Reposted from April 2018 and again in December 2019
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
We make much of the outcast, rejected nature of Jesus at his birth in our Western understanding. No room at the inn. Shuffled off into the barn, with only a feed trough for a bed. The Eastern tradition emphasises the aloneness of Mary, and nearly always claims Jesus was born in a cave. Bailey thinks these are both wrong. He notes that neither of these are in Scripture, they are interpreted from Scripture plus traditions.
As a general principle, he notes that the Christmas story was written in other versions that were not accepted as scripture, and we can learn something about them - and thus about the authentic scriptures - by noting what they get wrong. The other versions often get local knowledge wrong: local geography, local customs, local architecture. When we find such things in the text we know this person has never been to Jerusalem or seen the countryside around it. He has a false picture. This also makes it likely that the writer was not a Jew. Most Christians outside Jerusalem were not Jews. Nearly all Christians were from outside Israel from an early date.
Therefore strong Jewish or local elements in a text argue for a very early date of the original. Later texts would not understand the information, and thus omit it, try to reconcile it with other beliefs, or just flat change it.
In Israel and farther east, there was and is a type of typical housing that was not quite the same as that just a bit farther west and throughout the Mediterranean. Bailey notes that one can still see this style in poorer districts today. Yet it wasn't poor housing then, it was usual housing, and with additions, even a minor sign of prosperity. There was a rectangular building with a flat roof. At one end there would be an entrance, and immediately inside, a small lower area and a few steps up to the common living area, a single room. The lower area was used at night to bring the animals inside. There would be 2-3 small areas, either shallow holes dug in the floor or raised mangers, for the animal's food. The animals could see the family, the family could see the animals all night. Sometimes there might be a curtain. It's a little warmer there. Sleeping there was no big deal. If the family got a bit more prosperous, they would build a second room on the roof. This would then be where the family slept - as in the parable of the man knocking - and used for special events, as in the Last Supper.
The word used for "inn" in the Bethlehem story is not the same word as "inn" in the Good Samaritan story (πανδοχεῖον pandocheion), or other NT references to a paid establishment. It is the same word as the upper room. (kataluma, katalyma Luke 22:11) The guest room. Nice hospitable Middle-Eastern people took Joseph and Mary in, because it was and is a hospitality culture and Joseph's lineage would have made him even more welcome. Even an average husband would have made sure of a place, not just hopped on a donkey with his pregnant wife at the last minute and hoped for the best. The guest room was full. When Mary went into labor, everyone would have known she needed whatever privacy could be managed, so they curtained off the animal's area and put her there. Nothing shameful about it. The idea of shabby treatment came in early, as early as the 3rd C, but it was brought in by those in Greece and Asia Minor. It's not really in the scriptures.
He points to the behavior of the shepherds as confirming this. In a hospitality culture, anyone coming in from outside would see what you had and had not done. People would impoverish themselves rather than be seen as inhospitable. If the arrangements had been substandard, it would be doubly embarrassing for lowlifes like shepherds to be reporting it. The shepherds would have given all of their meager goods to show hospitality, and be glad of the chance. The shepherds don't seem to find it remarkable at all. House, baby, manger, warmth. Worship and go home. The hosts must have wondered what was up with that - shepherds knocking on the door, knowing there was a newborn, talking about angels, baby is special somehow.
Also, people didn't travel alone in those days, because it wasn't safe. Mary and Joseph likely went as part of a group, especially as she was pregnant. I know this makes 90% of the art we have about Christmas inaccurate, but we'll just have to bear up under that. The Magi would have traveled in a huge caravan, but even for short trips like the census, everyone would go together. Given that, how likely is it that Mary and Joseph suddenly have no one to do anything kind for them when she goes into labor? When Joseph is a kinsman of the House of David. In a hospitality culture. We need to see what we already know. (Update in 2020: A good rule in all times. There has been a ramping up of people seeing prophecy and demonic struggle in specifically American events this year. It could be. Yet we have to first remember what we know about Jesus, and prophecy, and demonic struggle before we too rapidly apply them to the events of our own day. Church history would suggest that these are much more often the result of our feeling that something is wrong in the world and leaping to conclusions.)
So, a false idea of the architecture of houses - we think of a stable as a barn with separate entrance not usually used by people for sleeping; use of "inn" as a translation term, following the tradition of our people - farther west, later, and nonJewish; ignoring what we know about hospitality culture and typical behavior when traveling; ignoring the internal cue of the behavior of the shepherds. We get the story wrong, because so much of our hymnody and storytelling is tied up in a particular narrative.
It is very much part of the "Jesus as refugee" story that has become so popular lately. If people are referring to the flight into Egypt for that instead - some are - they have an argument that is slightly better, but not much. That is another story for another day. For now, my point is only that our Bethlehem story suggests poverty and rejection, because we know the rest of the story, when Jesus is actually rejected in the end. But it's not actually there in the beginning. Mary had a baby while traveling, in fulfillment of the prophecy of where the Messiah was to be born. Angels told the poor shepherds about it first, and they showed up to worship, partly to give confirmation to Mary and Joseph, who were in for a hard time. Simeon and Anna perform a similar service of encouragement.