and biblical context, reveals the true meaning of Christmas: God came in the flesh to be a Savior for all who come to worship Him.