First, the Bible certainly teaches that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it does not state that Joseph and Mary arrived in that town just in time for her to deliver. In fact, this scenario is highly unlikely since it is doubtful that the two would attempt to make the arduous 70-mile trip from Nazareth in the final stages of her pregnancy. Also, Luke 2:6 implies that they were in Bethlehem for a while before Jesus was born (“while they were there, the days were completed”).
Second, the Bible makes no mention of any innkeeper who told them that the inn was full for the night. The reason we imagine this scenario is because the translators of most English versions have chosen the word “inn” to translate the Greek word καταλυμα (kataluma), which gives modern readers the wrong impression.1 Jesus used this same Greek word in Luke 22:11 to refer to a “guest room.” This room is now known as the Upper Room—the scene of the Last Supper, the meal that Jesus ate with His disciples the night before His Crucifixion.
That may not sound convincing to most people who are familiar with the traditional telling of the Christmas account. But consider that the Greek language has a word for hotel or inn. In fact, Luke used it in Luke 10:34, when he wrote about the Good Samaritan who took the beaten man to the “inn” (pandocheion, πανδοχειον) and paid the “innkeeper” (pandochei, πανδοχει, v. 35) to care for the man.
Since Luke was quite familiar with the proper term for inn, why didn’t he use it in the account of the birth of Jesus? The probable answer is that Joseph and Mary did not attempt to stay at an inn. The Bible states that there was no room for them in the kataluma, which would be better translated as “guest room.”
Joseph and Mary returned to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem because of the census (Luke 2:1–4).2 As the census was proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire, many Jewish families would have needed to travel to Bethlehem during this time and lodged with relatives who lived in the town.
Joseph and Mary probably stayed with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, but because of the large influx of people, the house would have been crowded and the kataluma (guest room) was full. Consequently, Joseph and Mary would have been relegated to living in the lower level of the house. It is hard to believe that pregnant Mary would have been turned away from a relative’s home in a society that greatly valued familial ties.
Archaeologists have excavated first century homes from the Judean hill country. They have discovered that the upper level served as a guest chamber while the lower level served as the living and dining rooms. Oftentimes, the more vulnerable animals would be brought in at night to protect them from the cold and theft. This sounds strange to many of us, since we wouldn’t dream of bringing some of our cattle into the house at night, but even today in some countries of Europe (e.g., Germany and Austria), the farmhouse and the animal quarters are often different parts of the same building.
There is biblical support for the concept of animals being kept in the house. The infamous account of Jephthah (Judges 11) states that he planned to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return. Apparently, he expected an animal to come out of his house. Little did he know that his daughter would come out to greet him before any of the animals came out. So there seems to be biblical precedent for keeping animals in the house.
The star mentioned in Matthew is not necessarily what we normally think of as a star. That is, it was not necessarily an enormous mass of hydrogen and helium gas powered by nuclear fusion. The Greek word translated star is aster (αστηρ), which is where we get the word astronomy. In the biblical conception of the word, a star is any luminous point of light in our night sky. This would certainly include our modern definition of a star, but it would also include the planets, supernovae, comets, or anything else that resembles a point of light. But which of these explanations best describes the Christmas star?
A supernova (an exploding star) fits the popular Christmas card conception of the star.
Nor could the Christmas star have been a bright comet.
But there was one (and only one) extraordinary conjunction around the time of Christ’s birth that could be called a “star.” In the year 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus moved so close to each other that they briefly appeared to merge into a single bright star. Such an event is extremely rare and may have been perceived as highly significant to the magi. Although this event would have been really spectacular, it does not fully match the description of the Christmas star.
Curiously, the magi seem to have been the only ones who saw the star—or at least the only ones who understood its meaning. Recall that King Herod had to ask the magi when the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7). If the magi alone saw the star, this further supports the notion that the Christmas star was a supernatural manifestation from God rather than a common star, which would have been visible to all. The fact that the magi referred to it as “His star” further supports the unique nature of the star.
Although each of the above events is truly spectacular and may have been fitting to announce the birth of the King of kings, none of them seems to fully satisfy the details of the straightforward reading of Matthew 2. None of the above speculations fully explain how the star “went ahead of ” the magi nor how it “stood over where the child was.”
Contrary to what is commonly believed, the magi did not arrive at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth; rather, they found the young Jesus and His mother living in a house (Matthew 2:11). This could have been nearly two years after Christ’s birth, since Herod—afraid that his own position as king was threatened—tried to have Jesus eliminated by killing all male children under the age of two (Matthew 2:16).
Bonus Items: Angels Singing. Christmas on December 25th. Drummer boy.