A Fresh Look at Joseph, Mary and Bethlehem

Another view of St. Luke’s Infancy Narrative

Michael Rieser, “The Evening of the Birth of Christ,” 1869
Michael Rieser, “The Evening of the Birth of Christ,” 1869 (photo: Public Domain)

With a story so familiar and beloved as the birth of Jesus, and the events before and after it, it’s easy to overlook some things that are actually rather obvious upon closer inspection (also, some others that are less evident, and require a little “digging”). That’s what I mean by “fresh look” in my title, and I’d like to examine a few of these aspects. 

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

This text doesn’t assert that one must go to his “ancestral city” but rather, simply “to his own city.” Thus, it plainly means that Bethlehem was Joseph’s “own city” — his hometown. Verse 4 is not necessarily referring to the return to an ancestral town for enrollment, but was merely noting that Joseph was of the lineage of King David (who came from Bethlehem) which explains why Joseph lived there.

Many assume that the Bible stated that Joseph came from Nazareth. But in fact, it never does. It only asserts that Mary came from there (Luke 1:26-27, 56), as did Jesus, which is why he was known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (see 16 instances of this in RSV; cf. statements about his hometown: Matthew 2:23; 4:13; 21:11; Mark 1:9; 14:67; Luke 4:16; John 1:46; Acts 3:6; 4:10).

Matthew 2:23 asserts that Joseph “went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth” with Mary and Jesus. But this was after they had fled to Egypt, and after the visit of the Wise Men (in their “house” in Bethlehem: Matthew 2:11), which was one or two years after the birth of Jesus, since the word used for Jesus at that point meant “toddler.”

According to first-century Jewish practice, marriage began with a betrothal and ended with a “home-taking,” with the bride moving into her husband’s house. Joseph took Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem when they were “betrothed” (Luke 2:5) and they got married there and participated in the “enrollment” (Luke 2:1-3, 5). The trip had a dual purpose.

But how about an almost-ready-to-deliver Mary making the 90-mile trip to Bethlehem on a donkey? Is that not cruel and heartless? This is where we must, again, look at the biblical text more closely.

Luke 2:5-6 never claims that 1) that the Blessed Virgin Mary was 8-9 months pregnant on the journey, or 2) that she delivered the baby Jesus as soon as they arrived in Bethlehem (like all the movies assume). All we know from these two verses is that 1) she was pregnant while making the journey, and 2) she delivered the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. 

We know not a thing about how far along in her pregnancy she was, or how long they were in Bethlehem before she bore baby Jesus. It’s all mere groundless assumptions and speculations. We’re just so used to thinking about it in a certain way that we overlook the fact that certain things aren’t definitively stated.

It still remains, however, to explain how it is that Mary and Joseph couldn’t simply stay with his kinfolk once they arrived in Bethlehem. What is this business of “no place for them in the inn,” as most translations describe it? Well, amazingly enough, maybe they did stay with relatives, and maybe the text doesn’t rule that out. 

Some biblical commentators have noted that the Greek word (kataluma) usually translated “inn” at Luke 2:7 is more accurately rendered as something like “guest room” or “furnished room” or “accommodations.” It’s used elsewhere more obviously in this sense, of the “upper room,” where the Last Supper occurred (see Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14). 

In other words, in this view, they were staying with relatives in a guest room at their house, in preparation for Joseph procuring his own house for them to live.

Stephen C. Carlson, in a fascinating, informative article, further explains:

The problem facing Joseph and Mary in the story was not that they were denied a particular or well-known place to stay when they first arrived, but that their place to stay was not such that it could accommodate the birth and neonatal care of the baby Jesus. …
[T]he entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay.’ This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. …
[M]angers were also found in the main rooms of first-century Judean village houses … animals were housed in the lower section, the people slept in the upper section, and mangers were located between them. These village houses, moreover, could have a small room … which accommodated family members and guests. …
Luke’s narrative [implies] that the place where Joseph and Mary were staying had no room to accommodate a newborn or a manger (v. 7).

This interpretation may sound strange to us, but it’s perfectly acceptable, respectable, possible exegesis, and upon reflection makes perfect sense.