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Sneak Peek: Glad You Asked, Christmas Edition

Just when you are wondering what gift you could give your friends and loved ones that will be a positive, spiritual investment in their lives, we have an answer! Today's blog is just part of one of the chapters in our newly released Q & A book, Glad You Asked! Christmas Edition. This book features 12 of the most commonly asked questions we've received about the celebration of Christmas and how it should be approached by Christ-followers. Someday, you may be asked one of these questions―will you be prepared to answer it? Enjoy this "sneak peek" into Dave Glander's response to one of these Yuletide queries.

Was Jesus Actually Born in a Stable?

Until you have stood in Bethlehem to experience the lay of the land personally, many historical narratives for Christ’s birth are a little hard to understand. Let’s start by breaking the story down so that we can better understand what was truly happening at the time of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary were of very humble backgrounds, and according to the text, they were likely labeled as “poor.” Luke 2:24 tells us that at the time of Jesus’ official presentation at the Temple, Joseph and Mary brought either a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons as an offering to the Lord as prescribed by the Law found in Leviticus chapter 12.
For wealthy people, a year-old lamb was to be the burnt offering. Still, to ensure everyone could participate in the offering, verse 8 tells us, “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
This truth also helps us better understand what happened when they arrived in Bethlehem: due to their economic status, they would not be shopping for the most incredible Airbnb®. The most likely place they would’ve been looking for is a place to stay with family, especially given that they went to Bethlehem at that time to be a part of the “family census” conducted by the Roman authorities. Another clue we have in determining the location of Christ’s birth is again found in the Gospel of Luke. There are two Greek words for “inn,” and Luke uses them in different contexts to show his understanding of both.
One word, “pandocheion,” describes a public lodging place the Romans would build, commonly found along the highways between cities where travelers would find rest. Luke mentions one of these “inns” in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:24). However, when Luke writes about the problem Joseph and Mary had when there was “no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7),” he uses the Greek word “katalymati,” which translates best to a “guest room,” usually on the top floor of the house. Luke’s usage of these two words lets us know that he is referring to a family’s “inn,” not an institutional inn.
Now that we know that Joseph and Mary weren’t looking for a room at the Hilton® Inn, let’s shift our focus to what the home of a family in Bethlehem looked like. This area of Bethlehem is located in what is known as the West Bank, just outside Jerusalem. The area is currently under complete Muslim control, with a staggering 92% Muslim population and only 8% Christian population. Jews are not permitted in due to the highly-protected fence and gate system surrounding the West Bank. However, a visit to this area today still reveals what the land was like at the time of Jesus.

Praise God that we live in a time where all we need to do is bow our heads in reverence to the King of Kings, and we have instant access to Him―our sins have already been paid in full through the work Jesus accomplished on the cross!

The entire area is still known as the shepherd’s town due to the vast number of ancient sites that remain today. The city sits atop a hill with a valley that separates it from Jerusalem, where the ancient Holy Temple would have existed at that time. Priests would trek across this valley (not an easy climb) to purchase their lambs for sacrifice. It is interesting to think that due to the journey (on foot) from the Temple to Bethlehem being one that would take several hours to complete, the priests would have much quiet time to think about why they were going to make the purchase and what sins they would be asking forgiveness for. Praise God that we live in a time where all we need to do is bow our heads in reverence to the King of Kings, and we have instant access to Him―our sins have already been paid in full through the work Jesus accomplished on the cross!
A common feature throughout land of Israel are caves large enough to dwell in, or in the case of King David, to hide in (1 Samuel 24). According to the locals, hundreds of homes were built on top of a natural cave. The household patriarchs would live on the first floor, and when their children became old enough to need their own space, they would build another floor on top of the parents’ floor to live in. However, as was common practice, there was always an “upper” room or floor for hospitality. When Luke said there was no room in the inn, he was referring to the upper floor of the family house.
Bethlehem became overwhelmed with visitors because everyone had to go to their hometowns for the census. Logically, if you’ve ever traveled with a pregnant woman by car, you know how difficult it is to make her comfortable for the journey. Now, could you imagine how much more difficult it would have been for a woman in her final stages of pregnancy to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot (or maybe by donkey; the text doesn’t say which)? 
The average time to make that journey is just over a week. However, given their circumstances, it probably took two weeks or more. It is likely that because of the time it took them to make the journey, they were among the last to arrive, and all the rooms for guests in the family's house were already taken. This would seem to suggest that the most likely place Joseph and Mary found to stay was in the basement, where the cave would have been located.
The basement level, or cave, that the house could have been built on was the perfect place for the shepherd’s flock to live. It had easy ground access to move the flock in and out, as well as having a “bird’s eye view” from the first floor above the cave to ensure the flock's safety from any thieves or predators. The cave's temperature would provide year-round comfort to the flock and, in many cases, natural ventilation for sanitary purposes. Interestingly, first-century shepherds figured out that if they made a small vent shaft at the top of the cave ceiling that would come into the home's first floor, the heat from the bodies of the flocks would help warm the home in the winter.
Another aspect of Joseph and Mary not finding room in the house and being put in the cave with the sheep could be that Mary was about to give birth, which produced much blood. According to Jewish law in Leviticus 12, a woman is considered unclean immediately upon childbirth. This simple fact at that time would have been a great cause for concern to the homeowner and a good reason for them to suggest that Mary be housed in the basement while delivering her child, possibly explaining why Mary would have laid Him in a manger shortly after giving birth. The Greek word for manger is “phatnē, " meaning a “feeding trough,” which would have obviously been found where the sheep were housed.
Did you learn something new? Did reading this answer help you see how knowing the history of the Jewish culture and practice at that time is necessary to fully grasp the setting of our Lord's birth? In giving you a taste of this new publication, we hope it will spur you on to want to read the rest of this "hot off the press" resource. And, we pray you will share it with others. Stay bold!

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